An Interview with Don Lee

Don Lee is the author of the story collection Yellow and the novel Country of Origin, and his work has received the Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award for emerging novelists, among other honors. A second novel, Wrack and Ruin, will be published by W. W. Norton in April 2008. Lee served for many years as the editor of the prominent literary journal Ploughshares, where I had the pleasure of working alongside him for two and a half years. Our conversation took place over email in mid-December, six months after he left editing to take a full-time teaching position at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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I’d like to start by talking about your new novel, due out in the spring. In it, we return to Rosarita Bay, the fictional Northern California town that was the setting for Yellow. What’s your fascination with this particular setting?

The interviewer Robert Birnbaum once did a little armchair psychoanalysis to explain the genesis and significance of Rosarita Bay to me: since I grew up as a diplomatic brat without a real hometown, maybe I had felt compelled to make up one of my own. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the sound of it. As I’ve said before, Rosarita Bay is based on a real town, Half Moon Bay, between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I used to pass through that area a lot when I was in college, and it always fascinated me that you could have this rural landscape of bucolic farms so close to a major metropolis. Turned out Half Moon Bay had the most restrictive anti-zoning laws of anywhere in the country.

After my last novel, Country of Origin, which was set in 1980 in Tokyo and had required a voluminous amount of research, I wanted to do something simpler, easier. I thought, Hell, I could return to Rosarita Bay, I know that town, I made it up. I also wanted to return to the tone of that book—specifically one story, “The Price of Eggs in China.” I had a great time writing that story, and I wanted to recreate the whacky mood in it.

So when I was on tour in San Francisco, I rented a car and drove down to Half Moon Bay, and it immediately struck me that things were changing in the town: it was being gentrified. So that became the theme for the new novel.

You talked a lot about insecurity in that interview. Now that you have a second novel under your belt, and now that you’ve moved on from being a full-time editor, has your confidence level changed?

Naw, still quaking with insecurity, and I think I always will be. I’ll always have that fear that the well has run dry with the last book. However, I will admit that with the latest novel, Wrack and Ruin—I’d never presume to say that it was easy, but it came together without the usual high anxiety. I had a basic idea where the novel was heading, yet I had no clue how I’d tie things together; nonetheless, I figured things out as I arrived at those blank spots, so I never felt those moments of utter panic and despair.

What is it that pulled you through those blank spots before?

Pure doggedness. Grinding. Tiger Woods (my hero; I get depressed for days when he’s close but doesn’t win a major) talks a lot about grinding when he doesn’t have his A-game, but still doing whatever he can not to lose it entirely, and keeping in contention. So with novels, it’s about pushing yourself through your daily quota of pages, knowing it’s shit, but pressing on. Then it’s about revising, whether on a page level or, if you’ve really stunk things up, on a story level. With Country of Origin, I could see some things weren’t working properly and had to go back and change storylines. For Wrack and Ruin, I was luckier. In successive drafts, I ended up fixing prose, but didn’t feel the need to alter the plot. Of course, some readers may feel differently when the book comes out.

I imagine your many years as an editor helped some in that process. Or maybe there are two competing voices at work when you write and revise, the editorial versus the writerly.

Historical evidence points to a conflict rather than a synergy. Otherwise, thousands of literary magazine editors would be successful writers as well. But it seems a rare combo, albeit I did find that I got to be very practiced and fast as a line/story editor at Ploughshares. The same skills can be learned as a teacher. If anything, though, my years at Ploughshares delayed focusing on my own fiction. You’re thinking about the literary world all day—not necessarily reading manuscripts; it’s a misconception that editors sit around leisurely mulling over submissions—and it’s hard to go home and write in your off time. It’s the same psychic energy, and it’s drained by being so aware about what’s going on in the publishing world, what sort of success this or that writer is getting. Inevitably there’s a lot of jealousy and loathing that comes into play, which gets directed into self-loathing the more time you’re an editor who wants to become a writer, and it’s not happening. Not so much the difficulty of getting published. Mostly it translates into a paralysis of not being able to write at all.

It hasn’t been long since you’ve left that position. Do you miss it, or are you still a little pleasantly stunned that you don’t have to be in an office full time?

Ploughshares seems like a lifetime ago, actually, and maybe that’s fitting, because I have an entirely different life now. I miss certain things: working and becoming friends with writers, the production end of putting out a magazine. I miss Cambridge and my friends a great deal. I don’t miss trying to raise money and keeping the ship afloat. I really don’t miss dealing with college administrators or board members—having to suck up to people, in other words—and constantly having to justify our worth. I don’t miss being the object of so many people’s enmity—the symbolic figurehead for the rejection they received to their submission, the incomprehensibly mean and unfair gatekeeper. I never understood why being in Ploughshares was so important to some writers. Yeah, an important venue, but there are dozens of other magazines. So I don’t miss the hate mail or virtual voodoo dolls.

Did you really get death threats?

Yeah, one was an anonymous phone call, another was a note included in a box with dog turds, and a third package was bizarre and scary enough that I contacted the college public safety office—inside were hundreds of sharp tiny shards of cut-up sheet metal. I’m surprised no deranged writer has ever burst into an editor’s office with a gun.

What was your own experience with rejection, when you were a young writer?

I was exactly like many people who sent to Ploughshares—arrogant, presumptuous, self-deluded. I really thought my stories were good. I was perplexed they weren’t accepted. In retrospect, they were shit, and I had no business sending them anywhere.

People have often asked me about my submitting stories as the editor of Ploughshares. I used to think it was an advantage, that it’d get me straight to the editor’s desk, bypassing the slush. But I’ve since realized that it might have been a disadvantage, because that editor must have thought, Oh, how pathetic, another editor who thinks he can write, and he or she would cringe, anticipating how excruciating the manuscript was going to be.

I think that kind of second-guessing must happen at all levels. It really feels impossible for beginning writers to even be published, but when you’re more successful you begin to view your writing against an entirely new spectrum of success. Is it like that for you now, this constantly raising the bar?

Definitely. It’s not about getting published anymore. It’s about doing good work, not repeating yourself over an oeuvre, challenging yourself to push beyond your comfort level, producing regularly. When I started, naive young pup that I was, I wanted to be a great writer. Then I just wanted to write respectable books and modestly get them out. Now, I’ve begun to think more about legacy, longevity. Now, I want to write a great book. I don’t know if I ever will, but I know that’s the right objective.

So what makes a good novel?

It has to engage you on multiple levels—provoke the imagination, stir the heart, prickle the intellect. Every good novel has a unique sensibility to it, a voice that speaks to you personally yet also captures the zeitgeist, with a subtextual depth that’s authentic and piercing.

Tell me a little about the new novel. You mentioned that you wanted to capture the tone of “The Price of Eggs in China,” which is actually a little hard to pin down. There’s elements of the comic, but there’s also a strange noirish quality to it, and then there’s that final act of self-destruction that Dean Kaneshiro makes when torches his own woodshop. Yet ultimately, it’s a love story. How does Wrack and Ruin compare?

I’ve found that I’m a poor judge of how my work will be perceived. I think of “The Price of Eggs” as funny and even whimsical, but a lot of people see it as quite bizarre and even disturbing. Wrack and Ruin is, in my mind, a farcical comedy. It’s got all the things you mentioned: slapstick, noir, a love story, an artist’s quest for solitude and transcendence. I wanted to do something lighter after Country of Origin, which is decidedly a dark book (though I had intended it to be quite funny as well). Sometimes this worries me, that I don’t have more control over how my books will be taken by readers. But I’ve concluded that my definition of “normal” is abnormal, and there’s not much I can do to change that at this point—and maybe I wouldn’t want to anyway.

The main character is a farmer, correct? Do you often enter into a character’s mind through their occupation?

Vocations are my crutch. They give me something to write about, bulk up the pages with false gravitas. But yeah, they do let me figure out who the characters are, because I believe people are greatly defined by their jobs, even if they hate them or want to deny the jobs’ dominion over them. I’m fascinated by people who are really good at what they do, and every job—even the most menial—has its own rituals and technicalities. I like getting inside those worlds, and when I begin a novel, it allows me to do something right away, researching professions, which invariably generates character and plot ideas. In Wrack and Ruin, the main character is a former sculptor who left New York City to become a Brussels sprouts farmer.

Does race figure into the novel? This must be a question that you dread, but I think of it as another function of character, albeit a highly charged one.

Race figures only peripherally, in that several characters in the book are Asian-American artists, and they lament that their work is always defined by the issues of identity and ethnicity, and they’re tired of it. I think this is what a lot of writers of color feel these days, and we’re all trying to move beyond the immigrant/assimilation experience. It’s really been done to death, and everyone’s bored with the subject.

So those characters, in a way, stand in for your own frustration about being labeled as a writer?

No, I wouldn’t put it so formally. Like the way I approach most things, it’s an idea that’s inserted into the novel tongue-in-cheek, with a lot of irony. I’m not particularly frustrated that I’ve been regarded as an ethnic writer, since I have written very explicitly about racism and identity and such. But I’m moving on, I think. It poses interesting questions, though. If, as a writer of color, you decide you’re no longer going to focus on the problem of color, do you have anything to write about? Does your work have any meat anymore? Was that the only thing propping up the work and giving it significance, and, without it, will you be exposed as rather vacant and talentless, just as some critics of multiculturalism have always implied?

Is that a real fear you have with your own work, and what does the future look like for you as a writer? In other words, what’s on the horizon now that this novel is finished?

Can’t say that’s a real fear for me. I’m starting to sketch out a new novel called The Possible Husband—same title as a story in Yellow, but it won’t have much to do with it other than the connection with my friend, the poet Erin Belieu, who started this whole exchange by publishing a poem about a womanizer entitled “The Possible Husband” and dedicating it to me (“It’s for you, not about you,” she said after I complained). The novel will be narrated by a poet named Erin Belieu, and will concern an architect, a handicapped woman who wants a new loft designed, and a Brazilian office cleaner.

My first reaction is, how does Erin feel about that?

She was skeptical at first, but now she loves the idea. I’ve been interviewing her on the phone, asking for her life story, though I have a feeling that the narrator Erin Belieu will only be a tangential character.

It must be an interesting process, recasting somebody’s life into the framework of your fictional universe. Or maybe what’s interesting is recasting and reshaping the earlier story. I remember recognizing a passage in Country of Origin that appeared originally in a story from Yellow, something I’ve always meant to ask you about. I guess, ultimately, it’s a question of inspiration: What is it that first launches you into a narrative?

I like creating motifs and allusions to earlier pieces, and I do it almost entirely for my own entertainment. I admit it’s completely self-referential and self-aggrandizing. But it’s interesting, too, to see if anyone picks up on these things, not that anyone should really care. In the short story “The Possible Husband,” I had a librarian named Ariel Belieu. In the novel, Erin will be her sister. As far as that passage in Country of Origin goes, I was going to recreate the description of a similar scene from Yellow, but then I thought I’d try to be clever and work it in almost verbatim. Or maybe I was just being lazy. But it’s whimsical things like having Erin Belieu as a narrator that launches me, as well as running across random articles from the newspaper or The New Yorker. For The Possible Husband, it was reading an article in The Boston Globe about a loft for a guy in a wheelchair and another about office cleaning companies. For Wrack and Ruin, first it was the goofiness surrounding Brussels sprouts, then articles in The New Yorker about the artist Lee Bontecou and about a Korean American who sells remake rights for Asian films.

That reminds me of the Robert Frost quote, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” What do you hope to gain through your work? At what point does a bigger picture come into play?

That’s an apropos quote. You live with novels for a couple of years at least. You have all these odd ideas floating around in your head, and they don’t seem to make much sense. You don’t know if it’ll come together, or if it’ll all fall apart. There’s a huge amount of angst about it, of course—a lot of pissing and moaning, some crying, a few thoughts of dismal failure and the necessity of suicide. Then, if you’re lucky, things slowly begin to relate, they begin to cohere, images begin to recur, a theme emerges. That, more than anything, is the reward for me—the process of discovery. Ultimately that’s where the real pleasure of writing resides.

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