by Terry Hong
With his eyes and body still “bleary from post-windsurfing and traveling,” Don Lee nonetheless graciously agrees to be grilled yet again – we’re going on a decade-plus of various interviews through four books! He’s tired, he’s rambling, but he’s always entertaining … and once more he’s game to talk about all manner of things, from writing and ethnicity, to blooming late and Eeyore-style lamentations.
Terry Hong: With all that literary editing, mentoring, teaching, how come you didn’t publish until you were 41?
Don Lee: Oh, I could give you all kinds of excuses: that I was busy with Ploughshares (true), that each short story took me a long time to write (very true), that I never really planned or wanted to publish a book (sort of true), that I was happy writing stories once a year or so and getting them into journals (almost true), but frankly, the real reason was that I was scared shitless. I think unconsciously I didn’t want to lay it all out on the line and try to publish a book and then fail. It was easier not to try.
But then I turned 38, and I decided I’d really like to have a book, one book, before I turned 40. I didn’t want to end up thinking for the rest of my life about what could have been, and become bitter. So I wrote two new stories, revised a bunch of old stories to form a collection, and set about finding an agent to represent me, all of which took over a year and a half. Whereas the goal originally (and unrealistically) had been to publish a book by the time I turned 40, the new goal became to sell the book by then, and I did: W. W. Norton offered me a book contract the week I turned 40, and Yellow was published the following year [in 2001].
TH: Okay, so what prompted you to write that first story? And how did that first story eventually morph into the determination to become a writer for real?
DL: Unlike many authors, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer at 7 years old or whatnot. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. I was, however, a tinkerer as a kid. I would take apart things, make things. My bedroom was scattered with detritus—tools, wires, glue, balsa wood, batteries, a soldering iron, capacitors, motors, model cars and planes. When it came time to go to college, my quixotic plan was to get my mechanical engineering degree and then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and build and pilot underwater submersibles (I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid). I was a dreamer. I didn’t write a short story until my sophomore year at UCLA, after a comp teacher told me I had a flair for words and might enjoy taking a creative writing class.
TH: And now four books—and oh so many awards!!—later, are you still scared shitless? Or are you finally resting a bit on your laurels?
DL: Naw, I’m still a tortured soul who never allows himself to feel good about his accomplishments, who doesn’t really believe he’s accomplished anything. And yes, each time I start another book, I am petrified that I won’t be able to pull it off and finish it, and if I can, that I won’t be able to sell it, and if I can, that no one will like it. Why do I keep doing it, then? Because it’s a challenge, and I’m compelled to do it, and I love being inside the process of writing a novel, of thinking about it all the time and figuring out structure and motifs and themes and connections. In a way, I’m still a tinkerer, building things with words.
TH: So you’ve done short stories, a mystery, dysfunctional family comedy, and an epic bildungsroman. We know how Yellow came to be … how about Country of Origin?
DL: Given my background [of international moves], I was fascinated by the milieu of foreign service officers and expatriates. Originally, I was going to write a story only about Tom, the hapa junior foreign service officer. But while I had a situation, I didn’t have a plot to drive the story forward. The breakthrough came when I heard about a young Englishwoman who went missing, who had been a hostess in Tokyo. And I knew from my past that one of the duties of a vice consul in consular services is to take care of the welfare and whereabouts of their citizens. So then I had my story.
TH: … and Wrack and Ruin?
DL: After all the research I did for Country of Origin, I wanted to do something simpler, and going back to Rosarita Bay seemed simple to me at the time, since I’d made up the town. But I ended up doing quite a bit of research on various topics anyway for that book, especially about organic farming. I read somewhere that only three things grow in that area of California: artichokes, pumpkins, and Brussels sprouts. I loved the idea of someone growing Brussels sprouts—the one vegetable most everyone hates. The novel took off from there.
TH: … and, of course, The Collective?
DL: The book arose from a false start. The original novel I’d planned was going to be called Every Now and Then, and it was going to be in first person, narrated by a suicidal, drug-addicted, female Korean American poet amputee in a wheelchair who’s stalking her Cambridge neighbor. I told this to the sales director at Norton, and I could see his face fall in abject horror with the mere idea that he might have been asked to try to sell a book like that. But obviously I ended up dumping that particular novel, an agonizing decision for me at the time, since I was pretty far into it. I just wasn’t feeling it, though. I had been fighting it all the way. I knew I had a structurally sound idea for a book, but I finally decided it wasn’t a novel I wanted to write.
So I started from scratch again. The only thing that survived from Every Now and Then was the poet’s suicide attempt, which became the opening of The Collective, in which Joshua successfully kills himself in the same manner. (Four writers I knew, not close friends but acquaintances, killed themselves within a year and a half, and obviously that had an effect on me.) But what impelled me this time around was the thought of friendships, how they form and wane, the memory of all these great friends—all writers and artists—I’d had in my 20s and 30s in Cambridge. I missed those friends, I missed Cambridge, and I wanted to write a love letter to that period of my life, to all the starving artists I’d known.
TH: In The Collective, Militant Joshua who won’t let you ignore race in the creation of art, and Esther believes ethnicity shouldn’t be the determining factor of artistic expression—so whose “side” are you on?
DL: I side more with Esther, although you wouldn’t think so reading the novel. But you know, I go back and forth on the issue of focusing on race as a subject, as you can see from my books. Sometimes I address it full on, sometimes hardly at all. In a way, Wrack and Ruin might have been a reaction to some of the questions I was asked when promoting Country of Origin. To wit: one interviewer asked me why I thought Koreans as an immigrant group seemed to do better economically in the U.S. than other groups. That was bizarre to me. I mean, Country of Origin wasn’t even set in the U.S.; it takes place in Tokyo in 1980. How, then, did I become a socioeconomist specializing in U.S. immigration? I felt very uncomfortable being put in that position, being asked to speak as an expert on all things Asian American.
The Collective became a debate with myself about the issue, and the debate manifested itself through my characters, who ask: Do Asian American artists always have to have race as their primary subject? Do they always have to make their characters Asian American? Would it be race betrayal if they don’t? Doesn’t limiting yourself to the issue of race ghettoize yourself, or even perpetuate stereotypes?
My answers: No. No. No. Maybe. And I’ll also say that this will likely be the last time I address race so explicitly in a book. I think I’m done with it.
What’s different in The Collective, I think, is that the external incidents don’t matter as much as how the characters react to them. (That sounds facile. All fiction should do that.) But the book’s less about racism and more about how Asian Americans wrestle with internal obligations about race.
TH: While you’ve said over and over again that The Collective is NOT autobiographical, the narrator Eric Cho and you have quite a few overlaps … not to mention this is the first book written in first person. So why the first person this time? And, of course, you’ll have to ‘fess up to what’s ‘real’ …
DL: I had never written any fiction—not even a short story—in first person before. That was the challenge I posed for myself with The Collective. With each book, I try to do something very different, both technically and tonally, which is not, actually, a good career move for a writer. It’s easier on everyone—booksellers, publishers, readers, agents, reviewers—if your books follow a somewhat familiar trajectory. It’s confusing to people if you don’t, I’ve learned.
There are quite a few autobiographical elements in the book, but not as many as you may think. I’ll say this, though: this is my most personal book yet. A lot of what these characters feel, I have felt acutely at various points of my life. But most of the main actions or events in the book are made up.
TH: How different was putting together book one, Yellow, with finishing up book four, The Collective?
DL: There’s a big difference between being a debut writer and a midlist writer. With your debut, everything is new and exciting. With your fourth book, you’ve been through it all before, and although you (and your editor) still hope it’ll be a breakout novel, you know that the chances of that happening at this stage of your career are slim. All you want is for it to find a few appreciative readers and for it to do well enough so you can sell your next book.
TH: I’ve been told by more than a few writers that naming a favorite book is like choosing a favorite child. But since you don’t have any kiddies, I’m gonna risk asking you—do you have a favorite among your books?
DL: I haven’t reread any of my books except for Yellow, which I was forced to do to answer some specific questions for a couple of interviews, and also to refamiliarize myself with the setting, since I was going to use it in Wrack and Ruin. I’d say that Wrack and Ruin is probably my favorite, because I had so much fun writing it. Technically, too, it’s my most complicated book (albeit deceptively so), with long chapters without space-breaks that run in concurrent time between the two brothers’ points of view.
TH: Well, I was planning to let it go, but since you brought up Wrack and Ruin again, I have to ask—Brussels sprouts? Did you eat them by the bushel-full while doing your organic research? Love ’em or hate ’em?
DL: To be honest, I like them, but don’t love them. Hard to cook well. For research, first I visited a little organic farm outside of Boston, trying to interview the farm manager, and he was being a bit pissy and close-mouthed until I found out he was a surfer and I began talking about Maverick’s, the big-wave break near Half Moon Bay [California, the real-life inspiration for Lee’s fictional Rosarita Bay featured in Yellow], and then he opened up to me. My main source became an old hippie named Don Murch, a really colorful guy who has a farm in Bolinas [California]. I talked to him on the phone for hours.
TH: Now that you’ve managed (and so well!) all those different genres, what can possibly be next?
DL: My next challenge to myself is to write a short novel (a friend of mine used to refer to her project at the time as SBN, Short Bad Novel, and I referred to my project then, my first novel, as TFN, The Fucking Novel). I think there’s a real art to writing something that length, say less than 200 pages, and I don’t know if I’m capable of it. All my novels thus far have been over 300 pages. The new one’s going to be called Lonesome Lies Before Us. It’ll be about an alt-country singer-songwriter going on a solo acoustic tour for his latest (self-released) album, and he’ll be visiting four former bandmates in various cities. This is going to be my road trip/music book. The idea came about because I listened continuously to indie singer-songwriters like Clem Snide and A. A. Bondy and Sun Kil Moon while writing The Collective. It’s been fun gearing up for it, because I’ve been relearning guitar by watching YouTube videos.
TH: Has your writing process changed over the last decade-plus?
DL: It changed dramatically between Yellow and writing my first novel. I had to ditch my old method of eking out each line, seeking perfection. I had to learn how to write first drafts quickly, not worrying initially about the quality of the prose and just trying to lay out the story. Once a first draft is complete, revising is much easier and faster than you assume. That was the big lesson. But after Country of Origin, not much has changed, really. I’d say the only thing that’s different is that now I’m a professor, I have to follow the academic schedule and really focus on getting my work done during summers. There’s a lot of pressure to suddenly turn it on and produce once school is out. Otherwise, I still spend up to a year jotting notes and ideas in a Moleskine, then writing a sloppy first draft in a year, and then revising for another year. Or more. People don’t realize how many more revisions you do even after you sell a book. I was revising The Collective until the last possible moment, which was with the third-pass proofs, four months before publication.
TH: Last time we talked, you were about to start your latest book tour for The Collective. You admitted, Eeyore style: “I am dreading everything. There’s nothing I’m looking forward to. Even when things go well on tours … it’s still awful for someone like me, a self-flagellating worrywart.… I have felt a doom and gloom about The Collective for months now.” And then you won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature from the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, so clearly your “DOOM-indicator” is a bit off. So was the tour really that bad?
DL: Okay, I’ll confess that the anticipation was worse than the actual experience. It was a very short tour, as publishers prefer now: just five readings, and there was a good turnout at each. I did a fair number of the usual stuff, like radio interviews (for one of them, via phone, I had to sit in a tiny bathroom for 40 minutes, because I was staying in a loft on an incredibly noisy street, and it was the only room with a door I could close), but for this book release, I spent much more time answering Q&As for blogs and online magazines. That was the big change I saw from my previous tour.
TH: Now that you’re oh-so-established—and having had all those years of experience on both sides of publishing—what are the top three things you would want every newbie writer (even if he or she is older than you are!) to know before going into this sanity-challenging publishing world?
DL: Don’t do it. Ha! No, seriously, I’d say: 1) Once you sell your first book, your still-aspiring writer friends are going to act weirdly toward you. From there on out, you should only share your work-in-progress with fellow published writers. 2) Don’t get too wrapped up in looking at your sales ranking on Amazon and your rating on Goodreads, etc. Don’t read every little review or comment. Don’t Google yourself every five minutes. Tell your publisher to only alert you about the good shit. Don’t over-promote yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or your website. People will really begin to resent you if you do. 3) You’re going to experience postpartum depression: first when you finish and sell your book (because this thing that you’ve been devoting yourself to for years is finally done, and now what the hell are you going to do with your life?), and again after the book is published. Yet (don’t follow my terrible angst-ridden example!) make sure you take pride and pleasure in your accomplishment. It’s been your lifelong dream to write and publish a book, and now you have. Very few people are so lucky.
Homepage photo credit: Melissa Frost
Submersible photo credit: Wikimedia Commons