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Author Nancy Lee on success and fame: ‘I have no interest in being legendary’

Author Nancy Lee

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Nancy Lee's Dead Girls was a darkly carnal collection of short stories that dealt with the complexities and sadnesses of desire. Her new novel, The Age, has at its centre a misfit teenager navigating the social climate of 1984, under threat of nuclear annihilation and falling in love.

Why did you write your new book?

Coming of age in the early 1980s, I was part of a generation who had no experience of ground war; we were too young to remember Vietnam, and the U.S. hadn't yet entered any of the Gulf Wars. Our only context for war involved escalating international tensions, the pressing of a button, and the destruction of our planet. I wanted to explore the effects and consequences of the anxiety this reality created.

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I also wanted to confront the future I'd been so terrified of as a teenager. I wanted, through fiction at least, to survive the end of the world.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Christine Schutt. Every sentence is like a sonar ping, sharp, urgent, echoing through a deep dark.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Write the book you'd most want to walk into a bookstore and buy.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I'm not sure I'd want to have lived through any particular historical period; they've all had their troubles. But if I could go back for a short 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.

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Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

Forgotten or legendary, these are my choices? How about: I'd like to be remembered by those closest to me as a good person. Success isn't really a word I think about. I'd like, in my lifetime, to be able to do the things I love, to experience what I want to experience. I'm not sure that's the same as success. I have no interest in being legendary.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Now admittedly, my reading of it was interrupted by so many instances of me hurling the book at the nearest wall that my memory of it may be a bit hazy. I have no problem with unlikable characters or even misogynistic characters in fiction (I love Houellebecq). But the overarching sentimentalization of woman-as-object in TULOB drove me insane.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

George W. Bush.

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Which fictional character do you wish you were?

Garfield.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

I suppose I'm curious that more people don't ask authors questions around technique and process. I love photography, and I'm always struck by how easily interviews with iconic photographers shift to process – how did you capture that particular image? As a student of photography, I learn so much from listening to accomplished artists talk about their process. I've never had anyone ask me, how did you write this particular scene? Most people ask: How do you get published?

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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