Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Don Lee: On Writing, Teaching, and the Source of Story’s Emotional Core

BY SAL PANE

Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel Wrack and Ruin from W.W. Norton. He is also the author of the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. His story collection Yellow received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. In November 2007, he received the inaugural Fred R. Brown Literary Award for emerging novelists from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Hot Metal Bridge: Place is an important component of your work. You set your short story collection, Yellow, and your most recent novel, Wrack and Ruin, in the fictional California town of Rosarita Bay. What do you see as the advantages to setting some of your work in fictional versions of existing places?

Don Lee: I used to go through Half Moon Bay—which Rosarita Bay is based on—a lot when I was in college, driving from L.A. to San Francisco. I was always intrigued that you could have such a rustic area so close to a metropolis. I also liked the relative seediness of the town. The first story I wrote set in Rosarita Bay, “Casual Water,” came about because I was taking the train through the area and saw a busted-down seaplane moored on a backwater canal. I didn’t want to be saddled with fact-checking the actual town of Half Moon Bay, though, and made up another name. Doing so gave me freedom: I could get ideas from researching the real place but wasn’t restricted to it. It was a lot easier than writing my first novel, Country of Origin, where I had to do voluminous research on Tokyo, 1980, the diplomatic community, the Japanese, and on and on.

HMB: Can you talk about some of your overall influences from across the years and also who you’re reading these days? What type of fiction usually draws you in as a reader?

DL: Earlier on, my influences were pretty standard: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, Nabokov, Cheever. A huge influence later was Richard Yates, whom I was fortunate enough to get to know in Boston. Then it was Murakami, Robinson, Munro, Moore, Baxter, Dybek, Coetzee. Nothing very surprising here, I’m afraid. Right now, I’m rereading [David Foster Wallace], post-suicide. He was an acquaintance when we were both adjuncts at Emerson. I’ve also been rereading Andre Dubus. In general, I’ve become more interested in looser, innovative work, things that play with point of view, in particular unreliable narrators.

HMB: For nineteen years you edited the legendary Ploughshares literary journal. What was that experience like, and can you talk about where you see lit journals now and moving forward?

DL: It was a lot of hard work, but rewarding for me. I enjoy the nitty-gritty, hands-on tasks of putting out a journal, the production and operational stuff. I’m a geek in that way. I liked figuring out how to make things more efficient, streamlining processes and setting up computer systems. The real reward, though, was in what we did for writers, treating them well, trying to get them noticed and furthering their careers. I’m worried about the future of literary magazines. In my last years there, I saw a real drop-off in everyone’s circulation, mostly because of the Web. I think eventually most magazines will be primarily online with a print-on-demand supplement.

HMB: One of the aspects of fiction we at Hot Metal Bridge discuss a lot in our readings of submissions, and even at the workshops here at Pitt, is the difficulty of nailing an ending in not only a novel but in short stories as well. Have you ever had specific challenges in writing endings and is it something that you routinely struggle with?

DL: For my two novels, I came up with the final paragraphs well ahead of time, but for stories, I always struggle. I’ve tried to move away from the epiphany ending—anything with the phrase “he realized” or its variants in it—and the amorphous-image ending, where things float away or the ocean shimmers or the trees sway—that sort of thing—or the goodbye ending, someone waving so long or driving away. The other cop-out ending is the one that uses a piquant piece of dialogue, usually an unanswered question. I think it’s a matter of extending the moment to its proper length, not truncating it cheaply. The fact is, however, a lot of great stories and novels have lousy endings. It’s a problem for everyone.

HMB: As a teacher of creative writing, can you talk about how you handle a room full of a dozen or so people who want to be writers? Do you find the workshop process to be helpful to the development of a writer?

DL: I believe in the efficacy of the writing workshop, but it depends a lot on the instructor, what sort of atmosphere he or she engenders, and the group dynamic of the class, which is a roll of the dice. Done badly, workshops can be enervating, intimidating, dispiriting, disastrous. My approach is to keep things very low-key, relaxed, soft-spoken. No fireworks, no diatribes, no personal attacks, everything said with equivocation and diplomacy.

HMB: Do you write everyday? What ends up distracting you? While visiting Pittsburgh, you shared an experience about writing a short story while watching golf on television. Do you have any tricks for getting down to work at the desk?

DL: When I start the actual writing of a novel, I’ll write 3 or 4 consecutive days a week. I do a lot of procrastinating, like everyone else, but I’ll reserve 8 hours a day. I take time out for naps, errands, email, surfing the Web, anything I can find to distract me. But eventually I’ll get my quota of 2 pages a day done. Before, I used to write by hand on a yellow legal pad, but now I compose directly on a laptop, listening to an iPod, playing what I call indie Muzak—gentle, quiet alternative stuff that’s unobtrusive.

HMB: You received your MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Was this a productive time for your writing? Is there anything you wish you would have done that you didn’t?

DL: The program then was very small, and my primary teacher was DeWitt Henry, from whom I learned a lot. I don’t think there’s anything that would have substantially changed for me in a different program. In many ways, although I was regarded as one of the better writers in the program, it took me a while to develop and find my own voice. I don’t think that really happened until ten years after I graduated.

HMB: Your website claims that Wrack and Ruin was designed to be a farce, but the blurbs say it also carries a legitimate dose of gravitas. What excites you about combining humor and the emotional, the lighthearted and the dark?

DL: I think “farce” is an accurate description of the novel by its classic definition. In a farce as a literary form, you immediately ratchet things up so they’re over the top and kind of ridiculous, and then you need to keep topping yourself, which was the real challenge for me in writing the book. I think the gravitas was missed by most people, to tell you the truth. Although I intended Wrack and Ruin to be lighter and more fun than my previous work, I had hoped that it wouldn’t come across as an empty-headed romp. I may have been too subtle in the way I tried to incorporate more serious themes, or it could have been that I simply didn’t execute that aspect of things well. It is interesting to me that no reviewer touched upon the issue of race in the novel, namely that despite having Asian American central characters, there’s intentionally little focus on ethnicity or identity, other than the frustration that the Asian American artists in the book feel about expectations that they explore race in their work—an ironic statement I was trying to make.

HMB: Wrack and Ruin was published just last April. Can you tell us what’s next? Do you think you’ll ever write another short story collection?

DL: I think I’m going to work on a short novel narrated in first-person—a big change for me–by a woman in a wheelchair, who’s stalking an architect. I’ve written three short stories in the past two years, and after this novel (or whatever novel I end up actually doing), I think I’ll work on a collection. There’s real pleasure in working in the short form after doing a novel. It’s so much more finite, more immediately gratifying, and it’s a delight to have the leisure to toil over a single line for hours.

HMB: Do you have any patented advice that you always give your writing students? What was the most helpful piece of instruction that you received as a student in Emerson’s MFA program?

DL: With undergrads, I always point out that they aren’t limited to one-scene or one-day stories. When they realize that they can move locales or jump ahead in time, it opens things up for them. What I always ask grad students (not in workshop, but in private conference) is, “Why did you write this story? What’s personal about it for you?” It’s not that I want things to be autobiographical, but I want students to figure out the original passion for the story, the source of the story’s emotional core, and follow it. My grad school days at Emerson were a long time ago. I learned a lot, but I can’t remember specifically what. My breakthrough as a writer, though, came much later, when I consciously decided to forget everything I’d learned. It was crucial for me to take myself less seriously—because I really took myself way too seriously—and jettison the pretension and preciousness that marked my work then. That’s why I wrote the draft of the story “The Price of Eggs in China” away from my desk, sitting on the sofa in the living room, while watching football and golf on TV. That’s when I found my real voice—when I stopped trying so hard.