Long-time Ploughshares editor Don Lee has recently published his second book, a novel entitled Country of Origin. His first book, a story collection called Yellow, was highly regarded and garnered a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The Academy of Arts and Letters. Don Lee lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and continues to ply his craft. This is my second conversation with him.
Country of Origin is set in Tokyo in 1980 as the United
States--and indeed the world--watches the Iran hostage crisis and
coming presidential election unfold. Three characters: Liz Countryman,
a bi-racial American; Tom Hurley, a junior diplomat and a half Korean;
and Kenzo Ota, a schlumpy Japanese detective, become intertwined
in a suspenseful story both culturally illuminating and psychologically
haunting. As Tess Hadley observed in the New York Times,
"It has all the right ingredients for a thriller: a missing
girl, a variety of suspects, two men on the case, entanglements
in high places and a tour through some of the more bizarre aspects
of the Tokyo sex trade. It's a good idea structurally, too, that
the account of Lisa's months in Japan leading up to her disappearance
is woven into the narrative of the search for her; this takes us
into some fascinating locales and also underscores our urgent need
to find out what has happened to her." In the end, Country
of Origin centers on the preeminent theme in Lee's fiction,
the plight of displacement in the modern world. And as you will
read below, that is something Don Lee knows about.
Robert Birnbaum: What does it say about W.W. Norton,
your publisher, that in short order they have published Vyvyane Loh's Breaking the Tongue, and Lan Samantha Chang's
Inheritance and your book, Country of Origin,
in the same season?
Don Lee: All first novels.
DL: First, you have to laud them. They appreciate
Asian-American writers and are not afraid to group them all together
in one season. I'm sure they had some hesitation about it at their
sales and marketing meetings--"Are we going to look like we
are the Asian-American arm of U.S. publishing or something?"
DL: I am also fairly certain that they were worried about grouping
them all together and getting group reviews, which hasn't happened.
But they actually have five first novels in their catalogue for
this season, spring & summer, which is unusual. It says a lot
about them, and kudos to them for being an independent publisher
and being able to do that.
RB: Did they know what they were doing? But of course they did.
DL: I think they did try to spread us out a little bit. As they
probably should have been worried that we would be pigeonholed together.
But maybe the media has become a little more savvy in the three
years since I published my book. When I published my first book
there were two other writers who had first collections out, Christina
Chui and Laura Glen Lui. And we got a lot of group reviews. They
were from different publishers and the books were very different.
RB: The three books we are talking about are not at all alike.
A group review would be a contrivance.
DL: So it has gotten better in that sense. We are not getting grouped
RB: Chang Rae Lee's book Aloft came out in March and was
very well reviewed. Did it sell?
DL: It was on the New York Times bestsellers list for
several weeks, which, these days, doesn't mean a whole hell of a
lot. But still I think it did very well. He's broken through to
the mainstream of literary readers and--
RB: That's a big group.
DL: [both laugh] Maybe 100,000 at most these days. [laughter continues]
I reviewed that book for the Boston Globe. What I said
about it was that for sure a lot of people were really shocked that
he had this main character, the first-person narrator who was 59
years old, white and middle class and living in suburban Long Island.
And I am certain that he was a little afraid that there would be
some sort of backlash from someone saying, “You have betrayed
your heritage, or your roots, or your responsibility to Asian-American
writers.” It was very brave of him, almost revolutionary in
a way because it paved the way for other writers, other Asian-American
writers, and we could do pretty much anything that we wanted to,
that we didn’t have to write from the viewpoint of an Asian-American
all the time and that we could venture out into other characters
and other points of view. But there was a backlash.
going to sell. The absence of a review is just as loud as
giving a negative review.
RB: How brave was it for the Globe to
ask you to review Aloft? Most of the reviews I noticed
were not by Asian-Americans.
DL: I actually asked to review that book. With
the book reviews I do, in general I only review books that I like.
I don’t feel that it's necessary to give a bad review to someone.
In these days of publishing, if you don't review it, it's not going
to sell. The absence of a review is just as loud as giving a negative
review. I loved his [Lee's] first two books. I said, "I would
like to take a look at this one, and if I don't like it I'll tell
you." I feel comfortable doing that. Especially after A
Gesture Life, his second book, I thought he was really doing
interesting things and [I] wanted to take a look at the third book.
You are right, usually newspapers lacking some imagination, perhaps,
always try to find someone who has written a similar book or has
a similar ethnic background to review that writer. I haven't seen
it so much for him, and I didn't see that so much for me, either.
RB: As much as I pay attention, I get a sense that your book has
been well reviewed.
DL: Actually, it's gotten mixed reviews.
RB: I don't mean the quality of the reviews. I mean the amount
DL: A lot of reviews--it has. My publisher has been happy about
that and surprised, maybe, because this year, this summer in particular,
novels haven't been reviewed. There are quite a number of my peers
whose--even people's third books when their first and second have
done very well and they haven't gotten reviews. I've been shocked
RB: What's the explanation for that?
DL: I have a feeling that since 9/11 things have changed. It’s
really given over to nonfiction more than fiction in terms of the
reviewing media's sense of importance. When you do have things like
[Bill Clinton's] My Life and Richard Clarke's book coming
out, certainly they feel the need to give that a lot of play, as
well they should. But when the pages have been shrinking for book
RB: Well, which is more the problem.
RB: There are always books like the Clinton bio, or something topical
like Clarke's book or Seymour Hersch's book, to compete. But would
people normally pay attention to Nial Ferguson or Chalmers Johnson?
I followed Charles McGrath's long goodbye at the Times Book
Review and the attendant issues, more fiction or less--
DL: Or cover more commercial fiction?
RB: The discussions go on, and people rage and fume about it, but
there is the irony that most of the people who take issue with the
Book Review don't need it to be aware of the books that
it is or isn't reviewing. So what is the point? The New York
Times Book Review is not making a cultural contribution with
DL: It matters to other newspapers about whether they'll run a
review or not. But it's also just to book sellers, whether they
are going to put it on the table featured face out, on the shelves,
that sort of thing. A good New York Times book review will
do wonders for you.
RB: I just read that a good Times review doesn't do much
if you are an established writer, but it does a lot for a new author.
RB: It's a shame we spend this time fulminating on these things.
[both laugh] What does it have to do with telling stories? [laughter
DL: In that sense, you can talk about the entire business of going
on tour. First of all, I had a very different sense going on tour
this time than I did with my first book. [For] my first book I did
four readings in four different cities. I did a few interviews here
and there. But they were all spaced out over three or four months.
And it was a pretty leisurely pace. But this time around, it was
compacted. My tour was nine days, five cities, eight readings, 13
interviews, three store signings.
DL: I tallied it all up. I was wondering why I was so exhausted.
But I got the sense that you had to do it in three weeks. The reviews
had to be clustered, the interviews and everything else, and if
you didn't make it in that three weeks the book was dead. I don’t
know if that is imagined or not. My publisher says no, you have
a longer life span--
RB: Yeah, six weeks.
DL: The differences in those three years? Computers. Bookscan.
The way that Barnes & Noble and Borders order their books and
keep them or return them. They can see the movement of sales or
the lack thereof and either order more or start returning them.
So the shelf life has really shrunk.
RB: The trick is to go to as many cities as possible, sign as many
books as possible and then the stores can't return them.
DL: No, that's changed. They can. That changed a long time ago.
They can return signed books. So you going and signing thirty or
forty books, it doesn't matter. [both laugh]
RB: Oh well.
DL: It's a crazy business. How many businesses still run on this
consignment system where they can return things?
RB: I think the record business.
DL: I don’t know about that.
RB: It did. I don't know if it still does.
I went to a reading with Robert Olen Butler--he read with Sam Chang
and he told me that he was going on a 45-city tour. The publisher
initially said 15 cities and he said, "Do more. Do more."
This is his 10th book. He feels that this is the only way to make
sure that book has a life--he has to keep on going out there. And
keep trying to get as many interviews as possible.
RB: Authors as carny people and pitchmen.
DL: Yeah. But it's a crazy notion. You have writers who go into
writing because they are sensitive and introspective [both laugh]
and inwardly drawn and a bit reclusive and curmudgeonly. And then
suddenly there are expected to sell themselves. Sometimes you go
out and you do things like one interview I did, the guy said, “Let's
just do 7 or 8 minutes." And he starts: "So we have here
Don Lee, author of Country of Origin. I lived in the U.S.
all my life, so I can't imagine what it would be like to immigrate
to the U.S. and write a book about it. So tell us about it, Don?"
RB: [laughs heartily]
DL: And I just rolled with it. I corrected him and said, "No,
it’s a novel,” and told what it was about. We actually
had some chuckles. He was a nice enough guy but he hadn't bothered
to read the book. He hadn't read the press release. But you just
roll with it and you do these kinds of interviews, but the sum of
it is that you finish the tour and being nice to everyone as much
as possible, you feel a little bit like a whore.
RB: Ah yes, the euphemism employed for a while was charm initiative.
It certainly is the way of the world which has been accelerating
in my perception since the early '90s--this book tour thing. It
seems to have exploded. It seems to be obligatory, and I don't think
the writers I have talked to [it is of course skewed to people who
do them] who don't feel obliged to their publisher.
DL: This year it’s changed a little bit.
Publishers are more reluctant to put their authors on tour. Authors
are having to ask. One example is Tom Perotta. They hadn't planned
to send him on tour, even after he got that front page rave on the
[New York Times] Book Review. The only readings
he did were in New York and here. My editor once said to me very
frankly, "Well, we know that readings don’t sell books.
You go somewhere cross-country and you sell 10 copies--that doesn't
pay for the expenses [obviously]. What we hope for is that when
we send you to these cities that you are going to get a feature
review or interview or a radio or TV interview." That's what
they are looking for. But knowing that that's happening less and
less, I think they are more reluctant to send you out.
RB: I consider myself in some very lucky that I live in this area
and there are 5 or 6 writers passing through every week. It’s
hard to tell from my end of it that there has been a slow down.
Although it's odd the people that aren’t sent here. When you
first walked in, you mentioned to me that your agent has been hinting
[both laugh] about future work. And I was thinking as I was driving
in from New Hampshire about you and about the task, and wondering
about the level of pressure is there now? Writing seems to be a
thing one does off the clock, out of time. And then--
DL: It's a sideline. It's not my main job. I still work full time
at Ploughshares. What I did with the novel was that a couple
of years ago I negotiated with Emerson College so I could take Fridays
off. And so I wrote the novel on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
But it is difficult; I wish I had the sort of job that where I at
least had the summer off. And could concentrate a little more--the
way I was able to write the novel is because I don't have children.
DL: I don’t know how writers who have children are able to
do it, to produce anything.
RB: There's an idea for an anthology. I just saw one today, a collection
of stories by writers who live with other writers. So the next one
will be Writing With Children.
DL: Right. When I came out with Yellow--actually when
I was trying to sell Yellow I was talking to agents, and
I said, "I am actually looking for a one-book deal." Because
I was thinking that these are stories that I had written over the
course of 10 years. And it had always been a hobby. I was an editor
first and a writer second. And I didn’t know whether I was
going write a second book or not. I couldn’t get a one-book
deal. It was the two-book deal with the novel.
RB: Had it been a one-book deal, what would have happened with
writing a novel?
DL: I probably wouldn’t have done it. It would have taken
me years. It might have taken ten years to get around to it.
RB: The time factor aside, is it hard for you to write? I suppose
it cuts into your windsurfing.
since 9/11 things have changed. It’s really given over
to nonfiction more than fiction in terms of the reviewing
media's sense of importance.
DL: [laughs] Well, I get as many days as I can.
I pissed and moaned about writing this novel the entire way through.
DL: With my friends I kept on referring to it as the TFN, the fucking
novel. But in retrospect, it really wasn't that hard. I was able
to discipline myself so that--one decision that I made was if I
was going to write this in any kind of reasonable amount of time,
I had to make it a plot-driven book. It was the first novel I had
ever attempted. And I knew I could get bogged down and it would
take me eight or ten years or something if I didn't have it really
relying on story. So that was a deliberate choice, to make it a
quasi mystery or play with the mystery genre. That made it a lot
easier for me. I was able to switch it on and off, so come Friday
morning I was at my desk and was able to write. Granted it would
take me--my objective was to write two chapters a month, and to
write the 1st draft in one year, which I did. But granted it would
take me the entire 8 hours of the day to write 2 damn pages [both
laugh] where I would be sitting there constantly getting up and
taking naps or checking e-mail. All of these sorts of things--you
play all kinds of tricks on yourself to get yourself to write. So
what I did was write the entire thing in long hand. And made myself
not revise until I got to the end. And I would just keep on going.
At the end of the year, I had 20 legal pads.
RB: Would you do it that way again? Is that now your methodology?
DL: It seems to be.
RB: And thus the next one that you may or may not write will not
be as foreboding to you?
DL: I don't think I am ever going get rid of that anxiety. You
are at the end of a project, and you immediately think, "I
am never going be able to write another thing." After this
year I have written a couple of short stories just to prove to myself
that I am still capable of writing a short story. Now I am starting
to gather ideas for a new novel, and I still think whether I will
be able to do this.
RB: Do you think non-writers understand that fear?
RB: You've written a book of short stories and now a novel. You
have been an editor. It all points to the fact that you can continue
to do this to write fiction.
DL: Right. The second book syndrome, let's approach that for a
start. I understand that completely. What it's about is the imposter
syndrome. It's this fear that you are going to be found to be a
fraud. That the first book was a complete fluke. Or else you blew
your wad with that first book and nothing is there, the well is
empty. It's more so that you are afraid whatever you had was in
that first book, and it was overpraised, and you are going to be
found out to have no talent whatsoever.
RB: Is there ever a hum of pleasure and equanimity--you are so
engrossed in the task that you forget all these fears? Do you remember
DL: You do at moments. The question becomes then, why do you do
it? The pleasure then becomes the things that--regardless of how
meticulous you are in plotting a book, things pop up that you hadn’t
expected. And these are the pleasures. Or else you think of a phrase
or sentence of or a paragraph that you think is pretty good, and
so those are the pleasures of writing. The anxiety is there throughout,
wondering if you are going to be able to finish. And whether it's
all going to fall apart. I heard Michael Cunningham say that there
is always a point in writing a novel when you realize you have missed
a fundamental flaw and that everything falls apart and you have
to start over. I just kept on waiting for that, wondering what I
missed that's really obvious and that is suddenly going make me
have to start all over again. Or abandon this. You hear that all
the time about people who are hundred fifty, two hundred pages into
it and then they realize that it can't work.
Haruf told me he finished Eventide and was driving
to California with his wife. She was reading it to him aloud, and
he couldn't stand it. And instead of visiting with his kids, he
took a motel room and rewrote it.
Baxter came to a point in writing The Feast of Love
where he was sitting down with his wife at dinner and he said, "You
know, I think I am going to give up on this book. I don't know where
it's going to go and it's not working." And he almost did.
So no, that anxiety never leaves. And why we do it? It's very simple.
You are compelled to do it. Despite your neuroses and your insecurities
and everything else, you have these images floating in your head
that you need to vent, that you need to write down. I think that's
what it is. The other pleasure about writing a novel is that it's
like an intellectual exercise. There is this jig saw of these images
that are floating around and then connecting the dots, laying down
so that they start to make a shape. That's a wonderful feeling when
it starts to make sense to you and then you start to tie things
RB: So how do you feel about Country of Origin?
DL: I think it's the best book I could have written at the time.
I was telling Anne Beattie that if I were to write this book now
it would probably be 200 pages longer. I would fill in the characters
more; I would have more of a robust narrative. And I would not have
it rely so much on the plot. She said, "Oh God, who needs another
200 pages?" She thought the pace was fine for the type of book
I was doing.
RB: As a reader I found the characters sufficiently interesting.
It was a mixed bag of odd people with peculiar flaws. I suppose
you could have filled them in, but they didn't seem incomplete.
DL: It was really that much of a departure from the first book.
RB: You got some references to Rosarita Bay in.
DL: Some of it was based on "Domo Arigato" which was
in Yellow and a couple of characters from that showed up
in Country of Origin. If I were to do it all over again,
I would first of all never set it in Tokyo.
DL: I lived in Tokyo when I was in high school from 14 to 18 years
old 1974 to 1978. And I figured I wouldn't need to do a lot of research.
I was completely wrong. It was just stupid and inane for me to think
that. What did I know about living in Tokyo as an adult? What did
I really know about working in the embassy? Nothing! I needed up
to do a tremendous amount of research.
RB: If you had place to embassy in Baghdad or Istanbul, would you
have had to do less research?
DL: I would have been better to have better sense of a city where
I lived now. The problem is that much like the characters in the
book, I have never had a real home. We shuttled back and forth from
army bases and embassy compounds. We had borrowed government-issued
furniture. We had one house in northern Virginia when I was 13 and
we stayed there for a year. My dad was away for nine months out
of that year. My mom and I fixed up this house and bought all the
furniture and everything, and then we got 30 days notice that we
were moving to Tokyo. That furniture went in to storage and it stayed
in storage, for 20 years, and then when my dad retired, storage
came in from three different places in these crates kept in climate
controlled warehouses, and they were in perfect shape, but there
was this [laughs] '70s furniture. So I don't have this sense of
home. Whereas some one might write about their place of origin,
I don't have that.
RB: You do have a sense of displaced people.
Which is what I always write about.
RB: [both laugh]
DL: My shrink had an incredibly astute comment--
RB: She better. Or he better.
DL: Well, you always feel like an outsider. That has become how
you have survived and even maybe excelled. Your dysfunction had
become your function. I think that is true. It’s given me
something to write about. [laughs] It's a persistent theme in my
RB: That's provides a level of comfort, doesn’t it? Knowing
your vantage point in life.
DL: Yes it does.
RB: Whose genius idea was it to have guest editors at Ploughshares?
DL: It came about by accident. It came about because they agreed
to disagree. When Dewitt Henry and Peter O'Malley started this journal
back in '71 at the Plough and Stars (where I live right across the
street right now).
RB: I spent the nights of my first years in this area there.
DL: But they couldn't agree on who would be the editor. And so
they thought, "We'll take turns." They hated each other's
tastes so much so they took turns. And then Frank Bidart was the
first one they invited from outside the circle and then it started
going farther and farther away in those circles people that they
would invite. Now mostly what we like to do is get people who have
had their early work in Ploughshares a long time ago and
have established themselves and now want to give something back.
It's hard to convince people to do it. It takes a lot of time. We
don't pay a lot. And even though they have that sense of community
service, they know that it's going take away from their own work.
RB: I thought Amy
Bloom's introduction in the edition she edited was pitch perfect
and thrilling in a way that drove me into the new edition. Normally
I would look at the Table of Contents and put it aside for a moment
[both laugh]. But I read her piece and got right into it. It was
a great explanation of the place of these small magazines in our
culture. So there I am staring at the new Ploughshares
and the new McSweeney's and the new Glimmertrain
and the new Believer and the Paris Review—
DL: Well, there are something like 600 established literary magazines
in the country, which means that they come out on a somewhat regular
basis. But maybe ten of them have circulation above 3,000. And the
rest of them below 500. The last count was that there are maybe
6000 journals and zines that come out on an irregular basis, but
they come and go. We have seen recently a lot of the bigger kind
of institutions being shut down because mostly the editor who started
these journals in the '70s is retiring. Or even longer--The
Partisan Review has been much talked about, The Ohio Review's
Wayne Dodd is retiring, and we will probably continue to see that.
But it seems to be a naturally regenerative process. New ones are
coming up all the time, and it's cheaper to put out a journal now.
In terms of the typesetting and the printing, costs have stayed
at a reasonable level. But because everything is computerized, it's
easier to do.
RB: And there is the online world, which has no printing costs.
DL: I think it's a good process for things to die and new ones
to come up.
RB: As opposed to the underlying angst that it's all disappearing.
DL: No, it's not disappearing. In the coming years, in the next
ten years, we'll see a larger turnover. More of the so-called venerable
magazines will start to close. People will be alarmist about that,
but new ones will always pop up. And they will be pretty invigorating
RB: I find it interesting the kind of proprietary attitude that
comes out when there is commentary on the slush pile at The
New Yorker or the editor of The New York Times Book Review
retires. Now that Frank
Conroy is retiring at Iowa, I wonder if there will be any to
do about his successor--which should affect who? Maybe the 700 people
who apply every year. It's now an Associated Press story. It's interesting
that this is news.
DL: Maybe there is this general worry about the fate of literary
works. Everyone is talking about that NEA
survey (only 47% of the country read a book, a story, a play
or a novel in one year). It's just an astounding thing. How alarming
it was that the numbers were dwindling at an accelerated pace in
most recent years --and that numbers showed that younger people
were reading less. Being distracted by technology--the Internet
and cable TV, video games and everything else. People are worried
about that and they have a good reason to be. The fascinating thing
is, of course, that the [number of] people who want to write seems
to be increasing all the time. There has been no let up of that
who go into writing because they are sensitive and introspective
and inwardly drawn and a bit reclusive and curmudgeonly. And
then suddenly they are expected to sell themselves.
RB: Odd, isn't it? They'll end up writing for
DL: Every single literary magazine editor has the same lament--which
is, "I wish we had the same number of subscribers as submitters."
We have a total circulation of six thousand but we get over 1200
submissions a month. It's an astounding number, and you go to these
writers' conferences and it seems to me that every time I go out
there in the public, the people in the audience all want to be writers.
Even the booksellers, the people who would introduce me at readings.
They want to be writers, too.
RB: What is at the root of this narrative obsession?
DL: You would hope that people would be interested in the form
and think there is value in the form and that it is integral to
the cultural health of the country. So that's what you hope for,
but I have this suspicion that there is something about the pursuit
of celebrity that plagues every person in this society--maybe it
all started in the '80s with the Brat Pack [Bret Easton Ellis and
Jay McInnerny], writers appearing in gossip magazines. But there
is this sense that you can become a star, overnight. That’s
certainly a possibility. It's not a big possibility. But there is
a real possibility of that if it is your first novel and that's
where you can make the most money, no.
RB: With these unreal advances being handed out?
DL: Yeah. People who have a first book--I don't think there has
been a slow down in publishers’ interests for them--where
there has been a drop off is in a writer's 3rd and 4th books. That's
because of computers and Bookscan. Everyone can look up your sales
figures for your last book, or they can plug in and say, "Find
me something similar to this, did that sell?"
RB: So there are no 30-year-old, mid-list writers?
DL: [both laugh] It's harder and harder now.
RB: Right. The pressure to deliver a bestseller sooner has become
pre-eminent. Could you have imagined that there would be coaches
for young authors going out on tour on how to do TV interviews?
DL: Right, right.
RB: Is Marian
Ettlinger the new Cecil Beaton or Karsh? Apparently a sign of
arriving is to have her do your author portrait. The celebrity engine
is like a pinball machine.
DL: On the other side of that, though--we were
talking about blogs before--if you look at these blogs people still
care passionately about good books and good writing. So that still
does exist. That's the hope of it. The conclusion of Dana Gioia
and the NEA and in many ways it was a scare tactic, was in 50 years
if we keep on going at this rate, reading will no longer be a measurable
activity. I don't think that will be the case. People will always
care about books and writing. It might be a smaller group, but it
will always exist.
RB: Pop culture seems noisier and relentless.
DL: If you were able to sit at Ploughshares, at my desk,
you would see that the writing, the things we get, seem to be getting
better and better. We can't print everything we receive that is
worthy of being published. Going back to institutional magazines
and the big wigs, the question will be whether universities will
continue giving support to literary magazines at the same level
that they have. There is more pressure, not to be profitable because
none of these are profitable or even break even, but just to lessen
the burden on the institution.
RB: There has been anxious talk about the state of university presses
DL: Right, and their importance, because whether you get tenure
depends on whether you publish and if there is no place to publish,
what do you do? There was this suggestion that they pool money together,
[laughs] which I don’t think would work.
RB: Sounds socialistic. We don't do that in this country, do we?
I wonder about the NEA survey's question. It seems to be a regular
sport to issue these studies proclaiming how ignorant we are, "No
high school students could find the U.S.A. on a world map!"
DL: Isn't it true that every two years there is
some sort of report that comes out that says nobody is reading anymore?
And still they are publishing more books than ever. I am sure in
five years a report will come out that now that baby boomers are
now retiring, more people are reading than ever, because that sort
of activity has been ingrained in that generation, and now that
they are not working they have more time to read. I am certain that
RB: You think?
RB: In addition to the noise level, there is that state-mandated,
media-driven consumerism. The baby boomers, the leading edge of
that with their Hummers and plasma TVs and large discretionary income,
will not retire from shopping, for sure.
DL: [laughs] You can also talk about the sea change in that books are
treated like product launches now. And you have to keep those shelves
new all the time. Every week you [bookstores] have to change the
table, have to change the shelves. That's led to the quicker returns.
And also more books as well.
RB: The blockbuster mentality is operative.
DL: Yeah, as many hits as possible and maybe one
of them will turn out to be the blockbuster.
RB: I was looking at an AOL front page and the copy line said something
like, "Don't be the last one on your block to buy Harry Potter."
Pretty dumb. We have been hither and dither--you mentioned a next
novel and some stories.
DL: The idea is that fictional town in Yellow, Rosarita
Bay. I am thinking of going back there.
RB: Like William Kennedy.
DL: Yeah. [laughs] Or Faulkner, grandiosely I say. I always liked
the idea of this town being a place of exile. It's a bit of seedy
backwater and people have, whether by choice or they have been forced
to stay there out of the limelight.
RB: This is consistent with your own personal experience.
DL: This is my imaginary hometown, maybe. But I have this idea
of two brothers and one of them is an artist that chose to drop
out of the art world a long time ago and has been living in this
town working as a welder--he used to be sculptor--and maybe there
is a family farm involved with Brussels sprouts and artichokes.
I haven't decided yet. But his younger brother comes in, and the
vague thought is that he is representing some sort of development
group and it's the onslaught of modernity into this town and whether
it can be stopped or not. It's mostly about obsolescence and disgrace--all
the things we have been talking about here.
RB: [both laugh] So this is not particularly plot driven.
DL: I have a little more confidence that I don't have to rely so
much on plot. This will still have some plot, some sort of traditional
lines of drama and maybe melodrama. Probably will rely more on characters.
More like the stories.
RB: Any talk of a movie deal for Country of Origin?
DL: There has been a couple of people--
RB: No doubt they want to change the races of the characters--
DL: And the location [both laugh heartily]. My agent and I have
said if you want to do that, just show us the money. I don't think
it's a movie that will ever be made because it would be way too
expensive, and certainly the characters, in terms of the way Hollywood
thinks demographically, would be pointed to such a small percentage
of the population. But it would be nice if someone optioned it.
RB: Of course. How long have you been editing Ploughshares?
DL: 16 years.
RB: And counting. And writing and windsurfing. Anything going to
change in your life?
DL: Well I have been thinking about it a lot. In the next couple
of years I would like to find a full time teaching job. It's something
I did when I graduated with my MFA. But I taught it as an adjunct
dog. No benefits, no contract, semester to semester. I loved teaching
when I did it. I thought of it as a calling. Now when I go and visit
campuses, it's energizing to be around younger people. I would really
enjoy that. So that's the change that I am going to make. I can't
see doing Ploughshares for 20 more years. I know I am always
going to be the kind of writer who is going to have to have a full-time
job. That's the reality of publishing these days. So do I continue
being an editor, or do I do something else, and so I could be ready
for a change soon.
RB: Well, good. Thanks.
DL: Thank you.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing