Novel examines early days of AIDS crisis in Chicago

Cathedral Catholic High School teacher Brittney Cairns, students Salina Voegtly, Samantha Fay, Ian Grooms, Aubrey Filler, Anna Mendez Fogarty. Seated: Students Lindsey Miller, author Rebecca Makkai, Madison Stoddard
Cathedral Catholic High School teacher Brittney Cairns, students Salina Voegtly, Samantha Fay, Ian Grooms, Aubrey Filler, Anna Mendez Fogarty. Seated: Students Lindsey Miller, author Rebecca Makkai, Madison Stoddard
(McKenzie Images)

Author Rebecca Makkai discusses her work at RSF Literary Society event


When Rebecca Makkai set out to write her third novel, “The Great Believers,” she had a much different book in mind than the one she ended up publishing in 2018.

Her first thought was to tell the story of a Nora, a young American woman who lived in Paris during the 1920s, where she immersed herself in the city’s art scene and served as both a muse and model for several painters.

But as Makkai began researching and writing the book – which took four years - the novel evolved to encompass not only the young woman’s story, but Chicago of the mid-1980s and early 1990s, during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Instead of one main character, there were three – Nora; Yale Tishman, a gay man caught up in the devastating epidemic; and Fiona, Yale’s friend and the sister of an AIDS victim who goes to Paris in 2015 to search for her estranged daughter.

“(Writing) is a process of discovery. Surprising yourself is always a lovely thing,” said Makkai, the featured speaker at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort.

In one strand of the story, in 1985, Nora contacts Yale, who works as development director at a university art gallery, when she decides to bequeath her art collection to the gallery. That tale is set against the backdrop of the unfolding AIDS crisis, as Yale’s friends and acquaintances succumb to the disease.

Interspersed between Yale’s story is that of Fiona, who travels to Paris to find her daughter, who had joined a cult. Along the way, Fiona reflects on what she has lost – from her brother, Nico, to many other young men she had known.

“Thirty years,” thought Fiona. “How could it possibly have been 30 years? But that was just the start of the worst time, when the entire city she’d known was turning into lesions and echoing coughs and the ropy fossils of limbs. And although it made no sense at all, she’d never fully been able to shake the ridiculous, narcissistic feeling that the whole epidemic was somehow her fault.

“She had so much guilt about so many of them – the ones she wished she’d talked into getting tested sooner, the ones she might have gone back in time to keep from going out on a particular night (“Let’s agree that we know this is illogical,” her shrink said), the ones she might have done more for when they got sick,” Makkai wrote.

In researching the book, Makkai did a lot of reading, both about the AIDS crisis in general and Chicago, where she grew up and now lives with her husband and two daughters. Among her sources was the archive of the Windy City Times, a newspaper focused on the city’s LGBTQ community.

She also interviewed people with first-hand knowledge, such as doctors and nurses, activists, academics, survivors and those who lost loved ones. She felt a duty, she said, to portray the crisis in a way that was both factually accurate and true to the experiences of those who lived it.

“I was writing about a population I don’t belong to,” she said. “It was not a book in which I could afford to make mistakes in tone or content.”

Although medical advances have allowed many people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to live relatively normal lives, she said, the disease continues to be a serious health challenge, especially for those who lack access to life-saving drugs. Last year alone, she said, one million people died of AIDS across the globe.

Makkai said she is gratified that her book has found a mainstream audience. “The Great Believers” was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was also the 2019 selection for One Book, One San Diego, a community reading program sponsored by the San Diego city library.

“In the 90s, books like this would be in a different bookstore,” that catered primarily to the gay community, she said. “It’s lovely to see LGBTQ books being published in a way that 20 to 30 years ago you wouldn’t have seen.”

Makkai’s book The Great Believers also received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the LA Times Book Prize, among other honors. Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. In addition, Makkai is the author of the story collection Music for Wartime, as well as the novels The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower.

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