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December 16, 2022

Describing his most recent book, Family Matters, as a combination “family memoir/cultural history,” Lee uses interviews, journal entries, and poetry to explore his family’s relationship with each other and, given that his father was a TV producer and his mother a model, the public. 

This book is different from your other nonfiction works. Did you always intend to write a memoir?

When I turned 60, I looked at some material I’d avoided for many years, had a long talk with my mother, who was still sharp then, and afterward realized I’d already started Family Matters. Crucial to writing it was to keep a balanced, even humorous tone in the midst of often painful stories, and perhaps time had allowed me finally to reach that kind of balance. Even so, it took the best part of 20 years to understand our story, of how the public and the private reached a climax for each of us, and of how my father transformed his painful past into the bizarre but jovial original 1964–1966 TV series The Addams Family

How do you refresh your memories of past events and conversations when writing?

For Family Matters, I found a great deal of biographical material in the form of journals, assorted letters, news releases, magazine pieces, photo shoots, and articles about my father and mother. My mother kept little, knowing her mother kept everything flattering, living her daughter’s life vicariously, although she removed all dates and often titles. My father never threw away anything, however embarrassing. I had my memory to counterbalance their narration of an event, too, since my father recorded as fact what he wished had happened, not what actually did, while my mother, though reticent at times, was not untruthful. When I found myself sitting back puzzled over some incident or speech, I’d give my sister a call or talk to others in the family and some outside it with family knowledge. Cousins whom I had not been much in touch with weighed in, and a great deal of cultural history and psychology came into play, as our lives were steeped in popular culture and private complexities, the one at times echoing the other. 

What sparked the decision to include poetry with the text? 

At first, I included just a few poems as part of the short, colorful stories of mostly italicized text meant to highlight a facet of character or a revealing incident. Then I realized the poetry powerfully evokes my experience of the adults around me, sometimes of the natural surroundings of where we lived and sometimes of critical events. Reviewers so far appear to appreciate its presence: it certainly precludes anyone asking, “I wonder how he really felt about that!”

How do you imagine readers at this moment will connect to Family Matters?

Dominating the narration is a family memoir/cultural history that itself will grip a reader. Some may appreciate that I show how family myths develop, are actually passed on and modified, and break down. Others may be interested in the modeling “scene” of the 1930s–1950s and my mother’s prominence in that, or in my father’s involvement in radio and war bond drives in the WWII Treasury Department and then as a founding father of TV. Beyond that are all the cultural elements we lived through in those critical years and how they affected our private lives, especially in the alienating, striving, anxious urban setting of New York.

What’s next for you?

I’ve done four books to superb reviews in three years: Elemental Natures, a selected poetry collection; a YA fantasy adventure, Orpheus Rising, which retells the Orpheus story in modern guise—with a happy ending; a rollicking children’s tale, The Tale of Brian and The House Painter Mervyn; and now Family Matters. I’m going to do some more children’s tales, but just one in 2023 in time for Christmas. I’d like to work at a slower pace!