Don Lee, author of the story collection Yellow and the novel Country of Origin, has a new novel out, a farcical comedy called Wrack and Ruin.
In the novel, Lyndon Song is a renowned sculptor who fled New York City to become a Brussels sprouts farmer in the small California town of Rosarita Bay. Lyndon’s brother Woody, an indicted financier turned movie producer, has a plan involving a golf-course resort on Lyndon’s land and an aging kung-fu diva from Hong Kong with a mean kick and a meaner drinking problem.
Lee’s work has received an O. Henry Award, the Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award. He currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches creative writing as an associate professor at Macalester College. Lee, a third-generation Korean American, was previously editor of the literary journal Ploughshares.
AsianWeek: This novel—a comic farce—seems like a real departure for you after your previous two books. How did it come about?
Don Lee: After I finished my last novel, Country of Origin, which was pretty dark and heavy, I wanted to do something lighter, something that would be more fun for me to write. I didn’t intend to write a farce, but after I finished the first chapter, I realized that’s what I had started. I hesitated then, not knowing if I was capable of pulling it off, but forged ahead.
AW: Why did you decide to return to the setting of your first book, the California town of Rosarita Bay in Yellow?
DL: Rosarita Bay is based on a real town, Half Moon Bay, which is between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I stopped by there while I was on tour for my last book. Half Moon Bay was always known as a developer’s graveyard; it had the strictest anti-zoning laws in the country. But this time, I saw a gated community of fancy new homes and a mammoth Ritz-Carlton on the water with a golf course. The place was being gentrified. I thought it’d be interesting to revisit Rosarita Bay and see how the residents were dealing with this gentrification.
Photos of Don Lee
AW: You have two brothers who are half Korean and half Chinese American and a large cast with multicultural roots, yet in many ways it feels that their ethnicity is beside the point. Was that intentional?
DL: To tell you the truth, I’ve gotten a little bored with writing about race and ethnicity and identity. I wanted to write a novel that didn’t depend on those themes, that transcended race. I think a lot of Asian American writers feel the same way, and I sense a movement away from those issues in fiction.
AW: The main character, Lyndon Song, was a sculptor whose work was typecast as “Asian” or “Asian-American.” Critics received one of his exhibits as “too Asian” and another as “not Asian enough.” Do you feel that literary critics have responded to your books this way?
DL: Yes, but I don’t think I could have expected otherwise. I did, after all, entitle my first book Yellow. I would like to see the day, though, when my characters’ ethnicity is secondary to the more important elements of my books. I’d like to be known as a writer first, and as an Asian American second.
AW: Have you ever been tempted to do what Lyndon does—give up your artistic career and do something entirely different?
DL: Definitely. It’s actually not a fun thing, publishing books, having people take potshots at your work. Of course there’s the other side, when people admire what you’re doing and tell you about it, and in general that’s how my books have been received, but it’s the sporadic negative stuff that I remember, that I agonize about. Sometimes I feel like removing myself from the literary scene—I wouldn’t stop writing, but I wouldn’t publish anymore. But of course eventually I’ll forget about the anxiety of releasing a book, and I’ll do it again. (I realize that none of this will be regarded with much sympathy, particularly by writers who have been trying for years to publish their books but haven’t been able to.)
AW: What are you working on next?
DL: A nasty little love story that’s narrated by a female stalker called The Possible Husband. The main character’s name is Laszlo Yoon.