Don Lee

Don Lee

Don Lee

Don Lee’s novel The Collective, won the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. He is also the author of the novels Wrack and Ruin, Country of Origin, and the story collection Yellow. He has received an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, GQ, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. For many years, he was the editor of Ploughshares. He teaches in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. Photo: Melissa Frost

“I Took It As a Dare,” An Interview with Don Lee

This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “I love that Don is not afraid to confront his inner turmoil, or that of the surrounding world, and then transpose it into an accessible story. His responses were candid, uninhibited, much like his writing, which I found refreshing. It was a great opportunity to interview and thus learn from him.” In this interview, Don discusses his process, as well as reflects on his inspiration for Yellow, as well as The Collective.

Superstition Review: Yellow, your debut collection, was heralded as a witty, introspective work. The characters are well constructed and their lives are a sharp reflection of those living in real, modern communities of diverse Asian Americans. Could you speak to the source of inspiration for writing this book?

Don Lee: The stories in that collection were written over the course of ten years—perhaps longer. Some of them, I wrote the initial drafts in graduate school. After I got my degree, I taught eight classes a year as an adjunct and was also working part-time at Ploughshares. I wasn’t getting much writing done. Then I began working full-time for Ploughshares and devoted my life to the job. Basically I wrote a story every year or so, just to keep my hand in. I talked a good game about being a writer, but I wasn’t really writing. I was, in essence, a dilettante.

I think there were three key moments in how the book finally came together. First, I wrote the title novella "Yellow" after years of not wanting to write stories related to the “Asian American experience.” Second, I wrote the opening story in the collection, "The Price of Eggs in China," on my couch while watching sports on TV. Before then, I’d always been so serious (precious) about my writing habits, needing a long block of time, the right pen, the right pad of paper, the right mood. I decided to take myself away from all of that, to take myself less seriously. I wanted to loosen all those old strictures. Consequently, it was the first story where I allowed myself to exhibit a sense of humor. Third, when I was around thirty-eight, after pretty much having relegated writing to a sideline or hobby, I decided I wanted to publish a book. I resolved to lay it all out on the line and go for it or shut up about it, and I spent the next two years working hard, revising the old stories, writing new ones, shaping the collection, finding an agent. I sold the book the week of my fortieth birthday, which had been my goal.

SR: When originally published, several stories from Yellow were cast with non–Asian American leads. What informed your decision to switch ethnicities for this compilation?

DL: A lot of this had to do with resenting the suggestion when I was starting out as a writer that I should write about the Asian American experience and have Asian American characters. I thought the suggestion was, in and of itself, racist, that I was being told I shouldn’t step out of the ethnic literature box, that I should know my place. But I didn’t want to be labeled as an ethnic writer, and I wasn’t interested in writing about being an immigrant or setting stories in Old Asia. I had no connections to those stories. They weren’t my stories. So essentially my reaction to those suggestions was, Fuck you. I thought I should be able to write whatever I wanted, and the ethnicity of my characters was immaterial. Thus, my characters were either unspecified in terms of race or even white.

But eventually I had to acknowledge that race did matter to me, that I had faced racism, especially in Boston, and that tapping into my anger and confusion and discomfort with the issue of race could be powerful and generative. The process began with the novella “Yellow,” and as I was revising the stories for the collection, I thought thematically it’d be tighter to have all Asian American characters, but with a caveat. I didn’t want to make a big deal about their being Asian American. The characters are Asian American, but they’re regular people, and, with two exceptions, they populate regular stories—not polemics about race. Weirdly, this was considered somewhat revolutionary, which shows you how endemic that ethnic literature box was back then. I’m still very ambivalent about all of this, which is why I tend to alternate: one book will touch on elements about race, then the next will not (or at least not much very much).

SR: Out of the myriad of stories shared in Yellow, which resonated with you most? If you were going to revisit one of the characters from the collection, who would you pick and why?

DL: Probably those two stories I already mentioned, the ones that bookend the collection, resonated the most for me: "The Price of Eggs in China" and "Yellow." I revisited the first story when I was asked to contribute to the anthology Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane, from Akashic Books. I wrote a prequel called "The Oriental Hair Poets" as a lark. And I had in mind a companion to "Yellow," except from a female point of view, with a story called “UFOs” that appeared in The Kenyon Review. I liked the idea of having an unsympathetic protagonist in both "Yellow" and "UFOs.” I’ve thought often of a little book called The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s study of the short story (which has been reprinted by Melville Books). In it, O’Connor posits that while novels must have at least one relatable character, short stories are freer to explore a “submerged population group,” characters on the fringes of society who might not be very likable.

SR: You have stated in previous interviews that your latest novel, The Collective, began as a novel about a suicidal female poet. When you began The Collective, it sprang from the idea presented in three pages of that original novel. Why the shift in storylines? How did you arrive at the decision to narrate through the eyes of Eric Cho?

DL: This is related to my previous answer, actually. I wanted to challenge O’Connor’s assertion that a novel shouldn’t have an unsympathetic protagonist. I took it as a dare. I came up with a suicidal drug-addicted stalker poet amputee. (Okay, maybe there’s a motif about nutty poets running through my work; I’ve had a lot of poet friends, and I dated a few.) The first line was: “Just so you know, I am a hateful person.” The poet tries to kill herself and runs in front of a car, but she survives, albeit she loses part of a leg. However, the driver, a woman, and her daughter are killed when the woman tries to swerve to avoid the poet and ends up rolling the car. There are no witnesses, and the poet tells no one that she caused the woman and child’s deaths. In fact, it comes out that the woman had been drunk (and was having an affair), and everyone assumes that she had been at fault, and the surviving husband/father feels sorry and responsible for the poet amputee. He’s a doctor, and learns that she hasn’t been rehabbing like she should to transition from a wheelchair to a prosthetic, so he contacts her to try to help. They fall in love.

I spent about a year on this novel. I wrote the first thirty pages, outlined the whole thing, did all kinds of research on amputees and prosthetics and rehabilitation therapy, plus on being an ER doc. I sent the thirty pages to my editor and agent and some writer friends, and they all told me to go for it, it was a solid idea for a book. I even gave a reading from it at Newtonville Books, and it went over pretty well. But I got back home from the summer away, and I decided I just didn’t want to write this novel. The fire wasn’t there. Maybe I wasn’t up to challenging O’Connor after all.

But immediately I took the attempted suicide scene and recast it with Joshua Yoon. All along, I had wanted to have a first-person narrator. I’d never written anything in the first-person. And somehow Eric Cho as a narrator emerged. There was virtually no time that lapsed between abandoning the previous idea and starting the new novel. Which made me think, then and now, that it was essentially the same novel, as odd as that may sound, since the storylines are so radically different.

SR: Early in the novel, when the characters are enrolled in a fiction workshop, Joshua questions the root of Eric’s choice to write his main characters as an ethnicity outside his own. How is the conversation of race in America important to you, the author, and to the story as a whole?

DL: That’s one of the questions I was asking myself at the time: As writers of color, what are our responsibilities? Do we always have to write about race? Do we always have to make our characters Asian American? If we don’t, is it tantamount to some sort of race betrayal? Eric didn’t think so, and ultimately neither do I.

I think most Asian American writers, especially younger ones, are tired of the standard stories about discrimination and assimilation, or those set in the ancient hinterlands of our countries of ethnic origin. Those stories are no longer pertinent or urgent to most of us. Although we have not yet entered into a post-racial era, and although bigotry still rages on, it’s not something that people want to explore or dramatize in every single book or story. Writers like Susan Choi, Charles Yu, Sabrina Murray, and Ed Park are ranging into entirely different arenas for their novels, with race not being central to their themes. I think this is a good thing, and we’ll see more and more of it.

SR: The Collective is your fourth book. How has your process and style changed from book one to book four? What have you learned about your process through the composition of these books?

DL: Alas, I haven’t learned much, it seems. The process, if anything, has gotten harder. Maybe it’s because I’m always trying to do something a little different, from playing with the mystery genre or a farce or a bildungsroman, to changing structural approaches, point of view, and style. It also has to do with building an oeuvre, looking at the books you’ve written, which can influence the types of books you’ll choose to write in the future.

I have a pretty consistent routine, however. I start writing notes in a Moleskine, just random ideas and thoughts and questions. For The Collective, a key notation was: “A love letter to that life I had in Cambridge, all aspiring artists, a tribute to the dream.” This goes on for about six months, just jotting notes, and then I might try writing a few pages to get a feel for the voice or tone or mood. I’ll begin to have a semblance of the characters and storyline, and I’ll start to do some research. I’ve always been interested in what people do for a living, which usually gives me insights into character. Then I’ll begin transferring what’s relevant in the Moleskine to—well, it used to be index cards, but now it’s a spreadsheet, and I’ll reorder things, and sometimes I’ll create an outline. That usually doesn’t happen, though, until I’m well into the first draft, which will take me a year or two.

The important psychological hurdle for me is to complete a first draft. Only then can I relax. Until then, I’m a mess, I’m absolutely terrified, thinking that at any moment the book will fall apart and I’ll have to start from scratch again. Once I have a draft, it’s much easier. I have much more confidence that I can reshape the structure or plot and polish the prose. For The Collective, once I finished the first draft, I revised the entire manuscript eleven times over the next five months.

SR: Is there a fifth book on the horizon? If so, where are you in the process? In between novels, how often do you write? Is it a daily event?

DL: I’m about halfway through the first draft of a new novel. It’s about an indie singer-songwriter who’s losing his hearing. Unfortunately, I had a false start with this book, just as I did with The Collective. I wasted about a year on a different storyline. I’d envisioned a road book, where this singer-songwriter would be on a tour, and we’d see him visiting four cities where his former bandmates live. But that wasn’t working for me, and I decided it’d be better to set the whole thing in one town. At first, I considered setting the novel in Marfa, Texas, where I’ve spent three summers, but Marfa has gotten a lot of publicity in recent years, so I began thinking of returning to Rosarita Bay, the fictional California town in Yellow and in my second novel, Wrack and Ruin. The town is based on Half Moon Bay, and I researched what’s been happening there since 2005, when Wrack and Ruin takes place, and I discovered the city almost went bankrupt during the financial crisis, which fit in perfectly for the new novel. It’s taken some interesting turns, however. It’s sort of become about religion. I won’t say anything more.

When I was editing Ploughshares, I was much more disciplined when I started a first draft. I would write on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with a quota of two double-spaced pages a day. That would amount to over three hundred pages in a year. I did that for my first two novels. But then I started teaching full-time, and although I do some pecking during the school year, I’ve had to become a binge writer, doing the bulk of my writing during summers. This is a really difficult way to work, I’ve discovered. There’s a lot of pressure to turn it on when the spring semester ends and to accomplish something. But I’ll try to write every day, all day, for at least two months.

In between novels, I used to write a short story or two, but haven’t done that for a while, though I’d like to get back to it. Once I’ve gone through the final proofs of a forthcoming book, there are a lot of prepublication matters to attend to, and then there are even more obligations when the novel is released. I don’t mean touring to a lot of cities (that doesn’t happen for midlist writers like me anymore), but doing things like Q&As for blogs and radio interviews and such. Of course, that entire period, before and during the book release, is fraught with anxiety. It’s difficult to think about anything else. More and more as an author, you worry about what’s not happening. During the course of my publishing career, I’ve seen a precipitous drop in coverage for literary fiction, and a dramatic drop in everyone’s sales, and we all worry if we’ll be able to get a contract for our next books. It’s not debut writers who are in trouble (there’s still hope for a big advance for them, since they have no sales history); it’s writers who are trying to publish their third or fourth or fifth books who are in precarious straits. I try not to pay attention to any of that. I just try to do the best I can with my work, and hope there’s an audience for it.

SR: What does your writing space look like?

It looks like everyone else’s, I imagine. Nothing special. I have a desk made from an oak plank that a friend gave to me, an office chair—that’s pretty much it. But if you recall, I said one of the most important developments for me as a writer was demystifying my workspace. I used to write by hand with a Pilot Razor Point on college-ruled yellow legal pads. I was very particular about those things. Then halfway through Wrack and Ruin, I started composing on a laptop, and I forced myself to learn to write anywhere—in hotels and cafés, on planes, on vacation. To write novels, you have to be able to squeak out sentences whenever you can, wherever you are.