The Last Word With Nancy Lee, BA'94, MFA'04

The Last Word With Nancy Lee, BA'94, MFA'04

Q: What is your most prized possession?
A: It’s a tie between a handwritten rejection letter from Bill Buford at The New Yorker and Sandy, a ragged old panda bear I’ve had since childhood who’s been washed so many times she resembles a satanic goat.

Photo by Nancy Lee

Fans of Vancouver author Nancy Lee’s literary works owe their gratitude to the dime-a-dozen psychic she met on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1996. Lee, a publicist at the time, was in LA with her business partner for a series of meetings with a potential client. Between meetings they decided, as a joke, to have their palms read. While the colleague was told she would find true love, Lee was told that she was doing the wrong thing in her life and that until she did the right thing, she’d never be happy. It was perhaps the best money she ever spent. Today, Lee is revered as one of Canada’s most compelling writers. Her first book, Dead Girls, was hailed by The Globe and Mail as “a masterwork of revelation,” won the VanCity Book Prize, and was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Pearson Readers’ Choice Award, and the Wordsworthy Award. Dead Girls has been published in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Holland and Spain, and has been optioned for film. Lee, an assistant professor in Creative Writing at UBC, has served as writer-in-residence for the University of East Anglia, Historic Joy Kogawa House, and most recently for the city of Vincennes, France, and the city of Richmond. Her debut novel, The Age, has opened to rave reviews, is set to be published in France, and was featured as one of alumni UBC’s book club selections this fall. Follow Lee on Twitter: @pantsmclee

What is your most prized possession? 
It’s a tie between a handwritten rejection letter from Bill Buford at The New Yorker and Sandy, a ragged old panda bear I’ve had since childhood who’s been washed so many times she resembles a satanic goat.

Who was your childhood hero? 
My adolescent hero was David Bowie. He’s still my hero.

Describe the place you most like to spend time. 
Curled up in a chair with my knitting, preferably with a fireplace nearby, a good detective show on the telly and a cup of tea within arm’s reach. Basically, I’m a 75‑year‑old woman.

What was the last thing you read? 
1996 – a wonderful collection of poems by Sara Peters.

What or who makes you laugh out loud? 
Our dog Rudy, who looks like an adorable teddy bear but has the personality of Joe Pesci.

What’s the most important lesson you ever learned? 
Don’t do today what you can put off until tomorrow. Wait, I may have gotten that wrong. Never mind, I’ll check it tomorrow.

What’s your idea of the perfect day? 
My husband and I lived just outside Paris for four months and spent most days writing and then exploring Paris on foot, eating in great bistros, browsing book stores and museums. Those were perfect days.

What was your nickname at school? 
Pants. While I was in the MFA program, we hosted an annual summer residency. I wore a pair of black PVC pants to the closing reception. A well‑known literary editor was mesmerized by my attire, and a joke started that my pants received a 4‑book deal.

What would be the title of your biography? 
Let Me Ask You This (with a pointing finger on the cover)

If a genie granted you one wish, what would it be? 
Can I wish for more wishes? Because that would be the smart thing to do, right?

What item have you owned for the longest time? 
I don’t really keep track of possessions. I can tell you the feeling I’ve owned for the longest time: ennui tempered by exuberance.

What is your latest purchase? 
So many questions about possessions and things. I’m not really a things person.

Whom do you most admire (living or dead) and why? 
That’s easy: my mom. She’s the best person I know.

If you could invent something, what would it be? 
An anti‑rage laser gun. Point it at people and their anger dissolves.

In which era would you most like to have lived, and why? 
No historical era is without its problems, but if it’s just for a visit: La Belle Époque in Paris. Peace, technological invention, ground‑breaking advances in medicine, the rise of realism and naturalism in literature, the birth of Modernism, post‑Impressionist painters, cabaret theatre, salons. And beautiful hats.

What are you afraid of? 
Spiders, fatal diseases, people who hate art.

Name the skill or talent you would most like to have. 
I would love to be able to play the piano. Or draw. Or build a house. Basically, I have no skills, so any additional skills would be welcome.

Which three pieces of music would you take to that desert island? 
Aretha Franklin’s Ain’t No Way, Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round 12” Remix, David Bowie’s Life on Mars

Which famous person (living or dead) do you think (or have you been told) you most resemble? 
I’m half Chinese and half Indian, so I don’t really look like anyone famous. Personality‑wise, I’m a lot like Garfield.

What is your pet peeve? 
Wilful ignorance.

What are some of your UBC highlights? 
I first came to UBC in grade 8, on a field trip. We spent the day doing research in the old library stacks. I fell in love with the campus. There isn’t a day I’m at UBC that I don’t feel grateful to be here.