BookView Interview with Author E. B. Lee

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we talked to E.B. Lee, author of a debut novel Clean Sweep: A Novel. (Read the review here.)

You can learn more about E. B. Lee, her upcoming appearances, and her next novel at http://www.eblee.me or on the following social media pages:

Publishing imprint website:  www.littlebrowndogpress.com

@EBLeeauthor on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/EBLeeauthor

@eblee.author  on Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/eblee.author/

@EvelynLeeauthor on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/EvelynLeeAuthor

@littlebrowndogpress on Instagram

Quinnifer’s Book Club  (A Blog to be written every two months only, focusing on dogs in/and books):  https://www.littlebrowndogpress.com/blog

E. B. Lee was raised in Weston, Connecticut, where she enjoyed the best of a then-rural town and easy train access to the high-energy world of New York City. She brings together elements of both worlds in her debut work of literary fiction, Clean Sweep, a heartfelt story of human connection, tough choices, and compassion. Ms. Lee and her husband have two grown daughters, one middle-aged dog, and have loved a variety of family pets along the way.

Prior to writing Clean Sweep, Ms. Lee spent a decade as a flower farmer at her own suburban flower farm, and worked in the environmental field. She earned a Masters degree from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, an undergraduate degree from Yale, and received horticultural training from New York Botanical Garden. E. B. Lee now writes in North Carolina and Connecticut.

What is the most difficult thing about writing a novel?

Not thinking about it every waking minute. There is a certain amount of percolation that must occur as I work my way through the details of characterization, as I develop a story, and as seemingly endless options arise. This thinking process is not the sort of thing I turn on and off at will. A developing story can always creep to the forefront of my thinking at any time. My goal is to not be consumed by story development, which is difficult, because the process truly is exciting. In a sense, I carry an unfinished manuscript with me all the time. If I don’t want to accept this, I shouldn’t be writing.

Does writing energize you or exhaust you?

Both. To follow up on the first question, writing can be absolutely exhilarating. When just the right thought comes to mind and can be inserted into a story or when I am on a roll cranking out words and scenes, it is incredibly energizing. Receiving feedback from an editor can also be exhilarating since it prompts me to think more deeply and pull even more out of myself to build the story, create the characters, and both ask and answer questions. Writing can also be exhausting and a struggle. Trying to squeeze words out to describe a scene the way I am picturing it can be exhausting. Editing can be exhausting. Proofreading, before sending the manuscript to a proofreader, can be exhausting. So, I would call writing a fabulous process, really, that prompts a remarkable blend of emotions. Every moment, it seems, writing pushes me to grow as a writer. Of course, this is energizing and exhausting. It takes a lot out of me, but it gives to me, as well.

How do you begin a book?

I am beginning books, or elements of books, all the time. As I go about my daily life, I might see something around me or in the news, and, before I know it, I am creating a scene. I am actually writing out the scene word by word in my mind, not on a computer or on paper or recording, but talking internally. Often, I have an inciting incident come to mind, and I have the end nearly simultaneously thought out. Other times, I start a book with a reaction to an event or situation. This is to say, I latch onto a theme or topic, and build a story around it. This was more the case with my novel Clean Sweep. In terms of actually putting down the first word – that sort of beginning a book – I usually have enough scenes thought out, or written down, that I almost always have prompts to get me started with point A and then moving from point A to point B.

What is the most difficult part of a book to write?

The first paragraph. Without a doubt. I work very, very hard to get that first paragraph just the way I want so that it creates a mood for the entire book, captures readers immediately, and starts the relationship between reader and story in as strong a manner as possible. I do rewrite upon rewrite, and scrutinize every word. I read the paragraph out loud time and time again to hear the sound of the sentences. I let this first paragraph sit overnight in many forms and tackle it again and again. I know what I want to say, but the first paragraph, as far as I am concerned, must do a lot more than simply say something. It must carry a lot of weight on its shoulders, if you will.

What does literary success look like to you?

Reaching people. Yes, reaching readers with my words, characters and stories. Touching their emotions. Touching their imaginations. For serious fiction, like Clean Sweep, I want readers to think and to feel; to stop and think and reach into themselves. I want to transport readers into my stories. For years I was a flower farmer. Customers were truly touched by the beauty and fragrance of the flowers I grew and put into bouquets. Success was touching people’s emotions and inner selves with flowers. Now, I want to do the same thing with words. I tell people I have traded colorful flowers for colorful words. Literary success for me is making an impact. If I have enough success of this nature, I should do okay.

On that note, tell us more about Clean Sweep and how you hope to touch readers with this novel. What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Clean Sweep is serious fiction that explores the personal side of street homelessness, mental health, and tough circumstances. It also explores the power of human connection and compassion as well as the vulnerabilities associated with making these connections and having compassion. It is so easy to pass by people who are struggling. I hope Clean Sweep makes readers stop and think about the lives that people on the streets had before they came to the streets, and hopefully understand that they can have different lives after. No one says, “When I grow up, I want to live in a cardboard box on a city sidewalk.” No one says that. People need help. I want to raise awareness and compassion. This is not to say that a reader can approach anyone living on the streets and suddenly persuade that person to come inside, but a reader can have compassion and not disdain. In addition, I want readers to understand the prevalence of mental health challenges faced by many, the tough choices people often have to make when they face health problems, job loss, or addictions. It all gets back to no one says, “When I grow up, I want to live in a cardboard box on a city sidewalk.”

What makes this book important right now?

In the past year, with coronavirus impacting our lives, so many people’s personal lives were turned upside down. For many, there was a huge financial loss. Some faced mental health concerns they might or might not have faced before. Accidental drug overdose numbers increased. For people who were already homeless and living on the streets or in tents, the realities of the hardships that they face daily became more noticeable to the public in general. We must give serious thought to how we, as a society and as a country, will better meet the needs of individuals facing poverty, addictions, mental health issues, and other health issues. So, we have to take a good look at the big picture, but we also have to recognize that this is a real-life story of individuals. This is tricky. So, giving the big picture and each of the individual, personal stories attention is important. And it is important now. That is why Clean Sweep carries a lot of power now, and all the time. I have said to others, “Clean Sweep is a must read because it matters.”

You talk of this being a story of individuals, so, of course, I want to know if you base the characters in Clean Sweep on real people.

The characters in Clean Sweep are not based on specific individuals. I, like most people, know a number of people who have faced chemical imbalances and mental health challenges, and continue to face chemical imbalances. I know people who have hit upon hard times, for one reason or another. I know people fighting various addictions. I have also consciously observed people I do not know personally, to help me develop my characters. I have spoken with still others, who have been introduced to me in the course of my research to learn more of the stories of the people who are living on our sidewalks, or who once lived on them. I believe characters in books of fiction are almost always conglomerations of people we have known or have seen, but are not exact replicas. No, the fun part of more fully developing a person as a character in our books is left to the author.

What sort of relationship exists between you and the characters you have created in this book?

My characters are real to me. They represent real people facing real challenges. I see them on the streets. I totally picture them as though they are real. I expect to see them when I walk a city street in Manhattan, where the story takes place. I feel a sense of empathy and responsibility for the characters, as I want readers to feel for them. One of the challenges I had to work through, in writing this novel, was to create characters that readers could also envision and with whom readers could relate, while knowing I had to limit, to a certain extent, my characters to those who could converse or interact with those trying to help. This is to say, I recognize certain individuals who are street homeless in real life might not be able to communicate with someone trying to help in the way that unfolds in Clean Sweep. To have a story, however, I had to have interactions through which readers could connect. This was an interesting challenge for me.

Now that Clean Sweep is finished, what’s next?

The writing of Clean Sweep is done, but the book must now find readers, or readers must find the book. To give Clean Sweep wings, I am hoping to make in-person appearances for readings, participate in several blog tours, and to meet readers. As to writing, I am about halfway through a first draft of another novel, also serious fiction, but very different from Clean Sweep. Of course, I know the ending, and I am working to fill in the space between the halfway-mark and the end, based on a working outline. True to the way I work, I also am periodically adding notes to a computer folder I have going for a series of three related cozy mysteries that I have put next on my writing agenda.

What is the most difficult aspect of writing and being an author.

Not having nearly enough time to write all of the novels I want to write. I am so excited to be an author and writer. I love creating stories and sharing stories. It is what I am meant to do at this point in my life. I have a “to do” list a mile long and I wish I could write fifty times faster than I do. I want these stories to be told! I truly wish to touch readers in both intellectual and emotional ways.

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