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Rebecca Makkai delivers 2018 Mackey Chair Keynote Reading

On Friday, April 13, the Beloit English Department hosted the Keynote Reading of  Rebecca Makkai, this year’s Lois and Willard Mackey Chair. The Mackey Chair was established in the late 1980s by Willard Mackey and Lois Mackey in order to celebrate Lois’ memory and the brilliant writers of our time.

Rebecca Makkai, this year’s chair, has wanted to be writer ever since high school — even if she didn’t really know what that meant by modern standards. She wrote throughout high school and college. During her sophomore year at Washington and Lee University, she worked at Shenandoah, the college’s professional literary magazine. Makkai says this experience was instrumental in her career as a writer. Since her job consisted of reviewing hundreds of entries and sending out mail, including rejections, she learned very quickly that rejection wasn’t personal and there was no room for vaguely competent entries.

Since her time at Shenandoah, she has earned an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Her short fiction has been published in The Pushcart Prize XLI (2017), The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 and 2009, New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Fantasy, and featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts and This American Life. In addition, she has published two novels. Her debut book The Borrower is about a woman who kidnaps a boy in order to save him from conversion therapy. It was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick and an O Magazine selection. Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House was a story told backwards about a marriage and depression. It was the Chicago Writers Association’s novel of the year, and has received rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. Most recently she has published a short story collection, Music for Wartime. Her next novel, The Great Believers, will be released June 19, 2018.

At the reading, Makkai was introduced by Cristina Clancy, professor of english and creative writing. Clancy recounted in her introduction Makkai’s visit to campus — a reading wherein Clancy forgot to order chairs for the event but the group carried on and ended up sitting on the floor of the Wright Museum as per Makkai’s recommendation. Clancy said of Makkai’s writing, “[it] dwells on what’s hard, political and controversial.” She recounted how Makkai’s characters are “like us. They floss their teeth, they get the runs and they scream when they see a mouse. They crack jokes and they laugh at them. They flirt. They take care of cats. They seek love and forgiveness and visit each other in the hospital. They sleep with Johann Sebastian Bach and with men they meet on airplanes.”

Makkai read from her short story, “The November Story,” as well as from a beginning chapter of her new book, The Great Believers. “The November Story” recounts the life of a reality TV show interviewer, and what happens when their boss forces them to make two people fall in love. The chapter from The Great Believers was the scene of Yale Tishman at his friend Nico’s funeral after he has died from AIDS. It stays with Yale as he realizes that many of his friends might soon die as well. Makkai was met with large applause after each story and sneakily ended on a cliffhanger — sending every audience member to buy the book to find out the rest.

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