Interview with Chang-rae Lee
THE ART OF THE WRITER
A Conversation with CHANG-RAE LEE, author of the book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA
Some writers are gifted, and some writers are truly gifted. When reading a book by a truly gifted writer, we wonder how their writing became so intelligent and inspiring. Was it their upbringing, their education, or were they just born with this talent? Chang-rae Lee is a truly gifted writer. It’s apparent on every single page he writes. When you read one of his books, you know you’re going to get something special—a very compelling story, some deeply felt characters, and beautifully composed sentences from beginning to end.
Chang-rae Lee is a Korean American writer and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. His books include Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, which received the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category, and The Surrendered, a nominated finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty.
His latest book, On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Hardcover, was released on January 7, 2014. I wanted to learn more about this new work, and why this book is so different from his previous work. I spoke with Mr. Lee in late autumn.
C.E. Lukather: First of all, I’d like to say congratulations. I really enjoyed reading your new book, On Such a Full Sea. It’s a really great story. Is this an idea you had thought about writing before? Where did it come from?
Chang-rae Lee: I never thought that I would write such a book. The book that I originally conceived, and may still write, was going to be about contemporary China and all the things that are happening there, its economic power in the world, its ascendancy. The focus was on factory workers and the factory towns where they make everything we use here in this country. So I went over there and did some research, which was a fascinating experience, and planned a social realist novel centered on workers and their bosses and the owners. The story was going to have an American component, though not much of one. But when I got home and started writing, I felt I wasn’t adding that much to what I saw, nor to all the good journalism I had been reading about China. I guess I didn’t have enough of a special angle. When you’re writing a novel you need that angle.
Around the same time I was on a train trip, taking the Amtrak along the northeast corridor from New York to D.C. And when you’re on that train, which I’ve traveled all my adult life, you pass a ghetto area of Baltimore. Over the years I’ve seen serial iterations of that area, the houses burnt down, boarded up, abandoned. So at this point they were boarded up but kind of cleaned up, too, like a ghost town right in the middle of a very busy city. And then I had a thought—I wondered why we couldn’t just give these buildings to some people. And my next thought was odd: why not just bring over some people from China—people from some environmentally ruined area where they couldn’t live anymore, and bring them over here to settle and revitalize the place. And then it all just sort of clicked and I thought, maybe that’s my angle. Of course it wasn’t my original story, but it bridged what I was interested in at the start, namely Chinese ascendancy but also American decline.
C.E. Lukather: Yes, I think that comes through in the book.
Chang-rae Lee: The two kind of go hand-in-hand. So I projected out a few generations, setting the story in the future, writing about what America would look like in a future when China was the great power. Then I thought why not write a story about these people who are brought over here as workers to live in factory-like towns. And it just sort of developed from there. I think all of the factory research in China helped, but I didn’t really use that much of the specifics. It was more of a feeling or sensibility of the people that I began to write about.
C.E. Lukather: Was it exciting for you to write a futuristic book—something you’ve never really written before?
Chang-rae Lee: It was exciting. I thought I would be more wary writing it, since I hadn’t written a book like this before. But in fact it wasn’t a different experience fundamentally, for even when you’re creating a “new” world like this it’s not that different from creating a world that already exists. Perhaps I felt I could take a few more liberties but you still have to make the created world absolutely possible and realistic.
C.E. Lukather: And the book does feel very real, to me.
Chang-rae Lee: This book is partly an adventure story, with the main character going off into a strange world, but also it’s a story about community, the place where she comes from. The book alternates between those two worlds, and I had a lot of enjoyment inventing both. I don’t know if it would have been as much fun just writing about one or the other.
C.E. Lukather: Well, you’ve really created three different worlds in your book. There’s the hometown of the main character, Fan, there are the outlying, sort of wild areas, and then there are the more affluent, well-mannered towns that she visits during her journey.
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, three distinct worlds, without much or any mobility between them. Aside from describing those worlds and the divisions between them, I found myself becoming just as interested in who was doing the telling, which in the novel is an unnamed “We.” A first person plural narrator. In some ways this was the part I enjoyed the most, in terms of the process, developing this communal voice and letting it evolve.
C.E. Lukather: So how long did it take to write this book?
Chang-rae Lee: It didn’t take that long, about two years. For some people that’s a long time, but for me it was really short. I usually take four or five years to write a book. But once I started and got into it, it really kind of rolled along. After the first draft I would go back and forth with my editor about certain sections. But the book is pretty much how I wrote it.
C.E. Lukather: The main character, Fan, is a really great, strong character. Is she inspired by anybody?
Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I was simply interested in a strong young female character, this Fan. She’s not very talkative, or anything like a typical hero. She’s not really a leader, but somehow she manages to inspire people by her presence. I liked that idea of a quiet hero, who is sort of a mirror and a vessel for everybody around her. People also use her and take advantage of her, but she draws them out, too, and compels them to reveal and expose who they are.
C.E. Lukather: She draws you in, and attracts people to her.
Chang-rae Lee: She’s a small-statured young woman, who holds all our hopes and wishes as she goes out into the landscape.
C.E. Lukather: The scenes when she’s outside, in a sort of unrestricted zone, are pretty terrifying.
Chang-rae Lee: That’s a funny thought. Compared to my last book, they didn’t seem so terrifying to me.
C.E. Lukather: Well maybe not terrifying, but shocking, the way they unfold and what happens really startled me as a reader.
Chang-rae Lee: Well, that’s good. You always wonder as a writer. But that was part of my interest in writing this adventure story. And I think in a way any kind of speculative fiction is an adventure story—you know, we’re all traveling to a unfamiliar place. Trying to figure out how everything works. Rather than watching people within a context we already recognize, and seeing what they will do.
C.E. Lukather: And some of the more shocking or startling scenes in the book actually take place in the more civilized regions of this world.
Chang-rae Lee: That was why I had these three different places strictly cordoned off by class. I had the idea that within a particularly cloistered section of society, very weird things can begin to happen. Strange practices, strange beliefs. And that’s one of the things I wanted to get to, this idea that these elite people are just as bizarre and absurd as anyone else. Of course the other people back in the counties and B-Mor have their owns problems as well.
C.E. Lukather: They seem like the most civilized of all.
Chang-rae Lee: In a way, it’s the most controlled, being a production facility. It’s a facility more than a town. And that’s one of the things I saw during my research in China. The factory I saw wasn’t a horrible place, being in fact decently clean and well-run. But everything was specified, and that contributes to a certain kind of environment and ethos. In my novel, I wanted all the functionality and specification to ingrain itself into the consciousness of B-Mor and its citizens.
C.E. Lukather: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?
Chang-rae Lee: It unfolded as I wrote it. I didn’t know what was going to happen from chapter to chapter. I had no map at all. So I kind of went on a road trip. Usually on a road trip you know where you going, but with this story, I had no clue. Of course I realized some things about halfway through, that certain things would have to happen and that Fan would meet certain people.
C.E. Lukather: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes. I had to allow myself a lot of flights of fancy. And a lot of startling things began to happen, which also startled me. Like some of the things that happen in the house of the older Charter couple—just horrifying. But then you continue, and you just keep making linkages as you go. Writing a novel is the risking of a certain kind of fright. But that’s what’s fun and challenging about it. But to be honest I was strangely relaxed writing this, which I hadn’t felt in a while. The other novels I’ve written, I felt rather tense the whole way.
C.E. Lukather: Describe what your writing routine is like.
Chang-rae Lee: I wake up early. I have kids, so I usually make breakfast for them before they go to school. Then I go up to my desk. I have an office in the house. And basically I work until lunch. I have a quick bite and maybe I’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll work again until the late afternoon. I also teach, so on those days my schedule is a little different. If I’m teaching in the afternoon, I’ll still try to work in the morning. And I’ll prepare my work for class at night. I don’t tend to write at night anymore. I did when I was younger, but now I mostly just work in the morning. When I’m finishing a book and really pushing to the end, I will write around the clock—for a few weeks usually. But normally it’s a pretty structured writing day. I need a good routine. That’s the only way it works for me. I write one sentence at a time, and I take my time.
C.E. Lukather: Do you work with an editor, or do you finish an entire book and then send it to an editor?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I try to finish a full draft before I send it off to my editor. That’s the way I’ve worked with most of my books. I send it off, once I’ve finished the story. Is that crazy?
C.E. Lukather: No, you’re in total control of your work.
Chang-rae Lee: I really don’t want to get too much feedback mid-stream. I always say, you can get really good advice, and really sound technical advice, but if it doesn’t come from you, it might not fit. It won’t be organic. It may lose that special feeling. And special doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it means that distinctive angle or passion you have for your story.
C.E. Lukather: You mentioned that there were projects or books that you worked on in the past, but then moved on to something else. Are there still some projects that you would like to go back to and complete? Or do you just move on and not look back on those at all?
Chang-rae Lee: I may go back and try to totally rework the original China novel. But the others—no. Those are just different versions of the books I’ve already written and published. So there’s no reason to go back and write them. I don’t ever want to write even close to the same book twice. It’s a pity, all the work that went into those projects, but the work comes out in other ways, and it’s all just part of the process. Maybe the novel you read is only possible because I spent a year and a half writing a slightly different version.
C.E. Lukather: So this book begs the question, would you ever bring back a character that you’ve written in another book?
Chang-rae Lee: Likely not. It would have to be such a different book, and I might only be interested if the main character were different enough. Otherwise why bother? But you never know.
C.E. Lukather: Do you work on a computer, a typewriter, or write on a pad?
Chang-rae Lee: Always on a computer. I’m from the generation when people were starting to use personal computers on daily basis. I wrote all my student papers on an Apple computer—those early models. Sometimes I wish I’d written longhand, but I guess I’m just too lazy. Also, my process is that I write each sentence about 25 times. So it makes more sense to do that on a computer. And perhaps the computer enabled that. But I edit with a pen, printing out on paper what I’ve written.
C.E. Lukather: Would you talk a little about your family life?
Chang-rae Lee: I have two daughters, both in their teens. We have a pretty normal family. My wife is an architect. And we both work from home.
C.E. Lukather: Is it sometimes hard to get any work done with your family always around?
Chang-rae Lee: They know that when I’m in my office writing it’s my job. And the kids are in school during the week. And during the summer they have lots of activities. So everyone is pretty busy.
C.E. Lukather: So you teach short fiction at Princeton?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, we only have undergraduates here, so they’re not really writing novels. So they write short stories and we read short fiction as well. That’s a big part of my class, the reading part. They’ll write three or four stories during the course of the term.
C.E. Lukather: For young writers today, what do you see as their greatest gifts and their greatest obstacles?
Chang-rae Lee: They have the ability to write about a lot of different things. They’re not just writing about college kids at frat parties. The subject matter is very diverse and I encourage that. They’re trying to push themselves, and not just write about what’s around them. I think one of their greatest obstacles is that sometimes they write a story in the way that they think a story should be written, rather than just writing. They have this theoretical idea of how a story should sound, and what should happen. And that’s good in the sense that it offers some structure, and a little roadmap. But most often the best writing I see is when they sort of let loose and are free, get a little dangerous, a little transgressive. Young writers are sometimes too careful in a funny sort of way, because they don’t want to make mistakes.
C.E. Lukather: What books did you read growing up?
Chang-rae Lee: Pretty much everybody. James Agee and Joyce, Whitman and Hemingway. I was really into American stories, being an immigrant kid who thought all about this place.
C.E. Lukather: Do you do a lot of social media? Are you on the computer and internet a lot?
Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I have a Facebook page. Sometimes I post things there. I don’t have a Twitter account. Mostly I just use email.
C.E. Lukather: Does the internet or technology interfere with your family life?
Chang-rae Lee: No, not really. When we’re home we try to have a family meal every night. And our kids enjoy our cooking. Even if they have things to do, they always have dinner with us.
C.E. Lukather: Are you a good cook?
Chang-rae Lee: I think so. We cook a lot of different things. It’s important to us. It’s really nice to have everyone home to enjoy a meal. My wife is part Italian and I’m Korean so we and the kids always have these discussions about whether the Korean meal or the Italian meal brings the most pleasure. We go back and forth between the two.
C.E. Lukather: The new book comes out in January? Will you be taking time off from teaching to do a book tour?
Chang-rae Lee: Well, I don’t teach until February. So for the main part of the book tour, I’ll be free. I have a full teaching schedule in the spring, but I can still do events on weekends. I have a really packed schedule for spring. My publicist is great, though. She’s really a fun and smart person and people respect her. She’s really good.
C.E. Lukather: I think your new book will bring you a whole new audience. It’s a really great adventure story. Even the cover is great. I love the image of the main character.
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I think it came out great.
C.E. Lukather: Thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed speaking with you and I really appreciate it.
To follow Chang-rae Lee on Facebook, visit: Facebook
For details about his new book, visit: On Such a Full Sea