Author Marlene Lee is tucked comfortably in the back of the coffee shop, enveloped in the aroma of fresh roast. Lakota Coffee Co. is her second office, where she settles in to write and edit. There is an established rhythm; if she is deep in her work, activity hums around her, but periodically she sheds her fictional skins. “I like to break up my periods of concentration with conversations, or even just a wave,” Lee says. “You are not deeply involved. You are having social interaction for only a short while, which allows you to go back into your world.”
Lee left the Midwest years ago, living in Oregon, Washington, California and Manhattan. While maintaining a career in court reporting, Lee hoped to find literary success in the Big Apple, but she was filled with doubt.
“I thought I wasn’t New York enough, never mind that people are often plucked from obscurity, in some little town, because their writing is so good,” she said. As it turned out, only after retiring and finding her way back to mid-Missouri, did Lee seal a publishing deal. In just two years, Lee has released four books from Columbia.
Lee, 74, and her British publisher Holland House have plans to continue releasing her work at a steady pace. The prolific author had been writing for 30 years and had several manuscripts ready for final edits. She currently is in the early stages of writing yet another novel. Holland House owner Robert Peett says Lee is as easy to work with as her books are to read. “Working with Marlene has been more than a pleasure; all ego is left behind and we both focus on the book. We need to say very little usually, and Marlene sees what I am suggesting immediately; if she agrees, we move on and if she doesn’t, she makes the point with great precision. She is always right. Her writing is a joy — it seems traditional and simple, but there is a subtlety, a way of seeing, even a kind of edge that makes it unique.”
Lee’s debut novel, The Absent Woman, continues to be her bestselling work. At times met with controversy, The Absent Woman is a quietly lyrical literary novel. When readers meet the main character, Virginia, she works to embrace all her past choices and circumstances, including divorce and partial custody of her children. Readers move forward with Virginia as she learns how to embrace her new family dynamic and seeks a truth of self. Eccentric characters accent Virginia’s subtle reflections on this journey.
Another Lee work, Rebecca’s Road, is a collection of connected stories, following an extremely sheltered woman in her 50s as she boldly ventures out into the world alone on a road trip. The things Rebecca learns about herself and the world are alternately heartbreaking, humorous and inspiring.
Grey Cells Press, the mystery imprint of Holland House, released a collection of Lee’s mystery novellas.Scoville is about a detective, solving small-town murders in his unique, quiet way. The initial novella was Lee’s first work, completed when she was in her 40s.
“I fell in love with Scoville while I was writing him … making him up,” Lee says. With publisher interest and encouragement, she revisited the detective, along with characters Humbolt and Maggie Denton, for the second and third novellas.
Holland House released her most recent book, Limestone Wall, last November. The novel is set in Jefferson City, where Lee remembers a “happy childhood.” Evelyn, a widow, arrives under the ruse of a school reunion, but is truly seeking reconnection with her imprisoned mother. Lee confides that having lost her own mother at a young age was influential in the writing of this story. Creating a universe in which a daughter was estranged from her mother at the same young age, but with an actual possibility of reconnection, was therapeutic.
“Evelyn is fighting reality,” Lee says. “She is trying to write a script for herself that isn’t working and I am able to fictionally have her pass through this period and come to an acceptance.”
Lee engages in frequent readings, and is always open to joining local book clubs to discuss her work. Inquiries may be directed via comment on her website at www.marlenelee.wordpress.com.