Celebrated author talks craft with Exeter's student writers

Pulitzer finalist Rebecca Makkai gives students a master class in writing fiction and reads her work in the Assembly Hall.

Sarah Pruitt '95
April 5, 2024
Author Rebecca Makkai in Elting Room

The Elting Room fell silent as two dozen Exeter students bent over their notebooks and laptops, immersing themselves in a writing exercise.

From her seat at one of the tables arranged in a square at the room’s center, the award-winning author Rebecca Makkai watched them working. After laying out the basic differences between scene (including events, time/place, and usually some kind of tension or change for the characters) and exposition (interiority, foreshadowing, analysis), she had given them a mini writing assignment, aimed at exploring the potential building blocks of a scene.

“I want to see now if you can take it within the next sentence or two into a physical reaction,” Makkai said after a minute. “Not action that can be involved, but how is this person describing how they feel in their body?” The students turned back to their writing, getting their ideas down on paper as fast as they could before her next instruction.

Later, after a few students shared what they had written with the group, Makkai wrapped up the class by answering students’ questions about her writing and revision process. “How do I prevent myself from censoring my own writing, either because I think that my ideas are not good, or because I don’t think I’m conveying my ideas properly?” one student asked.

“The instinct to always try to do better is huge,” Makkai said. “You want to harness that, and just not let it ruin your day — or your life.”

Leading a master class in writing was only part of Makkai’s day-long visit to campus, hosted by The Class of 1945 Library and the English Department. Later that evening, she gave a public reading and talk in the Assembly Hall, followed by a book signing.

In preparation for Makkai’s visit, students read several of the short stories in her 2015 collection, Music for Wartime. She is also the author of four novels, including The Great Believers (2018), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the L.A. Times Book Prize, among other honors. A 2022 Guggenheim fellow, Makkai teaches graduate fiction writing at Northwestern University and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and is also the artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago.

In the Assembly Hall, Makkai read the short story “A Story for Your Daughters, A Story for Your Sons,” published in The Paris Review’s spring 2020 issue, as well as selections from her 2023 New York Times bestselling novel I Have Some Questions For You, a twisty, atmospheric mystery set at a fictional New Hampshire boarding school.

“Makkai-ness is impossible to pin down,” said English Instructor Tim Horvath in his introduction on the Assembly Hall stage. Horvath, who attended the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College with Makkai, helped facilitate her visit to Exeter. “She pushes us to reinvent ourselves when we read her work.”