By Kat Haxby
Hailed by the Globe and Mail as “a masterwork of revelation,” Nancy Lee’s collection of short stories, Dead Girls, (McClelland & Stewart, 2002) was named a Best Book of 2002 by the Globe, Toronto Star and Vancouver Sun, and NOW Magazine. Winner of the 2003 VanCity Book Prize and finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Pearson Reader’s Choice Award and the Wordsworthy Award, Dead Girls has been published in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Holland and Spain, and has been optioned for film.
Nancy Lee is the recipient of numerous fellowships, residencies and awards, including a Gabriel Award for Radio and a National Magazine Award. An Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, she also teaches at the Simon Fraser University Writing & Publishing Program and the UBC Writing Centre. Nancy has served on numerous prize juries and panels, and was selected as the first Canadian Writer-in-Residence at the prestigious University of East Anglia Writing Program in the UK. She most recently served as Writer-in-Residence for the city of Vincennes, France from September to December 2011. Her novel, The Age, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2014.
I interviewed Nancy Lee in her office on UBC campus. She was hilarious, inspiring and entirely gracious. She also didn’t make fun of how ridiculous I looked fumbling with the iphone app I used to record the conversation, or how many bad jokes I made.
Is there a story to how you became a writer? Was it a flash of inspiration or more of a slow realization?
Well, there is actually a story, and it’s a very strange story. I was twenty-five and working as a publicist. I had my own cottage public relations company and I was working as a publicist for a bunch of live theatre things in Vancouver. I had a business partner and while my business partner and I were in LA taking a series of meetings with a potential client, we went to see a psychic in Santa Monica. It was one of those trashy LA shacks with a neon storefront, a TV on and some kids screaming in the back. We went just as a joke, just to get our palms read. My business partner got the usual, “You’re going to meet a man, have adventures,” your stereotypical palm reader stuff. So when the palm reader looked at my palm, She said, “Oh. You’re not doing the right thing with your life, and until you do the right thing you’re not going to be happy.” And that was about all she said. After when my business partner and I went out for coffee, I said it was a bunch of horseshit and she said it was actually an interesting question, “What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?”
I enjoyed public relations, I didn’t mind it but I thought about it. After ruling out my chances of being a ballerina, I said “ If I won the lottery and never have to work again the only thing I was interested in trying was writing a novel.” And there was something about saying it out loud. It made me think about why I wasn’t trying that, why I wasn’t doing it.
I had written all my life, When I was a teenager I wrote a screenplay, I wrote a kind of novel on my own but I always thought it was a hobby. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer. I didn’t know that anyone could make a living being a writer. So when I came home from the trip I decided to write a short story. I would finish it, and put it away with my things so when I died people would say, “Oh look! She wrote a short story.” It would be an accomplishment. Every night, when I would get home from work, I would go to my office-hovel and write a paragraph. I didn’t really know how to write a short story, I would just write a paragraph one at a time.
When it was done, I was flipping through the Georgia Straight and saw a writing competition for the now defunct BC festival of the arts. The prize was to go to the festival and be on writing panels. After several weeks they called me to tell me I had won a spot but they needed the title to my piece, and I told them I didn’t know what it was called. That’s how disconnected to the whole thing I was, I had to look it up. I did make it to the festival and I was in a group of other writers just starting out and I realized that these were my people. These were people who loved words. People who liked to talk about books and about writing. We gave little workshops and it was great. It was 1995 and it was the first time I met writers and it was then I realized it was what I wanted to do.
That is an amazing story.
It’s a long story.
Well it’s still amazing. A crazy LA psychic gave you permission to be a writer. It’s kind of perfect. Did you read a lot when you were growing up?
I’ve always been a reader. It was weird, I read classics and then I read Stephen King. I didn’t understand literary fiction existed at that point. But when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I went to Chapters. I went to that giant wall that they used to have for top selling literary novels and I bought every single book. And I went home and read them all to figure out what was going on in writing. I knew enough to know that genre writing was not straight ahead literary writing. So I began educating myself. I read a ton of mainstream literary fiction writing. It wasn’t until I joined the UBC graduate program that I started reading what I thought of at the time as alternative writing. Once I got here, I was part of a writing group with Lee Henderson, Charlotte Gill, Laisha Rosnau and a journalist, Chris Tenove.
That’s a not a bad group of humans.
Yeah, it was good group. The first time we met we brought a list of the ten most influential books we felt had impacted our writing. There wasn’t a single overlap. So for the next two years we rotated and read from the list. It was wonderful.
What was the most important thing you learned from taking your master’s?
I think I learned it before the program, when I was trying to get in. I took experimental fiction with George McWhirter. The thing I love about George and the way he taught was that George could take any piece of writing and find the thing that was redeeming about it. What that hidden jewel was. It’s much easier while workshopping, to criticize, than to find what’s working. So the way he taught me has hugely informed the way I teach. To me there is no piece of writing that doesn’t have something in it that is worth finding and holding onto. Perhaps using it as a jumping off point in the second draft. But also as a writer I feel it’s heartening to know that on those days or weeks or months when you’ve been writing nothing but crap, you know that if you look deep enough, there is a reason you wrote that crap.
Did you start Dead Girls while you in the program?
I did. The two stories that became the seed of the collection, “Associated Press” and “Dead Girls,” I wrote back to back here in January of my first year. When we talked about them in class, I realized that they were connected and I had a running narrative in my mind. Then I wrote more stories to go with those two, and there were a couple I had written in George’s class that I could pull forward as well. So that is how it was put together. The manuscript was about fifty percent finished when I graduated.
Does it feel quite a bit different to write a novel than to write a short story collection?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. The wonderful thing about a short story is that it is its own container. It can exist in its entirety in your mind at one time. Which a novel cannot. So many times I have thought, in all the years I’ve been writing this novel, that I can hold it in my mind, all at once, in this minute. And then, nope, it’s all gone; it’s all falling apart. There is something about a short story, it’s like juggling. It’s keeping the attention, the momentum, and the energy all at a certain pitch. Like being able to hold your breath, or sustaining a single note when you’re singing. With a novel, it’s all about how you understand the movement of emotion over time. Your reader is going to spend ten, twelve hours reading this and their emotions are going to shift and change with the character. It’s hard to figure out how to conduct all of that. With a short story, it’s almost like telling a joke. You know right away if a joke’s going to work or not, in the middle of telling it. I could read you a short story right now and we could decide in ten minutes whether it worked or not. You can’t do that with a novel.
Do you have a writing routine?
It depends on what’s going on in my life. I’m more productive when I have a routine but life doesn’t always allow for that. I think nowadays, more than ever, it’s so necessary to not just eliminate distractions, but also to pay attention to your mind. About a week ago I was working and everything was going really well and then I hit a part in a scene where I thought I didn’t know how to fix it. And then it became a spiral of this is wrong and oh, look at that, that’s wrong too. I got an overwhelming feeling of what is the point of this. I thought to myself, I sort of removed myself and thought that this physical feeling is usually a trigger for me to go and do something else. I’ll cook dinner or go for a walk. But I sat there with the awareness of the feeling and after about ten minutes it went away. It was really interesting to me. This feeling that would usually make me get up and do something else, passed. I had waited it out and I got right back into the feeling I had before, which was this is good, let’s do this. So I think it’s important too, not just the external structures that you use but the awareness of what’s going on in your mind.
Who are your art heroes?
This is strange but David Bowie has always been a hero of mine.
Just when I thought I couldn’t like you anymore…
He’s a hero to me just in terms of his refusal to do anything other then what he wants to do and his belief that once you succeed at something, it’s time to try something else. I feel that the world is full of people who are good at one thing, and once they’re good at it they refuse to risk it by trying something new. I love to see writers like Yann Martel who has had huge success and then tries something different. I feel like the books I admire the most are ambitious but maybe don’t succeed all the way but it’s the ambition I admire, the willingness to do something outside of the realm of safe and obvious. There is no point in going over what you already know. I knew when I started this novel that if people loved Dead Girls, they could hate this one but I couldn’t go over that same territory. I couldn’t even write with the same execution or style. I got to a point where I needed to challenge myself, which was a really interesting experiment we started in my grad fiction class. We noticed that there were a lot of stories about people dying, so we challenged each other to write an emotionally wrenching story without even the possibility of death. You need those conscious challenges. For me, I think Dead Girls had a lot of things that I felt succeeded but one of the things I really wanted to write in, what I wanted to push myself with was emotional engagement. I want to evoke an emotional response in a reader that is not just an intellectually emotional response but also a genuine emotional reaction. I read Great Expectations in my undergrad because I had to and I hated it. But I found when I got to the end of it I was crying, I was crying on a bus and I didn’t understand why. When art succeeds it does that. It hits you in a human place that you can’t protect. Which is what I set out to do with this novel, I don’t know if I succeeded at it but you have to have these goals.
I think it’s a spectacular goal. Make someone cry.
With a sucker punch!
Kat Haxby is a first year MFA student in the Creative Writing Department and a writer living in Vancouver.