On a business trip to California in 1996, Nancy Lee received some fateful advice. Then 24 years old and working in publicity, she arrived in Los Angeles with a colleague to meet with “a woman who booked soap-opera stars to come up to Vancouver”, and chose to visit a fortune-teller on a lark.
“She read my palm and she said, ‘Oh, you’re doing the wrong thing in your life. And until you do the right thing, you’re never going to be happy,’ ” Lee says today. “The only thing that I was really interested in trying was writing a novel. And somehow—just saying that thing to myself—it kind of was like the spark that started this tiny little fire inside my brain.”
Over coffee with the Georgia Straight, Lee recalls this moment as she discusses the path to writing her recently released debut novel, The Age (McClelland & Stewart). Set in 1984 Vancouver, it follows Gerry Cross, a teenage girl struggling with nuclear anxiety, and her involvement with a group of activists who plan to detonate a bomb at a peace rally in the downtown core.
According to Lee, the premise came from discussions with her peers “about how when we were 13, 14, we really believed that the world was going to end.
“Our generation really grew up without any context for ground war,” she continues. “We were too young to really know anything about the Vietnam War and we hadn’t yet entered the various Desert Storm–era wars—our idea of war was built around what we saw on the news and in media, which was that war happens with the press of a button.”
The novel echoes her marvellous 2002 collection Dead Girls, a midnight chorus of absence, lust, and innocence lost. Hollowed by a long estrangement from her father, Gerry stumbles through adolescence with the fragile hope of reunion; this need for acceptance, however, leads to a larger role in the bombing and underscores the novel’s themes of mortality and consequence, responses to conflict and grief displaced.
“I love teen characters because I feel like they’re so full of possibility,” she says. “They really are on the cusp of making decisions that will shape and change their lives. And they don’t necessarily have the life experience to understand the repercussions of those decisions.”
Threads and The Day After, telefilms about atomic warfare, were key influences and are evident in the novel’s secondary narrative, “an ongoing film in Gerry’s head” that features a nameless boy and girl surviving on a postapocalyptic North Shore. “Memories have fallen away like the crumbled edge of a cliff, this new, wretched life forming a landscape that day by day stretches further from the eroded past,” Lee writes. “How can people persevere without a single happiness, a flint of hope?”
For five of the 12 years that she invested in the novel, Lee used a teenage boy as the chief protagonist. After a member of her writing group deemed the character inauthentic, she spent months reconceptualizing the manuscript with a female lead. Switching the gender, she remarks, provided not only “deeper access into the character but additional complexity to the material.
“The bottom line is I’m a feminist writer,” she says. “The things that women struggle with on a day-to-day basis—especially around control and sexuality—I come back to those themes again and again. I don’t see it as a banner I’m carrying or a point I’m trying to make. I think, for me, it comes organically out of the characters.”
A rich subtext emerges here as Gerry cultivates an emotional distance from her single mother while developing a bond with her paternal grandfather, a television anchor locked in a bitter legal battle with his third wife. Sentimental feelings for a childhood friend compound her restlessness and are further complicated by the bloom of sexuality and considerations of what designates power. Fusing “the nuclear fantasy” with this central plot line illuminates Gerry’s unspoken urges and creates an intricate portrait of a young woman’s turbulent voyage toward adulthood.
An assistant professor in UBC’s esteemed creative-writing program, Lee credits her students with helping her maintain enthusiasm for her own writing. “Seeing how hard my students would work on something, seeing how excited they were at the possibility of taking a manuscript from one level to another—that really inspired me,” she explains. Literary pursuits are laden with stumbling blocks, and her advice on avoiding obstacles is certainly refreshing.
“When you hit those problem parts, it’s so frustrating,” she says with a laugh. “I would say nine times out of 10, getting in the shower, for whatever reason, is where things get solved. That’s my writing tip for everybody.”
Nancy Lee reads with Lynn Coady and Eufemia Fantetti at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch on May 21, as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.