Don Lee On Writing

By Ethan Ross

Don Lee is the author of the novels Lonesome Lies Before Us, The Collective, Wrack and Ruin, and Country of Origin, and the story collection Yellow. He has received an American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and O. Henry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Temple University and splits his time between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

ER: Could you talk a little about your process as a writer? Perhaps regarding conception as well as revision?

DL: I spend about a year conceptualizing a novel before starting to write it. I jot down vague thoughts and ideas and questions in a notebook, and then I do some research. After a year, I’ll have a pretty firm grasp of the general shape of the novel. Then I’ll write a quick first draft in about a year, and revise it for a year, so three years total. OR, that used to be my process! I ended up having false starts for my last two novels. For both, I wasted a year sketching out storylines (and doing research) that I eventually abandoned. I’d like to think that without that wasted year for each novel, I wouldn’t have been able to write the final novel, and that this is now my process, but I don’t know if that’s true. It means, though, that it now takes me an extra year. I know people will still think this is relatively quick, four years for a novel (not counting another year in production with my publisher, during which I’ll do more revisions; let’s be real here—I will do at least 15 wholesale revisions of a novel before it’s published), but that wasted year is agonizing. It means failure. It means wondering if I’ll ever be able to finish another book, and going through all sorts of panic and anxiety.

ER: How do you balance making demands on the reader while also providing adequate information that satisfies the reader’s need to know?

DL: It’s a challenge. I think with short stories, you can get away with withholding information more than with novels. Short stories can operate well with understatement and subtext, i.e., minimalism. That’s more difficult to do with novels, but is still possible. It’s a matter of style. The bigger balance for me is how much research and backstory to unfurl, and this is where I think I go into excess.

ER: Can you tell us about your literary influences? Who are a few authors that have best illuminated your writing in the past? Has this changed over the years?

DL: The usual suspects at first: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf, etc. But I think my tastes can be pinpointed by naming these books: John Williams’s Stoner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and every single thing Alice Munro has ever written.

But you’re right: tastes can change. For instance, I used to love James Salter’s work. I even wrote him a fan letter (to which he graciously replied). But something happened about ten years ago, and I can’t read his work anymore.

ER: Who are the most difficult characters to write about (gender, age, personality, etc)?

DL: Oh, female characters are difficult for me. Always have been. I know this is my weakness, and I am trying to get better at it.

ER: What is one lesser-known book/author you would recommend any writer to read?

DL: Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat. I don’t know if you could say the author or book is lesser known, but everyone should read it.

ER: Are there any literary pilgrimages you have undertaken (or wish to)?

DL: When I was in my early twenties, I was camping overnight on a beach in Big Sur. In the morning, my friend’s car battery was dead. I walked up a driveway to a house to see about using a phone (no cellphones then). No one was home, but I peeked into the windows, and I saw lots of books and leather chairs and dark wood, and one section of the house was all glass, overlooking the ocean. I thought, This is the perfect writer’s house. Then I walked back down the driveway and looked at the mailbox, which had the letters “R. Stone” painted on it. So I was convinced that it was the author Robert Stone’s house (I’d just read Dog Soldiers). I don’t know, though, if it was actually his house, or even if I actually saw “R. Stone” on the mailbox. I was a bit cognitively impaired on that trip.

ER: About what percentage of the projects you begin end up published?

DL: Well, I am not very prolific, and I am dogged about revising things until they find a home, so pretty much 100% has ended up being published. Crazily, I once wrote a 52-page story, and stupidly kept submitting it to magazines. Yet after two years, Laura Furman at American Short Fiction accepted it, and I’ll be forever grateful to her. It was the title story to what would be my first book, the collection Yellow.

ER: Do you believe in writer’s block?

DL: Sure, I understand why people can’t write at certain periods of their life, but I think things really change once you are under contract (or have a gun to your head) to deliver a novel. That’s what happened to me. I used to be so precious about the conditions with which I needed to write short stories, but after I got a contract for a novel, I realized I needed, as Chuck Close has said, to just show up and get to work. So for my first novel, I promised myself I’d write two double-spaced pages a day, three days a week, for a year, which would amount to over 300 pages—a first draft. That’s what I’ve done ever since (excepting the year I now waste as a false start). The trick, though, is to allow yourself to write shit, and not be tempted to revise too much until the first draft is complete. You have to have faith that you’ll be able to fix things later.

ER: Finally—thinking back on your teenage or young adult years—are there any experiences/opportunities you wish you could have had that might have been useful to the writer you became?

DL: I think if I’d had experiences that would have made me happier, I wouldn’t have become a writer. Right? Right for every writer? My feelings of alienation, of being wounded, led me directly to the written word.

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