The son of a State Department officer, Lee spent his childhood in Tokyo and Seoul. He received his B.A. in English Literature from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College. He has also served as the primary editor of the literary journal Ploughshares for 17 years. Lee's earlier work have appeared in GQ, New England Review, American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Glimmer Train, with Voir Dire anthologized in Charlie Chan Is Dead 2. He has also received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the St. Botolph Club Foundation.
Lee was formerly a faculty member of the Creative Writing department at Macalester College. In the fall of 2008, Lee moved to the faculty of Western Michigan University where he taught both graduate and undergraduate courses. He is currently in the faculty of the Creative Writing program at Temple University.
In 2008, Lee finished writing his second novel,Wrack and Ruin. The book, which revisits Rosarita Bay, was published by W.W. Norton in April 2008. In 2012, Norton published Lee's third novel, The Collective.