Don Lee is the author of a collection of short stories and three novels, the most recent of which is The Collective. He’s in town to read at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop this Thursday evening.
For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Tim Rutten, a reporter from The Los Angeles Times, when he was interviewing me about my collection Yellow, said he was interested in my stories because the characters resembled Asian Americans he actually knew—everyday people—an approach he rarely saw represented in contemporary fiction at the time. This isn’t to say my characters are normal (whatever that means). Characters need flaws to fuel drama, after all. But they’re far from stereotypical.
What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Here’s what immediately comes to mind: The novel Stoner by John Williams. The film After the Wedding by Susanne Bier. The album Gentle Spirit by Jonathan Wilson. Korean fried chicken and Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas.
Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
I’d get books by Kelly Slater, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer. I’m a surfing fan and all-around sports nut.
Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
For four years after grad school, I taught an average of eight classes a year as an adjunct while working part-time at the journal Ploughshares. I made less than $17,000 total a year and didn’t have health benefits. I never went to a dentist during that time, and visited a clinic just once to get crutches when I broke my foot running. Poverty wasn’t inspirational.
What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
To be showered with unadulterated praise. To witness fainting and swooning in my presence. No, actually, I think first and foremost a writer’s interaction with a reader needs to be based on what can be transmitted from the printed page to the reader’s imagination—operable at a complete remove. If that doesn’t connect, everything else is a moot point.
Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
No, you have to take ownership over everything you’ve done. Could I have written things better or differently? Sure, of course. There are certain endings to short stories, for example, I’d like to revise. But I did the best I could at the time.