We’d like to begin by thanking you – for your time in answering these questions, and for Bobcat and Other Stories. Bobcat was a real pleasure to read – modern, adult, aware. As well, it was a kind of welcome challenge, as what you’ve written has a real sense of the unexpected throughout – of the strange, surprising, and, your phrase, “small, soft shocks”. We are very excited by what you have written, and thrilled to bring it forward to readers as a Spotlight title.
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): The story "Fialta" was first published in 2001 and "Bobcat", eight years later, and this collection some three years after that. How much time does this collection represent for you? And can you talk about how this collection has come about?
Rebecca Lee (RL): The earliest story in the collection is "Slatland", which is the first story I wrote that tried to think about the Prairies, about what its like to ride around in an old truck down a long highway, through endless wheatfields. When I was young, I just thought that was life, everybody's life, but by the time I was writing the story, I realized that is a real landscape, as worthy of artistic representation as, say, a seashore or a mountain range. One of my high school teachers, Richard Nostbakken, was an artist and had a series of really powerful but humble drawings of what wheat looks like as it emerges from the under the earth. I could be misremembering this, but they were essentially cross-sections of a piece of wheat, showing it under the ground and then emerging. To me they were beautiful and then also so interesting, and one of my first great lessons that everything, at least natural things, are more interesting under their surface, and art is the great excavator.
IFB: Similarly, the collection seems so integrated, and of a piece, in tone, style and consistent sensibility. What was your process? How were you able to be so consistent over time?
RL: My process is so slow that I can't at all recommend it, but still, it has given me years of pleasure. I basically read and drink coffee in the dark early morning, until the combination of new light and caffeine and another person's thoughts combine to create the inspiration for me to jump the tracks and start writing on my own. It would be unthinkable for me to write without reading first; I just couldn't do it. But then sometimes I miss that magical moment when I should turn away from reading and begin writing and I regret that for literally the whole rest of the day.
IFB: You teach writing at University of North Carolina. Does teaching writing affect how you write now?
RL: I love teaching. There are all sorts of interesting arguments against writing programs, and I enjoy reading them – there is the ever-present question of whether writing can really be taught and then there are thorny problems that have to do with any sort of business that gets built around art (or anything), but then all that just sort of clears away for me once I'm in the classroom. It also reminds me daily that writing is a response to life, and the depth of that response is what matters, not whether it gets published. It's very humbling for me to see all sorts of great writing that will not be published but nevertheless has a life of its own. That's even more true with the internet, and I think that's a good thing.
Also, sometimes, if we're lucky, the classroom becomes a place where writing lives, for a moment, and it doesn't matter what happens to it in terms of publishing. Maybe it's just me that's thinking that. But yesterday, for instance, a woman in an undergraduate class read a short exercise out loud about what it's like for her to be a high-functioning autistic (she has Asperger's). It started off with the line, "I've always wanted to be a real girl, not patched together like this." And as she read, unless I'm imagining it, you could feel everybody's interest totally engaged, their perceptions of her changing, and all these attendant questions rising out of the work for everybody – such as what does she mean by 'real', what is real, and what is it that makes people feel at home in the world and in themselves. I guess what I'm saying is that there are realms of experience that don't necessarily get discussed or understood until somebody writes them, and I consider a writing class one (of many) ways to encourage people who want to do that.
IFB: You’ve been away from Canada for some time. And yet the country, especially the Prairies, has a place in your stories, as well as in your earlier novel, The City is a Rising Tide. There seems to be an enduring hold; but it never seems like a geographical rosebud, an obvious emblem of something, paradise lost or Prairies escaped. Interestingly, Canada is acknowledged – but it is not obvious what Canada is or was to you. What does it mean to you, to now be published by Penguin Canada, and to receive such deserved attention at “home”?
RL: It means everything to me. To be part of that tradition is an honour and it also makes my life seem like it all makes sense after all. I grew up on Canadian writers. My teenage years were immersed in Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, and one day I aspire to write the book that is the lovechild of those two.
To continue reading, Part Two of this interview can be found here.
Thanks to Penguin Canada for facilitating this Q and A session, and Sebastian Hanna, Michael Nicholson, and Susan Finn of Indigo for this interview’s questions.
Thanks most of all to Rebecca herself for taking the time and energy to provide such thoughtful answers.