Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Mark Lee

Posted on: August 26, 2013

Today I’d like to introduce you to author Mark Lee, whose background might surprise you. Lee was born in Minnesota, graduated from Yale, and has lived in New York City where he worked such diverse jobs such as a taxi driver, a language teacher and a security guard. During the time, his poetry and nonfiction also appeared in a variety of literary journals. In the early 1980s Lee traveled to East Africa where he worked as a foreign correspondent and in 2000 Lee traveled to East Timor where he wrote articles about the civil war. During this time, he also began writing plays and novels. Through this travels, he became deeply involved in freedom of speech and human rights activities for PEN, the international writers’ organization. In 2008, with funding from PEN Center USA, he established “Tibetan PEN in the Classroom” — a program where exiled Tibetan writers teach students how write poetry and fiction. With all these credits to his name, you might wonder how he came to write a picture book about trucks. Read on to find the answer in my interview with him.

ALLISON: Describe yourself as a child.

MARK: I had a terrible stutter when I was a child. Sometimes I could talk fluently, but saying my own name was a disaster. Perhaps because of this handicap, I read constantly. The world of fiction was the perfect escape.

ALLISON: You worked a variety of jobs after graduation: taxi driver, a language teacher and a security guard. Would you do any of those again? What jobs would you still like to try?

MARK: I was a cab driver in New York City in the 1970s when it was a very dangerous job. I don’t think I’d like to do that again! I’ve always wanted to teach creative writing, and that might happen in the future.

ALLISON: Share a story from your job as a foreign correspondent.

MARK: After Idi Amin fled from Uganda, I played golf on the Kampala golf course. At the time, even a round of golf was a difficult experience. We encountered a crocodile on the fifth hole and there was an unexploded rocket grenade on the twelfth hole. The two men I was playing with were security guards at the British embassy, and they had to place their weapons on the grass whenever they swung their clubs.

ALLISON: Why did you give up writing poetry?

MARK: Poetry is an intensification of language. As I got older, I found it more satisfying to focus on character and dialogue. But Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street has meter and rhymes, and I really enjoyed writing the book for that reason.

ALLISON: Do you prefer writing poems, plays, novels, or children’s books? Why?

MARK: I think that the characters and themes within a story tell you how it should be expressed. One of the first things I tell beginning writers is to start with the characters, and then ask yourself: “What is the best way to tell their story?”

ALLISON: How involved were you in the production of your plays?

MARK: Playwrights are always present for the first production of their plays. They are at all casting sessions and do rewrites during the first few weeks of rehearsal. A week before a play goes into previews, the playwright needs to step back so that the actors and directors can make it “their” play. This last step is really important. Actors have to feel connected to their characters, and that is difficult to do if the writer is lurking around saying: “No, you’re saying the lines wrong!”

ALLISON: Research or imagination? Which drives you most when you write?

MARK: Imagination always comes first, then you do research to make your fictional world real.

ALLISON: How did a journalist and humans rights’ activist end up writing a children’s picture book?

MARK: I think there are some great shows on television, but it bothered me that the commercials were telling my two children to want certain things like junk food and junk toys. So my wife and I decided that we weren’t going to have a TV when my son and daughter were young.

What this meant is that we read endlessly to them, and that exposed me to the world of children’s literature. I have read books like Blueberries for Sal, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon hundreds and hundreds of times.

So writing Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street was my attempt to write something inspired by the classics of children’s literature. It makes me very happy that someone, somewhere, will read this book aloud to a child.

ALLISON: For readers who might be unaware, would you explain what PEN is? What motivated you to get involved? What has been a couple of your most moving experiences?

MARK: PEN is short for “poets, essayists and novelists.” PEN International is a worldwide association of writers formed in London in 1921. There are two PEN Centers in our country – PEN America based in New York City and PEN USA in Los Angeles.

I’ve been involved with PEN for over twenty years because I believe strongly in freedom of speech and like to meet other writers. Writers of published children’s books are eligible to join PEN. In particular, PEN America in New York has a children’s book group that is very active.

Writing is a lonely profession and I think it’s important to leave your desk sometime and get involved with the world. In 2005, I went to Ethiopia for PEN and helped to get some writers released from prison. It was a very difficult situation, but the experience touched my heart.

ALLISON: What’s next? In general? In writing?

MARK: Right now, I’m working on a chapter book for young readers in elementary school. There are some great new chapter books being published – such as R.J. Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder. This is an exciting time for children’s publishing!

Mark Lee’s first children’s book, Twenty Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street, was published in the summer of 2013.  A Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote: “As mystifying as it may be to their mothers and sisters, small boys tend to be entranced by powerful vehicles. The very fact of trucks—let alone their variety and different purposes—gives a thrill to certain 3- to 6-year-olds.” Return tomorrow for my own review.

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