“I Have Some Questions for You” by Rebecca Makkai explores the social dynamics and mysteries within a fictional New Hampshire boarding school.
The main character, Bodie, returns to the school she attended as a teenager to teach, but she soon becomes obsessed with the murder case of her former roommate.
NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Makkai, about her experience in boarding schools and why she chose to set her novel in New Hampshire. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Rick Ganley: So the boarding school in your book is fictional, but New Hampshire boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and St Paul’s are well-known. Why did you choose to set your novel here?
Rebecca Makkai: Partly realism, right? New Hampshire is a state that has a lot of boarding schools. I live in Vermont in the summer, although I’m Chicago based, and that’s where I am right now.
There are writers who start with character, and I think that’s really cool, but it’s just not how I start. I start with plot, and I start with place. Not just a random town, but real setting. I made maps of this imagined boarding school. Beyond that, thinking about New Hampshire as a place, not only the legal system, but the size and endowment of some of these boarding schools, the endowment relative to the finances of the state as a whole, and the way that that might affect, for instance, a local police investigation. That gives me a fundamentally different story than if I were writing about something that happened at a school in Manhattan or in California.
And I live near Chicago on the campus of the boarding school where my husband teaches. And since I wanted it very much not to be about this school, I decided to go East Coast.
Rick Ganley: Well, let me ask you about that. What about your experience in boarding school culture inspired the story?
Rebecca Makkai: You know, first of all, I’m fascinated by the way that they are these permanent places, these places with really long histories, but they’re also fundamentally transitory. College is the same way, right? But [they’re] the kind of place where people pass through for just a few years, and [those are] some of the most intense and vulnerable and formative years of their lives. And unlike public or day school-type high school, they’re living there. It’s their whole life, but only for four years. And then they move on. And there’s something there about the passage of time, about the layering of history, about the way memory works that really spoke to me on the possibilities of plot and just the thematic resonances, too.
Rick Ganley: So how did you go about researching New Hampshire specifically while writing the book?
Rebecca Makkai: Like I said, I live in Vermont in the summer, so we certainly get over to New Hampshire quite a bit. Part of my husband’s family is from Hanover, so we’re over there quite a lot.
And then beyond the boarding school part, I really needed to do a lot of research into the legal system in New Hampshire and also the carceral system, because we’re looking at a case where someone is in prison for this murder, but it’s probably the wrong guy. So I was really fortunate. There’s a wonderful public defender in New Hampshire named Stephanie Hausman, who just gave me a load of her time reading the book, talking to me about, you know, logistics of legal stuff, possibilities, because I didn’t want the Perry Mason version of this. I wanted this to be granularly realistic.