Rebecca Lee is the author of Bobcat and Other Stories, a collection charting our contemporary foibles—settling, infidelity, and lack of self-identity—through diverse characters and locals.
It's been seven years since your novel, The City is a Rising Tide. Were you working on these stories for that time? Is there another novel in the pipeline?
I’m a really slow writer, glacially slow. I write every day, every morning, but sometimes it’s not even writing, it’s just sitting there staring at the story, wondering about it. It surprises even me that a single story, sometimes about a single meal, can stay interesting to me for years. Maybe writing functions as a sort of stable center. Even through difficult times, the thought of getting up the next morning and writing seems very heartening. I’ve always loved what John Gardner said about revision: that the first draft is building the home and the subsequent drafts are living in it. I’ve used that quote to justify years and years of just sitting there, living inside the work.
Many of these stories focus on the ways we settle our lives into the expectations of others. What is it about settling that interests you?
I love that question. I love even the word “settle.” I used the word “settlers” as the title for the last story in my collection because the word connotes something so obviously trail-blazing and intrepid, as in the early settlers, but then it also implies something that we all desperately want to avoid—settling, compromising. There’s just a lot of life and philosophy bound up in that word. I’ve been rereading Henrik Ibsen lately—"A Doll’s House"—and I’ve been very taken with his idea that we are all acting out the parts assigned for us, often by the people who surround and love us—we’re all dolls in a doll’s house. That’s such a striking idea for me, and I think fiction in general likes to think about the interrelationships between people, the ways others might provide a sort of net for the identity but can also of course threaten it.
A few of these stories focus on characters in college, which is a transformative time, both intellectually and emotionally, but what else is it about the experience that you find ripe for narrative?
I love college campuses. In a way I grew up on one, as my dad was a chemistry professor, and I’ve spent the last 16 years at a state university in North Carolina. I find it interesting to be in the midst of ideas all the time, and there are arguments and discussions every day. Also, as in any business, there’s just a lot of things I find funny. Committees are funny, and we have a committee for everything. We have a committee called the “Adverse Weather Committee” and every time I hear that I laugh. We also, actually, have a committee to figure out how to have less committees. We hired the great nature writer David Gessner and then made him chair of that committee.
Both your novel and this collection of stories are written in the first person perspective. Why do you prefer to write in the first person? What advantages do you see in the type of stories you tell?
I often wonder about point of view, and why writers gravitate to first or third. I teach writing, so the question continually crops up. For myself, the answer might be that some formative books were written in first and I latched on. I must have read Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, 20 times in my early 20s. But then, I guess I can line up some opposite early influences—Alice Munro, Robertson Davies—that write intimate thirds. I suspect that the real answer lies locked inside a person’s personality, maybe something to do with how authoritatively they hold their opinions. Maybe the surer you are the more the camera pulls back and is willing to see beyond one person’s experience, and generalize. I’ve been reading Edith Wharton recently, and her third person seems to allow her to love and make fun of and speculate and baby her characters all at once. It’s such a joyride. I guess she had Henry James in her sights, and she continued to refine that really witty, exquisite, good-humored, God-like third.