Here’s a preview … don’t miss the launch on June 22, 7 pm, at Bird in Hand.
According to the bio on the back of his fifth book, Lonesome Lies Before Us, Don Lee “splits his time between Philadelphia and Baltimore.” I laughed when I read this. Don’t most two-city authors split their time between San Francisco and Paris? Or New York and Rome?
Since this is the Baltimore Writers Club, which is all about gossip and who you know, I will now reveal just how the very talented Mr. Lee came to divide his attentions between these twin cities of the global jet set. Cherchez la femme, my friends. In this case, Jane Delury, the Baltimore fiction writer to whom the novel is dedicated, also my colleague at the University of Baltimore, and also the author of a novel-in-stories to be covered in this column when it comes out next spring, is the reason we in Charm City now lay claim to half of Don Lee.
Fans of Lee will be excited to hear that Lonesome Lies Before Us returns to the author’s fictional town of Rosarita Bay, California, where both the stories in his first book, Yellow, and his comic novel, Wrack and Ruin, were set. Always down at the heels — a sort of California version of Richard Russo’s washed-up towns in New York State — Rosarita Bay is in worse shape than ever in 2011, about to shut down its public library and outsource its police department. Participating in the general decline is former alt-country singer-songwriter Yadin Park, 46. After screwing up his career with self-defeating choices, performance anxiety, cystic acne and last but not least, a severe case of Meniere’s disease which has rendered him partly deaf, Yadin is laying carpet for Matsuda Wall to Wall, and dating the daughter of the owner, Jeanette.
That sounds like the set-up for a comedy, which this book – as its title suggests — is not, despite a few hilarious set pieces. Both Yadin and Jeanette are people who thought they would be somewhere entirely different than where they’ve ended up. Jeanette started out as an artist and an activist; she took a photo of some earthquake victims at the age of 17 that put her on the map as a photographer. Now she is cleaning rooms at the Centurion Hotel and has a house full of interesting objects that seem like they must belong to someone else. There’s a story there, but it will take a while to unfold.
A third study in disappointment is offered by one-time country-western star Mallory Wicks. After years as the darling of the fans and the media, Mallory’s last album was described by critics as “an insult to musicians everywhere” and “possibly the worst album in the history of recorded country music.” Tabloids started running pictures of her looking bloated and angry in unfortunate bikinis. Since then, she’s retreated from the spotlight and has been spending her time playing golf, which is just what she plans to do when she comes to stay at the Centurion.
Don Lee has other plans for her, though.
Back to that title – Lonesome Lies Before Us. It’s the name of a song Yadin has written for what he is sure will be his last album, a self-produced effort he’s working on alone and in secret. I wasn’t sure just what it meant, so I was glad when on page 212, another character asks Yadin about it. “There are lies that are lonesome, and they’re right in front of us?… Or there are people, other people, who made lonesome lies in the past, which still affect everything that’s happening to us now?”
“What?” says Yadin. “No. Lonesomeness, or loneliness, it’s lying before us, laid out ahead of us, in our future, for everyone, no matter what we do.”
“You might need to change that,” says the other character.
Without giving any more away, it can be said neither Yadin nor his creator takes this advice.
We caught up with Don Lee somewhere amid his jet-setting between Baltimore and Philly to ask a few questions.
Talk about your Yoknapatawpha County, Rosarita Bay. What’s it based on? What’s it like to have all these books set in one place? Do you use recurring locales or characters?
It’s based on Half Moon Bay, a little town south of San Francisco that’s managed to stay undeveloped. I never planned on having more than one book, much less three, set there, but I’ve done it out of, well, maybe desperation and lack of imagination! Starting a book, the first question for me is always setting, and when I get stuck, I seem to just go back to this town. I wanted to write something about the effects of the Great Recession on ordinary people, and when I looked up what had happened to Half Moon Bay since the last time I wrote about it, all the events—stores closing, residents getting laid off and relocating, the city outsourcing its services—were perfect for the novel. I have a lot of recurring locales, especially the golf course and luxury resort that were, controversially, in construction in Wrack and Ruin. They’re fully operational now and figure prominently in Lonesome.
It was Judith Krantz, I believe, who said that people love to read about work — what goes on at other people’s jobs. One of the things I loved about your book is the incredible detail given on the job of cleaning hotel rooms… both fancy ones and crappy ones. How do you know all this?
I love to read (and write) about work. I know this is a distinctly American thing. Europeans always say, with condescension, “Why do you Americans always ask, ‘What do you do?’ Why is this so important to you?” Well, because people—at least in the US—are so often defined by their jobs, and as a novelist, it’s how I get to know my characters. I did a bunch of research on housekeeping rituals and procedures at the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. Then I looked up those articles you see all the time about ten dirty hotel secrets and the like. It was actually fun stuff and made me appreciate the work. When I stay at a hotel now, I never forget to tip the housekeeper.
So, you’re not a hotel maid. Are you a singer-songwriter? Don’t lie to me, you seem to know too much about Martin guitars for a layperson.
Nope, I’m not a singer-songwriter—not even a wannabe. The snippets of the three songs in the book were the first lyrics I’d ever attempted, and they were terrible! That’s why I enlisted the help of a professional, Will Johnson, the frontman for the beloved band Centro-matic. He saved me. (I emailed him out of the blue, and he stunned me by responding.) But I’ve been playing guitar badly for the last several years (first started in high school, then stopped for more than two decades, then picked it up again, aided by the abundance of free YouTube lessons and tabs online). I almost bought a vintage Martin D-18 recently but decided I’m too awful of a guitar player to deserve a Martin.
Lonesome Lies Before Us, like much else of what you’ve written, is about what it means to be an artist. As a woman whose own career is a cross between Yadin Park and Mallory Wicks, I really loved what I think you’re saying. To oversimplify: it doesn’t matter if you fail, you still can’t quit. Am I on the right track?
Yes, you have to keep at it, you have to follow your passion, you have to keep that artistic well inside of you alive, no matter what, but…you shouldn’t need external validation like a book deal or a record deal or accolades or awards to continue, to believe that what you’re doing has value, to justify your efforts, because in the end, what does all that matter, it’s just bullshit, it’s the process, the act of creating, that really counts. That’s the full message.
What kind of name is Yadin? Also, I noticed that people have seemingly Asian names in this book like Park and Matsuda, but there are no other clues about their ethnicity. Is that intentional?
It’s a Hungarian name. I picked it up watching pro surfing. There used to be a guy on the world tour named Yadin Nicol. But he doesn’t look Hungarian. He’s a blond Australian. So my character, Yadin Park, is supposed to be half Korean, half Hungarian Jew, but I decided not to identify anyone’s ethnicity or race in the book, although I have Asian Americans and Latino Americans and African Americans. In my career, I’ve alternated: I’ll write a book that confronts race head-on, as I did in my last novel, The Collective, and then I’ll get sick of it and subversively ignore the issue of race altogether, as I did here. You’re one of the few people who have noticed I did this! Which was sort of the point.
It seemed really amazing to me that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins plays a key role in this book. Talk about that.
That was from being an English major, having to read that old green Norton Anthology of English Literature. I was working on the first draft, and I knew the novel needed something else, something to add a little heft. I had an offhand allusion to the characters belonging to the choir of a Unitarian Universalist church, and I thought it might be interesting if Yadin was seeking a deeper spiritual connection. Then I remembered that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who never published any of his poetry in his lifetime, so as not to violate the humility of his position, which was ideal for the theme of the book. Plus, all his poems, I was happy to learn, were public domain.
Okay, Don! Thank you! We’ll see you at your Baltimore launch… at Bird in Hand, on June 22 at 7 pm., in conversation with your friend and mine, Professor Jane Delury.