Author Interview: Don Lee [in BLOOM]
Q&A with Don Lee: False starts, being radical & letting go of the small stuff
More than four years have passed since I chatted with Don Lee for Bloom. The paperback version of his 2012 novel, The Collective, was about to come out. We were talking about telling stories for the sake of stories, without having to include/feature/confront/revolve around Really Big Topics like identity and race. Lee had explained to one of his book tour groupies – who’d asked about having to write about being Korean American just because he was Korean American – that such expectations were no longer requisite. “My generation has to deal with those kinds of questions,” he told his inquisitor, “so the next generations won’t have to, and you can just tell pure stories.”
Five years since The Collective, Lee’s new novel is lighter, funnier, yet still touched by Lee’s signature seriousness. Lonesome Lies Before Us – out last month – returns readers to Rosarita Bay, the fictional California seaside town where two of his previous books were set, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-world Half Moon Bay on Highway 1 in Northern California.
Certainly, when Lee’s first book, Yellow, came out 16 years ago (he landed his publishing contract the week of his 40th birthday!), he probably didn’t know that more than half his writing career – three of five books – would be spent in Rosarita Bay. Yellow – his wonderfully quirky short story collection – introduces us to the small town, and his third book, the novel Wrack & Ruin (2008), features an artist-turned-Brussels-sprouts farmer and his estranged, money-and-image-obsessed movie-producer brother during an unplanned reunion there.
Now in Lonesome, today’s Rosarita Bay may be on the brink of bankruptcy. And yet it’s still the right place for former musician Yadin Park, who inherited a ramshackle house from a grandmother he barely knew. Currently in the carpet business and dating the boss’s daughter, his hearing is getting worse, though he still manages to write songs in his home studio. Then Yadin’s old lover and music partner (who made it big) reappears in his life, showing what happens when loneliness and hope collide.
What made you go back to Rosarita Bay?
I had a false start on this novel. Originally, I was going to make it a road book, where a singer-songwriter was going on his last tour for his last self-released album, and he was going to visit four cities where his former bandmates lived. But I realized that wasn’t a book I wanted to write, and I panicked! I decided it’d be better to set it in one place, and at first, I considered a facsimile of Marfa, Texas, and then I thought of Rosarita Bay. I wondered what had been happening in the town that’s its inspiration, Half Moon Bay, California, and I learned all sorts of stuff had been going on there that aligned with what I wanted – namely, how it’d been affected by the great recession. The city almost declared bankruptcy.
Panic WORKED in this case for sure! And going back to what you call “false starts” … I’m quoting from your recent piece in Lit Hub: “I began to realize something alarming and dismaying: This is now my method, my process. I need to lose a year to a false start – to a crucible of panic and despair, anguish and self-flagellation, and the abject fear that I’ll never be able to finish another novel – before I can actually begin the book I want to write.” What happens to all those “false starts”? Do you save them? Might you rework them?
I wish I could recycle the material that I had to dump, at least for a short story, but I haven’t been able to thus far.
Ooooh, but YES, PLEASE do another collection!
I’m thinking of working on another story collection next! I’ve published a few stories in the intervening years, but I think tonally they’re wrong for the next book. Overall, they’re too harsh, and I’ve arrived at a gentler, wiser me, mostly because I am older.
Your latest protagonist, Yadin Park, also seems gentler, wiser, older. Do I detect other synchronous details? Could some part of Yadin’s career be autobiographical? Were you/are you a musician, too?
Nope! I’ve never had any aspirations to be a musician, like some people have already assumed. I do, however, play bad guitar. I mean, like, I will never become a good guitar player no matter how much I practice. I played in high school, then got back into it about three years ago.
So you’re a not-wannabe musician who plays guitar. And any other fictional parts that might be autobiographical? I ask because you managed to ferret out details about everything – say, housecleaning in a hotel, photography, music recording, carpeting – all so incredibly accurately.
Between college and grad school, I worked for a painting and construction company, so I was familiar with manual labor. In high school, I also bagged groceries and was a short-order cook in a snack bar. Although I came from a privileged background, I got a glimpse of the working-class life that I always wanted to portray. And I was a photographer in high school. But most of the stuff I simply researched on the Internet. I was able to get beyond Google because I could access LexisNexis through the university.
You’re also incredibly thorough in providing details – for example, descriptions/symptoms of Yadin’s hearing disease, Yadin’s instruments, even how Yadin treats his acne. Dare I say, is there a bit of OCD-ish attention going on here?
Well, I fully admit that I am OCD, and that I tend to overdo the research. (The acne, though, I did not have to research; I had bad acne for a long time.) I was telling friends that if I had to do it all over again, I would have stripped everything and made it into a really slim book, say 200 pages. But the friends argued that it would have been an entirely different book, and I guess I have to agree.
One of my most literary reader friends recently commented thusly about you when I mentioned we were chatting today: “I thought about all his books. How the Asian American men are accessible and (very) appealing and average (all in all, a kind of anti-Amy Tan and against all the negative stereotypes of API men…). How Asian American-ness of his characters is almost incidental and, to me, it just assumes a non-issue, which of course is highly political. An anthropology or lit professor should do a psycho-social or socio-cultural analysis of his books. Or an ethnic studies course based on Lee’s books. The messaging is effing radical in its subtlety.” Care to comment – on negative stereotypes, incidental-ness, being effing radical?
In this book, I was trying to be subversive in not mentioning any character’s ethnicity. I did think that was a subtle but radical thing to do. It really began with my story collection, Yellow, having Asian American characters who were pretty regular people – or at least not having their being Asian American central to their characterizations. At the time, some critics and readers found that to be revolutionary. But that’s how endemic the whole ethnic literature box was back then, this expectation that any Asian American story deal with discrimination or identity or diaspora. It’s still like that in many ways.
Sometimes I think we’re going backwards. Thankfully, though, you’re getting some fabulous reviews coming in: Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, to name a few. Do you read your reviews? Do critics – especially those from different cultural backgrounds – “get” your books?
I do read the reviews, although I think it’d be better for my psyche if I didn’t! Thus far, the reviewers have been spot-on with what I tried to do with Lonesome Lies Before Us, and maybe they were with Yellow, but I recall thinking that a lot of reviews were off the mark with the other books. I think it’s confusing to critics (and maybe readers) that my books are so radically different from one another.
Have you ever read a review that made you change something about your writing?
I’m trying to remember. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it’s been, but there have been times when reviewers have spotted a tic or tendency I have, and I’ve been mindful not to repeat it or overuse it.
A tic or tendency?
Sorry, I can’t recall. Perhaps I’ve blanked it out on purpose! But I do know that I tend to rely on satire too much, and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible in Lonesome, because I wanted this to be an honest book, like the type of music Yadin is trying to produce.
I’m reading a pattern of sorts with your fiction – more comical (Yellow) in Rosarita Bay, more serious (Country of Origin) elsewhere, more comical (Wrack & Ruin) back in RB, more serious (The Collective) elsewhere, not as comical but more comical than not (Lonesome) again in RB. Is that coincidental? Or you have a master plan?
I think that has more to do with my moods than any intentional plan. For instance, I’ll write about race in one book, get sick of it, and not write about it in the next book. The Rosarita Bay books happen to fall into the non-race rotations, so maybe that’s why they’re less serious. Not sure what the next visit will be!
Given this pattern, the next title to hit shelves is likely to tend more toward serious … care to give us a sneak peek?
As I said, I’m toying with writing a story collection, but I’ve also been thinking about a short novel about an architect. I’m really interested in mid-century modernism and minimalism. But for some reason, I want to throw in a K-pop star who is hiding from a scandal in there. And maybe something about a chef!
And what about writing about race makes you “get sick of it”?
I think it’s actually answering to publishing that sort of book, going out on tour and doing interviews where we talk about race but not about the actual book. Then 1) I feel like I am being asked to generalize about Asian Americans, and 2) I feel like a hypocrite, exploiting the whole subject just to sell some books. After I go through the whole process of promoting that book and talking ad nauseam about race, I don’t want to touch race again for a while.
Speaking of touring – book’s been out a month already! How are your readers treating you out there on the road?
My tour is over, thank God! I’ve talked to you in the past about how tours fill me with anxiety and dread. I did seven readings, and the reception was good, though the crowds were smaller. I think this is par for the course these days. People don’t go to a lot of readings anymore. That’s why I didn’t “read” that much, per se. I would say what the book was about, read for six minutes, and then I would be interviewed onstage by another writer friend who’d read the book. People generally really liked that format, and I have to say, so did I, compared to the usual reading.
You used to mentor a lot of folks when you were the Ploughshares editor. Now you nurture them as a professor at Temple University. How different is that nurturing/teaching process?
You know what? It’s not that different in that respect, I’ve found. The job, of course, is entirely different, but the end result is the same – trying to help launch literary careers, and editing their work. At Ploughshares, I used to get my yah-yahs doing geeky techy stuff, like typesetting the issues and programming databases, and when I take my turn being director of the MFA program at Temple (we rotate every few years), I get to indulge that side with spreadsheets and strategic planning again.
So many writers teach on the side. Some are better writers than teachers. Some turn out to be better teachers than writers. Which might you be? What would your students say?
Well, to be honest, I think I’m still a little stiff with my students. I intimidate them. But I’ve worked at loosening up over the years. I’m constantly learning to be a better teacher.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a teacher?
To have a sense of humor, and let go of the small stuff – just as in life.