Vancouver writer Nancy Lee's debut story collection, Dead Girls, appeared in April to rave reviews.Unusually prescient in its subject matter, the girls in Lee's title story and in several others had been inspired by the dozens of women who've vanished from Vancouver's Skid Row, their whereabouts a mystery which is just now being investigated by the justice system. Nancy Lee holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches in the Writing and Publishing program at Simon Fraser University. She is currently working on a novel, Born Slippy, about boys.
Nancy Wigston: Why is there so much self-destructiveness among the girls in your stories?
Nancy Lee: The constant thought in my mind was how to mirror the plight of these women who've disappeared. I discovered in my research that so many of these girls did not make a conscious choice to be prostitutes¨they're lured, they're tricked, they're coerced¨and once they're in it, it's almost impossible for them to come back out. A lot of my characters are in that situation. It isn't till the end of a lot of these stories that they find a small thread that allows them to pull themselves out.
NW: And many don't.
NL: Many don't.
NW: What research did you do?
NL: I went through stacks of government research papers documenting teenage prostitution. The government has done a great deal of investigation, trying to turn [teenage prostitution] around on the downtown East Side¨looking at how old kids are on the street, how they start using drugs, how they start prostitution. And I read the actual testimonials of the kids in those reports. They were so sad. I went in thinking I knew quite a bit, that this wasn't going to affect me, but it really did. More than 90% of girls are brought into prostitution by an adult who lures them in with free drugs and alcohol. They then demand money for the Šfree' drugs, and they threaten to have someone break the girls' legs if they don't pay. The saddest part was reading about why the girls felt they couldn't leave [this way of life], because of their shame and self-abasement. They couldn't imagine functioning in a normal home.
NW: And the drugs blunt that?
NW: Your writing has been called Šbrilliant' and is literally that, vivid and visual, although the subject matter is very raw. Are you normally drawn to the lurid?
NL: No. When I started writing these stories, the missing women's case was very much on my mind. There weren't a lot of headlines, but it was covered by the alternative media. One thing caught my eye. There was a rash of garage invasions-robberies where people would hide in the garages of the very wealthy. When the owners drove home, the garage door closed and they were robbed at gunpoint. After two or three of these robberies, police offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who had information. The next day an editorial asked, "There may be a hundred women missing, why isn't a reward offered for that?"
In my previous life, when I worked as a publicist, my office was right on the border between the downtown and the East Side, where all these Skid Row girls were stumbling down the street, hovering in doorways, shooting up. I would often pass Main and Hastings, or Pigeon Park, and see these girls¨so thin, so young¨and imagine what they would look like if they were in regular shape¨sitting at the mall, doing whatever¨and I thought what a shame that this is going on, that really no one outside this area cares. It made me very sad. I would walk around Vancouver¨such a beautiful city¨and I'd see the water and the mountains¨and think, at the same time, there are these horrible things going on.
NW: So people living there willfully refused to see what was going on?
NL: Yes. It would have been easy to write a collection of stories that had nothing to do with the real world, but the books that really affect me are the ones that comment on something greater than just interactions between characters. When I was a child, To Kill a Mockingbird was a huge book for me.
NW: Perhaps your most harrowing story is the title one, where being lost itself becomes the goal for the girl. As a parent, this story makes me shiver. Yet the parents in your stories are mostly absent, bewildered, tired with work, or old¨they're all remote. Why is that?
NL: I think in "Dead Girls", the mother is longing to connect, and she does that weird sexual thing at the end, because she wants to be close to her daughter. But what the daughter wants is to be separate.
NW: And we never learn why, which makes the story very frightening.
NL: Yes. In the parents' minds a lot of the time, there are no answers. Even if there is a reason, they don't necessarily know what it is. Parent-child, as well as male-female relationships, are frequently marred because the parties are incapable of connecting; I think that's part of the message of the book itself¨that these murders have something to do with the fact that we are unable to connect.
NW: You've said elsewhere that "everything that happens is part of us and that we are all playing a part in this huge tragedy, it's not as foreign as we think." Your details evoke that very well: the malls, the food courts, the greasy food. In particular I remember that grilled cheese sandwich that [a character called] Rolley carries around. It's so sad. Yet we all know what that sandwich tastes like; it's not remote from our lives. Are these very Canadian details deliberate?
NL: Absolutely. I really wanted readers to connect with the experience of the characters so that they felt something resonate within their own lives, rather than write about [this] topic in a distant way, like watching a film or seeing it on the news. These characters are holding onto the plainest, simplest elements of life that everyone shares.
NW: In "Sally, In Parts", you depict a very disturbed girl. Nothing explains¨to me at least¨her weirdness. Is that because I'm the wrong generation?
NL: I don't think so. With that story I wanted to explore the Electra myth and the idea of sexual tension between father and daughter.
NW: But her parents are so bland ű
NL: So conventional.
NW: Yes, they don't seem to have anything in common with this child. That last scene, in which she's sucking her dying father's fingers, I found very disturbing ű
NL: I think a lot of people do.
NW: Do you want to shake us up?
NL: There's a lot in literature and film that implies the Electra complex, and then there's the incest theme which is paramount in Canadian literature. I wanted to do something that suggested this struggle between the two of them that neither was really conscious of. When you look at human relationships you see a lot of that¨there's so much stuff going on underneath that it can't even be articulated.
NW: [Toronto critic] Phillip Marchand recently wrote that teachers don't like to teach Canadian literature in schools because so much of it lacks a moral lesson. Does that strike you as true?
NL: I try my best to avoid being in any way morally didactic. I felt that reading the stories, people will take their own moral position. Rather than saying Šthis is the way people should behave' I prefer to raise the question, Šhow is it that people behave and how is it that they should behave?' I'm a huge fan of Barbara Gowdy's stories and of Margaret Atwood's early stories. I find there's a gothic weirdness to Canadian fiction. Perhaps it's the weather. Perhaps if we lived in Los Angeles it would be different.
NW: I loved the story called "East", which again is so visual. Two women friends in a van drive around all night with manic energy, hurtling forward in the dark ű
NL: I often think of relationships as though you're in a pitch black room, armed with knives, trying to embrace the other person. In the process you get cut, you sometimes hurt people you love. We all stumble through life as best we can and try to manage things as they happen.
NW: Many of your characters, like the drug-addicted nurse who attends the high school dance in an old-fashioned nurse's uniform, seem really close to the edge ű
NL: Yes. I did a lot of research into pharmaceutical addiction within the medical profession, and it's a really huge problem. I think like a lot of people, she's spending her entire life trying to hide something.
NW: To pass for normal, like the couple [in "Dead Girls"] whose daughter is gone. The husband cleans out the girl's room, because that's the normal thing to do, but the family is no longer normal no matter how much they try to affect normality.
NL: There's a struggle between the two of them to determine when it's time to move forward.
NW: In your toughest stories, the girls themselves seem to want rather normal, ordinary things. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. "Sisters" shows one sister, Nita, making the wrong choice, while her younger sister, Grace, offered the same choice, does not; it's just not in her nature.
NL: I wanted to show how easy it is to do things that later on seem so obviously wrong.
NW: Was it difficult to write these stories?
NL: Yes, it was very difficult, very emotionally draining to be with these characters. I see why writers write episodic books. They want to see that down the road their characters turn out alright.
NW: What is the writing process like for you?
NL: When I write, I see things. I close my eyes and visualize the room, the characters, as if I've stepped out of my life. I walk onto the set, the stage, park myself there and just watch the characters interact. I record what I see and hear. When I rewrite I give them directions; probably having an undergrad [degree] in theatre has something to do with how I work.
NW: I perceive something of Atom Egoyan in your work¨it has the same disturbing quality, as say, Exotica.
NL: I really like that film. There's something about [Egoyan's] sensibility that I admire. In The Sweet Hereafter I liked the layering of story, the idea of using a fairy tale. I admire that in fiction too, like the Journey Prize winning story ["The Facts Behind the Helsinki Rocammatios"] by Yann Martel, a story which is so beautiful, so layered, that aspects of the book resonate with between themselves. I really feel that life is like that, so incredibly rich, full of signs and signals. ˛