There is an anecdote about Lake Forest author Rebecca Makkai’s first body of work. It wasn’t a Booklist “Top Ten Debut” that has been translated into eight languages, like her 2011 novel, The Borrower. It didn’t win a Pushcart Prize (as her short stories have) or appear in The Best American Short Stories anthology (as her work did in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011).
This tale was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of a stuffed Smurf doll. She was three years old.
“I was writing from the moment I could hold a pencil, but I think I first articulated the desire to be a writer when I was around 12,” explains Makkai. “It wasn’t so much about realizing what I wanted to do as about realizing that most people didn’t keep writing stories all their lives, and I didn’t want to stop.”
From those preschool years through eighth grade, the Lake Bluff native was a student at the innovative new Forest Bluff School in Lake Bluff, a learning space where the Montessori approach to education liberated her young mind to develop a passion for words and storytelling.
“I went to Lake Forest Academy (LFA) straight from Forest Bluff, and I found incredible instruction there in creative writing,” says Makkai. “All four years, creative work was an emphasis in English class, and there were writing clubs and readings, too. I’d like to think my ambition would’ve kept going strong even without all that, but I don’t know. It certainly stayed alive in my mind as a possible career and became more and more of my identity.”
Makkai will be among a long list of notable local alumni who will be heading back to Forest Bluff School’s 35th anniversary reunion on Friday, December 23. Although, in many ways, Makkai never left the little school she grew up in.
“Montessori is a mindset that stays with you. When I got to high school, I already knew who I was and who I wanted to be, and I cared much more about that than about my grades,” says Makkai, who went on from LFA to earn a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University and a master’s degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English “That’s been a healthy mentality to carry into my publication life, too. It’s about the story I want to tell, not about winning prizes or getting perfect reviews. All the Montessori classmates I’ve stayed in touch with have found careers they’re passionate about. I think it would be foreign to us to see work as necessary drudgery or just a way to make money. It was joyful when we were kids, and it should be joyful to us as adults.”
Makkai’s roots with Forest Bluff run deep. Not only did she teach at the school in the early 2000s while launching her writing career but her two daughters—10-year-old Lydia and 7-year-old Heidi—are now students there.
“The school was founded in 1982, which makes me one of the oldest alumni. My daughter Lydia was the first second-generation student to enroll in the school, and she’ll be the first second-generation student to graduate from it,” Makkai adds. “Actually, my children are third-generation Montessori. My father attended a Montessori school in Budapest in the late 1930s. He hadn’t been there long when Hitler demanded the closing of all Montessori schools in the areas that he controlled. The fact that my father couldn’t continue but that I got to and my children get to is one of the many reasons I’ll be sobbing when my youngest daughter graduates.”
On the day that we meet Makkai at the family’s apartment on the campus of LFA, the girls are still at school. Husband Jon Freeman, an English teacher and assistant dean of students at LFA, says hello and then steps back to work. The kitchen is filled with the girls’ artwork and all the emblems of daily life. Books are on a shelf at eye level, which is a Montessori thing but in this case, more of a practicality.
Life is moving full speed ahead for the author, especially for her latest novel, The Great Believers, due out from Viking/Penguin in June 2018. In addition to teaching creative writing at various venues around the area and serving on the curatorial board at Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Makkai’s days recently have been filled with making decisions on the book cover. Though this marks Makkai’s third novel (following The Hundred Year House in 2014), she confesses that something about it feels different.
“This is a breakthrough for me in a lot of ways,” she says, explaining that of all her work, this is perhaps the most ambitious to date. “It’s set largely in Chicago in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, but also in modern-day Paris, where a woman who lost her brother back then is struggling to come to terms with her survivor’s guilt. It’s longer than my other novels, and required a lot more research. Ultimately, I feel this is a much bigger book than my previous ones, and I think the few people who have read it agree.”
So, what thoughts will Makkai bring to her for the 35th anniversary Forest Bluff School alumni reunion this month?
For one, she’ll likely be reinforcing her gratitude to the institution that was founded by Paula Polk Lillard, Jane Linari, and Lynn Lillard Jessen back in 1982. But she’ll also be connecting the dots of her past and present and future, all that come back to the place where it all began.
“I never imagined I’d be coming back to this area to live and raise my children,” Makkai confesses. “But lo and behold, it turns out to be an amazing place to raise kids. We love being near my mother, who still lives in Lake Bluff. And once our children started at Forest Bluff, that was it.”