Victor Robert Lee interviewed by Susan Voss at the launch of the Performance Anomalies audiobook, read by David Pittu, in May 2017
Reality in your fiction: how important is it? Lengthy travel, cussing, and bathroom breaks happen in real life. How do you address these mundane occurrences in your writings?
VRL: If it’s mundane, I avoid it and take another path to move the story forward. But in a realistic story, characters still have to get from A to B, so within that motion you try to add elements that build on the personalities or the dilemma. Reality as a mindset in the novel Performance Anomalies is essential; even though Cono 7Q has capabilities that derive from an accelerated nervous system, there is a lot of scientific plausibility behind it. Researchers are just beginning to identify many examples of human performance anomalies based on rare genetic variations.
If you could be an extra on a TV show or movie, what would it be and what would you be doing?
VRL: I don’t watch TV, so it would be a movie— any movie by Werner Herzog, either documentary or fiction feature. What would I be doing? I’d be watching his every move as director and thinker. The crashing through the (real) jungle in outrageously brilliant Aguirre, the Wrath of God and then in Fitzcarraldo— that was more than three decades ago, and today he is still pushing the envelope all the time. Guts and creative force. I’ll be his extra anytime.
What decade from the last century would you pick to have been a teenager in?
VRL: The decade around 1900, when the Wright Brothers and Santos-Dumont and others were showing humans could fly. The inventiveness and courage and willingness to leap (literally) into the unknown— I’m in awe. I’ve flown hang- gliders and para-gliders and I love flight. If I’d been a teen then I would have volunteered to sweep sawdust or glue paper to wooden airframes, just to get close to liftoff, and maybe fly myself. Last month I visited the mountain site above Florence that Leonardo da Vinci used to test his flying machines in about 1506; it’s likely he built the first successful hang-glider. But then we had to wait four hundred years for the story to restart.
Who are some of your favorite book villains?
VRL: Hazel Motes, from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Favorite— not really, but most searing, yes. And villain isn’t the right word; “disturbing protagonist” is probably more accurate. His twisting and manipulative pseudo-religiosity is scary enough, but you also get the sense he’s a psychopath one inch away from mass murder. And there is plenty of that in the world today; the difference now is that technology has made large-scale killing easy for your average Joe or Jane. Real-world villains are now dime-a-dozen— if I may digress for a moment, I wish the media wouldn’t publish images of mass murderers, over and over. In most cases, that is exactly the reward they were seeking.
Your news reporting keeps you traveling. What city has captivated you?
VRL: Many cities have grabbed me, and despite my travels I think I can say I’m not one of Graham Greene’s characters who “gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth.” I’m still pretty rough, and I prefer to travel that way. The impression of each place, each city, is governed by the big When, because cities, especially, change. Almaty in Kazakhstan, a beguiling favorite of mine in the past, is now a sprawling city with ugly modern features. Samarkand in Uzbekistan has turned into a place of hardship and crude oppression. Beijing, once so captivating and a destination for me dozens of times, is now a cloud of unbreathable paste; some of my friends there are moving to Los Angeles to escape the pollution — ironic, considering the smog in L.A. was the world’s worst 30-40 years ago.
It's time for you to host the book club. Who do you invite (living, dead, fictional, real)? And what 3 books will you be discussing?
VRL: Fair warning: I’m not a very good host! I like people, but I’m less and less sociable. Maybe I have been rubbed (or scratched) by too many cities, after all! Of course I would reach back in time for my guests— Confucius, Bertrand Russell, Einstein. Instead of discussing books, I’d ask them what they left out of their own writings during their lives. The things they didn’t say but should have, if they’d had more time or freedom. I’d also invite Catherine the Great of Russia, to keep the others on their toes.
What were you like as a kid? Did your kid-self see you being a writer?
VRL: I was outdoors a lot as a kid. Collecting discarded liquor bottles from ditches, burying used washing machines with top-hatches for war games in the woods near the river, pinching the glowing abdomen off fireflies and sticking it to my forehead in the dark, searching for the perfect bluejay feather that might have fallen among the weeds.
When I was about thirteen I wrote a short editorial for the school newspaper, prodded by my English teacher. I didn’t know what to make of the satisfaction it gave me— such a little thing; why this feeling? My later training was mostly in hard sciences, except for a college minor in English Literature, which prevented the writing flame from being extinguished.
What is the first book you remember reading on your own?
VRL: I think it was The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which I asked my mother to read to me over and over again when I was very young, until I could probably read it myself without even looking at the words. Big shout-out to all patient Moms!
Can we expect further adventures of Cono 7Q?
VRL: Performance Anomalies is just a beginning for Cono 7Q. His strange heritage— Chinese, Russian, European and other unknown roots, coupled with his languages and experiences, make him an espionage agent for our age. For better or worse, the emerging new cold war between America and both China and Russia will be fertile ground for Cono’s interventions, real or imagined. I am grateful to David Pittu, the protean Broadway actor who read the Performance Anomalies audiobook. How can he create so many distinctive voices—male and female—and dead-on accents, all so naturally? Another example of a performance anomaly?
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The original interview can be found here: