An Interview with Don Lee
Don Lee is definitely a good news-bad news sort of guy, albeit all in the same breath.
Good news: he's not going to Texas this summer, because his fourth and latest book, The Collective, is published this month and he's going on a book tour so he can meet his waiting readers across the country. Bad news: he's not going to Texas this summer -- specifically to Marfa, one of his favorite places to write -- because he's going on a book tour so he can meet his waiting readers across the country.
Good news: as soon as he gets back, he's planning to start another novel. Worst bad news: as soon as he gets back, he has to get working on another novel and start the whole cycle of worry all over again.
In spite of all that neurotic handwringing, Lee has figured out how to deliver with every book. Lee the writer arrived pretty much fully formed in 2001with his quirky debut story collection, Yellow, which was populated by the inhabitants of fictional Rosarito Bay, a northern California seaside town not unlike Half Moon Bay. His memorable cast of characters was so real, I was convinced I knew at least a few of them (I lived in that area for a few years). His many awards -- that began with the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- proved well-deserved; Lee's steadily garnered continuous kudos with the novels that followed, Country of Origin (2004) about the disappearance of an African American hapa woman in Japan, and Wrack and Ruin (2008) which returns to Lee's fictional Rosarito Bay of Yellow to the unexpected, wacky reunion of two very different brothers.
The Collective is, undoubtedly, his most personal novel, although don't let the overlaps with his real life fool you -- Lee's an incorrigible storyteller. The title refers to the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective, founded by three friends who meet at Macalaster College and reunite after graduation in Boston. Eric Cho, who narrates the novel, is a Korean American from southern California with hopes of becoming a published writer someday. Jessica Tsai is an independent, feisty artist, the child of Taiwanese immigrant parents from upstate New York. Joshua Yoon is a brilliant, angry Korean adoptee, raised as the privileged only child of two liberal Harvard professors. No spoilers (this happens in the second paragraph): Joshua's violent, shocking suicide opens Lee's third novel.
Burning first question: I have to start backward just to be contrary since I leaked the beginning. So Joshua's first book, which gets glowing reviews, is called Upon the Shore and it's set in Korea's Cheju Island. And, of course, his (chosen) last name is Yoon. Immediately when I saw that title in your Collective, I thought of Once the Shore, the much lauded debut title from Paul Yoon, which is set on an imaginary Korean island not unlike Cheju. Then I noticed that Paul Yoon gets a nod in your acknowledgments so obviously you must have a personal relationship with him. Upon the Shore, Once the Shore, Joshua Yoon, Paul Yoon? Any correlation intended? You would not want to wish Joshua's career and life on Paul, would you?
I'm good friends with Paul Yoon, and it was all an inside joke, but now you've outed us, dammit! I first met Paul in Boston. His girlfriend, the writer Laura van den Berg, was my student at Emerson, and then in 2008, the three of us became close when we were all living near Harvard Square for the summer, within blocks of each other. They've become two of my dearest friends. Paul is famously reclusive and private. For a while, Laura maintained a hilarious fake Twitter account for him, @No1Hermit (he made her take it down eventually). So to needle him, I initially used the title Upon the Shore in a short story of mine, referring to a cheesy fictitious film, and then decided to use the title and his last name in The Collective for Joshua, and it grew from there. But no, Paul is not at all like Joshua. He's a strangely upbeat person. I'm much more like Joshua than he is -- morose and prone to depression and pessimistic by nature.
Now that you've 'fessed up to your resemblance to Joshua, I must ask the next obvious question: how much of The Collective is real? I know writing in first person sometimes can bring up that sort of question, and this is your first book in first person, right? Certainly the details of Macalaster College are authentic as you were there for a year teaching, and you were also an editor at Ploughshares for years and years before your Midwest gig. You don't necessarily have to reveal details -- although you're more than welcome to if you want to! -- but maybe you might share a few general overlaps to real life?
Yup, first thing I've ever written in first person. 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 -- a few of my romantic disasters and a lot of the staging, like the old Ploughshares office in Watertown, which was the shithole I describe for Palaver -- but not as many as you may think. I didn't hang out with many Asian Americans in Boston, because often I was the sole non-white person in the room when I went to literary events. I was never in an artists' collective, though later on I had friends in the Dark Room Collective [founded in 1988 in Boston by a group of established and emerging African American poets]. I never got caught up in any of the racial controversies that are portrayed (I based the rigmarole with Jessica and the Cambridge Arts Council on my friend Hans Evers's experience way back in 1994, but embellished it with a racial component). 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.
I loved Joshua's obsession with Haruki Murakami the runner... I'm still chuckling at the oddest moments over the "Is that him?" reference. I myself am a running-Murakami groupie, that is, I've so enjoyed running with a Murakami title stuck in my ears. So does this mean you're a runner, a Murakami groupie, or both?
Both. I was a real Murakami junkie for a while, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle remains one of my favorite books. I used to run every day along the Charles River in Boston for something like fifteen years, but eventually my knees gave out, so I started biking. Man, I miss running, the simplicity and accessibility and meditative quality of it.
The only time I caught sight of Murakami was at MIT, where he was giving a reading. There were no seats left, and the guards started herding the people who were standing, including me, out of the auditorium, so I never got to see him read, but I veered down a hallway and passed right by him as he waited to enter.
We published a story of his in Ploughshares, but I only dealt with his agent in New York, his assistant in Tokyo, and his translator, Jay Rubin, at Harvard. But the assistant asked for five extra copies of the issue to be shipped to Minami Aoyama, and it made me happy to imagine Murakami thumbing through them.
I've sort of skirted around the main question: how did The Collective come about?
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 recently 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 twenties and thirties 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.
So whose "side" are you on? Militant Joshua who won't let you ignore race in the creation of art, or Esther who believes ethnicity shouldn't be the determining factor of artistic expression?
I side more with Esther, although you wouldn't think so reading this 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.
You've written short stories, a mystery, a comedy, and now a bildungsroman, more or less. What's next?
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. I'm not sure what it'll be about yet, other than that it'll have a hapa alt-folk-country singer-songwriter. It might also be about sustainable building and food and fracking. Or not, since those subjects might push the book over 200 pages.
You started your literary career with short stories... not to play favorites at all, but I confess that Yellow sets my heart aflutter. Think you might be writing another collection anytime soon?
I've written just four stories since Yellow, which came out eleven years ago, so another collection won't be in the offing for quite a while. To tell you the truth, I just don't think in short stories anymore. People always used to say that my stories were novelistic. Often I tried to pack whole lifetimes in them. I've found that the novel is a more natural medium for me, with that sort of inclination, allowing a larger scope.
Frankly, writing novels is also more practical for me right now, since these days most of my writing time is limited to summers. I generally take two years or so to write a novel: six months figuring out the story and doing research, a year for the first draft, then six more months doing revisions. After that, there are up to six more months of revision with my editor at Norton, Alane Mason. A story usually takes me at least three months to write, but then I have to start all over again and come up with another story idea, whereas I can immerse myself in a novel for the duration. I really hate starting anew.
Do you have a different writing process for different genres?
Not so much a different process as a different mindset. A story is very finite. You can see the ending, and you can write a first draft relatively quickly toward that ending. The pleasure then is in the revision. I remember for the last story I wrote, I tinkered with a single line for four hours, and I thought, "What a luxury this is, a joy, to indulge in language at this minute level." There's much less anxiety in writing a story. If it's not quite working, you can set it aside for a while. There's no shame if you do.
Writing a novel, on the other hand, is rife with anxiety, from start to finish. At least for me. There's an enormous amount at stake -- two, three, four, five years of your life. If you fail, it's absolutely devastating. When beginning a novel, I worry that I might have characters and a situation, but not a semblance of a plot – something to propel the thing. In the middle, I worry that I might have a plot, but it's too thin or ludicrous, and I don't have an ending yet. Near the end, I worry that maybe the whole fucking thing was misconceived to begin with. I never stop worrying, I never enjoy any part of writing a novel, until I'm in the last stages of revision, when a few tweaks seem to bring everything together ("seem" is the operative word there). I doubt myself every step of the way, and I have to push myself to somehow continue without getting completely mired in paralysis and self-loathing. You have to have faith that it'll all work out in the end, but it's a constant mindfuck.
Well... so now we know what you're like as a person: "morose and prone to depression and pessimistic by nature." You've just confessed you're a paralyzed, self-loathing writer. Now that we got all that out of the day, dare I ask... so what are you like as a teacher? What might your best students say? What might your worst students add?
I think the students who like me would say that what I do well is create a very laid-back, non-combative atmosphere in workshops. The students who don't like me would probably cite the very same reason.
In Temple's MFA program, where I've been for three years now, what I really love is what they call "Manuscript Tutorial." You work with a second-year student in one-on-one meetings all semester, which allows us to do two things you usually can't do in MFA programs: focus intensely on revisions of stories, and work on novels.
As a professor, I think I'm best teaching students how to become better line editors of their own manuscripts, which is a skill I picked up at Ploughshares.
Do you miss that high-power editing -- the nineteen years at Ploughshares? I assume it was nothing like Eric's experience at Palaver!
DeWitt Henry, the founding editor of Ploughshares, was nothing like Palaver's Evan Paviromo, that's for sure, but when I started as the office manager and then the managing editor, I did everything that Eric does in the book -- all the manual labor that's involved in what's called, ironically and hilariously, fulfillment. Eventually we had enough money to farm that shit out. What I miss most about the job is being a jack-of-all-trades. Even though we quadrupled the budget while I was there, we remained a shoestring operation. So I had to figure out ways to streamline things. I programmed databases and did all the typesetting and the bookkeeping and the spreadsheets and created these elaborate systems so we could save time and not have to spend money on outsourcing. I was constantly learning things there. There'd be an inefficiency, and I'd have to devise a way to fix that inefficiency. It appealed to the DIY geek side of me.
What I don't miss is the impression of being a high-powered editor. I'm the type of person who wants respect, who wants to be very good at his job, but who doesn't care about power. That's not what drives me at all. I don't give a damn about hierarchy or being prominent or the one who makes the decisions, being the so-called gatekeeper. And in fact that's what I hated about editing Ploughshares (well, actually, what I really hated was dealing with petty college administrators who treated us like shit, but that's another story), how many people viewed me that way, and the enmity it generated.
When I went to the AWP conference, there were two ways people approached me. One was, "Oh, you're Don Lee! I love Ploughshares! Can I send you a story sometime?" The other was, "Oh, you're Don Lee. You rejected a story of mine last week" (as if I read every submission). The sycophancy was tolerable, yet it was a drag, all those years, having thousands of people automatically assuming I was an asshole.
Just in case you were wondering, I've never sent you a story, and I never ever plan to! And I promise to call you names only to your face; the good stuff I'll whisper behind your back. So Ploughshares for you -- been there, done that, moving on... now what's TINGE -- Temple University's online literary journal you founded two years ago -- like?
The major difference for me is that I'm not the editor, just the advisor. It's edited by the graduate students in the MFA program, and I lucked out having an incredibly capable young woman, Sonja Crafts, serve as the editor for the first two years. She has exactly the right qualities to be a good editor -- namely, being obsessive about the details, a perfectionist.
My only responsibilities were the design of the website and the setup of the editorial staff. Well, maybe some procedures as well (I teach a course on editing in conjunction with the journal). I worked with a designer in North Carolina named Randy Skidmore, and although the process was arduous, I had a lot of fun getting back into the nitty-gritty of website design and layout, of conceptualizing a brand-new journal.
You've had a rather peripatetic life -- Japan, Korea, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan… and now Philadelphia. Do you think you might settle for a while? I hear you're not exactly in love with Philly (in spite of the amazing gelato there on Walnut Street). Do you think you'll stay? Maybe as long as you can escape most summers?
I don't think it's so much Philly as this juncture in my life. At my age (fifty-two), it's hard to establish new friendships, people you can do things and go to events with, talk to on a regular basis. Everyone's married, has kids, busy. I'm single (look, I'm fucked up, all right?), so I'm alone much of the time, always feeling somewhat unmoored and adrift. I'm realizing I'd feel this way in any city, and perhaps I should give Philly a chance. A lot of people ardently love the place. But the thing is, I've found as I've gotten older that I like small towns, even ones as small as Marfa, Texas, which has a population of 2,000. Of course, Marfa is an anomaly, an oasis for artists in the high desert. It's very much like living on an island. I've spent the last two summers there, the first through a Lannan Residency. Maybe the solution, as you suggest, is simply to go to Marfa every summer.
What are you most looking forward to on this latest upcoming book tour? What are you dreading most?
Oh, I am dreading everything. There's nothing I'm looking forward to. Even when things go well on tours (the book's reviewed well, decent audiences show up for readings, there's press coverage, sales are respectable), it's still awful for someone like me, a self-flagellating worrywart. But increasingly, with the way the book business is going, the chances of things going well are slim. I have felt a doom and gloom about The Collective for months now. This is exactly what I despise about writing books -- publishing them. I want them to come out, I want people to read them and like them, but I can't begin to describe how much publication fucks with my head. It's months of anticipation, and dread, and hope, and disappointment, and momentary pipe dreams, and despair, and last chances to be saved, and humiliation. I just want it to be over with so I can move on. But then, alas, I'll have to start another novel.
And thank god we all have that to look forward to!
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.