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 hand-wringing, Lee has figured out how to deliver with every book. Lee the writer arrived pretty much fully formed in 2001 with 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 15 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. [... click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Don Lee,” Bookslut.com, July 2012