Secretly Writing Little Novels: a Conversation with Rebecca Lee

Dear Reader,

Rebecca Lee can pack an entire novel into  a single short story, which is why the Discover selection committee readers went crazy for Bobcat & Other Stories, selecting it for our Summer 2013 season.  We’re not the only ones praising Lee: Ben Fountain says “Rebecca Lee writes with the unlfinching precision of Chekov and Munro.” 

Lee discusses being “very drawn to the long short story”, redemption, the true pleasure of reading and writing, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.

Many writers these days are turning to short shorts, or taking the short story to a whole new abbreviated form. But I believe you once called yourself a maximalist, which I think is a perfect way to think about how your stories are expansive and happen on a large canvas both emotionally and physically. Didn’t Michael Curtis, your editor at The Atlantic, once say that he suspected you were secretly writing little novels? So, can you talk about the shape and size of your stories and why writing in this form attracts you?

I’m very drawn to the long short story—Alice Munro (“The Bear Went Up the Mountain”), Andre Dubus (“A Father’s Story”), Peter Taylor (“The Old Forest”). I like those big, stable, near-novels, where the writer seems to be trying to pour everything they care about into the story while not losing the story itself. I heard Richard Ford give a reading once in Soho, on a summer night, and he said that the reader wants the writer to tell a story and the writer wants to delay the story a little in order to smuggle in all their concerns, all the things they care about. I always like to think of that tension in a story, between moving ahead and pausing a while.

Each of these stories feels so fully fleshed out that I can’t help wondering how long it took you to write them.

That’s a fun question. The fastest, I guess, took about a year, and the slowest took six years, which I know sounds ridiculous, especially since that particular story—Bobcat— takes place in a single night, at a dinner party.
But I loved thinking about that night. My own life was changing pretty fast (by my standards) during that time, and it was a source of stability for me to just sit down every morning to that same piece of writing, that same little terrine, and roast, and trifle. The ancillary reading I had to do for that story was a pleasure as well, since the story developed a few little obsessions—the Donner party, Salman Rushdie & the fatwa, the Gnostic Gospels. This is the true pleasure of writing (and reading) for me, a narrative that places demands on me to start caring about something I didn’t know I cared about.

One thing that I love about your stories is that no matter how strange a character is, you always seem to find a redeeming quality in them. In other words, you never set up any characters as completely worth our derision.

That’s a really interesting observation, just about characters in general. I studied with Ethan Canin when I was a young writer starting out, and one of the things he talked about really humanely was the writer and/or reader’s love of character. He told us over and over that we had to like our characters, even and especially the ones least deserving. Ethan’s voice must have gotten in my head at a really impressionable time.

Also, I’m a youngest child. We’re not allowed to be derisive. We have to be pretty earnest and accepting.

Can you talk about what it was like to write a story with a precise direction given to you? I’m referring to “Fialta.” What were you asked to do—and was it limiting, or the opposite? Artists have sometimes told me that it’s freeing to have someone impose limits or frames on their work, in that they can be creative within these boundaries, and I’m wondering if that was the case when you wrote “Fialta.”

In the year 2000, I got a call from Adrienne Brodeur, asking if I would like to write a story for her magazine Zoetrope, and the storyline would be provided by the movie director Frances Coppola. I had seen The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, I had seen the documentary his wife made about the making of Apocalypse Now, with Frances (as she called him) making spaghetti and writing on a typewriter with Mahler in the background, and the pouring rain outside the window. I said yes! Obviously yes. I thought it would be like coloring inside the lines of the great man’s ideas.

My assignment was to write about an authority figure who is standing in the way of young lovers. I was instructed to watch Splendor in the Grass for inspiration. But that was it. I inserted some of my interests—I was really interested in architecture at the time, and I still had a romantic attachment to spring in the Midwest though I was living in the South, I was obsessed with Angels in America and I gave the story its title after Nabokov’s wonderful story, “Springtime in Fialta”.

Have you ever seen a bobcat in real life? More seriously, I think the bobcat is so emblematic of the entire collection, and the way in which the bobcat motif is both very funny in the context of the story and yet, by the end, the most important moment on which the story turns.

I started writing the story “Bobcat” in 2004. At that time there was a real bobcat in the story, and it tore up the character’s arm and she wrote a memoir about it. Then there was whole sea change in non-fiction writing. For instance, James Frey’s book was discredited in 2006 as having all sorts of made-up stuff in it. And then all these great metaphors fell out of non-fiction. So gradually during all of that change in the culture, my bobcat turned out to be not true either, and he morphed into a metaphor. The memoirist in my story had invented him to stand in for everything troubling and frightening in life.

I’ve never seen one! Not a real one, but I’ve known my share of trouble.

Who have you discovered lately?

I have been reading Spillover by David Quammen, a really scary book about diseases that have (and will) spill over from animals to humans. David Quammen is brilliant and unexpectedly funny in this book.(If your husband catches an ebola virus, give him food and water and love and prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the best—and, if he dies, don’t clean him by hand. Better to step back, blow a kiss, and burn the hut.)I’ve been re-reading (always) Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds; Women Rewriting the World; also A Father’s Story by Lionel Dahmer, a sad, stately, really sensitive and interesting memoir by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father (I’ll never forget this book actually, it’s breaking my heart); another nonfiction book of deep reportage and heartbreak—The Life We Were Given, by Dana Sachs, and a novel—A Town Of Empty Rooms— by my good friend Karen Bender, that I can’t wait to return to every day. I’m also reading—very slowly— a book of philosophical essays about reading called Wonderful Investigations, by Dan Beachy-Quick, that is hurting my brain but in all the best ways.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.