With his eyes and body still “bleary from post-windsurfing and traveling,” Don Lee nonetheless graciously agrees to be grilled yet again – we’re going on a decade-plus of various interviews through four books! He’s tired, he’s rambling, but he’s always entertaining … and once more he’s game to talk about all manner of things, from writing and ethnicity, to blooming late and Eeyore-style lamentations.
With all that literary editing, mentoring, teaching, how come you didn’t publish until you were 41?
Oh, I could give you all kinds of excuses: that I was busy with Ploughshares (true), that each short story took me a long time to write (very true), that I never really planned or wanted to publish a book (sort of true), that I was happy writing stories once a year or so and getting them into journals (almost true), but frankly, the real reason was that I was scared shitless. I think unconsciously I didn’t want to lay it all out on the line and try to publish a book and then fail. It was easier not to try.
But then I turned 38, and I decided I’d really like to have a book, one book, before I turned 40. I didn’t want to end up thinking for the rest of my life about what could have been, and become bitter. So I wrote two new stories, revised a bunch of old stories to form a collection, and set about finding an agent to represent me, all of which took over a year and a half. Whereas the goal originally (and unrealistically) had been to publish a book by the time I turned 40, the new goal became to sell the book by then, and I did: W. W. Norton offered me a book contract the week I turned 40, and Yellow was published the following year [in 2001].
Okay, so what prompted you to write that first story? And how did that first story eventually morph into the determination to become a writer for real?
Unlike many authors, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer at 7 years old or whatnot. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. I was, however, a tinkerer as a kid. I would take apart things, make things. My bedroom was scattered with detritus – tools, wires, glue, balsa wood, batteries, a soldering iron, capacitors, motors, model cars and planes. When it came time to go to college, my quixotic plan was to get my mechanical engineering degree and then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and build and pilot underwater submersibles (I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid). I was a dreamer. I didn’t write a short story until my sophomore year at UCLA, after a comp teacher told me I had a flair for words and might enjoy taking a creative writing class.
And now four books—and oh so many awards!!—later, are you still scared shitless? Or are you finally resting a bit on your laurels?
Naw, I’m still a tortured soul who never allows himself to feel good about his accomplishments, who doesn’t really believe he’s accomplished anything. And yes, each time I start another book, I am petrified that I won’t be able to pull it off and finish it, and if I can, that I won’t be able to sell it, and if I can, that no one will like it. Why do I keep doing it, then? Because it’s a challenge, and I’m compelled to do it, and I love being inside the process of writing a novel, of thinking about it all the time and figuring out structure and motifs and themes and connections. In a way, I’m still a tinkerer, building things with words. [... click here for more]
Author interview: “Q&A with Don Lee,” Bloom, May 29, 2013