Author Don Lee’s first short story collection, Yellow, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and was called by the Los Angeles Times an “unusually complete portrait of contemporary Asian America.” Lee has also written about the Japanese sex trade (Country of Origin) and brussel-sprouts farming (Wrack and Ruin). His newest work, The Collective, explores the drama that unfurls within a radical young artists’ collective. Lee currently serves as the director of Temple University’s MFA program.
KC: What is the most self-indulgent book you’ve read in the last few months?
DL: Kelly Slater’s autobiography. He’s the eleven-time Association of Surfing Professionals champion, and he’s my hero. He’s forty years old, but he’s been surfing professionally since he was about eighteen or so. He was winning everything when he was young, and then, he retired and he was on Baywatch for about three years before he decided to come back to the surfing circuit. He’s been winning this stuff in his late thirties and he keeps on going—and I’m just fascinated by this guy. It’s a terribly written book, but I really enjoy finding out about Kelly Slater.
KC: Are you a surfer?
DL: I’ve done a little surfing. I’m mostly a windsurfer—I’m an avid windsurfer. Shortboard windsurfing. I do just a very small bit of wave sailing, but yeah—my next project is that I want to get into regular surfing. Also, I’ve been getting into standup paddleboarding and you know, that’s where I feel the most free in my life. Every year, I go to an island—a Dutch Island called Bonaire, which is off the coast of Venezuela—for two weeks in May, and I windsurf there. It’s like a job—we get out there at 9:30 a.m. and we stay until about 5:00 p.m. I windsurf maybe a total of five hours per day, and I think about nothing other than, “How can I smooth out my jibes?”
I will usually eat over-easy eggs, but this is the shameful thing—I’ll actually eat it with ketchup. What I’ll do is that I’ll make the over-easy eggs and I’ll break the yolk and I’ll cut it all up. I mean, I won’t eat individual pieces; I’ll cut the whole thing up, and then, I’ll squirt a little ketchup on it and mix it all up. It looks terrible, but it tastes great.
KC: My cousin, who I used to be roommates with, would only eat rice with ketchup.
KC: Name one object on your desk that is completely useless to your writing practice but that you keep on it anyway.
DL: I have an interval timer which I just keep on my desk. I exercise a lot and one of the things they say is that you should do interval workouts if you want to get more out of your cardio. And so I got this thing and I use it for this workout called the Spartacus.
KC: What’s the Spartacus?
DL: You do forty seconds of this intense workout, rest for twenty seconds, and then, you go again for forty seconds and rest for twenty seconds. You do ten sets of these and then try to do a last round, but I’m usually just too wiped to—
KC: So when you say intense, what does that mean? What is the exercise?
DL: It’s like, uh, you do burpees—you know what burpees are?
KC: No, explain it to me.
DL: Burpees are—you’re in the standing position, and you drop and kick your legs out so you’re in a pushup position, then you do a pushup and you push your legs back up so that you’re in a squat. Then, you jump up in the air, and when you land, you do the same thing. You do that over and over for forty seconds.