Ask the Author: Lee Cole

Lee Cole is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel Groundskeeping was released on March 1. The love story follows two people from very different backgrounds on their coming-of-age journey in modern America.



Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Author Lee Cole was born and raised in rural western Kentucky. He moved to Iowa City to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he graduated from in 2019. His debut novel, Groundskeeping, is a tale about two very different people, Alma and Owen, and how they maneuver through class and identity while growing up in modern America. Aspiring writer Owen returns to Kentucky and becomes a groundskeeper at a local college. There, he meets Alma, a visiting writer at the college, and they begin their secret relationship. Groundskeeping came out on Tuesday. Cole will give a reading at Prairie Lights with Sarah Mathews on March 9.

DI: What was your writing process for the book?

Cole: Well, in the beginning, it was really just the first line of the book that came to me. I was having some writer’s block. I had stuck around in Iowa for a third year to teach and I’ve mostly been working in short stories. It was hard for me to imagine a topic or an issue that could sustain my interests over the course of a couple of years writing a novel. Up until that point, I had only maybe spent a maximum of six months working on a short story, usually less than that, but a novel seemed really daunting to me. So, I just kind of forced myself to sit down one day and write a few sentences — what I thought was maybe my kind of persistent question or problem that comes up in my own life that could sustain my interest. What I came up with was the first line of the book — that when I’m home in Kentucky, I want to leave and when I’m away, I’m homesick. So, everything kind of after that was inflected by the first line.

DI: How did you come up with the title Groundskeeping?

Cole: It’s always tricky coming up with a title for anything. Here, it’s pretty basic — the narrator is working as a groundskeeper on this college campus in Kentucky, but it also has other thematic residences, too. [It’s] mentioned throughout the book that the word “Kentucky” translates to “a dark and bloody ground.” So, there’s this kind of mirroring there with the ground and the meaning of the word Kentucky. I just thought it had a nice ring to it.

Related: Ask the Author: Erin Young 

DI: If you could describe the book in one word, what would it be?

Cole: Well, I think I would just say a love story. It’s both about two characters from really different backgrounds — who meet and try to work it out — but it’s also a love letter to home, and it’s about being in love, or maybe having a kind of love-hate relationship with a place. So yeah, I would say it’s a love story.

DI: What do you hope readers feel after they’ve read the book, or is there a message you’re trying to portray?

Cole: I hope that anybody who’s kind of had the same experiences of homesickness, or of trying to navigate difficult family relationships in the past couple of years — I hope that they’ll find it valuable. I hope people coming away from it will maybe have a little bit more empathy for the other side for people who have different worldviews and think differently than they do.

DI: What is your favorite part of Groundskeeping?

Cole: I think that there are a lot of parts that I really liked, but I would say that there’s a scene kind of in the middle of the book at the zoo, between Alma and Owen, where they’re sort of getting to know each other, and it’s this long sort of conversation between them. I liked that scene a lot, mostly just because I love going to the zoo.