Andrea Lee is the author of five books, including the National Book Award–nominated memoir Russian Journal, the novels Red Island House, Lost Hearts in Italy and Sarah Phillips, and the story collection Interesting Women. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, she has written for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, W, and The New York Times Book Review. Born in Philadelphia, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University and now lives in Italy.
Marne Litfin (ML): I wanted to start with your latest book Red Island House. I really loved the first story in the…novel? Collection? How do you think of this book?
Andrea Lee (AL): It’s a novel in stories.
ML: I love the tensions that get set up in the first story, “The Packet War.” We have this great protagonist, Shay, and we see one of her housekeepers, Bertine, convincing her to remain on the island after a terrible fight with her husband by telling her that the staff wants her to stay and be ‘queen of the house.’ And I’m also thinking about the scene just afterwards, when Shay has been instructed by Bertine to bring a gift to the healer Bertine takes her to visit, and she brings a pair of earrings—Shay ends up watching a woman have her ears pierced with the earrings right in front of her. What’s supposed to be a gift ends up causing this visceral, complicated moment of pain. As a reader, I had so many feelings about that, and I wondered: was this always going to be the first story in the novel? What are your thoughts about how to structure a novel in stories?
AL: You know, it wasn’t going to be a novel! That’s the odd part; it was going to be a collection of stories. I always had very mixed feelings about Madagascar because I was going there but I thought I was taking advantage of it, trailing along with my Italian family. Yet I had this feeling of homecoming, because I’m African American. It’s a completely different part of the world from where my African ancestors would’ve come from, but there’s still this feeling that I was going to a place that was somehow mine, that had suffered from colonialism.
So I had these reluctant feelings about Madagascar, and I also thought from the beginning that Madagascar was a place that was being terribly wounded and terribly taken advantage of. It’s a place of great biodiversity, it has plants and animals that don’t exist anywhere else. Over the years I’ve watched it be destroyed, bulldozed away; there’s lots of sex tourism, lots of horrible development due to outsiders or to powerful people in the country. I felt this feeling of pain. This welling, constant pain and discomfort whenever I was there, like I was watching an ongoing crime I was complicit in. I didn’t really want to write about it. I just thought it was too much. You know when you don’t want to fall in love with somebody because you think it’ll be too intense? It was going to be too intense. So, I held off on writing about it but I kept collecting little fragments of stories and after a while it took on a life of its own.
The first story I wrote was in an earlier book, Interesting Women, but it’s kind of superficial. It could happen on any tropical beach, anywhere. I made errors in the details—misnaming people’s tribes, that sort of thing. It’s a good story, but it’s not a particularly respectful story.
But if you go to Madagascar, you’ll see, it’s one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever, ever, ever see—it’s magical—so I kept having stories come to me, I kept seeing terrible things happen, and slowly I built a backlog of things that I wanted to put together in stories. This always happens to me. I began to put them together in stories and they were going to be stories and not a novel, but my early readers said ‘wait, there’s a thread that goes through all of these stories, you can make it into a novel, you should make it into a novel.’ So I lined up all the stories, and I chose Shay, who wasn’t in all the stories at that point, as the thread that holds it all together. She’s someone who is very naive and a little overprivileged but is someone who suffers herself and understands a bit more of what is at stake in the country.
It took a long time. It was hard to put together all those darn stories! I had not planned it like that, so I had to make the development of time and place and Shay’s story consistent through them. It took a lot of time and was very complicated, starting out with stories and ending up with a novel in stories.
ML: Did you have any models of favorite novels in stories that you looked to for inspiration?
AL: Well, there are a lot of collections of stories—Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Stories is one. It’s one of his early works, a collection of short stories that’s basically just Turgenev walking around in rural Russia in the countryside, supposedly hunting, but he’s actually looking at people, meeting peasants, seeing all sorts of little incidents. It’s all bound together by the theme of hunting, and I think it starts at one point of his life and ends in another, so it’s not a novel but it’s a linked group of stories, and I always loved that idea. That you could have things that could stand alone but then they could make something bigger? It’s like a game.
ML: What does linking the stories together give you that a story collection or a novel might not?
AL: Well, it gives me pleasure. It’s something visceral to me. It’s a perfect game. I like the thought that something can be separate unto itself and complete, but also be a part of something larger that is also complete. It’s a really hard thing to do. It’s hard to write stories that can stand alone but also fit together. My second book, Sarah Phillips, is a bildungsroman that was my first attempt to do that, a novel in stories.
ML: It’s so interesting to me that you have these two very similarly structured books so far apart in your career. Was the process of writing Sarah Phillips (1984) very different? Were there lessons that you learned from writing it that you were able to apply to Red Island House (2021)?
AL: Not lessons; it was a really young book. I think, and I’m sure that as a young writer you’d know—you write from instinct. I was writing these stories because I thought they could be nice together. I don’t know that I learned anything from it except that it’s really hard to do and I really liked doing it. I’m still toying with the idea of doing it again; it’s an ambition of mine to get the perfect fit—little stories in a big story.
I did Sarah Phillips much more impulsively. Just because! Why do we write our first books? They’re sort of autobiographical, we write them because that’s what we have—incidents—and I knew I already liked incidents and vignettes. With Red Island House, it was really the same instinct. The language is different, I’m more grown up, it’s a whole different ballgame. But it’s the same satisfaction and instinct I have for little things in a big thing.
ML: You’ve been publishing for a long time. Sorry! I don’t mean to make you feel old. Do you ever look back at your old work—
AL: …and cringe? Yes. (laughs)
ML: (laughing): What is that like? What is it like to be at this stage of your career and see, especially Russian Journal, your first book—what is it like to see that narrator on the page now?
AL: I never, ever reread my old work. I don’t know any writer who really likes doing that. Even at readings now, I find myself changing words, correcting stuff all over the place. I think every writer hates to go back and see what they did because you instantly see mistakes and things you’d do differently. I never reread if I can possibly help it. I’m always shocked when someone quotes a story of mine; I often don’t remember what I actually said. I’ll think ‘wow, that sounds kind of cool,’ not realizing I wrote it. In that way I’m a bad mother who gives birth to children and just sends them off into the world and never has anything else to do with them. I don’t want to see them ever again, I just want them to live on their own.
ML: Is there anything in your catalogue you do enjoy looking back on or do you feel that way about pretty much everything?
AL: I feel that way about everything. Get out! I also think it’s dangerous for a writer to start looking back at their work, because you become self-conscious of it. You start to think ‘oh well, this worked in this book, maybe I should put it into that book…,’ and that means you’ve stopped experimenting. I’m always experimenting, even now, just playing with ideas. The idea of play, of spontaneity, becomes harder and harder as you go on in your writing career. Just to play, to think of something lighthearted, to try something a little crazy. The weight of the past weighs you down; you can’t play as much. You can’t be spontaneous. So I try to forget what I’ve written, you know—bear it in mind so I don’t repeat myself, but I don’t want to ever go and reread something because my temptation is then either to rewrite the whole thing or let it hamper me in terms of what I’m interested in doing. I just say ‘go on, go on, go on, get out!’
ML: I get that; I hate looking at anything I’ve ever written.
AL: You should feel proud of it! But I keep thinking of this example: I’m a mother and I do have kids, who I love, and they’re grown and I’m very fond of them and but I’m also very pleased that they’re independent. You want your work to flourish, I want this book to flourish, but I also want nothing more to do with it. I don’t want it living in my head, taking up space. As long as you have challenges and things that are new to you—for example, I’ve never taught before and I’m teaching this semester, and it’s been quite inspiring to me, getting new, vague ideas that I’m letting percolate in the back of my head—as long as you have those, you can keep moving forward. When you move ahead, you have to be really indifferent and also really care; it’s a total paradox to be a writer. You have to be indifferent about the outcome but also be very particular about how you do it. That balancing act—that caring and not caring—is almost impossible to do. But it’s half the fun.
ML: Maybe that’s a good segue into talking about what your writing process is like. How much revising do you do when you start drafting? Do you like to have an outline? Do you like to be surprised by yourself?
AL: I don’t have an outline, but what I have is a very clear shape in my head. With Red Island House, I didn’t have that shape in my head—I had shapes for individual stories—and that’s why it became so difficult. Right now I have one little story that I really want to write that’s about something that happened to me in Amsterdam and I just know, it’s almost like a vision of how that story should look and sound and where it should end and where it should begin. It’s almost like looking at a piece of clay and you can envision what it could be if you pull and poke it in a certain way.
If I’m doing something very complicated I might write out a careless outline with a beginning and an end. I’m always nagging my students about making sure they have an idea of the shape of their story in their mind, with the idea that there’s a beginning and an end and something that happens in the middle. It sounds simplistic but you have to keep that in your mind the whole time. So no, I don’t do outlines, I just try to bear in mind what I want to do, and very often I find myself going off on tangents because I find them very interesting. For me it’s a very unplanned, instinctive process.
ML: You have a note at the end of Red Island House about the fact that you’re writing as an outsider to Madagascar, and we’ve talked a little bit about those tensions, writing about a place you’re not from, writing about colonialism. I know that for me, writing about tough topics can be paralyzing; I can get bogged down in my own worries about mistakes I might be making. I was wondering if that’s something you’ve experienced, and how you’ve worked through the challenges of writing about difficult topics or writing as an outsider?
AL: That’s a really interesting question, I think. It sounds so vague and so Yoda-esque, but first you have to have a feeling that you’re going to be respectful that mistakes are going to happen, and second of all, you don’t have to write out a perfect thing at the beginning. You just have to write out something. Whenever I’m writing, I have to write a terrible beginning. The only thing you can do is just write it and swear that no one will ever see it but you. You know it’s awful and it’s really bad—I still go through this every single time—it’s sloppy, it’s repetitive, etc. You just write that out, and then once you finish it in some way, even if it’s just a first draft that you say is finished in some way, even if it’s pathetic, complete idiocy, you’ll look at it again. And this is what happens to me: that’s when there’s a glimmer of oh, it’s not all bad. It’s not all horrible. I think that’s one of the great pleasures of writing, realizing oh, there’s some terrible parts that I can take out and no one will ever see, and I’m not writing now, I am correcting, and correcting is so easy. (laughs)
So if you’ve written a really junky, stupid, horrible, trashy beginning, that’s fine. But don’t just write a beginning like that—write the whole thing, or a version of the whole thing. It should feel like a junky, stupid, horrible trashy thing that’s finished. It’s got an ending to it even if the ending might not be what you end up with. Then you’ll just casually say to yourself huh, well, I’m just going to correct this, and then you can start correcting little words. Because of how the human brain works, we can just fool our fears and start rewriting again. It’s much easier to rewrite than it ever is to compose. You are composing, but you’re not admitting it to yourself. See what I mean?
ML: I do.
AL: And it does work, I’ve seen this with my kids when they’re writing papers. They kind of taught it to me, actually. Don’t worry about the first draft. Never show anybody your first draft. Just write junk, spew it out, but do have an idea, with a beginning, middle, and end to that junk, and then you can have that really reassuring feeling of oh, I’m correcting!
ML: Can you talk a little bit about what kind of research you did for Red Island House?
AL: One thing I realized when I was writing Red Island House was that I wanted it to be an inside-out version of a traditional adventure story.
AL: Yes, when I was little, I loved adventure stories. I loved A. Conan Doyle, all these white colonial narratives, these men with pith helmets who go into the ‘darkest corners’ of the ‘wild world’ with dark-skinned people and have incredible adventures. I loved them. So, I wanted very much to play with that idea in Red Island House. I wanted Shay to be the person who comes in, she’s a Black woman, she’s coming in to ‘darkest Africa,’ like Heart of Darkness, but she’s a Black woman herself, so she’s kind of torn but at the same time adventuring into something that’s completely unknown to her, though at the beginning she feels sure that she’s completely politically correct, she knows this and that, but she isn’t. The minute she steps into that village with Bertine at the beginning, she realizes she’s completely in an unknown situation. And the book kind of plays with that idea, there’s this woman who’s in the position of the traditional adventurer but she’s a Black woman, so it’s flipping that narrative inside out.
ML: Are there any other adventure stories that reuse the form with Black women protagonists that you’re excited about?
AL: I haven’t really found them, you know that’s what’s so interesting, and people have told me that there’s not so many. But I really like that idea, of the Black woman adventurer who is going in and turning the pith helmet guy on his head. I’m always on the lookout for them. It’s the kind of thing I wanted to make because that’s what I dreamed of when I was a little girl. I wanted to be that explorer. I wanted to be the one going into the unknown, so I wanted Shay to have this experience where she’s going into the unknown and she doesn’t necessarily try but she does learn and find some wisdom by the end of the book.
ML: At what point did you figure out where you wanted Shay to end up?
AL: I wanted to leave it kind of open. I wanted her to be more wise and compassionate at the end, in a very unusual way, from how she was at the beginning, but again, it was all instinct. I knew, pretty much, that I wanted to end on a thought that she’s been through it, she’s seen it. If you look at the end of the book it’s almost like she’s been an adventurer. She comes in and she’s gone to this grave, she looks at this baby, there’s this whole sense of a whole new Shay in a certain way because she has been through it. Her staff look at her as if she’s just come back from discovering something, she’s all covered in dust. And she has: she’s discovered herself, that she can be in a certain way in this landscape.
ML: Thank you. One more question: what are you working on now?
AL: Well, I’m writing a memoir. I always go back and forth between very familiar and very far away, so right now I’m working on a memoir that has to do with my hometown, Yeadon, Pennsylvania, this Black suburb that was very sort-of prosperous and comfy, right outside of Philadelphia. Once upon a time it wasn’t posh, but quite comfy, it was this very middle class Black suburb and that’s where I grew up. It became interesting to me—I always thought it was so boring—but I began to realize that the place where I grew up gave birth to a lot of writers and artists and professors and cinematographers all in this strange little suburb. It’s called Lincoln Went Down to the Nile because I lived on Lincoln Avenue and the Nile Swim Club was a country club that our parents started for us. It’s about this very small-scale Black suburb that’s trying to live the American Dream during a time when there was a great deal of social upheaval.
ML: I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you so much.
AL: Thank you!