Interviews

Rebecca Makkai

It was so perfect, it felt written: my used copy of Rebecca Makkai’s charming debut novel turned out to be a laminated library one, wearing a sticker (F for Fiction; below that: MAKKAI, R) on the base of its spine like a nerdy tramp stamp. At the back, an anticlimax: no borrower card in its little paper pocket, that near-extinct one that chronicles “the best minds of each generation—the self-motivated, the literate, the curious, the insatiable,” as Makkai, whom I spoke to in Chicago in March, puts it in The Borrower.

Who is The Borrower? In one sense it’s the book’s protagonist, Lucy Hull, a twenty-six-year-old, small-town librarian who befriends a ten-year-old bibliophile named Ian Drake. One morning, via an escalating series of baby steps, Lucy and Ian skip town and wind up driving halfway across the country, plunging deeper and deeper into a rabbit-hole of Lucy’s own misguided design.

Borrow, kidnap: semantics.

Ian has run away from home, to the library, because he too is The Borrower: one who stuffs his backpack full of magic and mayhem and other “adult” fare his blade-thin, Christian Fundamentalist mother explicitly forbids (“What Ian really needs right now are books with the breath of God in them,” Mrs. Drake says, to Lucy’s horror). Even less forgivable than limiting their son’s reading to divine exhales and signing their missives “In His Grip,” Ian’s parents recently sent him to Pastor Bob’s pray-away-the-gay camp to “heal” him of his budding homosexuality—a move Lucy uses to defend if not justify her crimes.

Ultimately, The Borrower is The Borrower itself, which—through Lucy’s somewhat deluded spins on her story—frequently takes the form of nursery rhymes and children’s books such as Goodnight Moon, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, among others. A standout chapter titled “Choose Your Own Fiasco” is a pessimist’s take on a childhood favorite, rendered even more apt by the reader’s realization that, in his manipulation of Lucy, Ian has simply chosen a better adventure.

Makkai shifts deftly between narrative styles and character voices, flashing a knack for sharp-but-accessible wordplay. The book recalls Mike Carey’s engrossing graphic novel series The Unwritten, which is also about the power of story, blurring fantasy with reality and habitually paying tribute to its literary influences, right down to a Choose Your Own Adventure chapter. More than anything, these are books for people who love books.

Makkai and I spoke about her novel’s inception, the decade of challenges that followed, and why a man throwing a stone into a lake might not be the best idea for a story.

Where did the idea for The Borrower come about? How did you decide on this story?

My second year out of college was my first year teaching elementary school, and it had nothing to do with any kid that I taught, but I became aware of a nine-year-old boy who had been put in an anti-gay class. I had no idea these things existed. I was horrified. I think a lot of people are very ignorant about the existence of these programs—as I found on my book tour, usually half the audience is saying, “These are real?” For some people, it’s just not on their radar. But I didn’t have any way to help this kid because I really didn’t know him. I’d never spoken to him; I just knew of him.

On one level I was personally and politically appalled. On the other hand, as a writer, I’m looking at this thinking, That’s a story. Here you have a kid who is kind of programmed to develop in a certain way, and someone else is saying, “No, no, no. Everything that you think about yourself is wrong. All of your impulses, your interests, the way you want to talk, the way you want to dress: it’s wrong.” In reality I just thought, Oh wow, I wish I could help. In the story, that became the plot: What would happen if someone who had no right to help—no recourse, really, to help—got over-involved?

The library came in a lot later. I spent a lot of time thinking about who that third party could be. I thought for a while about a neighbor, I thought about a teacher, and I realized no kid would want to run away to school. That doesn’t really make sense. If I were ten years old and I ran away, it probably would have been to the library.

So your novel as an ode to books is more a byproduct of setting than something you consciously set out to do?

As soon as I knew it was going to be set in a library, I knew Ian was a reader. That tells me a lot already about a character, a ten-year-old boy who loves to read; that’s going to define who he is. And if Lucy is going to be the librarian, that is going to define who she is. It evolved pretty organically as the story unfolded, based on whom I’d chosen these people to be and what the narrative had to be. As the story developed, I realized it was also going to be about the stories and lies we tell ourselves and each other. The way we narrate our own lives to justify things, to deny things about ourselves. Ian’s parents have a certain narrative that they want for his life. They have a way they want it to work out and they’re deluding themselves in this massive way. Lucy is so lost in the world of books that when they hit the road, she starts narrating to herself like in The Wizard of Oz. You can’t have a kidnapping unless someone involved in it is really delusional, albeit in a benign way.

Some authors feel you should never set out with a theme in mind, just write and see what emerges. Others argue that you can’t write a good story if you don’t know what the big picture is. Where do you stand on that?

I would say you need to know by the time you are a third of the way in. If you sit down and think, I’m going to write a story on the theme of modern man and his quest for salvation… If you start out with a theme in mind and try to write to the theme, it’s going to be obnoxious. I know there are writers who work that way; I think of somebody like Tolstoy writing a novel of ideas. But Tolstoy loses me. He wants to write five chapters about agrarian reform. Just tell me a story and then we’ll see what the meaning of it is. Let’s not set a political agenda. So I always start with plot, and in this case I started with the plot of the kid, the parents, the third party getting way over-involved, and the theme comes out as you write. If you had asked me when I had a very basic sketch of the outline or after I’d written the first 20 pages, “What’s the theme of this?” I would have looked at you like you were crazy. I would have had no idea. But by the time you’re putting it together, it better have added up to something, at least for you.

I’ve always found it really uncomfortable to try and write with a theme in mind from the get-go.

Yeah, I never think about themes when I read, either. I have a Master’s in literature so I was really trained to read for meaning and symbolism and language choice and all that stuff. Somehow in all of that, theme didn’t really come up as the operative word. I think of it more as meaning. It’s really funny; well-meaning friends and family members that maybe aren’t big readers but have read my work to support me have said things like, “I really enjoyed your story. I probably didn’t catch all of the symbolism and I don’t know what the theme was.” I think they were scarred by some eighth grade English teacher that taught them to find the symbols and to find the theme. Then you have officially read the story. I feel so bad for them. Just relax.

I feel like it’s almost homework for some people after they experience a good movie or read a good book: “I’ve got to translate that.”

Yeah, like “bird equals _____.” Okay, bird equals freedom. I solved it.

It kind of sucks the fun out of it.

I feel like that is entirely due to bad English teachers somewhere along the way. There are some great English teachers out there, but some of them seem to be doing some major psychic damage to our young readers.

How much of you is in Lucy? Do you have a criminal past we should know about?

No, I’ve never kidnapped anybody. Almost nothing in terms of life story. The only detail Lucy and I have in common is that my father was a refugee, but under totally different circumstances. He’s from Hungary. He came to the U.S. and became a linguistics professor, so I guess Lucy and I share that sense of feeling like a first-generation American—remembering constantly where you came from, that we aren’t all automatically free. We earn our freedom in a certain way. I think that’s something that Lucy feels and that’s partly why she does what she does.

I’m sure I have things in common with every character that I write because they obviously came out of my brain in some way or the other. But not a lot else. I think people forget about authorial distance. I’ve had readers react as if everything Lucy does is something I personally must approve of. I get that: One of the challenges of publishing a first book is that people don’t really know you yet as a writer; plus, it’s written in first-person singular, and the protagonist is female, someone vaguely close to my age range… But if we as authors approved of everything our characters did, they’d never do anything interesting. We’d have no story.

One of the first difficult lessons that I had to learn as a writer was to push my characters into doing really inappropriate things, whether it’s a criminal act in this really extreme case, or just saying something that a normal person would keep their mouth shut about, or forcing a confrontation. In everyday life we act really politely and we don’t always say what is on our mind and we don’t always get ourselves into messes. But you have no story unless you’re willing to push somebody to the brink. You find the moment where the character says something they wouldn’t normally say or does something they wouldn’t normally do. They go over that line and you have a story.

It seems like pushing Lucy over that line would be one of the harder parts of writing the book. You have to justify why she would do this or you risk losing the reader very early on.

It was funny because one thing I thought I knew about a first novel was that when you try to find your agent, they’re going to ask to read fifty pages, and so I thought that I had to have the kidnapping happen by page fifty or I wouldn’t have an agent booked. So I took out everything and I tried to make it happen way too fast. I eventually gave that up and when I finally did find my agent, she didn’t even ask for a partial. She said, “Send me the whole thing.” So it didn’t even matter. But if I showed the parents slapping Ian around, the pastors molesting him, the mother screaming, it would have been blatantly obvious that Lucy had to take him. But I think I would have lost the balance of the story there. I wanted to explain it, at least. I’m not sure I wanted to justify it.

I didn’t mean morally justify; I meant it was believable. If you had done it too soon I would have been rolling my eyes. But by the time it happened, I bought it.

That’s good. She doesn’t make a conscious decision, either. That’s part of it. I would have had a lot more work if I had to get her to the point where she said, “I’m going to do something. I’m going to put this kid in my car and get him away from his family.” Maybe it’s doable, but that wasn’t the novel I wanted to write. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with that.

Talk a little about Lucy’s social life. I would hope if I ever disappeared for a week, I’d get a lot more phone calls.

I wanted to write about a certain type of person of that age who graduated from college, ended up somewhere really random, and doesn’t know a lot of people. She doesn’t have roots yet. She doesn’t have family, a roommate, or a best friend there. Her friendships are kind of artificial or surface friendships. It was one of the only ways that I could have her do what she did. You know, someone really entrenched, with a big support network, and who would be missed couldn’t pull it off. I also needed to make it easy for her to leave, so she’s not in love with someone. She kind of floats.

You said that she winds up somewhere random. Why did you choose Hannibal, Missouri? It’s the hometown of Mark Twain, right?

It is. It’s dismissible, but really early on she says, “Let’s call the scene of the crime Hannibal, Missouri. There is a real Hannibal out there and I’m just asking to borrow its name.” Basically it’s any town in America except for Hannibal, but then she talks about the geography of the town. She says, “We cross the river.” And so that’s part of her unreliability—she’s lying to us.

Specifically, it’s not just that it was Mark Twain’s hometown. It’s that I wanted the book to resonate with Huckleberry Finn. With Huck and Jim, Jim is the adult. Huck is “rescuing” him but doesn’t really know what he is doing at all. There is a parallel in The Borrower, where Ian in some ways is the one in charge even though Lucy was rescuing him, but really, they’re both just running away together.

Tying the story’s structure to other American narratives—Lolita being one, more darkly—allowed me to put some little hidden jokes in there. But it’s also part of the way Lucy thinks in narrative, the way she narrates. The way she lies to us and sees her own journey through this lens of literature. In a way she’s the one making those comparisons; she’s the one choosing to call the town Hannibal. I had a lot of fun with it, though.

Was it difficult writing the character of Ian?

I taught elementary school for twelve years. I’m stopping now, but I spent seven hours a day for twelve years with ten year-old boys. So it was way too easy. He could talk all day. But there are only two lines in the book that were taken from actual kids I know. They were just too good not to use.

Which two were those?

One of them was, “If you were a Cyclops, would color would you want your eye to be?” which some kid asked me one day and I thought, I’m sorry, you’ll never remember you said it to me, so if you read this book when you’re thirty, you won’t care. And the other: There is this description of how to jog. A ten-year-old boy is screaming the word “jog” with every step, and I watched a ten or eleven year-old kid jog like that once and I just thought it was fabulous. Who does that? Otherwise I resisted. I really did.

I think my favorite line is when Ian says, “They play something called Ian Ball, but we can’t do it because we don’t have a dumpster.” This poor kid.

That was kind of open-ended and a few people read that line really darkly, actually. I wanted to leave that possibility open, but it could also just be that he is alone in the corner of a parking lot while everyone else is playing Red Rover, and the dumpster is all he has to play with. He could be the ball or he could be kicking. It’s intentionally left vague.

Lucy’s father is a memorable character. Is he based on your own dad, or did you take a similar backstory and invent this guy?

I will say that he is a massively toned down version of my father.

So your dad has all these idioms he can’t quite get right?

Actually, no. That was a weird inversion. My father is the editor of Barron’s Dictionary of American Idioms; idioms are his specialty. I think it was a way to distance this character from my father, to make him the reverse, the Bizarro World version. I’ll put it this way: Three different guys that I dated in college met my dad, and then every single one of them—it was really comical by the third one—said, “I know I’m not really a writer, that’s more your thing, but would it be weird if I wrote a story about your dad?” He’s just one of those larger-than-life characters. If I tried to transcribe his actual dialogue word-for-word, no one would ever believe it.

You said earlier that you start with plot. What’s your writing process like? Is there a time and place you usually write?

I have two toddlers, so it’s whenever I can. Binge writing. The main thing, I think, when you have young kids, is getting out of the house. I’ll take two hours and go to Starbucks and work on something. It gets done that way. In a dream world you can have a schedule, but I think if you’re a parent, especially of young kids, or just working, you can’t feel bad about yourself if you can’t make that happen. Some people don’t work that way. Some people can’t work that way and you have to be forgiving of yourself if you can only write on Sunday afternoon and Thursday morning. You’re still getting it done. That’s what it is for me. It’s just random. The main thing for me is getting out of the house.

I can edit at home pretty well and I can write an essay, but fiction… I just get too bogged down. I want to check email. I start cleaning. I start cooking. So I’ll go to the library or Starbucks—and I make sure the Wi-Fi on the computer is never hooked up.

The internet kills all productivity.

Yeah. I have it on my phone, which is useful so I can look things up, but I’m not tempted to sit there surfing.

I find that when I travel to new places, I get inspired and often do my best writing. Is that the case for you, or does that not really matter?

There is not a lot to write about if you see the same thing every day. One of the great things about having published this book was I got a book tour, which was amazing. Not everyone gets one; I was really lucky. Just being able to travel, and without kids, frees you up a little bit. You start thinking about other stuff. This book is an exception, but I get a lot of inspiration not from geographic areas but from different historical times. I don’t write historical fiction specifically, but I’ll find something out about the history of the place where I am that will spark a story idea. There is that historic depth, I think, that is beyond the surface of wherever you may be.

Would you write historical fiction? Is that something you’re interested in?

The novel I’m working on now moves backwards in time. The first section is 1999, the second section is 1955, and the third is 1929, but it’s all set at the same place. It’s this house that started off as an arts colony but then was turned into a private residence, so we see it move back in time to being an arts colony and you figure out as you go back why things are the way they are in 1999. I almost don’t consider it historical fiction in that we’re starting in 1999, even though when I get to 1929 I’m really going to have to dig in with the research.

What else are you working on?

I just finished a story collection called Music for Wartime. A lot of them are older stories; some are new. I just put it together. I’m really happy with it right now, actually. I probably won’t stay happy with it for very long, but right now I’m really excited about it so I’ll say that while I can. It’s with my agent, who is going to get back to me with notes and hopefully we’ll move forward. There will be editing, but at least it’s finished so now I can dig into my novel again. It’s a complicated novel. It’s going to take me a while, I think, to write it. It’s a Rubik’s Cube kind of plot.

The Borrower is the first novel you’ve published. Is it the first one you wrote?

Yeah. I would write and abandon it repeatedly. I had completely abandoned it because I was having a hard time finding an agent because it was a terrible draft. Then I started the second novel and thought the second novel was just going to be so easy. It was great and I was in love with it; it was this honeymoon phase. Then at the moment the second novel got hard, I went running back into the arms of the first novel and overhauled it, totally revised it and finished it up. I found an agent, we found the editor, and we got it published. It’s the first one, but the second one was well underway by the time this one was truly finished. And then I was working very hard on short stories the entire time and publishing, not books but individual stories that then had lives of their own.

Which do you prefer writing, short stories or novels?

For me it’s really healthy and essential to be doing both all of the time. If I were only writing novels it would be a very long time before I had the sense of completion on anything. To be able to take a break and work on a short story is really important. But I also wouldn’t be happy with only writing stories. There is something really appealing to me about the novel and the arc of time involved, the character development, really living in that world and knowing that a reader would enter that world with you for a day or two, however long it may be. For me, with kids, it takes me a month to read a novel, so I’m living in that world for a really long time.

[Spoiler Alert] At any point did you consider having Lucy get caught or go to jail? Or did you know early on that The Borrower wasn’t that kind of story?

It’s funny because several readers have told me they misread it and thought she was in jail. She says somewhere in the beginning that she’s at a college library now, but she says that before you realize that she’s kidnapped somebody, so I think for a lot of people it kind of floats by. My mother actually read it thinking, for some reason, that Ian was dead at the time of the telling. So she kept waiting for him to die the entire time. I thought, What a strange experience.

Was your mother disappointed?

I don’t think so. I think she was relieved, but what a strange reading experience that she kept waiting for this kid to die.

She read a different book than us.

I guess I didn’t specifically say that he doesn’t die. One thing is there are the parallels to Lolita but I think that would have been too parallel, where it’s being narrated from jail and everything turned out terribly. I wanted more, I suppose, the Huck Finn ending of lighting off for the territory. I think that my instinct was always to have her narrating it from the territory then. But I always go back and question every decision I make. So I have my first instinct and I have to be willing to stop and say, “What if I did the exact opposite? What if I did it a third way?” I often come back to the initial instinct, but one time in twenty you’re going to realize that you actually need to do something else.

I wasn’t sure how Ian was going to get home and I wasn’t sure how Lucy was going to spend the rest of her life. I knew she was not going back to “Hannibal”, but I had to work out the specifics of that situation. I wanted to be a bit surprised when I got to the end. And actually, I will tell you, it originally had a much bleaker ending. Then, when it was being sold, I ended up having conversations with a bunch of different editors who were interested in the book, and about how they would edit it. They all said it’s not that you need to have a happy ending, but it needs to have some kind of hope at the end. The first time someone said that to me I thought they were full of it, but then enough editors say the same thing and I thought, Wait a second, maybe these collectively really intelligent people are onto something.

If everyone feels this way…

Exactly. I felt at first like they were trying to tell me to go stick a happy ending on it, but I came up with this idea of Lucy giving Ian the reading list. She realizes she couldn’t help him but she feels like she does know something to get him through, and it’s some hope. I love it the way it is now. I like it much better with that part of it in there, but I’m also so glad I did it because the feedback that I’ve gotten from readers has all been lovely, with one exception. One woman wrote to me and said, “I wish you hadn’t dropped the F-bomb.” Thank you for your input.

“The F word was buried somewhere in the middle of your book. Take it back.”

I know; like, That’s what offended you? It’s lovely anytime you hear from readers, and I’ve heard from an inordinate number of college-aged gay men who have identified so strongly with Ian and are writing either to say, “I’m so glad my parents were actually supportive,” or to say, “I just got out of that kind of family and I’m so glad you wrote about this.” But really caring about Ian as a character, asking if I’ll bring him back so they can find out what happened to him, that kind of thing. When I’m writing I don’t think about audience, but there are real readers out there who really identify with Ian, and to give Ian a horrible bleak ending…

They would think there is no hope.

Right, and then I’m thinking okay, these are the twenty-two-year-olds that write to me; what about the sixteen-year-old kid that reads it? I’m so glad I was gently pushed in that direction because it was the right way to wind things up. I was resistant at first and when I sat down to write it, it was like light bulb, hallelujah chorus. It was exactly what I wanted.

It sounds like you were weary of writing a sappy ending, but it’s not like that. I think Lucy specifically says, “I don’t know how it turned out, but let’s say it probably turned out okay.”

That last sentence is funny. I think some people have taken it as being very optimistic, when it’s basically saying, “Let’s say that it does. Let’s say that his dream world will save him.” If that’s what they need to read it as, that’s great, that’s fine. There are people who have read it very bleakly. I wanted to ride that line. I was thinking of the last line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” That’s what I wanted the undertone of the last line of my book to be. I decided not to plagiarize Hemingway, but his spirit is there underneath.

Who do you consider your influences, in general and specifically with this book?

It’s interesting because the writers that I really enjoy reading are not necessarily the same as the authors I learn the most about writing from. Of course, if I’m learning about writing from you, then I obviously enjoy your writing. The writers that I have learned the most through reading are Alice Munro and Salman Rushdie, and neither of them would ever write a book even remotely like The Borrower. Regardless, I feel like Alice Munro taught me how to end a story. I use that when I’m ending a short story, obviously, but I also think about that at the end of a book.

In terms of the plot of this particular novel, the influences are pretty much on the surface there—Huck Finn, Lolita, The Wizard of Oz. It’s total book nerd joke stuff, but there’s actually some Ulysses in there that no one will ever, ever find.

Isn’t there a Cyclops in Ulysses?

There is. It came from the mouth of a kid but there is this other connection to Joyce. One of the other references is there is a scene in a library in Ulysses and the librarian’s name is Best, and so Lucy’s boss’s last name is Best. It’s little things. It’s not like there are these deep, meaningful references to Ulysses, but there are reasons I chose that book: because of its plot, and its weird father/son relationship that’s not quite real. No one should ever go through the book looking for these references. It would drive them crazy and be totally unrewarding, like the worst Easter egg hunt ever. But they are there because they amused me. And when you’re working on something for ten years, you’ve got to do something to amuse yourself.

Did you work on it for that long?

Including the periods when I abandoned it, yeah. I was twenty-two when I started it. I didn’t know how to write a novel, so I just poked away at an outline for a few years. I would start to write part of Chapter Five and then I’d say, “Oh, I’m going to write the ending now. And then I’m going to write the first line.” I had no idea what I was doing. It got more serious as time went on.

How good did it feel to finally send off the final draft after ten years?

It’s weird because there are a lot of different iterations of the final draft. There is the draft you send to your agent and you feel like it’s done. And then your agent has edits and then it’s done. Then your editor has edits and then it’s done. And then the copy editor has edits and then you think it’s done, and then you have the galleys where you’re catching all of your typos and hitting your head against the wall because you’re so embarrassed. Even now, I’m still fixing these typos for the paperback.

But here is the wild thing: the publishers had pushed ahead the production schedule knowing that I was nine months pregnant. They were amazing to work with. I was dealing with all women, so they all got it. I was scheduled to have a C-section at 7:00 a.m., and I sent in my final copy edits at 9:00 p.m. the night before. I edited the galleys, which is the very final edit, with the baby in my arm. I was sleep deprived, but it felt good to get it done. At the same time, anything feels good when you have that much Vicodin in your system.

I wonder how the book would have turned out if you had edited on Vicodin.

Oh my god.

You said before that plot-wise, the influences on the book are the ones that are referenced therein. How was it writing those sections that mimic the book’s influences?

Honestly, the way it came about was that I was so stuck at the point where they got on the road. I got Lucy up to the kidnapping point, got her and Ian on the road, and then I thought, What is she thinking? What is going through her head? And I didn’t want it to be this very typical What have I done? Oh my god, I can never go back. And I realized she’s in this delusional, almost fugue state. She’s knows what she’s doing; she’s not literally out of her mind, but she’s going to go into this Wizard of Oz-dream-world way of narrating. It’s tongue-in-cheek even for her, but that’s how she processes what is happening to her.

That solution came about really organically, and then I went back and put in the “If you give a librarian a closet” one. What was hard was finding narrative references that were recognizable. A reader doesn’t have to know what every single one is, but you have to know that something is being parodied. Even if you don’t quite get what story it is, you get that these are the rhythms of a children’s book. Finding ones that were appropriate, I had to go younger than what Ian would actually be reading with a couple of exceptions: Choose Your Own Adventure books, for example, and a couple other things. The Wizard of Oz would be appropriate for a ten-year-old. Goodnight Moon is obviously for a much younger crowd.

I tried a lot of different stuff and then, after all this, I had to work out what I was allowed to do with an in-house lawyer. Parody is protected under law—or should be protected under law—but the question is what’s parody? Is it parody if it doesn’t make fun of the original, but is used for your own purposes? Is homage the same as parody? I had to go back through my manuscript and make sure that I wasn’t using the same words. But it was interesting. It was fun to do.

Before I let you go, what advice would you give to aspiring writers in general and specifically fiction writers?

I would say don’t forget to tell a story. I think when we start writing we start to take ourselves very seriously, as we should. You’re really thinking about words, you’re thinking about sentence. You’re thinking about the sound of it. Writers of literary fiction can lose sight of the plot and the story. If I told this story at a party, would people even listen to it? Or is my story basically, “Once there was a guy who was feeling sad, so he threw a rock into a river and then he felt better”? That’s not a story, right? But you can imagine the earnestness in the artist’s face as he sits down to write that.

Poems are different. Maybe you can do it in a poem and it works. Maybe there is a genius that makes it work. But I think it’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re here to entertain and to tell a story, unless you’re doing something super-experimental. In which case, more power to you, but I’m not going to read your work if you’re not out there to tell a story.

As a scriptwriter, I always ask myself what people would want to see. Probably not the story you just described of a man throwing a stone into a lake.

This is terrible of me: Where that came from is that my parents were both linguistics professors, and they had a colleague who had a PhD in creative writing, and his dissertation had been basically that plot. It was never published and for years I listened at dinner parties as they all complained about this guy and his story. So I grew up with this idea that the worst book you could possibly write is the book about the guy who feels sad and throws a stone into the lake.

What if ten years from now that book gets published and it’s the Great American Novel?

I’ll hold my parents responsible for misrepresenting it.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.