Behind the Words: D.E. Lee

Posted by on Mar 29, 2019 in ABC's of Writing (for Beginners) | Comments Off on Behind the Words: D.E. Lee

D.E. Lee slightly off center (stage right) with greenery in background, wearing a backpack and green shirt.

D. E. Lee’s work appeared in the fifth issue of Spry Literary Journal. His short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Quiddity, Alligator Juniper, The Lindenwood Review, Saw Palm, Broad River Review, and several others. Awards include Pushcart Prize nominee, Finalist in Nimrod’s 2011 Katherine Ann Porter Prize, Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2014 Fiction Open, and finalist for the 2014 Nelson Algren Award. His novel, The Sky After Rain, won the Brighthorse Books 2015 novel contest and is available in paperback. His website is

Emily Densten: Second person can be kind of a controversial technique. What made you choose to write your story, “At the Boarding House,” in this point of view?

In the mid-80s Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City turned everyone’s heads with his use of second-person narration. Second-person became, I suspect, a fad, to the point that the lit journal Subtropics still cautions that they are “skeptical” of its use, but perhaps their reasoning about it is different. “At The Boarding House” was written in the early 1990s, during a time when I too was smitten by second-person, and wrote from that perspective to be cool, I suppose. Over the next two decades the story evolved substantially, but the second-person narration remained intact. What began emerging for me, through the use of second-person, was a mirror from which the narrator can look at herself as if someone else is doing and about to do what she does.

Tell us a little about your process. Do you have a routine? Are you the rarity whose pieces come out fully formed or do you edit and edit and edit?

Two and a half years ago I used six months to write a 9,000 word “masterpiece,” and after two years of rejections, I pulled it out again and found 4,000 words to cut. Perhaps someone can write (or do anything) once, and it’s fully formed. Not me. I’m with Oscar Wilde on this one: spending my mornings putting in a comma and my afternoons taking it out. In general, I simultaneously write and edit, even initial drafts, and then after the first draft, I edit daily until there’s no red ink left. After sending out a story for a year or two, I read it again (usually with lots of grimacing and in complete disbelief I could have written something so bad), and start the process again.

I have two “goals,” if you will, in editing. The first is to pump life into my sentences. The second is to fall in love with my characters. If I enjoy my time with these people, then it’s a go.

My routines are subject to frequent change. For initial writing, I prefer 4 a.m. or any time during which I can have a long stretch of undisturbed silence. Where? Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s quiet. For editing and rewriting, anywhere works: my desk, the top of the car hood while my wife is shopping, a curbside, a park bench, the clichéd coffee house, or a bumpy bus. Changes of scenery seem to help recapture the “fresh” view of stories. I print out what I’m going to edit and mark it with red pen (Pilot G-2 07—no variation in that). I use different fonts and font sizes and often arrange the story in two and three columns, as if it were already published in a magazine, famous in part for its cartoon covers. I read out loud very often, using different “voices,” anything, really, to see the story “fresh” again.

On your blog you don’t just post new publications, but when you’ve been rejected as well, and an excerpt from the rejection letter. Writers can so easily get bogged down by rejection. Is this documentation a form of self-motivation?

I’ve never thought of the rejections as self-motivation, but, yes, I think it functions that way at some level. I don’t use social media (I have, but it overwhelms my mind, so I stopped) and don’t push myself out very much. One day I decided that, at minimum, I could keep a list, which is all the blog is. Since an acceptance comes about as often as a freezing day in Florida, I thought close-calls would make the list a bit busier, and that’s how it came about. Like many writers, I have a secret decoder ring that I use to work through the hidden meanings behind the words of the rejection letter. I’ve seen websites devoted to the study of them. I classify rejections into two types: straightforward rejections (No, we don’t want it) and “positive” rejections (No, we don’t want it, but here’s a compliment). Positive rejections could be encouraging or could be an indicator of the limits of my talent, I haven’t decided yet. My metaphor for the publication process is fishing: catches, strikes, and dead holes. Of course, if fishing itself is fun, the outcome is less important, less worrisome, and I tend to have fun with it, oh, but I do have my defeated moments.

Who are the top three writers and/or what are the top three works you always recommend to others?

I hate this question. It’s rare for me to recommend a book to anyone. This is because books are recommended to me, and I feel a perverse obligation to complete them, even if I don’t like the book, and I don’t want to impose my taste on others. I much prefer finding things by accident, for example, I was reading a review of Sebald’s The Emigrants and a novella Lenz was mentioned, and I became interested in this novella (which I haven’t yet read), but it’s through this process that one things leads to another. When I’m told, or read, about a novel in discussion format, that is, there’s no effort to push it on me, then I will discover an interest, and pursue it, or not. That said, two friends’ recommendations have gone over well. One is from a woman in Arizona I’ve never met in person but with whom I correspond by email about books. The other is a man who has been influential in my writing life; he shares with me a love of philosophy and well-written literature. In these two cases, my “recommendations” are not directly put, but might be found in the discussion of what I liked.

Various authors and books have been influential or important at various times in my life, so it’s nearly impossible to answer who heads the list. If “topness” is defined by writers I return to, then the list would include, Kleist, O’Connor, Munro, Bolaño, Sebald, Hardy, Kafka, Tolstoy, Camus, Kawabata, Dickens, Eliot, Dinesen, Baldwin, Marquez, Saramago, DeLillo, and Conrad—but I’d be leaving out many, many authors. 

Besides other written work, where do you find inspiration for your stories?

Kurt Vonnegut said there were only eight or so stories, and that’s probably right, or close enough. What changes are the metaphors and ways of writing. Inspiration itself is everywhere. Chekov, asked how he writes his stories, picked up an ashtray and said tomorrow I’ll bring story called “The Ashtray.” He probably did. “At the Boarding House” was partly inspired by an elderly relative’s story of her childhood in 1920s Kentucky in which she had to stand watching people eat, waiting until they were done before she could have any food. My novel The Sky After Rain had its beginnings one rainy evening while I was watching the 1933 silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor. My novel has nothing to do with the film, but there was a flicker of inspiration in the characterization of the two girls in the film. A short story, as yet unpublished, was inspired by an optical illusion in my home town in which cars appear to roll backward up a hill because of the sloping of the cross road. Inspiration is probably the least concern of mine. Anyway, in the course of writing and editing, the “inspiration” very often disappears from the story entirely.

Do you have anything you’re currently working on or that’s been published recently you want the Spry readers to know about?

The Sky After Rain is available at “fine book sellers everywhere”—online, that is. One of my favorite stories, “The Floating Lamp,” was published in the past year at Quiddity. Another story, “The Silence of a Sound (San Marco),” came out in Little Patuxent Review in June 2018. My 4 a.m. time of solitude is consumed with editing a novel about a son seeking the father who abandoned him in context of the refugee camps on the border with Thailand subsequent to the Cambodian genocide.

About the interviewer: Emily Densten lives in New Jersey with a small menagerie of pets and plants. Her work has appeared in Spry Literary Journal, as well as Nib MagazineHere Comes Everyone, and Whistling ShadeShe works as a medical textbook editor and spends her free time baking, telling anyone who will listen to read The Haunting of Hill House, and looking up pictures of corgi hybrids.