Don Lee

Don LeeDon Lee is a third-generation Korean American. He is the son of a career State Department officer, and he spent the majority of his childhood in Tokyo and Seoul. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles and has a MFA from Emerson College. Don Lee’s stories have appeared in GQ, New England Review, American Short Fiction, and Glimmer Train and have been published in a collection called Yellow. In addition, Lee has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the St. Botolph Club Foundation. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the editor of the literary journal Ploughshares at Emerson College in Boston. Don Lee is currently at work on his first novel, which he expects to publish in 2004.

Robert Birnbaum: Apropos of nothing I asked the author of a book on transsexuals, cross dressers and…

Don Lee: Amy Bloom.

RB: Yeah. I asked her why in the Cuban culture it seemed that so many writers were gay. Her response was something to the effect that such a macho culture militated against men being writers. I bring it up because I wonder how writing was looked upon in your culture.

DL: Hmm. Somebody asked me the other day why we hadn’t seen so many Asian-American writers—because the number does seem relatively small. My first reaction was there are only around 11 million Asian Americans in the country out of 280 million. That’s a very small fraction of the population. They seem very visible to us, living in a big city but they just not anywhere else. When you think about it, for something like 60 percent, English is not their first language. So you are dealing with a very small amount of people potentially native American speakers. Asians are new to the country and so most are just trying to establish themselves economically and find a footing in this society. Clearly, especially with the way Asian cultures are, the parents are saying, “Go into the sciences, go into business.” The last thing they are saying is, “Go into the arts.” I think that we will see in the next generation and beyond a lot more Asian Americans gravitating toward the arts. Personally, my parents were saying, “Go into engineering. Go into business and to law school.”

RB: Whose parents ever encourage anyone to go into the arts?

DL: Exactly. (both laugh) They’d be absolutely insane to say, “Become a writer.” For me, writing was not even something I considered. It didn’t even enter my sphere. I was a mediocre high school student. I went to UCLA and chose engineering because I was pretty good at math. It was easy for me and I happened to take an English composition class where the TA said, “You’re a pretty good writer, maybe you ought to take some writing classes.” So I took a creative writing workshop and I really enjoyed it and enjoyed the people. I also started taking literature courses and found that I had—that I needed some kind of verbal outlet that I wasn’t getting in engineering. I was bored to tears over in the hard sciences. Plus the girls were much better looking over on the humanities side. (both laugh) That was a very strong pull.

RB: Sure.

DL: I switched from engineering to literature in my junior year. And still the idea of becoming a writer really wasn’t there. I was thinking, “I’m playing right now. I’m fooling around and having a good time and eventually I’ll go to law school or get an MBA.” I could have very easily taken that road. I was just kind of impulsive and stupid (more laughter) and decided to get my MFA instead.

RB: At this point what does your family think?

DL: I was still telling my family I was going to law school.

People ask me, “What’s the hardest part of writing?” I say, “Just putting that pen to paper.” That’s really it.

RB: Even when you were getting your MFA?

DL: (both laugh) As any parents, they were just worried about how I was going to make a living. Now my father (my mom died in 1990) is very proud that I have gotten this book out and that I’ve made some sort of career for myself as an editor as well.

RB: You reminded me that Sandra Cisneros says her novel, Caramelo, was for her father. Not many people have told me that they have done this miraculous thing of putting out a book for someone else.

DL: Well, really it was for myself. But many people automatically have the impression that because I published this book when I was forty-one that I was a struggling writer and sitting there getting rejection after rejection.

RB: Are there any other kind of writers?

DL: It wasn’t the case for me. I got out of Emerson College with my MFA and taught for three years, pounding my ass teaching eight courses a year. Then I just fell into working at Ploughshares and the managing editor quit and I was thrust into the job. It really took over my life.

RB: Surprise.

DL: Exactly. I decided at a certain point that I was going to be an editor and writing was going to be something on the sidelines. A hobby. I was willing to make that decision because I really didn’t believe that I was good enough as a writer. So I was satisfied enough all of these years working at Ploughshares just writing one story every year or two and publishing them in magazines and journals like Ploughshares. And I was just going along like that and I was thirty-eight, I saw forty coming on the horizon and I said to myself, “Man, I would really like to have a book to account for myself.” Those sorts of things, of showing my father that I’ve made something of my life and having something tangible—something to put on the table. So that’s really what pushed me. I vowed that I was going to sell a book. I went out just like anyone else and found an agent and we sold it. When I was looking for an agent I was pretty specific about only wanting a one-book deal. Because I really didn’t know whether I was going to continue writing. I didn’t want to make that kind of promise. I knew that most publishers would say they wanted a two-book deal, “We’ll publish your stories that we are not really interested in. We want a novel.” So a lot of agents I approached were very frank with me and said, “We think these are good stories but we don’t think we can get a one book deal.” I found an agent who said, ”Yeah, I can get you a one book deal.” And she couldn’t. I grouse about that but I am actually happy that I’m being forced to do it. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have gotten around to writing a novel for many, many years.

RB: What stopped you from writing was your feeling that you didn’t think that you were good enough. How do you feel about it today?

DL: I think I am competent. What I am learning to do is to use what I can do. And skirt around what I can’t. I know that I have certain weaknesses in my writing but certain things that I am good at. I am trying to use those to my advantage. For instance, people tell me that I am a clean writer. (both laugh) I think what it means is that I am not a dense stylist. I don’t have this kind of rococo voice and what I don’t do is work a lot with the interior. I get people in and out of rooms and can keep a story moving. I was influenced—I knew him when he was here—by Richard Yates. He told me as he had gotten older as a writer had he come to depend and believe more and more in plot, of having a story to tell. That’s one thing I try to keep in mind. A lot of my stories are heavily dependent on plot.

RB: If I understand you, you are saying that you are aware of your deficiencies—maybe that’s not the right word…

DL: I think you could call them deficiencies.

RB: You are aware of your strengths and you want to play to them. If you did more writing, wrote more, could that build up muscle tone in weak areas?

DL: I am happy that I ended up having to write this novel. I just finished the first draft of about 275 pages. It’s in very rough shape. It will take me at least another year to revise. I found the act of writing a novel to be completely different than the act of writing a short story in two ways. One, in terms of style and two, in terms of methodology. Stylewise, always in a short story you are compressing, you are excising things. You are letting the reader extrapolate what’s going on behind there to guess at the continuum of a character’s life is. In a novel, you are stretching out those scenes. Something that you might paraphrase in a couple of lines you are actually making into four or five page scenes in a novel. Also, in methodology too. I had always been a guy who was a bleeder and not a gusher. To sit there and eke out every single line and keep on revising it until I was happy with it and then move on. It might take me months, but by the time I finished a short story it was pretty much done. I would have some superficial polishing to do. With a novel you just can’t do that if you want to it within a couple of years.

RB: That’s Donna Tartt’s explanation for taking ten years.

DL: Yeah, because if you want to do it within a reasonable amount of time you have to just push through it to figure out what the story is about and to just lay it down and to have the confidence to keep on going. I ended up having this elaborate system of legal note pads where I wrote by hand. But I had a scratch pad to fool myself into thinking, ”Okay this isn’t the real deal here. I could just write some gibberish.” A lot of the times the gibberish stuff I would end up using. So I would cut and paste. It was essentially mind fucking. Anything to keep me going. The worst part about it as a short story writer is that I had to live with bad writing. This stuff is just a rough draft and a lot of cliche-ridden stuff. It’s not very fluid. But I had to just keep going. So that’s what was really different. A lot of storywriters say, “Once I got the novel down it changes things.” It frees them up; it loosens them up in terms of their working habits. I think I am going to be a much faster writer from now on. And maybe, a fuller writer.

don leeRB: You should have started as journalist. It teaches you to write quickly.

DL: You’re exactly right. Like Steve Almond, he was a journalist. He churns things out all the time.

RB: I haven’t tried my hand at fiction but for the writing I do I want to get a draft on paper right away.

DL: People ask me, “What’s the hardest part of writing?” I say, “Just putting that pen to paper.” That’s really it.

RB: I think that’s true for everyone. The stories in Yellow appeared in any number of wonderful little journals that such stories appear in. As a collection there seems to be a lot of continuity to these stories. How did you prepare these stories to be in this book?

DL: They all took place in Rosarita Bay. I did go back and make some of the characters reoccur, as do some of the places. And I put in more descriptions of the town, to create some unity. I was thinking of collections like Winesburg, Ohio and The Dubliners.

RB: Why?

DL: Well, those books had great influence for me when I was in college. I’d always remembered the, I actually haven’t read them for twenty years (laughs) but I remember them as having great influence on me. And I was thinking it was a great way to have a collection. From the publishers’ standpoint, they wanted that because their idea was that they could always try to fool people into saying it’s a quasi novel or that it has appeal for more than the literary fiction aficionados.

RB: Yes, those literary fiction aficionados. I take it it was not difficult to write stories with your other life as an editor. How about writing a novel?

DL: One thing I did was to negotiate to have Fridays off. I write Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s worked out very well for me. I think I would drive myself crazy if I were a full-time writer. I need to get out of the house. Monday rolls along and I switch and I become an editor and I’m involved with that fully. Friday rolls along and I’m a writer. It does take me a little while to catch up with what I have been doing. You talk to any writer and they always say they are always thinking of their novel. That’s true. I don’t think I’m worrying about anything or thinking about the story and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea for it.

RB: It seems like you are totally immersed in the literary culture or world…hmmm, I don’t know what the question is here.

DL: I do, actually. I think that’s why it was so difficult for me to write the stories and why it took me so long to get the book together. It’s very hard if you are involved and immersed in this world all day long to go home and continue at night and on weekends. It uses the same psychic energy. The other thing is that you start to be destroyed by envy. You are seeing your peers zooming off having fabulous careers as writers and you are sitting, still stuck where you are. That was another thing that made me think, “Okay, I’m an editor. I’m not a writer.”

RB: You see some of your peers making it, but you lost sight of the thousands of writers who don’t have fabulous writing careers.

DL: I vacillate between extremes of ego and complete insecurity. It’s pathological really. It’s not necessarily modesty. It’s just a total lack of self-esteem when it comes to writing. That’s what really sits there for me and makes it difficult to write. I’m always thinking with the imposter syndrome. That I actually don’t have any talent and I’m going to be found out.

RB: You’re an editor. How many writers do you know that think, “I’m great. I deserve everything?”

DL: A lot of them. (laughs)

RB: Really?

DL: A lot, yes.

RB: I haven’t many that have projected that kind of confidence. I do think of Richard Ford, but he’s been at it a while and he’s won awards and his books sell…

DL: He’s a fascinating case. When you look at his books, you can see the evolution in his talent and his development as a prose writer.

RB: I was listening to him reading his story “Puppy” (in Houghton Mifflin’s CD of the Best American Short Stories and from A Multitude of Sins). It’s a terrific story with, dense in a good way and a very assured narrative.

DL: I think he’s a terrific writer. I used to find a writer and read everything he or she had written. And then something happens and you can’t read them any more. Do you find that?

RB: Sure. I used to do that with music also. Adding the Internet to the pool of things that you can draw from to read makes that kind of obsessive approach daunting. There’s too much to read.

DL: I think I that’s why a literary magazine or a commercial magazine like The New Yorker—even though there are opportunities for all kinds of self publishing, those kinds of publications are always going to be necessary because you need a an arbiter of taste. You need someone to weed things out and say, “This is good.” And [that] you can trust them when they say that… It’s funny that Best American and O Henry have created a niche for themselves. People who don’t read short stories will pick up those collections. That’s good for introducing people to these writers and as a by-product the magazines as well.

RB: You said that your coming to Ploughshares was accidental. Or at least your ascension to the throne was. Does that mean you had no bias or mission when you first began or point of view of what the magazine should be?

DL: No at all.

RB: And now?

That’s why a literary magazine or a commercial magazine like The New Yorker…those kinds of publications are always going to be necessary–because you need a an arbiter of taste.

DL: I still don’t. I don’t have as much ego invested into the magazine as a lot of people do. For me, I want to do a good job. I want to do a good job in not only putting out quality work but also everything else…in terms of the management and the production values and all of that. And being able to hand the books over to the accountant and have it match up to the penny. I’m just anal about all sorts of things. As far as what the magazine can do, it really serves two functions. Maybe this is true for all literary magazines. Simply to publish fairly decent work by mid-list writers who can’t sell it to The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

RB: (chuckles)

DL: I know that most of the time that the stuff that we receive has gone through the commercial magazines. And for one reason or another they weren’t picked up. That’s fine. We can’t pay two dollars a word. We pay $250 a story. So, we are not going to get the best work from the best people.

RB: What does that mean?

DL: You mean about the work?

RB: Well, does the quality of the publication suffer because you don’t get “the best work by the best people?” I’m looking at the latest edition of Ploughshares edited by Margot Livesey. The table of contents looks impressive to me.

DL: It is impressive. You can go through it—from the first, through the last pages and have an enjoyable reading experience. There are some standout stories and there is some mediocre stuff too. There is some filler. No doubt about it. What we would like is to have the whole thing be knock-the-top-of-your-head-off stuff. That would be ideal. That just isn’t going to happen. Alice Munro isn’t not going to send her latest story to us. That’s just a fact of life. Lorrie Moore is not going to either, though I would love for that to happen. The second thing that we do though, is we do get the best stuff from unknown writers. We are able to give them a boost in their careers. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m most proud of. Clearly, we have the most influence in that. For instance, there is a woman in here [latest issue], Sharon Pomerantz, who emailed me saying she had gotten her seventh queries from agents off of her story. (both laugh)

RB: We don’t exactly know what that means. Do you know the website, Everyone Who’s Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing?

DL: No.

RB: Gerard Jones’ experience with agents and the publishing industry is hilarious and educational. It’s not bad that seven agents have contacted that writer, but at the end of the day you don’t know if she has been helped or discouraged.

DL: I was just emailing someone talking about agents and I said, “Look, the agents don’t actually read the stuff. They go straight for the contributors’ page and anyone who might be unagented and is probably working on a book, has some decent publications and work in Ploughshares, they are going to contact them. Send them a generic letter…they send out lots of those queries and take on very few. But it’s a jump. Many times writers can’t even get looked at by an agent.”

RB: This literary business world—the crossroads of art and commerce seems so ritualistic. There are a few moves, some people get lucky but basically there is the apprenticeship, publication in noticeable journals and so on.

DL: I thought I knew a lot about the publishing business. But one thing that really surprised me was when my book was in production and scheduled to come out—I had always thought the make-or-break was PW (Publishers Weekly), Kirkus and Library Journal, the pre-publication reviews. And that would decide whether you would get reviewed in newspapers and other magazines and whether there was going to be this pre-publicity buzz—That wasn’t true.

RB: You did get good reviews.

DL: Actually, I did. But the most important thing is six months before that, during the sales meetings for the publishers, whether the sales reps get excited about it and whether the editor is able to articulate how they can sell this book. That never even occurred to me. That blew me away when my editor called me and said the sales reps really loved your book. This is eighth months before the book comes out and you already know…these reps have to have enough excitement and enough intelligence to be able to sell that to the booksellers to get the advance orders for the book. That will decide your print run. And if there is a ground swell they’ll invest more money into the number of copies printed and the publicity, your tour and everything else. I find it completely ironic that almost everyone goes into writing because they are kind of nerdy and very introverted and shy. This they can do alone in a room. They don’t have to deal…And then suddenly when they sell their book they have to become another person entirely. They have to go out and sell themselves. They have to become a good reader and be able to engage well with reporters and everyone else. So, it’s completely warped. What’s maddening about it is the arbitrariness of it—about what becomes a hit and what doesn’t. What gets reviewed, reviewed well and what doesn’t. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, many times.

RB: Yeah, it has to be tough. Patricia Henley told me that Hummingbird House (a National Book Award finalist) was rejected by fifteen publishers—which is not a particularly high number as rejections go.

DL: No, it’s not. (both laugh)

RB: Then, of course, there is the “How did we miss it?”

DL: I don’t think editors say that because they realize that they miss things Just like at Ploughshares, things fall through the cracks. We miss stories because of the sheer volume of things. Also, these editors have personalities and lives. And so they could get your manuscript when they are going through a divorce. Or they’ve just gotten a parking ticket. Something or other. And a lot of times it’s that they’ve read something just like it the day before. That’s what I mean about the arbitrariness.

editor don leeRB: Is the same thing true for you, when you are reading things.

DL: Definitely. The fact is, what writers do not want to hear, is that when I am—on a beautiful Sunday afternoon—sitting at home with a pile of manuscripts that have been submitted to Ploughshares, what I am trying to do is get that pile down. What I am looking for is the first spot where I can say, “No, this isn’t going to work.” and “I can reject this.” The first area where I can stop reading. What happens though is that if someone carries me through with that attitude, you know it’s good and when I do find something, it makes my day. I haven’t wasted my time after all. I haven’t wasted this beautiful Sunday afternoon. That’s the way editors read.

RB: That’s a peculiarity of the professional reader…one rarely gets to read at one’s leisure. I am not obliged in the way you are, but I still feel the pressure of the immense amount of literature coming down the pike.

DL: Yeah. Also, the question that editors hate the most is, “What have you been reading?” Because they haven’t been reading anything. (both laugh) All they have time for is to read manuscripts. That’s it. They don’t actually read real books.

RB: Okay. What do you read, when you can?

DL: I’ve been reading stuff for my novel. Research, research. Like crazy. I read The Corrections—which I thought was flawed but fantastic. I just started reading The Lovely Bones. Which I am sure I will feel that it’s “flawed but still…” (both laugh) I don’t think as an editor and as a writer you can ever stop being such a critical reader.

RB: What was the last non-flawed novel you read?

DL: Disgrace by JM Coetzee. That was pretty much a perfectly structured novel. Interestingly enough, it was in a three-act structure. The classic screenplay structure.

RB: Ploughshares is turned over to a guest editor every issue?

DL: Yeah, every single issue.

RB: So what do you do? (both laugh)

DL: Every issue is edited by a writer of prominence and what we try to do is to have them from different geographical areas and slightly different kinds of aesthetics. So every issue has its own slant. There is an overriding aesthetic because we select the guest editors. So it’s not going to be radically different every single issue. But it makes it a real experiment. This is what makes it an adventure for us—we give 50% to them that they can solicit on their own. The other 50% has to come from stuff that is screened through us. Often times we don’t know what an issue is going to be like at all. What they are going to like or how much they are going to succumb to nepotism and take inferior stuff by former lovers or current lovers or whatever.

RB: Gee, that doesn’t happen, does it?

DL: No, not at all.

RB: I noticed that you have an emerging writer’s issue coming up. Is that a regular thing?

DL: No, it’s the first one we have done in ten years. All of those guest editors become our advisory editors. And so they tell their best students to send their work to us. We have this network of people who are feeding the younger writers to us. So it is essentially what we are doing every single day—looking at those emerging writers. Every single year, there are several people that it’s their first publication.

RB: Granta is about to release another one of their lists of—the chosen few—young writers. Guaranteed to unleash cutthroat passions…

DL: (laughs) Fortunately, I’m above the forty mark. So I don’t have to worry about competing.

RB: It’s hard enough to do this thing—writing—without this high school cafeteria kind of competition.

DL: Who is it who said, “Writing is not a competition”? John Cheever?

RB: It isn’t but it is.

DL: It has become. In this literary business, right? It really has. It is much tougher for younger writers now. There is a machinery involved and as much as people deny this, if you get a story published in Ploughshares they will get really excited about you not only if you have talent but if you are under thirty and are good looking. There’s no getting around it.

RB: Yeah, the publishing business press was making a big to-do this summer about some writers and publishers employing TV coaches to train people for the morning shows. I must say the thing I abhor—since I am a photographer—is the increasing and incessant use of Marion Ettlinger’s author portraiture.

I find it completely ironic that almost everyone goes into writing because they are kind of nerdy and very introverted and shy. This they can do alone in a room. They don’t have to deal… And then suddenly when they sell their book they have to become another person entirely. They have to go out and sell themselves.

DL: (laughs) The silvery photos. I know…

RB: They are so stylized and dehumanizing…

DL: The hand to the face. Why the hand to the face?

RB: A dumb gesture, and the subjects don’t look real or good. And you’d think art directors who like to be original would find their own favorite photographer. How did she become the belle of the ball? But you are correct, there is a machine in place grinding along. Anyway, are there any literary magazines that make money? Does Granta make money?

DL: Granta has the largest circulation of any of any literary magazine, about 45,000.

RB: The American edition?

DL: Yeah. And the way they did that was they did a million pieces of direct mail every eight months. I don’t know if they actually made money from that. I don’t think any literary magazine makes money.

RB: Do the back editions of Granta stay in print?

DL: Yes, they do. They are sold as books. They do have a shelf life that other literary magazines do not. That’s true. But we [Ploughshares] don’t have lucrative advertising. We are not advertising based, so we don’t have a large circulation. When it gets down to it you are trying to sell a product that people really don’t want. (both laugh) Unfortunately.

RB: Yeah.

DL: Interestingly enough, the best-funded literary magazine is the Georgia Review. You would think that there is really no need for them to care about a literary magazine, they have a great football team and everything else. But they love it and they give them a huge amount of money. And the other biggies are the Gettysburg Review and TriQuarterly, all university based. There are others like Glimmer Train, those two sisters Linda [Swanson-Davies] and Susan [Burmeister-Brown], they lose money every single issue—they are very happy to admit. And it’s their money. You have to admire that kind of dedication. They are very savvy business people too. It’s not like they are squandering their money. They are doing everything right but it’s just a very hard sell.

RB: Sure. I’m sure there is a lot of money out there; one example is Arthur Carter of the New York Observer (formerly of The Nation) that could be employed to support worthy publications, literary and otherwise. I’m surprised there isn’t more moneyed-class funding…

DL: It is a surprise because it really wouldn’t take that much. We don’t need the $100 million dollars that Ruth Lilly gave Poetry magazine.

RB: Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Do they need it?

DL: They are getting so much flak about that. What are they going to do with that money? The New Yorker loses money every year. It used to be three million and I think it’s down to one million. Is that still true?

RB: Maybe not. In the context of a larger publishing conglomerate, who knows? But it seems to be a worthy trophy for Mr. SI Newhouse.

DL: The working model for a magazine is to have a shelf life of maybe 35 years and then die. When you think about it, most literary magazines began as a reactionary statement to commercial publishing. Certainly, that’s true for Ploughshares. Dewitt Henry and Peter O’Malley started it is the Plough and Stars Pub in Cambridge because they didn’t agree with what was happening in the publishing world. The other thing is that people start them because they can’t get their own work published. So they do it for a forum for their own work.

RB: What the hell! That seems to be what has happened with the Internet.

DL: Yeah. So Ploughshares was anti-establishment magazine. Now we are the establishment. Yeah, we are well recognized, we’re well respected but also there is a lot of grousing out there, saying that we “are moribund and dull.” People are opening up new magazines as a reaction to Ploughshares. So in some ways, I think, literary magazines work best if they are marginalized, in terms of their funding and everything else. That’s when they have the most energy.

RB: A peculiar paradox.

don leeDL: It really is.

RB: One wants them to be better supported. However, if that happens there seems to be an accompanying loss of vitality. Any thoughts on McSweeney’s?

DL: I’ve never really read it. And I don’t know many people that do. (laughs)

RB: Is that a matter of age?

DL: I don’t know. The way that it’s laid out is not really an appealing reading experience. Although it’s very slick and innovative. I do think Dave Eggers is terrific and applaud him for investing so much into the magazine and, also now, the books. But I don’t know how large their audience is. Do you?

RB: I don’t nor do I know what the print runs are. I do know that their readings are very well attended. One thing Eggers is brilliant at is turning readings into performance and events. And certainly he has injected vitality into the literary culture that was not there before.

DL: But there you go. He is a master of the business. He’s a very savvy guy.

RB: He seems to get testy when that is pointed out.

DL: I think because it is not something that he did as a manipulation. He’s naturally good at it. But he is of that culture—that MTV culture that he knows how to get out there and he knows what’s involved.

RB: Since we were talking about the life expectancy of a literary magazine what is the life expectancy of a literary editor?

DL: Most go until retirement if they founded the magazine. There are lots who are retiring now.

RB: And you?

DL: I’ve been doing it for fourteen years full time.

RB: So you started the same age as Theo Epstein is starting as the GM of the Red Sox. (both laugh)

DL: Yeah, but not with the same salary. I’ll stick with it. I find the division of labor perfectly comfortable for me. I think at a certain point I am going to want to go into full-time teaching. I always remember, despite the slave working conditions as an adjunct professor, enjoying being in the classroom. I think I would be a better teacher now because I am older…

RB: Kinder?

DL: Kinder. (laughs) Hopefully.

RB: And you said that your novel will be publishable in a couple of years?

DL: I hoping to get the final draft done by next September so that it can go in the Fall of 2004. That’s my plan.

RB: What is that hope based on? Is there a methodology of working with a draft?

DL: I am giving myself a deadline. I think that’s doable. I found after I sold Yellow and my editor went through it with her comments—and she really didn’t have much—I had eight weeks to hand in a final manuscript. I was terrified. But it ended up to be the most enjoyable time I ever had writing. Just revising the stories. So I think that will hold true now that I have a first draft done, I’ll get to the fun part, actually polishing it up.

Literary magazines work best if they are marginalized, in terms of their funding and everything else. That’s when they have the most energy.

RB: Okay so you are editing, maybe going into teaching, what’s next after the novel?

DL: I probably won’t do another collection. I’ll probably do another novel. (laughs) I have this idea for a novel. Another novel, already. The novel I am working on is a quasi mystery. I call it that because I kill the character at the end of the first chapter and you know that it’s an accident. There’s no doubt about it. But there is an investigation nonetheless. I was thinking maybe I want to write a literary mystery and set in Rosarita Bay, the town the stories in Yellow are set in. I invested so much in that town and I feel like I’ve lived there and know it. I thought that might be fun. And actually use a few of those characters in the same places.

RB: Shades of William Faulkner and William Kennedy.

DL: Yes, yes. (laughs)

RB: If you could, would you be happy writing full time?

DL: To a certain extent. I would always want something else. I would always need something else to do. I just couldn’t…it would just be too much to have all of that time and really that self-examination.

RB: What is the title of your novel-in-progress?

DL: It’s called There Once Was A Country. It takes place in Tokyo in 1980 and has three characters. One is half-Korean, half-white who works in the American Embassy. And there’s a Japanese cop and they are both assigned to find a young American woman who is missing.

RB: Okay, I’ll see you in a few years.

DL: Two years. 2004

RB: All right. Thanks.

DL: Thank you.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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