The Last Girls Interview with Lee1: What first inspired you to write The Last Girls?
I went down the Mississippi River on a raft myself in the summer of 1966, along with fifteen other young women from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. We were inspired by our reading of Huckleberry Finn in our American Literature classes. The trip was the brain-child of Tricia Neild from Shreveport, Louisiana---the kind of girl who knew how to grab the initiative and make things actually happen. Under her leadership, we got the information; raised money; contacted a lumberyard in Paducah, Kentucky, to construct the raft; and found Captain Gordon S. Cooper, the retired riverboat captain who guided us down the river. In reality, we were NOT all English majors---what we had in common was a sense of adventure. Not every girl wants to take a trip like that, you know. Another difference is that we took two boys with us---family friends rather than boyfriends---and I have to say, they were indispensable as well as being great company. We were woefully ignorant about things like repairing the engines, for instance. In fact, we were naïve in many ways. The Mississippi River is huge, and it can be very treacherous. Our second day out, we got hit by the tail of a hurricane and thrown against the revetments at Cairo, Illinois, where we had to stay for an extra day to fix the motor, and we were all very glad to have the guys aboard. Now, of course, girls take courses like basic engine repair even in high school--- but ours was a different era, still the pre-feminist era. This is why I named the novel The Last Girls, of course. Anyway, the raft was exactly as described in the novel: a wooden platform on top of oil drums, 16 feet wide, 34 feet long, with a two-by-four railing and superstructure that we could pull a tarp over in case of rain---which was totally ineffective, of course. It looked like a floating porch. We had two forty-horsepower Evinrude motors, used mostly for steering. You have to read the charts and stay in the right channel. Thank God for the captain!
Anyway, I really was writing my first novel on board the raft, and I really did go on to become a writer, and ever since college, people have been asking me, "When are you going to write about the raft?" Because it was certainly an interesting trip. But it takes more than an interesting event-or even a series of interesting events-to make fiction. Events provide only the plot. For a good story, you've got to have meaning, you've got to have relevance. You've got to know who the characters are, and what these events meant to them. A story happens at that point where event and character coincide. For a long time---35 years! ---I couldn't figure out that second part. So I never wrote my "raft novel," though I wrote many other novels. But then to my surprise I found myself getting so OLD, and I became very interested in the long haul…… in questions like, what did our expectations have to do with the reality of our lives? What is the relationship of the past to the present? And what about those mythic ideals of romance and the Fifties Family which my generation was spoon-fed? Okay! I thought. It's time to get back on that raft. So I wrote this book out of the same impulse that causes us to go back to our 30th reunion, I guess---a "taking-stock" kind of impulse. I wrote it as fiction because I've found I can tell the truth better in fiction than in non-fiction. I'm the kind of writer who really does like to make things up, anyway---the truth can be pretty limiting, and I want to be free to fully create my characters' lives.
2. What message do you most hope readers will take away from this book?
There are several. First, I hope readers will think about how rewarding it can be to push the boundaries sometimes-to try something difficult, something original, something you really want to do. In real life, the raft trip made me realize that challenges can be exciting rather than threatening. Secondly, I want us all to understand how important---in either a negative or a positive sense--- early experiences can be in girls' lives. I taught freshman English for many years, and I was struck again and again by the depth of feeling with which young people wrote about things that happened to them during their childhood and adolescence. I get so sick of adults saying, "Oh, she's young-she'll get over it" about a girl suffering some sort of trauma. The fact is, never again in her life will this girl ever experience things so deeply, and she might NOT get over it. Who we meet and what happens to us when we are young can affect us for the rest of our lives---as it does Harriet, in the novel.
3. What is the most satisfying thing about being a writer?
The most satisfying thing about being a writer is that you get to have more than one life, in a way. When you create a character, you get to BE that character, at least for the length of the novel. In real life, I have never been---- and will never be--- a romance novelist, for instance, or an exotic dancer or an evangelist or a murderer or any of the other characters I have made up over the years, but I got to experience their lives for a little while I was writing about them. Writing has certainly broadened my horizons!