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Rebecca Makkai Lives on Her High School Campus. It Inspired Her New Murder Mystery

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If your present self could reckon with the past, what would you try to resolve? That’s the question that haunts Bodie Kane, the protagonist of I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai’s slow-burning crime novel, to be published Feb. 21. Bodie, a 40-something film professor and popular podcaster, has moved on from everything that happened at Granby, the tony New Hampshire boarding school where her roommate Thalia was murdered during their senior year. But when Bodie is invited back to campus to teach a podcasting course, she’s forced to revisit long-buried dark truths.

For Makkai, engaging with the past is a daily reality. For the past 21 years, the author, 44, has lived on the campus of the Illinois boarding school that she attended as a day student in the 1990s. Makkai returned to her alma mater after her husband got a job teaching there, expecting to stay just a few years—two decades later, their daughter is a student at the school. With high school memories lurking around every corner, Makkai discovered that spending most of her adult life on her adolescent stomping grounds is an experience that lends itself to spinning a haunting tale.

“Because of where I live, this idea of rewriting the self—the palimpsest of who I was and who I am, while the place stays the same—is often on my mind,” says Makkai, speaking from her home office in a girls’ dormitory.

In the novel, Thalia’s murder has become notorious in true-crime circles, and questions still swirl around whether or not Omar, the school’s Black athletic trainer serving a life sentence for the crime, was really responsible. Bodie, now older, wiser, and awakened to the realities of sexual predation and a racist criminal-justice system, has doubts of her own. And, because of a few things she remembers from her time as Thalia’s roommate, she also has a strong suspicion about who might really have killed her friend. Disturbed by the realization that she may have played a role in a wrongful conviction, Bodie nudges her students toward investigating the case for the podcast class, setting off events that will find all the key players in the tragedy back in the insular world of Granby for a high-stakes reunion.

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To build out the murder-mystery element of the book, Makkai researched real murder cases where high school students were primary witnesses, noting how social dynamics like popularity may have affected their testimonies. Traditional crime-fiction elements aside, the novel is ultimately a fully adult cultural critique, sweeping into its gaze the proliferation of podcasts, cancel culture, systemic racism, our obsession with true crime, and true crime’s obsession with white women victims. It calls into question our relationships to memory and power while also challenging readers to reconsider how we think about race, sex, and class.

“The original heart of the story was this idea of what happens when people come back together,” Makkai says. “Not just to have a few drinks and look through old yearbooks, but because they need to reckon with something that society saw a certain way a long time ago—and how people’s perceptions really changed.”

Makkai is the author of three previous novels and a collection of short stories, and though the books take place in distinct worlds, an obsession with the passage of time runs through them all. Her 2014 novel The Hundred-Year House focuses on a century of secrets held by generations of a family, while 2018’s The Great Believers, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, traverses three decades to tell the story of a friend group shaped by the AIDS epidemic. But I Have Some Questions for You tackles the impact of time most overtly.

In the book, Bodie’s return to the boarding school presents constant run-ins with the past: teaching on campus brings back humiliations she suffered as an outsider, acutely aware of her socioeconomic class difference as a scholarship kid; a walk across a bridge in the woods evokes dark recollections of her hidden familial trauma; a chapel where she helped produce musical theater productions triggers memories of a male teacher—now seen in a new light—who was overly familiar with female students. The rural New England school is a place where time stands still in contrast to the rapidly changing world around it, making Bodie’s re-entry that much more jarring.

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Makkai doesn’t want to overstate the parallels between Bodie’s experience and her own. Her school was in the suburbs of Chicago, which felt far less isolated than the invented Granby. And while Bodie’s education exposed her to new levels of darkness, Makkai’s parents, linguistics professors who were active in the local arts scene, sent her to the school to find a more welcoming environment, since she was young for her grade and a self-described “nerd.”

What Bodie and Makkai do share in common is that both felt like outsiders at certain points during their time in school—and both have gained perspective since then. As a student, Bodie was painfully aware of how everything from her clothing and finances to her family history differed from her classmates’; in adulthood, she’s able to recognize how she has advanced in life because of her access to that upper-crust community and, more largely, her status as a white woman. Makkai, herself a scholarship student, drew on her experiences to probe the push and pull of feeling like an outsider in a system that still largely benefits you.

Recent years have been marked by a collective desire for reflection and redemption. From the Me Too movement to calling out rampant misogyny in early-aughts media coverage, cultural debate has been focused on revisiting the past to acknowledge wrongs and correct biased narratives.

For Makkai, the current climate has been affirming, especially when it comes to the ’90s, the time when both she and her protagonist were in high school. She points to that era as one of the last when silence was considered to be an acceptable response to societal ills like those that take place in the book.

Looking back on her own way of navigating the world has brought fresh clarity on how much things have changed. “I was troubled by things that happened back then. But the general ethos was that it would be my problem, for not being ‘chill’ enough,” she says. Bodie remembers a classmate who consistently made sexual remarks about her, a friend’s possessive boyfriend, all the comments that she and her classmates made about Omar when he was named a suspect in Thalia’s murder. She meets her students and thinks, “Oh my God, these kids would never put up with the things we put up with. Why did we?” she says.

But Makkai is less interested in passing harsh judgments on the past than in understanding how people reconcile their former selves and relationships with the present, juxtaposing what we sacrifice and what we gain as we evolve. She’s fascinated by the echoes and contradictions and how no one is limited to either the past or the present.

“If you think about it, eventually, every cell in your body is different,” Makkai says. “If you don’t believe in the soul, what is the self? It basically becomes memories. You are the sum of your memories, the sum of your experiences.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com