Tosca Lee is a New York Times bestselling-author and Lincoln resident who is renowned for her thriller and historical fiction novels. In 2010, Lee partnered with bestselling-author Ted Dekker to create their post-apocalyptic series “The Books of Mortals.” Some of Lee’s solo works include “Havah: The Story of Eve,” “Iscariot” and “The Line Between.” Her most recent book, “A Single Light,” was released in September 2019 and thrusts readers into a dystopian reality through the eyes of two American soldiers who must save their disease-riddled country from mass extinction.
The former Mrs. Nebraska America 1996 first added a published book to her trophy case in 2006 when her debut work, “Demon: A Memoir,” was released after a six-year process of contacting publishers and being rejected. Since then, Lee has authored or co-authored 13 different novels during her career.
Lee discussed her career successes and highlights with The Daily Nebraskan, hoping to give fans an insight into her work process and impart wisdom and encouragement for readers and aspiring authors alike.
The Daily Nebraskan: To start off, could you tell me about your life before you started writing?
Tosca Lee: Sure, I was born in Virginia, but we moved [to] Nebraska right before I started first grade. My dad used to teach at Virginia Tech, and we ended up moving to Nebraska because my dad took a position in the business management department in the [formerly] College of Business Administration at UNL. He taught at the university for 35 years, and he just retired a few years ago, though he still has an office on campus.
So, that’s what brought us to Nebraska. My mother is actually [a] native Nebraskan, so, in a way, it’s kind of back home to her. So, I did most of my growing up in Lincoln and went to grade school and high school there, and I went to Lincoln East, and then I went away for college. I went to Smith College in Massachusetts, came back after that, and I wrote on staff at Smart Computing Magazine for a couple [of] years — oh, I should back up.
I started writing my first novel after my freshman year of college in the summer. The way that that happened is really kind of a fun story. I was supposed to work at a bank downtown on 13th Street that summer. I was chatting with my dad about one of [my] favorite books of all-time, which is “The Mist of Avalon,” and I was telling my dad about how really good books are like roller coasters because they have these drops, spins, curves and twists and turns, and I just blurted out that day, “I think I’d like to write a novel.”
My dad said, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. I will pay you what you would’ve made at the bank if you will spend your summer writing your first novel full time and treat it like your job.” So, that’s how I started writing my first novel. That was 1989 … I tried to get it published but was profoundly rejected because it wasn’t very good, but there’s no way to learn how to write a novel other than writing one.
The DN: Why do you write? Is there a message you’re trying to portray?
Lee: That’s a really good question. The “why” has changed. At the very beginning, it was to see if I could, and also because I really loved reading novels. I just loved it so much, I wanted to see if I could provide the same kind of escape that novels had given me.
My other novels were to explore. I’ve written historical novels, so it’s a great way to explore history — how things are different, how people and things are really the same and how things don’t change that much. Today, my biggest “why” is to entertain people.
Let’s face it, if all we wanted to do was learn, we would be reading nonfiction. Readers who love novels will read them to leave this reality for a while and to escape. I write novels to provide that escape for them, and I love it.
The DN: What has been your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
Lee: I think my biggest accomplishment and the biggest thing you can achieve as a writer is just being allowed to become a part of other people’s lives.
When other people read your books, and if they decide your books are among their favorites or you become one of their favorite authors, you’ve essentially become a part of that person’s life. They will remember that they read your book during this point of their life or when they were going through something. Whether it’s a tough time or they read it on a memorable vacation, your books become landmarks in that person’s life.
The DN: What have you written that is most personal to you?
Lee: They’re all personal to me. I was falling in love with my husband when I wrote “The Legend of Sheba” about the Queen of Sheba. So, that is a very personal novel to me because of that.
Also, when the book came out, I was doing my very first book signing of it at the Barnes & Noble at SouthPointe [Pavilions]. My husband-to-be, boyfriend at the time, stood in line at my book signing, and when he came up to me to get his book signed, I said, “You don’t have to stand in line. I’ll sign your book anytime,” and he said, “No, I want you to sign it now.” So, I turned to the title page, which is what I always sign, and he had already written a message there. At the end of the message, it said, “Will you marry me?” He proposed to me at a book signing at Barnes & Noble for that book, so that one is very personal.
The DN: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Lee: The standard advice is [to] read a lot and write a lot. You have to read a lot — you have to see how good stories are put together. Read books that you love and analyze and find out why you love these books so much.
The other thing is, you can’t talk about writing, you can’t plan to write — you have to sit down and write. It’s going to be messy, and it may not be very good. Parts of it may be good, and parts of it may be terrible, but that’s okay. You have to be willing to write through it.