In this extended interview from the March/April 2019 issue of Writer's Digest, Min Jin Lee talks about finding story ideas that truly provoke your passions and how to tune out the burden of expectations.
Photo Credit: Elena Seibert
Before becoming the acclaimed author of two bestselling books, Min Jin Lee was used to working outrageous hours as a lawyer in a New York firm. So it should be no surprise that as a full-time writer, Lee now throws herself into researching and promoting her books with that same relentless rigor.
When Lee spoke with WD, she was on the last leg of a 12-day tour that included conducting research for her next book at a punk-rock bar in Minneapolis, giving a speech about women in the workplace at the Wall Street Journal conference in San Francisco and accepting the fiction runner-up award for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Dayton, Ohio.
“I do have an agenda—to make you all Korean,” she said during her acceptance speech at the DLPP ceremony. “After all, perhaps it is the job of writers to ask, Could they be us?” It’s that sentiment that resonates so deeply throughout Lee’s work—the ability to provide readers a portal into her character’s experience.
In Free Food for Millionaires, her 2007 debut, protagonist Casey Han is fresh out of college and trying to make hard choices about her career, love and friendship, but she’s also the daughter of Korean immigrants, trying to balance her parents’ traditional expectations with her very American lifestyle.
The characters in Pachinko, Lee’s 2017 National Book Award finalist, are simultaneously trying to feed their families, pay their bills and survive life as unwelcome Korean refugees living in war-torn Japan.
These are all topics that hit close to home for Lee. The daughter of a North Korean father and South Korean mother, her family emigrated from Seoul to the U.S. when she was only 7 years old.
After growing up in Queens, the author graduated from Yale and attended law school at Georgetown University. Now 50, her writing has been translated into more than 27 languages. Pachinko was named a New York Times “Top 10 Best Book” of 2017 (and landed on 75 other “best book” lists), received a Medici Book Club Prize and was also a New York Times bestseller. Yet for Lee, the road to literary success was neither easy nor meteoric.
“Having only produced two books in 25 years [of writing], I’m surprised I have readers,” Lee laughs. “And I think, in a way, it’s kind of a relief. If you don’t think about it too much, it allows you this freedom because you don’t want to be self-conscious about what you do.”
Lee sat down with WD before accepting her Literary Peace Prize, where she opened up about writing for readers instead of reviewers, creating her own writing education and finding the topics that keep her motivated.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you start each day by reading a section from the Bible and writing down a verse. It’s a habit you picked up from Willa Cather and what started initially as a way to deal with anxiety, turned into a source of inspiration. Do you have any other ways of coping with anxiety as a writer or other sources of inspiration?
I wanted a practice that a great writer did. I kind of thought if she does that, I want to try that. I think ritual is very helpful, and also, I’m a Presbyterian, so reading the Bible isn’t lost on me in a spiritual way. But it really started out as a practice because of Willa Cather because I just thought she was so cool and she had a sense of moral justice without ever being didactic or being annoying. I don’t even know if she’s a Christian; I have no idea. But I just really liked what she was doing.
Of course, I’m a Western tradition kind of writer so because of the Western tradition and because of having read so much 19th-century literature, almost all the great writers of the canon, are steeped in the Bible. So it’s incredibly helpful for me to understand what their intentions were and just to read it as a complete book. So I read it as a book easily six or seven times. I read all the really boring stuff and it’s been very helpful. I think it should be taught in an MFA program, if there’s a way to teach [it as] literature because you’re not going to understand so many things in poetry and literature in the canon without understanding the Western Bible.
On the road to completing Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, you’ve thrown out many “completed but inefficient” manuscripts.
Yeah, they were terrible! [laughs]
So, how do you decide when it’s time to throw out a manuscript and what does “throwing it out” mean to you? Are you completely starting over?
I throw out the whole thing and it’s very distressing to people but it’s very liberating to me. Because by the time I’ve done it, I realized something that’s really kind of cool. You’ve already internalized a huge pattern in your brain just from the act of doing it. I don’t think there’s a shortcut to writing novels; I haven’t seen that shortcut. I used to think that I was just dumb and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. And that if I had a clever teacher or if there was a better lesson then I would be able to figure out how to write faster. But then I realized the kind of books I’m writing are so weird and unusual compared to my peers. I’m really like a throwback. So because of that I realized there was no other way to do it except by learning how to write this omniscient narration. So, now that I know how to do it, I don’t feel so, I don’t feel like it was a waste of my time.
That said, when I was doing it, I was very upset. When I was throwing the books away I was really, really upset and I felt like a failure, like Oh my god, I did it. Also, I had ambitions as a college student to go out there and make money and be a productive citizen so when I was writing these books that were just crap—it was so discouraging because I couldn’t prove anything. Because people ask you, “what are you working on?” “Well I was working on this book, which ended up sucking.” And now I can say you know, in retrospect—I’m 50 now—I’m glad I did those things because I learned how to write an omniscient narration and I could not have learned it at a PhD program or an MFA program, because I’ve talked to all these people who teach and have taken those things. It’s like, there’s only really one way to do it, just by doing it. But it was very awful. [laughs] I would spare anyone this trial if I could.
I threw out several books, but really I don’t think there’s any other way and because I was recently judging so many awards I have seen what my peers are doing and they’re amazing books. Then I realize, the kind of point of view that I’m trying to do, it is incredibly different than my peers. So I realize ... I get why I struggled so much and I’m struggling still because I’m trying to use this very old fashioned way of storytelling with present day stories.
They [the early manuscripts] were really, really bad and I’m not trying to be modest. They’re not readable. You asked an earlier question: how do you know when to throw it away? Well this is the thing—you do know. Because you’re a good reader. Everyone who wants to be a writer is usually an amazing reader. I’m a really great reader and I can say, “Oh this is a good piece of work and this is not a good piece of work and this works because ...” and I can give you the reasons why. That’s given me a kind of confidence to say when my work isn’t working, but when I’m drafting, I’m super nice to myself. I don’t judge. I try to put on two different hats: Drafting me, and I’m super nice, and the editing me, and I’m very tough. I’m a very, very tough editor for me and when I teach I’m incredibly nice, because I think it’s important to nurture talent.
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You’ve now written a sweeping historical novel that follows mostly one family over many decades, and a contemporary novel that follows many families over just a few years. How did your research or writing process differ for those two genres?
Oh, great question. The research doesn’t differ for me at all. No, not even a little bit because I read so much academic texts and I do so much journalism so I feel like I’m a fake professor and a fake journalist! [laughs] Or at least I’m an unpaid academic and an unpaid journalist because I use all their techniques for fiction and all of my characters are based on real people. They’re based on composites of real people so I interview hundreds of people and I follow people in their jobs. I insert myself into workplaces, and I observe, and I take notes, and I ask a billion questions. And then I go back and use maybe 3 percent. Which is not really efficient, again. Maybe that’s another way I deal with my anxiety. I overwork. I overdo my research and then afterwards I feel like, OK, I know. So when people ask me questions about any of these topics, I’m like, “Yeah, sure, I can do it” because I’ve done the homework. And homework gives me a lot of confidence. This is the confidence of the nerd! [laughs]
So do you like writing historical fiction vs. contemporary fiction? Do you prefer one over the other in terms of the characters?
No, I don’t prefer one over the other. I don’t know if I’ll ever do historical ever again. I had no intentions of having done that. I did it only because it made sense for the character. This book [Pachinko] doesn’t make any sense unless you go all the way to the beginning. So I did it for that reason. I guess I could do it again, but … I don’t know. [Sighs] It’s so … I think did this kind of research that, like, I had so much more anxiety … I did the same amount of work, but I was more anxious about the historical stuff because I was so afraid I’d be wrong about things and I can’t prove it. I had to use a lot of historical primary documents as well as contacting even academic societies saying, “Could this have happened? And do these scenarios ...?” Because you know, when I’m dealing with an illiterate population, they don’t have any primary documents. They weren’t important enough to be recorded. So I often had to say, “Well, did you grandmother make candy this way? What did you do when there was no sugar? How did you procure this?” And someone would say, “Oh, they stole it!” And you’re like,” Oh, OK!” That’s why it’s so important to me to interview but then not everyone has all the details so you have to constantly get these jigsaw puzzle pieces and put them together and then go, I think the rest of it I can fill in.
The opening line of Pachinko is “History failed us, but no matter” and you’ve talked before about the lack of primary documents left behind by “ordinary people.” In Free Food For Millionaires, Virginia always writes handwritten letters to Casey. Do you write letters or keep a journal (aside from the Bible quotes), or keep some other primary documents of your life?
Sure. Letters, photographs, video and at this point, all of us are being constantly documented, right? So, in a way, you can’t help but be documented and it’s odd for me, because I think having only produced two books in 25 years, I’m surprised I have readers. [laughs] And I think in a way, it’s kind of a relief. You don’t think about it too much, it allows you this freedom because you don’t want to be self-conscious about what you do. It’s kind of like when you walk outside the house and someone says, “Oh, your hair looks nice,” and you’re like “Oh, it does?” And you’re like, yeah OK, it’s nice. But if you’re thinking about does my hair look nice? It must be exhausting because you can’t have your hair look nice everyday. (I mean, at least I can’t!) And so I think the self-consciousness is something that we have to constantly battle against, because you want to care about the quality of your work. I care a lot about the quality of my work and I feel like if I can stand by the quality of my work then I’ll have done my job.
Pachinko was a National Book Award Finalist and runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, not to mention your work has been compared to that of George Eliot and Jane Austen.
And I got Thomas Mann the other day in Germany and I was like, Alright! I’ll take it! I’m sure they’d be shocked right? They’d be like, who’s this Korean person?
Haha, but as you work on your third novel, do those sorts of accolades create any unwelcome pressure of expectations for your next book?
No, no, because you know, people are being nice. And they’re being gracious and you can’t take yourself that seriously because if you did, you would just stay home! [laughs] I think that what I can do is, I want to be truthful and I want to honor the subject. I’m writing about education and wisdom, and what it means for Koreans around the world. It is a very painful and a very important topic for Koreans. It’s an important topic for everybody, but for Koreans? They kind of hold it almost like some sort of bizarre idol, like they’re really attached to what it means. If I could be faithful to the subject and to their intentions and to their feelings, then I feel like I’ve done my job. As for whether or not people are going to continue to compare me to the greats, that would be, that would just become like a funny bonus. [laughs]
I also want it to be a good read. I care a lot about that, because I hate reading boring books. I mean you have to read a lot of boring stuff, and I don’t want to have to read anything boring so it’s got to be a great topic that I care about but it has to be a really interesting read. Because I’m competing against so many things and everybody’s really busy. I don’t know anybody who’s not busy now.
Right, and there’s so much competition for people’s attention, to pick up a book?
Right! It’s not even the money, most people will spend $15 on very fancy coffee drink and a sandwich, right? So I don’t think it’s the money at all. But for me to ask you, “Amy, can you give me 15 hours of your life?” That is major! It’s almost like asking for marriage! [laughs] It’s such a big deal nowadays to ask someone for their time. So I think, I need to work for that. I need to merit that. And that’s the harder thing than impressing people. Is that, when someone actually says, “I read your book, and I want to read it again.” Or, “I read your book and it meant so much to me. I missed sleep.” And I think Oh, wow, that’s kinda cool. That’s very important to me.
That’s a great compliment: I lost sleep because of your book.
Right! I’ve had people tweet me things like “I missed my train, what the fuck?” Like, “Sorry!” and then I send the coffee emoji, [laughs] if I get to it. I probably shouldn’t cuss. Sorry!
I’ve read that you’re outlining a new novel American Hagwon.
I’m researching right now. I just did some yesterday.
Yeah, I was in Minneapolis and went to this place called the First Avenue Bar where—one of my characters likes punk music and I don’t know anything about punk music—so I went to go figure out what this club means to people in Minneapolis.
So I know you said you research a lot, and it sounds like from the word “outlining” that you perhaps plan your novels out?
Oh I do!
So what does the outlining/planning process look like for you?
I always start with a big idea, so [this time] it’s education and wisdom. And my metaphysical question is, I think for now is, “How do you live a wise life?” I want to figure that out because I’m 50 and I want to figure out, how are you making wise decisions? I don’t think I cared about that when I was 20. [laughs] And now I’m thinking well, if I have from now until let’s say 85, if I’m lucky and I’m clear, how do I want to make wise choices and be a decent person? And in this work, because I’m thinking about education so much, how do I figure this out?
It starts always like that for me, this kind of big idea, and then, it becomes about people and of course the central thrust of my work is diaspora. How does diaspora figure into these questions because I am asking for these Koreans around the world. They’ve been ejected from their place of origin and they have consciously either chosen to move, or due to war and colonization, they have decided to go elsewhere. Once they go there, they change and they change others. So this is an interesting idea for me about the tutoring centers because they’re changing other people and what they think about education, which I think could be good or bad, I’m not sure.
So I do think of that way: this big idea and then I start creating all these different questions that I have and then I have these characters and then I see what happens. Then I interview constantly and I do a lot of field work the way journalists and anthropologists work. I go somewhere and I spend time, and I think Well, what am I feeling? What am I looking at? That’s what fiction can do: I can talk about feelings and weird situations where people don’t make any sense because people really don’t make any sense. That’s what I’ve really figured out. People say stuff and then they’re all like, but you’re doing that? That weird disjuncture is what I think fiction does really well.
So when you’re interviewing people, how do you find these people and how do you pull out from them the information … Are people willing to talk about that part of their lives?
Yes and yes and yes. It’s easier to find people now. It was harder with my first book because they’re going, “Yeah, sure you want to interview me for fiction?” [laughs] But people were very gracious and so if I said, “I need to figure out somebody who went to Harvard Business School, can you help me out?” And then they would say, “Well, my cousin went there, so why don’t you talk to him?” Then once I talked to him, he’d say, “Oh you’re totally harmless, you write fiction. I’m not going to get quoted.” Then he would introduce me to somebody else, this woman who say, went to HBS, and that’s how it would work. Now, it’s very easy for me to say, “I’m looking for XYZ, do people know [anyone]?” If I send out a request, people usually show up. Then I try to keep it pleasant. I want them to have a good time, so we usually have some sort of fancy meal, if we can.
In terms of people being forthcoming, people tell you what they want to talk about. People kind of train you: they’re like OK, we can go here but we can’t go there. And I try to be respectful of that. I never make people talk about something they don’t want to talk about. I often find that most people do want to talk about love. Which is so interesting, because I always think, they’re not gonna want to tell me that. But, people will tell you, “Yeah, my wife cheated on me” and you’re going, “Oh!” [laughs] And then you kind of just nod and you listen because they want to tell you. And of course, in fiction they’re not going to get quoted so it’s easier. You’re saying, “I’m going to listen to you intently for an hour, or sometimes 10 hours.” Because I’ll spend an entire day with somebody and then things sort of come up by accident so it’s easier.
There were 10 years between the publications of Free Food For Millionaires and Pachinko, and I read that your first book had a MySpace page.
[Laughs] Yes, that’s possible! How adorable… [laughs]
How is different promoting your second book 10 years later (and not just in terms of social media)?
You’re right though, social media is such an important part of it and in terms of promoting the book, it’s such a different thing than writing a book. I think all of the readers at Writer’s Digest would concede that if you’re a writer, I can say with some accuracy, most of us are quiet and introverted and we can be polite and verbal when we need to be. I think that’s a fair thing to say about most of us. I don’t think most of us are comfortable with social media. I think many of us have questions about it. As we should.
Book promotion is a totally different thing. If you’re interested in book promotion and not writing, you’re almost like a different person. However, if you don’t do some book promotion, your book will die. The last statistics I heard were (and you’d know better than me) between 600,000 and 1 million books are published a year in the U.S. and obviously that includes self-published books. Some self-published books are great so it’s not like we shouldn’t count those. But we have all of these books. How in the world is the reader supposed to find you? So you’ve got to do something. But then there are a lot of people out there who are willing to exploit your wish to share your book with the world. I do think it’s important to be mindful of how, a person who works really hard to write a book and then if you’re lucky sell it to a big publisher and even then it’s difficult for those books to break out. So then obviously if you self-publish it would be even more difficult to share. So, I think you have to do some of those things.
In terms of what I did? I did hire an independent publicist just for the hardcover for my second book and I also had a really cracker jack publicity group at my publisher. So I had a lot more support than the average person does, but then afterward what became really important was being on tour. I’ve been on tour for a long time, and then in terms of my social media, I don’t think I have these huge platforms. You can check my numbers [laughs]. They’re not that impressive. But I have had a lot of key support from academics and journalists. A lot of people who are very interested in the history of Japan have really supported this book [Pachinko] and the history of Korea, whether they’re bureau chiefs for a major newspaper or people who are heading think tanks. So I don’t have a lot of numbers, the people who are with me on social media, they’re very in the know and I think that has helped more than I realized. But yeah, I’m on Instagram! I’m 50! Why am I on Instagram?
There are a lot of really fun book-related things on Instagram!
Well that’s what I’m learning actually! All the book people are really on Instagram; they’re not really on Twitter. The journalists are on Twitter but the book people are all on Instagram. Which I have learned.
With those beautiful shots of their book covers with decorations all around it …
And coffee … [laughs]
Always coffee or a glass of wine.
And apparently if you put melted cheese anywhere you’ll get a lot of hits. [Laughs]
You’ve written before about having your stories rejected from literary journals, but I’m wondering if you also faced rejection when looking for an agent. What was that process like for you and do you have any advice for our readers searching for an agent?
Of course! Oh my gosh. Mortifying! It was terrible! I did something—it might even have been Writer’sDigest where in the back—they have ads for days when you can go meet an agent and sort of have a speed dating thing. This was like in two thousand and… no, no it was earlier. 1995-96, back then. I went to something called International Women’s Writing Guild. I don’t even know if they have this anymore. So I went to this thing and paid maybe $35 or $45. There were these 5 agents on stage and you had to stand in line like you were in McDonald's and give a pitch. And you had about 60 seconds and I remember thinking, I cannot believe I’m doing this. [laughs] So I’m standing in line and I didn’t know what to say because how do you possibly explain a book in 60 seconds? I don’t have that elevator pitch skill. So I had an essay that I had published in a book and I remember thinking, I’ll just show her this thing and she goes, “OK, you can send me 50 pages.” So I did. And that’s how I got my first agent, who I ended up not working with. But I did show her something I had published. But it wasn’t because I said anything interesting.
But it’s very stressful. And then my real agent, the one I have now … at that point I didn’t have an agent and it was 2006. Oh golly. My friend had to go to a school benefit and he was a widower and I agreed to go with him just because he didn’t want to sit without anybody. And I went there, and this really, really famous agent happened to be at the table. (Who is my agent now.) I didn’t talk to her because I knew that she would think I was some sort of cockroach because in New York, when you’re a writer and you have a book and it hasn’t been published, people really treat you like cockroaches. So I just said you know what, I’m not even going to talk to this lady because she’s going to make me feel bad anyway and I’m here for my friend. I’m just going to eat cake and leave. Then she walked over, and sat next to me and asked me what I did. And I told her, “yeah, I’ve got this book, blah, blah blah” and then forgot about it. A few days later she contacts my friend and says, “Can I have Min’s number?” She had read something that I had published online and then she took me to lunch. Then that’s when she asked me to work—not with her—but with a new agent named Bill Clegg, who was my [actual] first agent. So that’s how I found my agent. At that point I had kind of given up this idea that I was going to have somebody. I just thought, I’m going to write this book and I’ll send it out and whatever.
Yeah, totally fortuitous. It was not in any way conscious or clever. It worked out.
One thing that strikes me about both of your novels is that you don’t avoid controversial topics like abortion, suicide, violence against women, and yet, it never …
I talk about herpes! Yeah. And AIDS.
Yeah! But, none of it comes off as judgmental, prescriptive, preachy or dramatized. Rather, it’s just a matter-of-fact thing that happens to people in their lives. Was this a conscious choice you made? What was your approach to writing about such challenging topics?
Because it does! Herpes happens to people! I have had a really good friend of mine who was married for a really long time and her husband did something terrible to her and she ended up leaving him. Then she went on a date for the first time after being married for a really long time, and she decided she would make love with him. Then she got herpes. I remember thinking, how could this possibly happen to somebody who had had nothing but bad luck when it comes to love? I was so surprised by it but since then I’ve heard so many of these kinds of stories that you just don’t know. There’s no worthy person who gets an illness. People just get sick and I think it’s so important that we start talking about it because 1 out of 4 people, I think, have herpes in this country. It’s just a thing. You just have to deal with it. It’s not a bad thing. People get HIV and there’s no good candidate or a bad candidate—it’s just a person who gets it and how do we deal with it. So I wanted to show it in fiction because it’s a part of life. It makes me really angry when people judge who gets sick because they don’t ask for that and it [feels] so incredibly shameful. Especially things related to sex. People feel so ashamed about sex. But if we don’t have sex, we don’t have a next generation so we might as well start talking about the related things.
You trained as a lawyer but essentially created your own writing education by attending author lectures and writing workshops. What advice would you give to readers who might also be looking to make the jump from another career to full-time writing?
Well, Grace Paley wrote famously that you should have a low overhead and I think that’s really important. Because I grew up working class, I’m very conscious of other people’s money situations. That’s another topic people feel really ashamed about—money—and I think it’s really unfair because there isn’t a lot of money in this business. You do it because you like it. Because it means something to you. Because you make something.
And to not treat it as a career. I still don’t treat it as a career. I think of it as something I really want to do and I wouldn’t stop unless I couldn’t do it anymore.
I think you should try to have a job which doesn’t drain you of everything that you have. So whatever job that you can do it should leave a space so you can make something.
I also think that whatever you decide you want to make, it should be something that you want to go to more than anything. Otherwise, you won’t continue working on it. What I see when I teach classes is that a lot of people have these great ideas to write about, the ideas are very laudable. I think, Well that sounds really elegant and cool and prize-worthy, however, does that make you want to get out of bed and work on it before you go to the gym? Very few people have that topic. And I think, No, you have to find that topic. Because that will make you make every sacrifice to work on that project. But if you just pick something because you want to impress somebody, you’re not going to revise it. You’re not going to throw away an entire manuscript and try it again. So it’s got to have the questions that you want answered, that you feel like if you don’t do it you’re going to die. I mean it should be that level because the possibility and promise of success in fiction, are so fucking negligible. Pardon my French.
So when I care about people, I think, I want you to protect your time and art and dream. I wouldn’t want you to have your heart broken thinking that all this stuff is going to happen. Like someone was recently talking about one day making all this money, and getting prizes, and making movies and I thought like, Oh man, that’s a lot of pressure put on your work. Just forget all that stuff. Maybe it’ll happen and if it does—great! Call me, we’ll have a drink! [Laughs] But in the meantime, find a topic you really want to go to in the morning or in the evening or after you put your kids to bed.
That’s great advice. I love that.
But you need that, right? Because it’s so hard to find the hour or the two hours and then to do all the reading you need to do to learn how to do the thing that you want to do. ‘Cause it’s two things: you have your project, and you have to figure out the how. But the most important thing is why. Why do you want to work on this topic?
You may have just solved my problem for me. Why haven’t I written anything yet— I haven’t found my topic.
But you might know your topic. I could be wrong, but you may know your topic but you may feel like, Oh I can’t write about that. I’m saying, no, no, you should, because no one else can. You should write about the thing that nobody else can write about except you, Amy. Only Amy Jones can write about that.
In addition to working on your next novel, it seems Pachinko is in the works to be turned into a TV series with Apple. Do you plan to play a role in the production of that?
Apparently. I have a title. I’m an executive producer, if it gets ordered to series. So far it’s been optioned, but it hasn’t been ordered to series, so there’s a whole other step between that and I don’t know if that’s like a big bridge or a long bridge or even an invisible bridge. I have no idea, ‘cause I’ve never done this before. And then, I know I have this title so I can have meaningful say in the script, but I’m not writing it and I have no decisions in casting. I get requests from people all the time like “Would you look at this acting reel?” and I’m going, “It’s not me, but thank you.”
So how do you feel about giving up control of this world that you’ve built, these characters you’ve created to someone else who’s going to interpret it for …
Oh I trust people, like I trust you. You know how to do your job, and I trust the person who’s the showrunner. She knows how to do her job. I wouldn’t presume to think that I could do it. They’re totally different skills. I wouldn’t know how to make a wedding buffet for the people in this hotel. You gotta trust people, cause that’s why they’re hired! And I think that as an anxious person, I feel great anxiety about the things that I’m supposed to do. I don’t feel anxious about the things that other people are supposed to do. Because then I would probably die of paralysis, ‘cause if I was worried about everybody’s work all the time … So I do trust my showrunner. I’ve met her. She’s so smart and talented and young and it makes me feel happy because she has more energy than me! It’s like, oh good young person, go do your thing.
One of my favorite parts of your novels are the astute inner observations of your female characters. At one point in Free Food For Millionaires, Casey understands that “Ella wasn’t lying so much as she wasn’t telling the truth about how she felt as a woman.” And in Pachinko, Sunja recognizes when she “reached the stage in a woman’s life when no one noticed her entering or leaving a room.” Was it important to you to show how women feel judged or pressured by society?
Very important to me. I’m a feminist. I’m unequivocally a feminist and I’m a global feminist and I’m interested in things like pay equity. I believe in that. I believe in daycare for children at corporations. I’ve just spoken about that at the Wall Street Journal conference last week. I said I care about those things very much. I care about immigration status. But as a writer, I really care about how we are trying to put ourselves in our graves early through fatigue and a lot of it is because I don’t think women are very compassionate toward themselves. It’s really dangerous. So when I think about feminism, I think about it in a huge spectrum. We have to deal with the institutional issues, the legal issues, all of those are incredibly important. The economic issues, political issues. But, I also think that it’s important that women feel seen. And that’s my job to understand what is her best self.
Most people come to you in the world and they’re worried about being judged. So when I talk to college students and they’re about to go on their job search, and they’re juniors or seniors I always say, “You know know you’re going to go there and you’re going to think that you’re the supplicant, but I want you to try something new.” And they’re like, “What?” And I say, “I want you to like them. They want to be liked, too. I want you to go and like them. And I want you to try to see their best self because if you do, you’ll realize you guys are in the same boat. She needs to hire somebody good. You need to be somebody good. But you need to understand her position. She needs to hire somebody good. Maybe you are that person, maybe you’re not, but then you stop thinking about just you all the time. And that’s going to make you feel better about the interview and it’s going to make you think about being that person one day who does end up hiring somebody.
So, I think about that in terms of characterization all the time. Characters too just want to be loved. But it doesn’t mean that they’re lovable all the time, as you know. [laughs] It’s hard to love unlovable people, but I think that is my job. I think about it a lot because otherwise they’re going to become very flat.
You once said about how long it took you from quitting the law to publishing your first book, “You can’t tell people for 10 or 11 years, ‘Oh, yes, I’m working on a book’” but that’s what you’ve done, twice, and been massively successful. What advice do you have for writers who are in a similar position of writing slowly?
I think to be gentle. To be gentle with yourself. If you’re working really hard at craft and you’re being really brave about the stuff you want to write about, I think you should just give yourself a gold star right there. And as for the world and its expectations? They don’t really understand what we do. What we do is so weird. It’s so weird. I don’t even understand why we do it, but if you feel so compelled to do those twin things, craft and bravery with storytelling, then you’ve done everything.
As for publishers and agents and critical reception, that’s something we can’t control. I mean really. This year I was judging the National Book Awards, and I can’t talk about specific books, but I was so awed by the number and quality and variety of art that Americans are making right now and it made me really happy. I have to say and I think this is fair to say from all the judges, we’re so excited when a book is great. We’re like, “YES!” and high-fiving each other because we want it to be good, we do. So it’s not just that people are rooting against you. It’s actually the opposite—most people are really rooting for your success.
That said, when you’re drafting, forget success, forget failure and just be brave. And also figure out the how. How do you make a transition between paragraphs? How do you make a transition between scenes? How do you understand point-of-view in a masterful way? That’s the job that we can control. Everything else is like, garbage for your brain. You’ve got to take away all the other stuff.
The characters in your books are often found reading or re-reading classics like Middlemarch or Jane Eyre. What are you reading right now?
I’m actually writing a piece for The New York Times called “The Enthusiast.” It’s a column that they have about books that I think people should read, so I’m reading bell hooks. She writes political theory about feminism and I really want people to read her first book, Ain’t I a Woman, so I’m reading that right now and I’m going to write an essay about it, which will be fun for me. Because it was such an important part of me growing up. I think I read it when I was 19, so 31 years ago.
I often see world-building talked about as it relates to sci-fi/fantasy, but in your novels you’ve very much created worlds for your communities of characters, like the pachinko parlors, the food vendor area outside the train station, the hat shop and the church, to name a few. Can you talk a little bit about how you settled on these key places for your characters?
They all serve as metaphors so when I choose a certain world they actually are creating a metaphor in the very same way that I think science fiction/fantasy writers are creating their worlds. One of the things I really admire about genre writers is that they know what the rules are. They’re really, really clear. And I think 19th-century writers knew what the rules were, too. It’s interesting to me that my peers and 21st-century writers are very often interested in breaking rules. And that’s great. You should break rules too. But I was really interested in building those worlds and understanding the moral logic of those worlds in the very same way I think some science-fiction writers are doing because I was trying to make a moral commentary on what things should be.
So the hat world for example, the epigraph of my first book is from James Baldwin, “Our crowns have been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them.” And I was really arguing that all of us belong to a kind of royal priesthood; that all of us are kind of royal people, but we have forgotten this. So we walk around feeling ashamed and unimportant and irrelevant when in fact, no! I think we have this impulse to be great people. And I think when James Baldwin was saying that it was incredibly important for me. This is a poor, black, gay artist who grew up in Harlem, and for him to recognize this, to recognize his sense of place in the world ... So a hatmaker is a crown maker. My character Casey is making crowns for other people. And that made me feel like, Oh, I could sign up for that role. I wouldn’t mind making crowns for other people. I love the idea of making other people look great and giving them their glory.
I think writers are kind of funny, we’re not interested in our own greatness. We’re trying to point all the time and I’m very happy to point to all these humble people in Queens and say they have a kind of royalty to them.
So there you go—that’s my world-building. It works for the pachinko parlor. It works for even the yakuzo world, or a Korean barbeque restaurant, in the back of a kitchen where you have women crouching working on the floor. There’s a kind of royalty to what they do, and a kind of power, and we don’t recognize enough power for people who are working class. That makes me think that’s a missed opportunity.
Is there anything you would like to share with the readers of WD?
I hope that they continue to enjoy reading and writing and to find joy in it because it’s a very special thing to find a person who likes moving words around, finding the right verb. I think that’s our gift. I think what makes writing painful for all of us is when we have expectations on recognition. Recognition is something that’s really fanciful and evanescent so I hope that I’ll always find—I mean I wish it for you as a reader and a writer—but I wish it for myself too, is to continue to find joy in my words, in the sentences and in the feelings behind the sentences. Because that’s what made me feel like I wanted to join this tribe. Because we belong to this weird tribe.
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