Laura Lee is the author of over 20 books, ranging from stories about Oscar Wilde, to novels, to books on language. I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to interview her, and I’m even more excited to share the interview with all of you today. 

Lee’s most recent book, Wilde Nights & Robber Barons: The Story of Maurice Schwabe, is out now.

Jocelyn: How did you first get into writing?

Laura: My father was a writer and he encouraged me. I didn’t actually think it was what I wanted to do. I studied theater in college and thought I wanted to be on the stage and was very disappointed to find that I didn’t have a talent for it. At least, I don’t think I had talent for it. I never really got cast in anything. So maybe I had this great, unrealized talent, which is what I thought at the time. I ended up writing a one act comedy about my frustration at the situation and it got much more positive feedback than my auditions ever did. 

Now I have no desire at all to act. I went into radio, and when I wrote anything people would respond favorably. It seemed to me that the positive feedback was out of proportion to the work it took to do it, and it slowly dawned on me that maybe this aptitude I had wasn’t as universal as I thought. So I followed the path of least resistance straight into a very difficult career. 

J: What is your favorite part about the writing process?

L: I like being woken up from the edge of sleep with the line or concept that brings a piece of writing together. Those things that come to you in the shower or when you’re driving and you keep repeating it to yourself so it doesn’t float away before you can write it down. I like the part where you’ve just had one of those rare instances of writing in flow and liking the results and imagining this beautiful complete work in your mind. I like when you go back into an old folder and stumble onto a piece of writing that you’d done and forgotten and it is actually quite good and you start to think about how to use it. I like all of that potential. In a lot of ways, the worst part is when you finish a book. 

J: What authors have influenced your writing style? Who do you look up to?

L: At the moment I’m trying to get back to my deep roots. The first author I really loved was Douglas Adams. This was when I was in high school. My earliest successes writing were humor. When I tried to write about things that upset me when I was young, they always came out as comedies. But who knows what I’ll end up finishing next. It will either be something that intrigues me enough over the long haul to have the momentum to finish it or something that someone assigns me and sends me a big check!

J: You’ve written such a wide array of books! What genre is your favorite to write? Which one do you find the hardest?

L: The humorous non-fiction is the easiest to write. That goes back to that early voice. They’re fun to do, and hopefully fun to read. A few of those are concepts I came up with and some were assigned to me. Some of them are actually very research heavy. They’re quick reads that take a lot of research to produce. One of the things that makes these kinds of books a bit easier is that generally you sell the idea, or are given the assignment, and you get an advance, and have your basic needs covered by the advance while writing the book. 

The harder ones are those that are speculative and self-directed where you don’t know what the result will be and if anyone will publish it. There’s an anxiousness and guilt about not making money that slips in. The novels Angel and Identity Theft took years to write, but it was also one of the greatest pleasures when the ideas for them started to come together and I got the momentum to complete them. There’s something a bit mystical in that and you’re never sure if it will ever come again. Henry Miller would tell himself “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” I get a lot of pleasure out of my work related to Oscar Wilde. I think the new book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons has to be the most intensive research project I’ve ever done. I spent almost a decade researching it through archives on multiple continents and in multiple languages. 

J: Do you feel that your degree in theater and experience producing ballet tours has influenced your writing or writing process?

L: Twenty years ago, I met a Russian ballet dancer and we embarked on an adventure. We began by trying to sell performances by his company, The Russian National Ballet Foundation. That goal was unsuccessful, but it evolved into a series of master classes and eventually into a national teaching tour that brought us to 47 states. We fell in love, and for 15 years I organized the tours and brought my partner from Moscow. Six months out of the year we drove around the country teaching children in urban areas, rural areas and suburbs. The tours didn’t make us rich, nor did the writing, but between the two I was able to patch together a living. I liked the rhythm of having these two distinct areas of focus. I could take a break from pushing myself to come up with the next great American novel or whatever and be in ballet mode. It was the happiest time of my life, and added layers of experience that you don’t get sitting behind a computer. I continued to have ideas and take notes, and then I would have these stretches where my job was to do the work of making those ideas into books. The balance has been disrupted first by the pandemic and then by the war between Russia and Ukraine. I have not been able to get my partner back here or see him except through video chat for a few years. It’s been a difficult time. 

J: Two of your books, Oscar’s Ghost and Wilde Nights & Robber Barons both focus on the people around Oscar Wilde during his life and after his death. What made you feel drawn towards Oscar Wilde?

L: It started with the text Oscar Wilde wrote in prison. It is now called De Profundis, although that name was given to it by Wilde’s friend Robert Ross after Wilde’s death. Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for the crime of “gross indecency with another male person.” The long essay began as a letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. The version that I first read was edited and released posthumously by Ross to remove most of the personal content and anything that might be considered libelous. What struck my imagination about it was what Wilde had to say about guilt. He had been jailed for something we no longer consider a crime. He wrote about how he had not done some of the things for which he was convicted, and yet there were other things he had done which had never been punished. The edited version was full of philosophical musings on these kinds of topics. Only later did I realize that there was a fuller version, released in the 1960s that included all of Wilde’s bitterness and recriminations against Lord Alfred Douglas. I found the contrast in tone of the two sections stunning. Not knowing anything yet about Douglas, it felt like it had to be grossly unfair to him. The line that stuck with me was “Do you really think that at any period in our friendship you were worthy of the love I showed you, or that for a moment I thought you were? I knew you were not.” Harsh, right?

So I started reading about Douglas. I found his personality complex and fascinating. I discovered a whole drama related to De Profundis. Douglas was reunited with Wilde after he got out of jail. They lived together for a time. Under a lot of pressure they ended up splitting but remaining close until Wilde’s death in 1900. It was only years after Wilde’s death that Douglas finally read the full doument and was confronted with what this man he loved had said about him. To see yourself reflected back in the eyes of someone you love as something a bit grotesque, and to see this at a time when you can no longer argue, get an explanation, or make amends, it had to have been deeply painful. And Douglas was a fascinating character. He was a man of extreme moods and contradictions who, tragically to my mind, spent much of his later life fighting with Wilde’s shadow and battling Robert Ross for control of the De Profundis manuscript in a vain attempt to steer how posterity would view him. The more he fought to be seen in a sympathetic light, the less sympathetic he became. All of the characters around Wilde were people who defied easy readings, simple black and white tales of good and bad. There’s a messy complexity to everyone’s motives and actions that is endlessly fascinating. 

Maurice Schwabe, the subject of my new book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, was an obscure figure when some love letters to him from Lord Alfred Douglas came to light in Australia in 2011. He had been mentioned in Wilde’s first criminal trial, but his name had been concealed, written on a piece of paper. Schwabe had introduced Wilde to the man that became his co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. Taylor had made introductions between the Wilde circle and young men who were willing to have sex for money. It turns out that Schwabe did exactly the same thing, but he was out of the country during Wilde’s trials and escaped prosecution. Initially, I just wanted to know more about Schwabe’s relationship with Douglas as I was writing Oscar’s Ghost. The more I uncovered, the more I realized that Schwabe’s connection to Wilde and Douglas was a small part of an amazing story. He went on to be part of a circle of gentleman con artists who adopted false titles of nobility, cheated at cards, seduced for profit, set up sham businesses and sold military secrets to foreign governments. It became a puzzle I felt compelled to try and solve. It gave me a chance to play detective and much of what I eventually uncovered seemed like something out of fiction. I mean, there was everything from a beautiful gun-toting stage actress who lured men to be swindled to a Hungarian card sharp who faked his own death to a dead body in a trunk to an Oscar Wilde shrine in the middle of a gay occult party. The sinking of the Lusitania even comes into the story. Schwabe operated in Australia, Africa, the Americas, you name it. I was constantly amazed by what I was finding, and it was hard to give up the hobby of searching for clues when it came time to finish the book. 

J: What made you venture into Children’s Fiction? What unique challenges arose to writing this genre?

L: It’s actually non-fiction. The funny thing about A Child’s Introduction to Ballet is that it was a concept that I proposed to my publisher at the time and they rejected it. This was the publisher that did my biggest selling book, The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. I had just started working in ballet and they had a series A Child’s Introduction to… the orchestra and so on. I thought I might be a good person to write one on ballet. When I proposed it, they passed. A few years later they came up with the idea of adding a book on ballet to the series and contacted me to see if I wanted to write one. I don’t think they remembered that I had proposed the idea myself a few years before. 

Blame it on the Rain was another rejected idea. In that case, a publisher (it might have been the same one) gave me the topic of “weather” and asked me to give them a proposal. They’d asked me to do it, but ultimately rejected it. I took one of the sections from the proposal, on how weather changed history, and my agent at the time sold it to Harper Collins. 

J: Both Angel and Identity Theft, your two published novels, feature a male protagonist. What inspired you to write from this perspective?

L: Identity Theft, is actually told with alternating perspectives between three main characters with the female character being arguably the main one. 

I don’t know that I made an active choice about the gender of the characters. It was just how the stories presented themselves to me. The initial spark of inspiration for Angel was a real person, although the finished product has nothing to do with his life. I had gone out to Seattle to speak at a conference and I took a guided bus tour of Mt. Rainier. I was inspired by the natural beauty and the fact that Rainier is a volcano that will one day erupt. The tour guide was an entertaining man who kept talking about burning out on his old job. At the end of the tour someone asked him what his job had been and he said, “a minister.” 

For years after that “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was my writing prompt. I knew that the story was something to do with beauty and how temporary it is, how temporary life is, and how the seemingly-solid has destruction in it. I was intrigued by what would make a minister burn out and what sort of beauty would draw the same man from the ministry to the mountain. I felt that there had to be something dramatic that separated this character from his congregation, something that connected to the story of the mountain. Over time, the idea that the minister had fallen in love with a man came to me. It allowed me to think about what beauty is, what it means and does for us. So Angel was about men because the initial object of my curiosity was a man and perhaps because I liked writing about male beauty. 

What is interesting in retrospect is that I wrote Angel before I read De Profundis and became so interested in Wilde. Now that I think about it, the story of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas has some common elements with the questions I was exploring in Angel. Most superficially, it was a love that the larger community did not accept. But there was also the whole aesthetic element, Oscar Wilde’s attraction to Douglas’s beauty, and the theme of that beauty having its own destruction in it. There were religious elements in De Profundis that drew me in that period when Angel had just been finished. So one project flowed fairly naturally into the other.

My earliest attempts at fiction were autobiographical and self-indulgent in the worst way. When you’re starting out you often take that dictum “write what you know” to mean narrate your story from your perspective. I was never successful at writing fiction that was worth reading until I got away from that. For me, writing what you know means taking kernels of emotional truth and experience and then imagining situations using those ingredients. Exploring what you have experienced about being human through a character that is different from you, or by using humor, is a way to have a little bit of distance. I never throw anything out, though. Who knows. Someday I might find something usable in even those embarrassing early attempts. Thank god no one was willing to publish them. 

J: What projects are you working on now?

L: Lord Alfred Douglas said of Oscar Wilde’s process, “The truth is that he would begin a work with great zeal and fury and apply himself to it and to the contemporaneous consumption of cigarettes and whiskies till he became utterly exhausted. As a rule, he completed what he had begun in a series of spurts and with periods of easy donothingness between whiles. On the other hand, there were occasions when he got stuck, and he got stuck over more than one of his plays. This is merely to say that he was like any other artist.” 

That seems like a good description of how the writing thing works. Wilde Nights & Robber Barons just came out, and that was my project for a number of years. So I’m shifting gears now and refilling the cup. (To mix a couple of metaphors and cliches) I tend to read a lot of poetry and experimental stuff between projects. At the moment, I am going back through all of my old stuff and seeing what lights a spark. I have a lot of bits and pieces and false starts. The older I get, the more old stuff there is! 

Both of my novels were things that I had left aside for quite a while before something made me see how the pieces fit and then I wrote in a fury. One of the things I’m picking around the edges of is a novel that is a bit more humorous and surreal than what I’ve done previously. If that one comes out as I am currently imagining it, it would have all female protagonists. 

J: Can you tell everyone reading this where they should follow you to stay connected?

Twitter: @LauraLeeAuthor

I just got on Mastodon