As part of Bas Bleu’s 2015 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus materials to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Short-story collections offer a unique reading experience: short-form writings created to stand alone yet presented as a single cohesive work. This month’s Book a Month selection, Bobcat: And Other Stories, made a deep impression on our editors and readers around the country. In these seven stories, “fascinating intellectual men and women navigate the dazzlingly complicated muddle of life, finding both beauty and heartbreak.” This week, Bobcat author Rebecca Lee took time out of her busy writing and teaching schedule to chat with us about her work, her writing process, and the books that have influenced her.
Bas Bleu: In your title story, the narrator seems to have her finger on the pulse of everyone else’s life. But in the final paragraphs, she is blindsided by a truth about her own life that she didn’t see coming, an emotional “bobcat” that sneaks up on her and takes its pound of flesh while she looks on helplessly. As she and the reader are reeling from the revelation and resulting confusion, the last line of the story could just as easily be interpreted as gallows camaraderie (“you’re one of us now”) as hopeful reassurance. Is that ambivalence intentional?
Rebecca Lee: For starters, I do love that gloss on the story; that an emotional bobcat sneaks up at the end. I think I’ll think of that every time I try to write an ending from here on in. I’ve always loved what John Gardner said about endings, that they should cast a light back over the story. The reader might be able to reinterpret a story by that light.
As well, I find it endlessly interesting, as a reader and a writer, to wonder about happy vs. sad endings. The endings I love always seem to think about that, or wonder about happiness. Most writers I know have a kind of drive to write a happy ending, but their loyalty to reality and to life forces them to write something more nuanced, or complex. As for the poor woman in my title story, I fear she is me—gossipy, always investigating other people’s problems (while attempting to appear not to be doing that) and missing some huge problems in her own. I grew up on that bible verse about not worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when there is a beam in your own. That metaphor always struck me as impossible to fully envision, but the truth of it seems written explicitly for me, and also for my narrator. She wonders about marriage the whole story through, but doesn’t question her own, until the end, when she has to.
BB: For me, a dominating theme in your story “Min” was the idea of perception versus experience, illustrated beautifully by the scene in which Min and Sarah descend from the skybox at the horse races down to the bleachers. This dichotomy is reflected in Albert’s dealings with the refugee crisis, the search for Min’s wife, Rafti’s opinion of the Leungs, even the sexual harassment hearing that opens the story. In your opinion, why can’t humans manage to reconcile the two? Why do we depend so stubbornly on perception?
RL: It’s funny, I wrote that story in my youth (well, age twenty-seven, so whatever that made me) but I was much more idealistic then, much more invested in finding or proving the world beautiful in fiction. One reader said she tired of me always describing the moon as a jewel. I suppose it was the cliché that bothered her, but maybe something deeper, some knee-jerk instinct I had to make out the world to be too precious. And then my later stories are a little bit more about watching and wondering why character’s lives crashed on various rocks. So this question really makes me think and provides a metaphor to look at the book as a whole—a descent from the sky-box from which everything looks glamorous into the bleachers, where you can see the pain in the horses’ eyes. I think writers constantly negotiate those things—the imagination and the reality and the way the two need each other and oppose each other. I always think of that Wallace Stevens line—the imagined depends on the real as day depends on night.
BB: Bobcat was named a Best Book of the Year in 2013 by NPR, was a finalist for the 2013 Story Prize, and earned a review on the front page of the New York Times’s Arts section. Oprah.com named it a Book of the Week, calling it a “slim, sly, brilliant book.” Does such acclaim shore you up for the long, hard slog of writing your next piece, or does it elevate the stakes to daunting heights?
RL: Nothing helps! Every new piece is an impossibility—a big dream for some awesome, deep, exhilarating, intelligent experience for the reader, and then the writing, after which there is just a simple story, with its flaws, which maybe can be fixed and maybe not. That’s the arc for me, every time. But I do like the process of writing itself. It’s the saving grace, just to, in John Gardner’s words, live inside the sentences for a while. Also, you get to fill a story with your own concerns, and the things you like, so when it’s working, it is fun to tinker around.
BB: You published a novel, The City is a Rising Tide, in 2007. Do you have a preference for long- or short-form writing? What creative opportunities does one offer over the other?
RL: That novel began as a short story that just got a little longer. It maxed out at 100 pages, which is an awkward length. I guess it’s more a novella-length. After I finished it I spent a year trying to make it longer, but it wouldn’t budge. For me, I like covering the same ground every morning when I write. I just enjoy the same scenes again and again—understanding them a little better all the time. I know writers who love to range over new territory, new ideas, all the time. But for me, I just stick close to what I have. Just a really ridiculously slow writer, and reader. Recently I read Alison Bechdel’s newest book, which I loved, and at one point I noticed that I’d been looking at one page for twenty minutes. I forgave myself a little in that moment for being such a slow writer. It’s hard to write differently than you read.
BB: Your “day job” is as an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. What’s the most rewarding aspect of teaching for you?
RL: Ah! It’s the great reward. It’s just a really fun, interesting job, to be constantly encountering new writers. It fills the day with energy and a kind of hope. I do feel a little bit always like I’m strapped for time, and sometimes can’t give writers the full attention their work deserves. I do feel guilty some of the time about that, but aside from that, it’s just literally a joy.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
RL: My go-to recommendation is always Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I have constant favorites—Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, Endless Love, by Scott Spencer. Lately I read The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, and clutched it to my chest for days after, bossing people around and telling them to read it. A non-fiction book I love is Dana Sachs’s The Life We Were Given. As for short stories, my dear friend Karen Bender just published a book that I would have given anything to have written myself—titled Refund.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person and writer you are today?
RL: I love this question, because the book from my childhood that shaped me is maybe the most gorgeous, sad, exhilarating, political, amazing book ever—The Silver Sword, by Ian Seraillier. It was retitled and republished under the name Escape From Warsaw. That book meant so much to me that it almost feels like it is my childhood. I took on those experiences so completely it is as if I lived them myself.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
RL: I’m writing a children’s book now, about a bunny, named Harold, who lives in a classroom and in the garden out back. He goes home to various families on the weekends, so in some ways it’s a bit of an investigation into what makes a family happy, a question that obsesses me now that I have a ten year old myself.
BB: Many thanks to Rebecca for sharing her insight with us. We look forward to her future endeavors!