a conversation with Andrea Lee      


Bold Type: You had a successful career in journalism, writing for such magazines as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and the Oxford American, but you've been quoted as saying your prefer writing fiction. Why is that?

Andrea Lee: I prefer writing fiction to journalism because to me fiction is far more entertaining and—strange to say—truer to life than journalism. I've been composing fiction since I was four years old and annoyed my family with recitations of long, loud epic tales of which I was, of course, the heroine. When at about fourteen I began seriously writing short stories, it seemed quite natural, a way not only of entertaining myself but also of getting at the hidden themes and patterns I was beginning to discern in life around me. I undertook journalism much later, when I was an exchange student in Russia and began to write for the New Yorker. Journalism has always seemed restrictive to me, with its stodgy rules of time and place, and its dogmatic insistence on having characters who are actually alive! I'm always aware of how much better magazine and newspaper pieces would be if one combined, exaggerated, or rounded off actual events—just the sort of thing that makes for dishonest journalism, and good fiction. Besides, I am timid and lazy by nature and detest doing the legwork, the probing and questioning that makes a great journalist. I prefer to spy on people from a distance and then retire to my computer to invent backgrounds and adventures for them.

BT: Do you still feel like an ex-pat in Italy? How do you feel when you visit the states now that you've lived in abroad for so long?

AL: I have been living in Turin, Italy with my Italian husband for over a dozen years, but I don't feel like an expatriate. Nor do I feel in any way Italian. In Italy, though I feel completely at home in my family and my household, I feel like a mindful sojourner—someone with deep knowledge of and few illusions about the country around me. Affectionate, but always slightly detached, always foreign. The more I live in Italy, the more passionately American I feel, though in a very profound, not visible sense. Outwardly, I've taken on a protective coloration of the society around me—wearing the clothes, eating the food, adopting superficial customs—but inwardly I'm engaged in a continuous meditation on the curious mixture of libertarianism and Puritanism that makes up America, and how that contrasts with the burden of tradition in Europe. When I come back to the States—which I do at least four times a year—I feel the combination of blessed relief and critical detachment one feels when coming back from college to your childhood home. America seems gloriously big, rich, sprawling, extravagant, bursting with energy, creativity and convenience. At the same time, it seems oddly provincial—unaware of the world outside—naively moralistic, materialistic and race-obsessed, in a way that seems oddly frozen in time. I revel in America when I come home for my two months each summer, but I walk around feeling slightly foreign. All in all, I live between two worlds, which is not al all a bad thing for a writer. It enlarges and enriches your intelligence to know there are different realities.

BT: What type of writing are you working on now? More short stories? A novel? Do you prefer one medium to the other?

AL: Right now, I'm writing a novel about an adulterous affair between—surprise, surprise—an American woman and a European man. I've been fascinated by the theme of adultery for a long time because it is, of course, THE theme for western literature—the situation that sums up all of out deepest values and fears. I feel a bit ill at ease in the novel form because I'm so used to the intensity and compression of short stories and essays. It's an odd and rather luxurious feeling to have so much room to maneuver, to describe, to create subplots—rather like moving to a mansion when you are used to apartments. It's fun, but I think I'll always love short fiction best, because I am obsessed with structure and symmetry, and somehow it is more satisfying for me to work with these on a small canvas. Again, the word is intensity: I love the way a short story can offer a sharp concentrated insight like a stiletto thrust. I love the way you can experience a whole lifetime in a few pages, as you do in the lines of a poem.

BT: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? Do you write only when inspired? Do you sit down and write every day? Do you work out stories in your head first before you put them down on paper?

AL: To me, the only sensible way for a writer to look at his or her work is as a craft that needs training, raw material, practice and regular hours. If one starts thinking about "art" and everything related, one becomes either intimidated or gets a swelled head. So I have a very rigid schedule for my work that revolves around my children's' school routines. In the morning I drop off my seven-year-old son, have a quick coffee and then head home, where I have an office upstairs. I unplug the phone, and the members of our large, tumultuous Italian household are instructed not to disturb me until my son returns from school at about 4:00. So, excluding my daily phone call to my daughter at boarding school in the US, I have about five or six hours of solitude to slog away on whatever task I have set myself. I almost never feel "inspired"—it's always an effort at the beginning, but sometimes it happens that after a lot of hopeless plodding, I suddenly realize that I am writing quickly and fluently, and that there is hope after all. That is the best feeling. As for outlines, I never use them, because I keep a formal structure in the back of my mind—an ideal, almost organic form I am always striving toward. During my weekends and summers, I read as much as possible—my favorite thing in the world. I soak up stories, images, and especially language as a kind of ongoing research and nourishment. I can never get enough of other people's writing.

BT: Your book was deemed "Sex and the City for the international set", have you seen the show? If so do you feel like it's an accurate statement?

AL: I was amused and rather flattered to hear Interesting Women described as "Sex and the City for the international set." Like any other woman in her right mind, I 'm addicted to the show, though I see it in marathon DVD sessions on my trips back to the States. (Sesso e la Citta' has come to Italy, where it is confirming everything people have always thought about fast American girls, but it is horribly dubbed, so you miss all the jokes.) I am very impressed both with the book and the show, because they are both that rare phenomenon, resounding popular successes with real artistic merit. Given the subject matter, both the book and the show would have been hits if they'd been only mediocre, but in fact they are witty examinations of mores that achieve insights without ever losing their lightness of touch. Really inspired! I think there is a certain overlap with the themes of my stories. Like Sex and the City, they largely deal with women coming to grips with the vagaries of human nature, examined through the lens of sex and love. And they deal with isolation, being cut off from one's roots: the SATC girls are isolated in Postmodern New York City, and the Interesting Women are living as foreigners in Europe or Asia. In my stories, as in Sex and the City, the fundamental, abiding relationships tend to be the non-erotic, non romantic ones. (Moreover, the Interesting Women heroines, though I don't mention it, are all familiar with shoe therapy.) In the end, though, I'd like to think that Interesting Women is darker and has a few more levels of irony than Sex and the City.

BT: What short story writer do you most admire? What's the best book you've read this year? Is there one writer who's influenced you the most (or one person/teacher/ parent who you think really help make you a writer?)

AL: I have no one favorite short story writer, but a whole throng, which include Isak Dinesen, Chekov, Hemingway, Cheever, Colette, de Maupassant and Salinger. I am currently also in love with all of Kipling's Indian stories. Kipling's Kim is my favorite book of all time, along with Anna Karenina and Bulgakov's Master and Margherita. As for the best book I've read this year, it's a three way tie between Embers by the Hungarian author Sandor Marai, Naipal's early masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, and Phillip Roth's The Human Stain. I also had a lot of fun with Stephen Carter's The Emporer of Ocean Park. Having been an obsessive reader since I was five years old, I always expected almost as a matter of course that I, too, would write books. But the story that first gave me an insight into the craft was Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party", introduced to me by Virginia Grant, one of my extraordinary English teachers at The Baldwin School of Bryn Mawr, PA, stern ladies who drilled me pitilessly in grammar, syntax, and composition, and at the same time opened the door to a formal study of English literature. Later, at Harvard, I was privileged to have as my advisors two great men of letters, the playwright William Alfred (who guided me through all of Beowulf in the original) and the poet Robert Fitzgerald, who once took me phrase by phrase through Joyce's "Araby."

BT: It seems that women are usually defined (by others and by themselves) in various "relationship roles"—mother, executive, daughter, wife, sister, etc.—how do you view yourself? First as a writer? First as a mother and wife? Do you think all your "roles" can co-habit peacefully? Would you consider yourself to be of the classification of the woman who has it all "successful career, children, husband, etc?" When you get pressed for time, what's the first to go?

AL: If I had to define myself in terms of roles, I would say I'm a woman who tries, with varying degrees of success, to combine creative work and a family life. And, as every woman knows, who has tried to combine the two, there is no such thing as achieving that spurious 1980s ideal of "having it all". You end up feeling that you are trying to do everything and doing it badly and patchily. I am one of the most fortunate of working women, because I live in a country where low-cost domestic help is common, but even with a reliable housekeeper, I have the sense of ad-libbing home and professional life. I felt this intensely this year, when I was trying to finish up my book, deal with the dramas of my daughter's college admissions process, help out my son, who had discovered that he loathed reading and first grade, and assist my husband, whose brother had cancer. The evening moment that I settle down to read with my son always seems to be the morning moment in Manhattan, when my agent or editor decides to call. And in times of high pressure, my writing is what suffers, being the thing I put aside to take care of at odd hours. And does one get respect for being a woman who at least tries to "have it all"? No way—My son informed me a few months ago that I was "the laziest mother in the world". "All you do," he said, "is sneak off to play on your computer!"

BT: You have to know that when people read about your personal life they have to sigh and feel that you are living an incredibly glamorous life, do you feel that you are? Is this the life that you always pictured for yourself (even if it was in fantasy scenarios in your head.)?

AL: I got a phone call last year from a New Yorker editor, who said, among other things: "I want your life!" I had to giggle to myself because at the time he called I had been simultaneously unloading groceries from my car in the rain and conferring with handymen about the balky plumbing in my 600 year old house. Yes, it does sound glamorous, even to me, the fact that I live in a villa in Italy with a view of the Alps and travel a lot. However, adding interest to your life means adding complications, and, being a disorganized soul, I am usually too busy dealing with children, animals, work, misplaced passports, and capricious plumbing to bask in how glam it all seems. My family has always loved travel, and since I was a child I always wanted to live in Europe, or some romantic place far from suburban Philadelphia where I grew up. But the most exotic place has a way of becoming mundane when you life there. What do I dream about now? New York! And, at times, dare I say it, the malls of suburban Philly.

BT: This interview is probably on the tail end of your media tour for the book (I think) so you've been gracious enough to answer probably the same types of questions over and over again. What's the one question that everyone asked (my guess: they wanted comments on the story, "The Birthday Present")? What's the one question you sort of wished someone asked you? (and what's answer…)

AL: The questions everyone asked me on my tour was whether I really hired two prostitutes for my husband, as in "The Birthday Present", and whether I really slapped an African girl on a beach. Answers: No, and no. The question I sort of wished someone had asked me was, "Do you want to ditch all this and go shopping?" Answer: Yes!

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
    Photo credit: Filippo Gallino