Prior to earning her MFA from Northwestern University, Joyce Becker Lee worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, theater columnist, textbook developer, and high school and college instructor of English, Writing, and Theater. Her stories, features, and poetry have been published extensively in print and online, and she also writes novels, plays, and screenplays, and has developed a television series based on the characters in a small-town community theater. A dedicated theater lover, she has spent a lifetime in educational, community, and professional theater as a director and performer, and is the writer/composer of seven children’s musicals. She enjoys volunteer work for civic and animal-related causes and is a busy hands-on grandmother. Her collection of short stories, Casualties, is published by Tortoise Books.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
I can’t remember a time I didn’t write. I just always did. I wrote my first novel at age 9 (it was a short one) and was always thinking about how I could rearrange on paper whatever was happening in my life. I simply enjoyed playing with words, trying new ones, shaping sentences. creating moods. I would read things and think about how I would write those ideas and make them more personal to me, or how I could make them more relevant to others. Then in high school, a teacher listened to a story I’d written and said, “You are a writer.” I’d never considered it before, but suddenly it all made sense, and I never looked back.
What inspired you to start writing this book?
This collection of short stories came about over a number of years. Some had been published in magazines or journals, others were just thoughts that came to me and grew. I always knew they needed an audience, and I am grateful that my publisher at Tortoise Books agreed. It has been very encouraging!
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
The title, Casualties, came from the lead story, which was about how people were affected by the fear and subsequent hatred that came from antisemitism or any kind of bigotry. The story was based on the true history of my aunt, who went to high school during World War II and was the only Jewish kid in school. While her situation was never as violent or hateful as in the story, it affected her entire life, and she would tell me about that. Then, when I, and later my sons, attended the same school, we had our own experiences that made us the casualties as well. The theme seemed to work with the other stories as well, which all dealt with people who, like all of us, were casualties of life choices made by themselves and others. My characters reflect the weaknesses of us all—weaknesses that force us to deal with life the best we can.
Describe your dream book cover.
I like things that are very plain and clear. Busy, messy covers or photographic images of people on a cover do not appeal to me. I initially thought up the idea of a heart with a bandaid across it, and I liked the Valentine aspect that came with this particular image. Life is a valentine, though perhaps sometimes a used, beat-up one that might have cracks and imperfections that we still must deal with.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I have always worked in something that dealt with writing whether it was in a newspaper or for a publisher. I also wrote radio commercials for a while, which was a lot of fun! I taught middle school, high school, and college English and Drama for a number of years as well. Theater has always been my passion, and I am a pretty decent director. Even there, my writing took over, and I wrote a number of children’s musicals, which were all produced. What people don’t always know about me is that I sang opera for a number of years for both a professional and a university company—I’m no great diva, but I have a strong voice and I can blend well in a chorus; it was a great joy of my life. I am actually quite shy, but my drama background helps me overcome that timidity when talking or presenting to others.
What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?
My biggest influence as a writer would have to have been Ray Bradbury, whose short stories and novels should be a guiding light for every writer. The Martian Chronicles has been my own touchstone, a masterful work that is entertaining, thoughtful, and beautifully written. I love how Bradbury’s writing stretches the reader beyond the literal work, raising ideas that are richer and deeper, and filled with humanity and wonder. That is a goal to shoot for!
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
I hope my readers enjoy the eclectic nature of the stories—I like to feel that they each present a different side of me, from hopeful to hurt to humorous, from nostalgic to damaged to angry, and I hope readers come away from my stories feeling as if they know and understand the characters. I guess my perfect reader would be someone who simply wants to be entertained, but is also a little surprised that the works force them to think a little about their own multiplicity.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.