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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Rebecca Lee

Rebecca LeeBobcat and Other Stories
Bobcat and Other Stories is Rebecca Lee's second book, after The City is a Rising Tide.



In Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee, characters battle internal struggles and encounter the fantastical moments of everyday life—like in the title story, in which a pregnant lawyer hosts a dinner party in her New York apartment, and proceeds to describe intricately prepared dishes, the dinner party attendees, and a secret that is eating away at her thoughts. In the words of Kevin Brockmeier, the stories “wander and dart like wild things yet somehow wind up exactly where they intended to go.”

Lee writes from Wilmington, North Carolina, where she teaches creative writing. Her stories have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and Zoetrope.

OXFORD AMERICAN: After immersing myself in the surreal world of your stories, I am curious: What gives you energy and inspiration to write?

REBECCA LEE: I mostly get inspired by books. When I’m working on a project I line up on my desk all the books I want it to resemble. I have the opposite of “anxiety of influence”—I guess I have the “anxiety of no influence.” But I do often think of books as descendants of a series of previous books, and this is both comforting and challenging to me as a writer.

OA: What is the hardest part about writing a short story?

RL: For me, plot, or what Henry James calls “exquisite eventfulness.” I have to force myself to make things happen—in literature, as in life. Left to my own devices, everyone would just sit around chatting all day long. As a reader, though, I love to read those big tragic books, where the author just (lovingly) takes an axe to her characters. I need to learn to do that a bit more.

OA: You now live in North Carolina, but your stories are set in an array of locales around the world, from Hong Kong to New York City. How do you select settings?

RL: I end up writing about places I miss. So the writing becomes a way of re-inhabiting the place, loving it from afar. What is that Graham Greene line? Calling out after the lost thing. For a long time I spent the summers in New York City and the academic year in Wilmington, which is on the ocean. Those two places—the city and ocean—spoke to me endlessly, and still do. And Asia! I did live in Hong Kong with my sister for a while but more than that it was always a deep, faraway, mysterious place where I felt I would belong if I could only get there.

OA: Each of your stories could easily stand alone, though they also work well together as a whole. I feel that this is because each story ends with the narrator having come to some clear understanding or epiphany. Do you agree?

RL: That’s perceptive. When I came of age as a short story writer and started thinking specifically of stories as their own little pieces of machinery, I studied with a writer named Ethan Canin who talked about epiphany in really nuanced but clear and decisive ways. It can be a kind of mental torture for a writer to think about epiphany, about the story needing to rise to some sort of clearing where an idea is suddenly freely expressed in the midst of drama, but I think it’s a productive torture. One never gets that right, never! But maybe the story benefits from the struggle.

OA: All of your stories explore relationships in interesting ways—and not just romantic relationships, but friendships, mentor relationships, and between the narrators and the world around them. How do you write fictional relationships that feel so authentic?

RL: That’s my dream, actually, to write authentic relationships, so thank you. In general I am interested in relationships, i.e., I am nosy and I like gossip of every sort. I remember reading an interview with Gabriel García Márquez where he said he’d written one draft of A Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get the voice right. Then he heard his grandmother telling a long, complicated, hushed story to her friend in the backyard, and he wrote the next draft in that voice. I’ve always loved that, that fiction might be a secret being told, or some piece of gossip that needs to be whispered.

OA: Of all your stories, I especially like “Bobcat” and “The Banks of Vistula.” They are entirely distinct from each other, though they both resonated with me deeply. It’s never stated in these stories, but it’s implied that each of the central characters is struggling with a strong sense of guilt as life unfolds around her. Do you also think of these stories as a pair?

RL: Now that you’ve paired them, it occurs to me that they could almost be the same narrator, now grown up. And I think you’re on to some deep themes that keep recurring. One is a definitely a sense of guilt, and both these stories seem to be about women who are thinking so hard about everybody around them, but missing some pretty large problems in their own lives.

OA: What is next for you?

RL: I am just reading, waiting for, in Neruda’s words, “the heavens to unfasten” and give me another project. In the meantime, I’m trying to read diligently very early in the morning, before the day begins. Hopefully at some point, I will jump the tracks, and start writing myself.

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