As Don Lee’s latest novel, Lonesome Lies Before Us, goes to press, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
I think in fiction it has to be William Stoner, the sad-sack professor in the heartbreaking novel Stoner. In real life it’s the delightful writer Jane Delury, to whom I am engaged.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
The final line of John Cheever’s story “Goodbye, My Brother,” in which the narrator has been watching his wife and sister swimming in the ocean: “I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.” Yes, it’s sappy and overly symbolic, but the rhythms of that line still astonish me.
3. What story, book, or poem do you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
This will seem boring, but The Great Gatsby. I used to reread it once a year in my twenties. It had an awful, detrimental effect on me. Because of it, I began writing overstylized prose with a horrible romantic streak in it. I didn’t really understand the book. But then I realized that Nick Carraway was an unreliable character, and deep cynicism was buried in the book’s apparent sentimentality, which made the novel much richer for me.
4. Best part of the day?
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Friends, exercise, and nature. Even better all together.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Both on the page and in real life, it’s not the fancy words that I repeat too much. It’s the ordinary words for transitions and qualifications, like these dull buggers and their dim variants: simply/just, when/while/as/once, however/though, began/started, particularly/especially, entirely/completely, sometimes/occasionally, perhaps/maybe, finally/at last, and but/although. When you write a book of any length, your syntactical tendencies really get exposed.
7. What’s your current obsession?
Looking for a good acoustic guitar that’s not too expensive. Because I am such a bad guitar player, I don’t deserve a really good, expensive guitar, like a Martin D-18.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Stop taking yourself so seriously as a writer. This was a piece of criticism I gave to myself, about five years after I got my MFA. It changed everything for me.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
At age twelve I didn’t wonder, all the time, what other people were thinking about me. That was a magical reprieve.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
The truth is, I didn’t know a damn thing about love until I met my fiancée three and a half years ago. I wanted love, but I didn’t know how to give or receive love, and I had pretty much given up on love until I met her. If there is a truth I could impart, it would be that you have to keep open to the possibility of love, because you never know when and how and where and with whom it might emerge.
Finally, is there a short passage from the new book you’d like to share with our readers?
How about the opening paragraphs of the novel?
In his teens, Yadin Park had considered himself ugly—a judgment that was overly harsh, yet, at the time, not entirely unfounded.
To begin with, he had been big. Not obese, exactly, but chunky, ungainly, tall, a couple of slugs over six feet. Since a child, he had yearned to be smaller, less conspicuous, inhabit less specter, but his body always betrayed him. He swelled his shirts. His neck distended. He was pigeon-toed, and his pants buffed where his thighs corraded. His feet were clowns. Then there was his head, which to him felt elephantine. His hair was black and matted in wiry waves and seemed vaguely pubic in origin. His face, he believed, bordered on barbarity, with its hocked jaw, thin, chapped lips, and knob of a nose. Most tragic had been his skin, pocked and gullied with acne, rippling hieroglyphs of teenage sorrow.