When we decided who we wanted to showcase in our first interview, the editors of The Nieve Roja Review decided hands down, Leslee Becker was the right choice. She and the University recently celebrated the release of her first book, a collection of short stories, titled The Sincere Cafe.
When I approached Leslee to do this interview, she had just arrived at her office and was taking off her coat. She took out a battery from a pocket and picked up a life-size mechanical chicken. The chicken had a carved look to it. Its wings were painted black and its body was a sun-faded-tan, as though it had been on display in the front window of an antique shop.
"Just a second, Mark," she said and lifted the chicken. She turned the chicken over, removed the battery cover from its belly and replaced the old battery. Leslee replaced the cover and set the chicken on her desk. With the flick of a switch, motors churned, the chicken clucked and a chocolate egg emerged.
"There, the chicken works. I was worried it was something else. Something more than a battery. Would you like an egg?"
For me, that has always been Leslee. She carries with her an underlying current of humor, a sense of worry, while at the same time, realizing the importance of taking care of the simple things, then moving on to business.
Leslee has degrees from Cortland College, the University of Vermont, Hollins College, and the University of Iowa. She has held a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship as well as a Jones Lecturership in Fiction at Stanford. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Sonora Review, Ploughshares, Phoebe, River Styx and numerous other magazines. Her short story, "Twilight on the El Camino" was anthologized in The Uncommon Touch and Contemporary West Coast Stories.
Leslee has taught English at Colorado State University since 1990. She has been writing for twenty years and The Sincere Cafe was awarded the 1995 Mid-List Press First Series Award for Short Fiction. It also won Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Award. Other Awards include the Nimrod/Catherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction. She has a story titled "Correspondence" forthcoming in the May issue of Fourteen Hills, the literary magazine of San Fransico State University.
Leslee Becker: When I was thirty, exactly thirty. I tried it and I didn't take it lightly. On the day of my thirtieth birthday I went to A&W Root Beer. I got a root beer float and a hot dog and took it home and thought, "What am I afraid of? Why have I always thought I couldn't write? Why have I not done it?" And I tried it and of course I figured out what I was afraid of. I couldn't do it. It wasn't good, but you know, that's what it was. It had more to do with me as a reader than anything else.
MS: What led you to finally make that decision?
LB: I wish I knew. I think that some writers could probably tell you exactly what led them to it, and I tend to be a person who distrusts anybody who knows and understands motives. Or maybe I don't understand my own. I can't find that logical cause and effect.
MS: Who had you been reading prior to that?
LB: What was really wonderful is I had for the first time in my life a few months when I wasn't working and I went to the library. This was in Vermont. I had broken my ankle, so I would be in the library and go to the Best American Stories section where all the short stories were, and I would begin to check out volumes and volumes of short stories from about 1930 to 40 and on. I would love some stories and kept thinking --it was always stories for me, I never imagined a novel--. I was reading stories by writers whose names appeared in some of those annual prize volumes and were never heard from again.
MS: Is there a story from that time that you remember the most?
LB: A lot of the Eudora Welty stories that weren't in the prize volumes, but a friend had talked to me about Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor so I got everything I could get my hands on. The works knocked me out. I won't single out a certain story, but there were stories in these prize volumes, one by someone named Patti Griffith in Washington who had a story called "Night at O'Rear's." And I even wrote her a fan letter and I met her years later. She said "I can't believe you remembered my story." It's about a waitress in a diner and carnage and everything else. I loved it.
MS: What did she think of the fan letter?
LB: She couldn't believe it. I met her in Washington. The funny thing is that I had told her I really liked Flannery O'Connor, hadn't studied her in school, and Patti introduced me to her adopted daughter whose name was Flannery. She had been a fan of Flannery O'Connor's, too, and so there was always something for me about southern literature. The story gets stranger after this: a good friend of mine whom I lived with in Boston for awhile told me she knew Patti Griffith and this woman had actually written a novel using my friend as a main character. There are all kinds of connections like that.
MS: What was your first publication?
LB: My first publication was actually the first story I wrote, so that set me up for a fall right off (laughs). I wasn't expecting it. It was a story called "Moving Pictures." I hate the title now. The story is first person point of view and it's about a character who's obsessed with World War II stuff and army memorabilia but it's really a story about this character's obsession with trying to create a romantic story about her father. The character has no awareness whatsoever that she's just fabricating things. I don't like that story anymore.
MS: Can you comment on why you don't like it and where your writing has gone since that story?
LB: I always had trouble with it because when this magazine called to say they were going to publish it and they had awarded me a prize, my first response was to tell them, "Wait, I'm worried about this story because I used some family events." Instead I told her, "For this story, I changed everything from what really happened." The woman said, "So what's the problem?" I told her, "I'm worried that feelings will be hurt and people will say this isn't how it happened." And I said, "I'm especially worried about hurting my mother." There's a mother character in it who's very hard, who hates anything that has to do with the army, and who has her own story about World War II. Anyhow the editor said, "Well, you're not going for factual truth anyhow in fiction. You're going for emotional truth." Maybe that first-person point of view made me think that my mother would see the "I" always as me. As a matter of fact, it thrilled me to hear people read the story and say that they pictured a male character, because in my mind, I thought, gee, your name and everything could have been a guy's name. It's just a story that feels...I don't know why. I can't look at it anymore.
MS: Is that what you strive for now, more emotional truth in your characters?
LB: That's what the editor was saying, that stories go for emotional truth, not factual truth. I was doing the things you're supposed to do in fiction and that is either make up things or change things to suit the story. The ethical dilemma for me was: in changing things around to suit a story, was I creating characters in a harsher light like the mother? By leaving out significant events, it felt to me dishonest. It also felt to me stingy. In order for me to get a better story, I had to create the main characters as a more likable, sympathetic person than I thought she or he was in the story. It really was a she, now that I think of it.
MS: What were some of the events or special moments of the past that led you to become a writer? Do you find yourself returning to those moments?
LB: I think I avoided that question before by saying I don't trust an easy answer to this. Obviously it must have been connected to some sense of how old I was getting, which is not that sense that, "Oh, I have something fabulous to say and that I could write well," but you know, it's just a very vain idea, believing in your own specialness. It always seemed to me --this I might be romanticizing-- that I went to the movies a lot and I felt something at the movies. I even remember the movie I saw when I was five years old. There was something about that other world that allowed me to feel. And I didn't know it when I was writing but years after I write a story I go "Oh." I love to look at it in an objective way. If someone wrote it I'd say, "Oh, that affects me." But it doesn't happen when I'm writing. I'm too on top of it and they seem kind of flat. Probably going to the movies a lot and reading a lot and probably lying a lot.
LB: I imagine. Remember...someone said that fiction is the lie that tells the truth. I think I must have lied a lot.
MS: From what I've read in The Sincere Cafe, lying plays a large roll in the characters' lives.
LB: Yeah, I didn't realize it until they were all put together and every time I'm teaching and people are stuck in a scene I say to students, "Have one of them lie and see what happens," and I thought, "God, all I'm doing is talking about how I operate." Not in this interview, though (laughs). I'm being perfectly truthful.
MS: I've had you for workshop and that is one thing I remember, your face lighting up and you would tell the class, "Oh look, the character's lying. Take it farther."
LB: I was just meeting with a graduate student and I said, "I love this story. I love what the character is doing." She is a woman who's working in the library who goes to the lost-and-found box and takes people's diaries. Remarkably four people lose their diaries in this library, and she takes them home and reads them and reads their intimate journal entries.
MS: Can you discuss some of your writing process? Where do you find the majority of the material for your stories?
LB: The writing process for me is first thing in the morning. I'm an early riser so I'm lucky that way. And then I just go in. Stories start in various places. Some of the stories have started with images, for me. Others have started with occupations. The ones that inevitably fail are ones in which I'm absolutely convinced there's something I'm trying to capture and I can never do it. They just die. So it's first thing in the morning and then I just hope by staring at it and sticking with something long enough there'll be an opening. And it's usually daily, and I can't say this week, but I do try everyday.
MS: Do you find a genesis of stories, some dialogue you hear from somewhere or people's actions maybe?
LB: Sometimes people's actions. I'm trying to think if there's ever been a story that's been sparked by someone's dialogue or something. I definitely have heard things that I've used in stories that I've heard people say and it's surprised me when it came up in a story, and I went, "Oh what a great line" and I realize that someone's said it. That's also a hard process and I'm not trying to be coy here. I bet most writers don't know where stuff comes from. I honestly don't know. Occupations matter a lot to me as places in the stories that help me see something else, and setting, too. I should say that when I read something that I'm inspired by, that's necessary to the process. When I take time off in the summer, I actually take time off to read and when I read something really good, I'm inspired. It's not that I'm taking some of the same imagery or anything else, but it occurs to me that I've got a fondness for stories about people who have to go into the country and do something. And I never realized that before it was popping up in my stories a lot. Eudora Welty has a story "Death of a Traveling Salesman" and that story has always shook me up.
MS: Who are some people you are currently reading?
LB: I'm currently reading Leonard Gardner. He wrote a book called Fat City. It's his one and only book. And I'm reading that now. I'm going to reread a novella by Paula Fox that I love and the novella went out of print. It's called Desperate Characters. And I read the entire contents of The Pushcart Prize because it's the year's collection of essays, poems and stories. And I love that. Alice Munro and William Trevor. I'm saying it because these are all the books that I keep....and because I got them around Christmas time and I haven't finished them yet.
MS: You said you started writing when you were thirty. You were accepted into the Iowa writer's workshop as well as awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Can you discuss the two programs and maybe some of the issues you faced going through both programs?
LB: The issue I thought I faced was being older. I imagined at Iowa that I would go and be in classrooms with people who had just gotten out of undergraduate school and had been studying creative writing for a long time and everything else. My year was unusual at Iowa in that there were lots of older people who had come back. And I had applied because I had always heard about the school. I applied to see if I could get in, to tell you the truth. The other big reason was I already had a graduate degree and I thought as long as I go someplace that will allow me time to write. I didn't have an idea that I would necessarily teach after I had been teaching before. I just thought I'm going to go for the time, they had wonderful seminars and because of their reputation and the money they had they could bring in guest writers. So my whole Iowa experience was positive. I fell in love with the state of Iowa where I was and that was important to me. I had grown up in the East and that landscape affected me a lot and being around farms seemed very important to me. I can remember what the sky looks like in the summer there because it's different from here. The Stegner Fellowship terrified me because my last year at Iowa, the last semester, I wasn't writing a thing. And so when they called to say that I had gotten one, I said, "I can't go. I've got a writing block." This man I had never met before in my life said, "So what? We all do. Are you coming or not?" And then he said, "You've served your time, so get here and tell me yes or no." You know, I was just fumbling around. It was true. I went there with that writer's block. I was in a workshop that began in September. I did not put a story up until November. It had been one that I started in Iowa and that I couldn't finish. So, it was wonderful. I'd had a fear of California. There's a writer I like, Joy Williams, and she always describes crazy people as people who are on the Pacific Coast Highway and try to head West. Falling off the face of the earth or going into the ocean. And it surprised me that in a place like Palo Alto, I could get out of that city in no time and find farms again. I thought it would all be glitzy and everything...it was wonderful. A lot of it because of the classmates I had. Like Harriet Doerr was really helpful. So those were wonderful. They made all the difference.
MS: Who were some of the professors you studied with and what sorts of advice did they give you? How did they push you to write?
LB: At Iowa, you have a huge docket of teachers to choose from and a lot of students will look and they see all these names that they've heard of and they try to work with them. I went to a second-year student at Iowa and I said, "Can you help me make a selection of workshop teachers?" And he said, "Yeah, go for the ones who are really good teachers." And I said, "How can I know that?" And he said, "Because I'm telling you." And I chose those people and he was exactly right. And I was so lucky to get my first choices. I worked with Hilma Wolitzer, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz and I can remember everything they've told me to this day. I can hear their inflections and they were hard. They had a wonderful sense of humor. They were fair and as teachers they took their jobs seriously. And at Stanford what helped a lot is that I had a variety of writers whose styles were very different from mine: Gilbert Sorrentino, John L'Heureux, Nancy Packer, and there are other writers like Larry McMurtry and Raymond Carver and Marilynne Robinson and people like that who come through and offer short residencies. It was just a positive thing...although one teacher at Iowa disappeared for awhile. She had a back problem. I won't mention her name, but she had a hard time meeting her classes. She discussed my thesis as I was taking her to the airport and I wasn't wild about that. This was how my thesis defense was done. In fact, she was telling me her problems all the way to the airport. This is my big Iowa moment (laughs). This is my thesis defense! I had been there a couple of years and this is how she chose to handle it. There's not a formal defense the way it is here. People in fact just stick their signatures on your collections of stories or novels. When I first went there the first thing I did was go to the library at Iowa and check out Flannery O'Connor's thesis. I thought it would be in a room, protected, and there it was and I could take it home.
MS: In teaching 210 we sometimes will talk about writers on writing. Truman Capote says, "What I am trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter's evening." What would you say about yourself on writing?
LB: You know, one of my favorite statements on writing, because I really like other people's statements, is something by Charles Baxter who had a very simple idea: he creates characters he likes and visits trouble on them. And I think that's it. It sounds so simple. He maybe even said characters he loves and visits trouble on them. And when I haven't formulated anything myself, because it's more like the effect that I get from reading other people's stories, then I like the idea of what Truman Capote said. You can imagine yourself by a fireplace. Next to movies, it's the most seductive thing I can think of. You sit in the dark, in movies, and everything sweeps over you and there's that private pleasure of reading a story. To me, both writing them initially and reading them, it's like a childlike state. There's something very primitive about it. You're just a listener.
MS: CSU requires its MFA students to take a form and technique course. When you teach this course, what do students leave knowing about Leslee Becker's philosophy on writing?
LB: Boy, this is the hardest one of them all. I looked at this question and didn't know how I was going to handle it, but I do know that when I teach that course, I seem to be selecting books that could tell us all about handling point of view and that seems like such a technical matter and then when I get done with this course,-- it's the third time I've taught it-- I realize that it has to do with vision and I do not know really how to talk about it in class but you know that we all know what it is. To me, it's the way that a writer sees the world and tries to express that on paper. And some of us don't know how we see the world, but something comes through. The way a situation is regarded. I mean, I know you could pick a Raymond Carver story out of a pile of hundreds. It's like Chekov. There's a kind of gentle, wistful look at people. It laughs with them, with their flaws, but celebrates what's good and what's worthwhile about the struggle. So it has a lot to do with how vision shapes us. Sometimes I take writers' comments and try to have the students read something, of Faulkner's for instance, in terms of what Faulkner supposedly says he's getting at. They always find this disappointing because he's got all these great ideas and the one thing they remember is they take a book like The Sound and the Fury, or at least I always remember this, and he claimed that it began with an image. Caddie's underpants, dirty underpants, from the character's point of view, looking up a tree, so it has to do with how the work is shaped, even how it teaches us to read it. I don't go in saying you should know this about point of view and this and that. In fact, I take books that break supposedly all or many of the rules they may have picked up in workshop.
MS: Let's go ahead and move to The Sincere Cafe. For me, it is image driven. Some of the stories I remember reading two, three years ago and the one imagine I have is the big car pulling out of the dirt road and dirt flying up, the girl going after the exercise bicycle. As I started looking through the stories again, I thought, there's that image again. The idea that movies have influenced you seems to come through into the stories themselves.
LB: I hadn't really thought about it until I started teaching a class like E238, the Twentieth-Century Fiction class. I'm forever alluding to movies or students are. They'll talk about a Flannery O'Connor story like "Revelation" and say imagine the cut from the conversation in the doctor's office to a book flying and hitting Mrs. Turpin's head. Flannery O'Connor doesn't say the girl released the book. She just says the book hit Mrs. Turpin. I tend to think about that....human gestures that evolve scene in various places.
MS: And your stories frequently deal with alienated people, trying to find where they fit in the scheme of things? I don't know if that's the right word. Do you agree or disagree?
LB: I don't see it that way. Maybe they have an idea of alienation. I don't see them...it's not a bad question, it's just that in my own work I don't have a conception of people being alienated or fitting in. Maybe I go at it without the idea of traits or who they are. By the time I finish it, I hope I know who they are more. They may see themselves that way. They probably strike the reader as being lonely. It must be something in me that comes out in the stories. By and large I don't think they're people who articulate what it is they want from other people because they don't know either. It's just, you know, something's off.
MS: Where does your art fit in with your contemporaries?
LB: Well, let's see. I will never be as good as the writers I love. So, I don't fit in. If I think of my contemporaries, I think of when I worked in the bookstore one day in California, and I don't know why this hit me that day in California, but there was a whole island of books in the center of the store that was all recently released fiction. And it should be a cause for celebration. And this particular day I thought, out of this whole pile what book will affect a reader, a group of readers, the way certain books have affected me, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and O'Connor. Will anything ever affect me the way those writers have? And I knew my works wouldn't. Not so much me, but anybody wouldn't have that. I'm not going to be anybody I think that anyone reads about the way you would--this is probably a far-out example-- I was trying to think of the contemporary writers we do hear about. For a time it was Jay McInerney. For a time is was Brett Easton Ellis. A contemporary writer who's affected me a great deal is Raymond Carver. And just looking at that body of work and seeing the style changes, the vision. I could never be like him. My stories have a kind of sameness to Carver's stories. It's troubled me a lot. In fact, there's even a blurb on the back of The Sincere Cafe. It says something like "quite reminiscent of Raymond Carver's work" and I go "Oh no." It's like even though we do write something, maybe you just want them-- readers-- to say, "It's L. Becker's voice" or something. It would be immensely flattering of course, but it's like Flannery O'Connor said, southern writers cannot write without being compared with Faulkner and she said you wouldn't be on the tracks when the Dixie Limited came bearing down but it just doesn't have, I think, the substance and variety (my work) of the writers I love.
MS: Something I picked up in a postmodern fiction class is that it's a challenge for a writer to take what's been written and try to figure out new ways of looking at things. And I think you've talked about that: looking at situations objectively and trying to look at them from a different point of view. Is that correct?
LB: I like what you said. I think that people by and large, if they've written novels --and I'm really generalizing because there are exceptions to this of course-- are remembered longer, or at least sell better because there are more people reading them. So that makes me with my contemporaries kind of not a good sell. I'm not minimizing novels or anything else. I think my vision of the way I see situations is like these flashes in moments of people's lives as opposed to the whole canvas. I like the idea of suggesting the whole life rather than covering tons of room, but maybe it's just because I can't imagine myself writing a novel.
MS: Do you think that's for similar reasons as Raymond Carver, who said when he writes, he tries to get in, get out, "don't linger"? He mentions in Fires that he can't write a novel because he can't stay in one spot that long.
LB: Grace Haley is like that. I think Alice Munro will always be known for her short stories. I mean, they're novels but they're more like collections of linked stories. What's wonderful is that she brings a kind of novelist vision. She goes into all kinds of past and some visionary thoughts about the future in the space of a short story. I think she's done more. I think there's this weird perception out there that the only stories being written are copies of what people call "minimalist" stories. It cheered me to no end to know that when the NewYork Times came up with their eight most notable books of the year or whatever --they only chose eight this year; three of them were short story collections-- Alice Munro, William Trevor, Mavis Gallant and they're writers that I love. These are the contemporaries when I think of contemporary writers that I would love to be like. When I think of contemporary writers, I think of some very young writers making it, making a big splash and getting a lot of publicity and almost the most unheard-of kind of advances. But that tends to be just the stuff you read about. I know hundreds of people that are sitting, plodding away and writing a lot of great stuff that's not going to be seen. Or, you know, be seen by a few. Me, I wish everybody would just write. I wish I had the flash, the glitz, the...I wish Oprah would say, "Hey I read a funny little book the other day."(laughs) Not gonna happen.
MS: There is humor in The Sincere Cafe.
LB: Thank you, Mark.
MS: There is an underlying current of humor within these characters. For example, in the story
"The Musical Lady," Cecile is practicing her Capri products sales pitch on her husband:
"I didn't go too fast, did I?" she asked when she finished.
"Not for me."
"Of course, I'll be demonstrating to groups of people. That's why my eyes move so much, to maintain contact."
"I'd like to see one of those lingerie parties," Joe said.
LB: She's the woman who's just gotten the franchise to sell household goods.
MS: Yes, and there are lines of humor in each story. Just with the little comments they make
there is an undercurrent of humor. Another example is in the story "What We Have Here."
When one of the characters describes her first sexual experience.
"The first time I did it," Ann said, "was in a Howard Johnson's motel, with a sailor."
... "You know how many buttons sailors have on those pants?"..."Thirteen..."
"I undid each one," Ann continued, "slowly. If I had taken a second longer that sailor's anchor would've bust through..."
LB: I appreciate [humor] in other people's stories. If I have time, I'm going to go on a sabbatical. I've been saying this for years, that I was going to read every story by Chekov that I had read before and then the ones that I hadn't read. I go to a good place when I read Chekov. There's a gentle humor. And I love the scenery and the country side and the fat bumpkins and the oafs and the affection he has for all these people.
MS: I think it's in there.
LB: Oh, thank you, Mark.
MS: With the release of The Sincere Cafe, now you're going to be going out on tour. You're going to be out supporting the book...when I asked you the other day to do the interview, you mentioned something Steven Schwartz had said. Do you mind repeating it?
LB: I was terrified about the tour. I didn't mean to laugh, but I had been postponing this tour idea for a long time and it's connected with what Steven Schwartz said. Steven knew I was very nervous about the book coming out. He said, "Well, when you put stories in a magazine like The Atlantic or anywhere you've got the reputation of the magazine. You're not all alone. You put out a collection of stories, you feel really exposed." I'm about to go on a reading gig in California. "Gig" as if I were really in showbiz here. I'm extremely nervous about it. It's not like reading a story out of a magazine. You've stuck all your work together and there it is. And stories go over differently. In Fort Collins, people have howled over certain stories. I can remember reading a story here and then reading it in Kansas and all I could see in the front row was that a group of women seemed to have taken a vow of frowns (laughs). It was deadly. But it is good to hear people who aren't necessarily connected with academic institutions. People who go to book stores. In California, it will be a bookstore. And people will, I think by and large, not just be from the academic community. There will be people who simply go out and read stories.
MS: Do you have any final comments? Anything that we haven't touched on that you'd like to touch on?
LB: Given my advanced age, I don't know (laughs). Some of your questions remind me of my age and how long it took to get the book together. And that's partly why in some ways I seem, not down on my own work, but convinced that I'll never get another story done even, never mind a collection.