Tethering to Reality: An Interview with Rebecca Lee

After a year’s worth of planning, soliciting, binge-eating chocolate, meeting, editing, binge-eating chocolate, writing, budgeting, and binge-eating chocolate, Issue 53 of Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art is finally done and ready for public consumption.  This issue includes work by Rachel Louise Snyder, David James Poissant, Denise Duhamel, and interviews with Mary Jo Bang and Rebecca Lee.  You can purchase copies at (and, while you’re at it, check out some of the great work being published online!)

In the meantime, here is a preview of the interview I conducted with Rebecca Lee:

Tethering to Reality: An Interview with Rebecca Lee
By Mary Jean Murphy

In the title story of Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories, the narrator says of a guest at her dinner party, “But we were in the first minutes of meeting her, and I felt unprepared to be plunged into life’s deepest questions.” Yet Lee, with fearless precision, asks just that of us: to examine an inner restlessness as we try to understand life’s less tangible concerns. From a dinner party with vicious undertones to a college student who plagiarizes Soviet propaganda and a young woman hired to find her friend a wife in Hong Kong, we encounter a wide variety of worlds where characters find new ways to traverse the same themes of self-doubt, empty relationships, and miscommunication.

After receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1992, Lee published short prose pieces in The Chicago Tribune, Atlantic Monthly, and Zoetrope before the release of her debut novel, The City is a Rising Tide (2006), followed by Bobcat and Other Stories (2013), her first short story collection. She is an associate professor of fiction and creative nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Composing with the linguistic integrity of a poet, creating worlds with the deftness of a prose writer, and displaying character with all the ugliness and beauty that is humanity, here is Rebecca Lee.

MJM: Some of the stories from Bobcat were originally published as much as 20 years before the collection came out. What do you learn from working on a project for so long?

RL: I am really a strangely slow writer. I think I use my time writing (every morning) as a sort of meditation for myself. It’s given me some real stability through all sorts of ups and downs. But because it has that function in my life emotionally, it’s very satisfying for me to return to the same characters and situations morning after morning. So I think I end up taking such a long time. I have writer friends who have all sorts of drive and motivation to get to the end of the story. I’m jealous of that, but I’ve never had that exactly. I do get sick of stories, but then I just graft on a current event or some event from history and get re-interested.

One of these stories takes place in one night, and it took me six years to write. I still don’t know why it would take so long, but I loved writing it and just wanted to keep going.

How much of the world around you goes into your stories?

A lot. I love that line from W.S. Dipiero, who says he doesn’t really write anything, just notices what each morning brings to light. The notion that a fiction writer merely weaves together strands of reality into something new is a very comforting idea to me. My imagination tends more toward thinking about something that has already happened or somebody who already exists, and the force of the imagination then changes them a little into something useful for fiction.

These days I’m trying to challenge myself to go farther afield, let the imagination roam a bit, but it’s hard. I’m very tethered to reality, for better or worse.

Many of the stories in Bobcat are rooted in a very specific time. “Slatland” takes places in 1987, “Min” in 1989, and “Settlers” begins on September 11, 1998, the morning the Starr Report was released. Why is it important for you as a writer to include these specific time markers?

Those dates are desperately important to me while I’m writing. I wish I could show you a draft, which has dates running up and down the side of the page. It looks semi-crazy but I love dates, and one of my favorite activities during a draft is to wonder what other things are happening in the world on the day of my story. There’s a way that you want the rest of the world sort of surrounding your story, lifting it, or putting pressure on it. Ideally, the writer’s mind should be as broad as possible, even if not a lot of that information gets into the story.

Several of the stories seem firmly contextualized in specific subjects or fields, such as architecture in “Fialta” and the stream of Vietnamese refugees to Hong Kong after the fall of Saigon in “Min.” How did you build the body of knowledge needed to write these stories? When did you feel that you knew enough to begin writing?

I heard the writer Jane Smiley give a reading when I was in grad school, twenty years ago, and she said that she wrote and researched sort of back and forth as she was writing. I remember her saying she had to write a story for quite a while before she knew what she had to research. (I don’t want to put words in her mouth; this was twenty years ago, so take it with a grain of salt, even though I have based my entire process on it since then.) But it seems like the writing itself starts to limit and focus what you need to research, and that is helpful. But I also know that research is the true joy of writing for me. Once a story puts requirements on me, and I know I have to buy some books and get obsessed with, say, foot-binding or the Spanish flu of 1918, I feel like the story has started to matter, and has some real roots in reality. I know writers who don’t need that at all, or maybe are doing research in some other way: listening closely to conversations around them and “researching” the rhythms behind speech, or just watching the way the sun sets.

Throughout Bobcat, your characters make frequent references to literature. How did you decide on this bit of characterization?

So I have a lot of quotes running through my brain all the time. Sometimes I think my inner life is almost entirely received, woven up by quotes taken from other people, mostly poets. I have tried to diagnose this a little. For one thing, I grew up with a strange obsession reading Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I had a 70s childhood, which meant there was no internet and only really patchy half-hours of television. Though my mother frequently took us to the library (and better, the bookmobile), there were still plenty of hours in the house with nothing to read, and my go-to on those days was always this big red book of quotations by, like, Thomas Jefferson and Erma Bombeck and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It left me with a real love of the pithy sentence, the sentence that wraps itself around an inspirational and complete idea. But it also left me with a vast reservoir of quotes in my brain. It seems as though some readers like quotes liberally thrown into a story and some find it pretentious, so I try to keep it somewhat moderate. When David Shields published his book Reality Hunger and it was all quotes, and he didn’t even indicate who wrote which quote (until the footnotes at the end of the book), I was so jealous. It was thrilling!

There’s always talk about whether or not writers can tell accurate stories from a gender point of view that is not their own, so it stuck out to me that “Fialta” is the only story in Bobcat told from a male perspective. The story is about a male architecture student falling for one of his peers, despite her having a relationship with their mentor. What made you choose to write from a male point of view for that story?

That story was written about fifteen years ago, so the decision of writing it from a male point of view is a little lost in the mists for me. I can’t imagine ever doing it again. I admire it when writers do it well (three books leap to mind that I’ve read recently, with female narrators written by men: Smilla in Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg; the unnamed narrator in Mating by Norman Rush; and George Bishop’s gentle-spirited mother Laura in Letter To My Daughter). But during the months I was writing from a male perspective, I felt quite baffled by how to do it. Honestly, I eventually abandoned the thought that he was a man in particular and just wrote him as if he were a person of indeterminate gender. That made it possible for me to write the thing, though I don’t think that story gets at the condition of being a male in contemporary culture or anything. Actually, the parts of that story I loved writing were just about the cows. The narrator takes care of three cows that are supposedly the incarnated spirits of wives who have been cheated on in former lifetimes, and when I think of that story I imagine him down with the cows, thinking about them and looking at them.

How much do you think an author is “allowed” to break into a work of fiction?

It’s funny, as a reader I love those moments, if I’m imagining the same things as you are. Those moments that Charlie Baxter calls “stillness” in his great essay of the same name.  It seems the author is telling the reader a story and then suddenly pauses to wonder and ruminate about an image, an idea, some important thing they have been waiting to say, and have been writing the story in order to say. In his essay he talks about Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which of course is full of nearly breathtaking mini-essays that break into the story so beautifully.

In “Settlers” you write, “But then you grow up and you get a wonderful man and he cheats on you.” The stories in Bobcat all seem to be about cheating in some way, whether it’s cheating on a lover, cheating your way through school, cheating on what you should do. Was that an intentional thematic thread for the collection?

What’s weird is that the answer is no, but since I’ve published this book, many people have pointed out to me that I seem to have an obsession with cheating. And I guess I do. I had no idea. It seems some fiction writers’ imaginations run to larger crimes, but mine to really sneaky, common ones, like plagiarism, or cheating on your spouse, or just taking more than you are giving. What’s that Dostoevsky line? That a writer can only really write about a crime they can imagine themselves committing?

When it came time to publish Bobcat, how did you go about curating and ordering the collection?

So, I knew I wanted to have the title story first because that’s really the one that I like the most. It’s the story I understand the best myself. I get its structure and I know what I was trying to do with it. So I wanted to put what I considered the best story up front. Then the last story in the collection, “Settlers,” ends with the narrator essentially saying a long goodbye, and my editor, Kathy Pories at Algonquin, thought that was a good way to end a book of short stories. And then as for the stories in between, Kathy put them in the order she thought read the best. I didn’t even ask her why exactly; the way she had it ordered just made intuitive sense to me.

Writers work on their books for years, revising a body of work until it feels optimal to them, and then they send it to an editor and publisher, who inevitably make changes. Could you talk a little about your experiences working with editors?

So almost all of these stories had different editors. A few of them were with C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic, who is of course a genius who can describe a story in three adjectives, like a haiku, and he has always been a real inspiration to me — challenging and warm and careful and smart. And I wrote one of these stories with Adrienne Brodeur at Zoetrope, and I mean literally “with,” as it was a commission. Zoetrope used to do (and maybe still does) commissions, where they give writers the broad outlines for stories and through a series of drafts and discussion the final story comes into view. Since Zoetrope was the brainchild of Adrienne and Frances Ford Coppola, it might be that the stories come into being along a process more similar to movies, but it was very collaborative — lots of thinking out loud (instead of the usual dark, silent murmuring inside the writer’s own crazed brain). And Adrienne’s mind is fast. She articulates perfectly, so it was really fun to be on the receiving end of that. And then Kathy Pories at Algonquin is ridiculously perceptive and smart. Writing with her in mind is one of the best things that could happen to a writer. You’re just better thinking of her reading it.

Thinking back to your writing about architecture and Hong Kong, I’ve heard it said before that having knowledge in other fields is really important to writing, that studying and working in fields not related to writing might be more important than attending an MFA program. What is your perspective on that issue?

For me, when I discover the research potential in a narrative, it feels so exciting. Just yesterday I realized, while writing a children’s book, that I had to research what life is like for an octopus, and it seemed suddenly so interesting to be able to write about such a mysterious creature. It seems to me that when a piece of writing places demands on a writer, and asks them to know more than they already do, that might be the chief value of writing for certain writers.

You currently teach in the MFA program at UNC Wilmington.  How did you arrive at teaching and how does it intersect with your writing life?

I love teaching. At various times in my life, it has overtaken my writing as the thing I’m more invested in, especially when I’m reading graduate theses, and that’s really gratifying. To suddenly be inside another person’s invention is a great privilege.

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