“I was always going to end up writing a boarding school novel,” says Rebecca Makkai, speaking via Zoom from the boarding school north of Chicago that she attended in the early 1990s, and where she’s lived since 2001, when her husband got a teaching job there. Her fifth book, I Have Some Questions for You (Viking, Feb. 2023), is set during the mid-1990s at a New Hampshire boarding school where a white student, Thalia Keith, is murdered. Decades after the crime, Thalia’s white roommate, Bodie Kane, begins to question whether the Black man convicted of the murder is indeed guilty. Bodie’s questions about racial privilege and sexual predation make for a thorny examination of her teenage years.

“I bent over backwards to make it not about me, and to make it very specifically not about this school where I went,” Makkai says, gesturing at a door in her office that could be mistaken for a closet, but in fact opens to a hallway leading to the girls’ dormitory.

Seated at her desk in a black cardigan over a light blue top, hoop earrings glinting in her straight auburn hair, Makkai acknowledges it was “weird” coming back to her alma mater. She returned to the school from Vermont, where she’d begun her master’s in English at Middlebury College and met her husband, who was also in the program. She already had a job in Chicago, teaching at a Montessori school, and he took the job there so they could be together. She returned to Middlebury in the summers to finish her program, which gave her what an MFA gives other writers: mentors and the time to write.

After learning to adjust to calling former teachers by their first names, Makkai was struck by the “very strange kind of palimpsest of memory and geography that goes on” at a school campus, she says. “Things get built, things get torn down, but you’re also kind of always triggered into the past.”

Though the past has been ever present for Makkai in her two decades living on her old high school campus, the #MeToo movement raised questions that led to the novel. “If I’m in a certain mood, I’m able to access this sense of deep past,” she says, “to rethink who I was then and understand what was problematic about the culture of the ’90s.”

In this way, I Have Some Questions for You features Makkai’s perspective on her own life. “It’s a really personal coming-of-age,” she says. “Thinking back on what was done to us and what we did, things that would absolutely not be okay now and that we blamed ourselves for—you know, the harassment, and you assume it’s your fault because you’re not cool enough.”

Makkai’s piercing insight on the 1990s will remind readers of the way her last book, 2018’s The Great Believers, shined a light on the 1980s—specifically what it was like for her main characters, mostly gay men, to date and socialize during the AIDS epidemic.

Her career kicked off with a surprising jolt of luck, after one of the first three short stories she submitted was accepted by the Iowa Review. “That doesn’t happen,” she says. “It was the right story with the right editor at the right journal, but it was hugely galvanizing for me. I felt like I could actually prioritize my writing.”

A burst of output followed: her debut novel, The Borrower, in 2011; The Hundred-Year House in 2014; and the collection Music for Wartime a year later. Friends were awestruck. “Oh my God, you’re just like shooting out books,” she says, paraphrasing their reactions.

Still, after the success of The Great Believers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, things feel different. Some of the change is gratifying—Makkai’s team at Viking is confident I Have Some Questions for You will draw buzz. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you guys think people know who I am,’ ” she says. There have been frustrations, too, such as when someone assumes her latest is a sophomore effort. “Which is very cute that they’re like, ‘Oh, so you wrote a second book?’ Like I wrote a fucking fifth book, motherfucker,” she says, laughing.

In addition to the historical perspective, I Have Some Questions for You has something else in common with The Great Believers, and with The Borrower: a strong main character in Bodie. Makkai says she wasn’t surprised readers embraced Yale, the lead in The Great Believers, and were put off by the woman at the center of The Borrower—a librarian who kidnaps a child to help him escape from his homophobic mother. “Yale was deeply flawed,” she says. “He makes some terrible decisions, and people loved him for his flaws. When you write a flawed woman, people might like her despite her flaws, but they’re not going to like her for her flaws.”

Bodie returns to the Granby School in winter 2018 from Los Angeles to teach a couple of classes, and memories of her senior year return. Already keyed into the #MeToo discourse via the podcast she hosts, which is about women celebrities and their troubled lives, she’s occupied now with new questions about Thalia’s murder. Bodie remembers being sexually harassed by Thalia’s popular boyfriend, and the large amount of attention paid to both girls by their music teacher, whom she realizes might have been a sexual predator. The plot thickens after two of Bodie’s students take up her hint that they start a podcast about Thalia’s murder.

Makkai wanted to do with true crime tropes what other literary fiction writers have done lately with ghost stories and zombie novels. “I wanted to take the genre of the dead young woman at the center and look at the realities of a situation like that,” she says. “It’s not about, you know, getting the right guy and putting him in prison; it’s about wrongful incarceration. It’s not about everything getting tied up; it’s about things getting more complicated.”

In addition to Makkai’s boarding school surroundings, another source of inspiration was the 2014 podcast Serial, which picked apart the thin case that led to a murder conviction for Adnan Syed, who gave interviews for the podcast from prison. In September, after Makkai finished her book, Syed’s conviction was vacated. It was an extraordinary outcome, and not one Makkai imagined for Omar Evans, the character serving time for Thalia’s murder, whose case generates increasing interest from Bodie’s students Britt (who is white) and Alder (who is Black). Rather, Makkai wanted to reflect the more common reality of inequity in the criminal justice system, as well as in settings like elite boarding schools.

Writing about characters with different racial or sexual identities presents challenges, but important ones. “You approach it with trepidation,” Makkai says, noting she was “terrified” she’d mess up her portrayal of the gay men in The Great Believers. “But you approach it with the respect that an endeavor like that is due.” She goes on to describe her portrayal of Alder and Omar. “As a white author, you don’t back away from it and go, ‘Well, I’m... I’m too scared to write any characters of color, so I’m just going to pretend that we live in a post-racial society.’ I’m writing about a world in which race would absolutely be a factor. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not.”

As Makkai takes up these challenges, all the while complicating various tropes and drawing up another protagonist for book club members to argue over (“Shouldn’t Bodie have done x instead of y?” one could imagine the conversations going), she also pulls off an irresistible page-turner. That’s just the kind of writer she is.

This article has been updated.