It is hard to recall the literary grace, aesthetic intelligence, and human truths of Chang-rae Lee’s first three novels without hearing the distinctive voices of the books’ first-person narrators as they unfold, and sometimes avoid, their individual tales of immigration, identity, assimilation. The way the protagonists of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft tell their respective stories is, in important ways, exactly what the novels are about.
So it is something of a surprise to open Lee’s fourth book, The Surrendered, and not be greeted by an identifiable, if slippery, “I”. Instead we’re swept along by an impersonal narrative consciousness that relates the travails of an 11-year-old refugee and her family caught in the horror of the Korean War, then transfers its attention to upstate New York some years earlier to introduce a young man destined for Korea as a soldier, then moves further back in time to Manchuria in the 1930s to reveal the tragic childhood of a third central character, the daughter of American missionaries. All three — June Han, Hector Brennan, and Sylvie Tanner — will come together in a Korean orphanage at the end of the war. Two of them, June and Hector, will carry the profound scars of their experience of love and loss with them as Lee’s ambitious fiction traverses three subsequent decades, following them to metropolitan New York and, ultimately, to Italy, for a concluding scene that is imbued with a haunting, visceral, inexplicable yet—and this is a sign of the novel’s brave achievement—ineluctable beauty.
In early February, I interviewed Chang-rae Lee about The Surrendered at the New York offices of his publisher, to which the author had traveled from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches in the University’s Creative Writing Program. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. The tape begins in the middle of an exchange about Don DeLillo, whose Point Omega had just been published that week. –James Mustich
James Mustich: You’ve met DeLillo?
Chang-rae Lee: We did a reading together once, and we had dinner a couple of weeks after that, just the two of us. He is a kind man. Very modest. Very smart. You could see where approaches to his fiction come from, just looking at him in a certain way. He’s very observant, and he’s kind of sly, and you know the brain is just working, BUHM-BUHM, all the time. Dark sense of humor.
JM: There’s a profile of him in the papers today. He must have been asked something about his demeanor, because he said, “I only smile when I’m by myself.” That’s a great line.
CRL: [LAUGHS] I think that’s more a line than…
JM: Exactly. He’d been saving that one up.
CRL: Well, we had a nice dinner. He’s one of my heroes. He inspired my first book in a lot of ways.
CRL: Yes. Do you know his novel, The Names?
CRL: It’s a great novel. It’s a novel all about the power of language. Early on in the book, the main character’s wife writes a list of attributes, and I thought it was a terrific way to encapsulate a character, to present that character to a reader. I thought, “I’m going to do that, too.” So when I met him, I said, “Don, I stole that from you.” He said, “Yeah, I know.” [LAUGHS] The next time I saw him he gave me a first edition. I love all his books. But The Names is my favorite. I’ve said before how much I admire DeLillo, just for his feel and — well, “manipulation” is the wrong word, but his working of language. You really feel as if he’s hammering it out. It has that worked beauty. It’s flinty. It’s not beautiful in any conventional sense, and yet it has a singular, almost metallic, elemental beauty to it, like this ore that came out of the ground. It’s funky but then it has this glint to it that just fires.
JM: That’s a wonderful image. But we’d better get to work. We’re here to talk about your new novel, The Surrendered, which I will admit to admiring a great deal.
CRL: Thank you.
JM: It’s a very rich book, surprising and very satisfying in the ineffable way that only an ambitious novel can be. Can you talk a bit about what started you off on this book? Was there an image or an incident or something you were trying to accomplish that gave you its kernel?
CRL: I have to say that I don’t know what started me off. Because it took me so long to write this book, I’ve forgotten its origins — the first kernel. I’ve been writing this book since before I finished A Gesture Life, which is my second novel. That goes back to the late ‘90s. The main characters — the soldier, the missionary wife, and the orphan — they all appeared in little sketches I wrote back then, but in completely different forms. I have to say I didn’t quite know what I was writing about then. I wanted to write about the Korean War, but I had no entry into it that made the kind of sense it needs to make for a novelist. It didn’t quite make emotional sense to me at the time. Historically it did, I suppose, but who cares about that? — I’m not an historical novelist. I wasn’t sure what my interest in these characters was. And I wasn’t writing them together.
My first attempts were to write, say, Hector’s story (although he wasn’t called Hector at the time), or Sylvie’s story, or June’s story — each separately. Only after I finished Aloft did I decide that maybe the key to writing this book and actually getting it done was to think about all these characters as belonging to the same story. Which scared me, because they were profoundly different people. The connections and ties I would find between them in writing the book, of course, didn’t exist beforehand.
So it’s a strange sort of book, because the genesis of it was three singular lines that were not supposed to be connected (at least in my mind, they weren’t), and which I tried consecutively: first Hector, then June, then Sylvie — again, with very different visages and backgrounds than they would each ultimately have.
JM: What struck me immediately about this book, in contrast to your first three novels, is the absence of a distinctive first person voice. During The Surrendered’s long gestation, were they at any point telling their stories in the first person?
CRL: They weren’t. I think that was one of the things that I was struggling with. I hadn’t fully decided if I wanted this to be a story about someone telling his story, or her story, which is what the first three books are very much about — aside from everything else they’re about.
What really made the book come together, I think, was a revisitation on my part of my father’s experience in the war. That took me back to some research that I did for an essay that I wrote in college about his experience during the Korean War.
JM: He was how old then?
CRL: He was 11 or 12 years old. And his family, like June’s family, was in the north before the division, and fled south on the eve of hostilities. Also like June, he lost a sibling on the train that carried him south. But he never gave me many details. His war story was three or four sentences. Remembering that story about the war is what brought everything together — I don’t know if I want to say thematically, but it brought together something about the characters and their backgrounds, the kind of experience and kind of wounds that they might have shared.
If you look at The Surrendered, it’s really not a book about the Korean War. It uses the Korean War, and it observes the Korean War, but it’s really a story about the emotional aftermath of war, which for me was interesting especially when I considered my father, who is such a soft-spoken, placid, gentle fellow — none of his actions or anything he did in his life would ever betray that such a horrible experience had been his.
JM: Had you known about it until you did research in college?
CRL: Not until college. Doing that essay prompted certain ideas about the Korean War, and I’d always thought that if I was ever a writer I would want to write about the Korean War, but not really thinking about my father’s experience during it. But in some ways, that story, and housing that story in the vessel of June, was the right overture to the rest of the book. It gave me a way to think about all these different characters, that they had some cosmic connection despite their differences.
JM: The book has a vast canvas. From that overture in Korea in 1950, you move back in time to Hector’s childhood in upstate New York, and to Sylvie’s in Manchuria in the 1930s, and then forward to Manhattan and Italy in 1986, and there’s a lot of reference to Solferino in the 19th century, where a fierce battle in the war for Italian independence and unification was fought. In fact, as this book unfolded itself before me, I was surprised — being a great admirer of your early novels — at how large the canvas was, not in terms of emotional content, but in sheer narrative scope. Nothing in the earlier books prepared me for that.
JM: I’m wondering if there was a different in the experience of composition because of that scope. Did it take you so long in part because it was more of a struggle? Did this book require a kind of maturity or confidence that you grew into through the first three books?
CRL: Well, I’ll say this: at every point at which I was expanding the canvas, I felt as if I was absolutely going to lose control. [LAUGHS]
JM: [LAUGHS] I have a question written down right here: “Did you ever feel like the book was spinning out of control?” Not that I sensed any lose of control as I was reading, but it struck me that it might have been an issue in the writing.
CRL: At every turn — when you turn that page and it says “Manchuria,” the feeling that I had when starting that section was, “I need to jump off this cliff, and I’m going to jump off this cliff — but darn it, I’m terrified.” I think my experience as a novelist, and my experience with storytelling, having written the three other books, gave me the stubbornness and the blind faith—and plain stupidity—to jump!
Yes, it was something that I hadn’t done before. In A Gesture Life, there is a back story that goes back into the war, and maybe that was good training for me for this book. But to have three different characters who are not telling their own stories, that was new. In some ways, it was a very disorienting experience. I’m not the sort of writer who can plan out things. Mostly I have no idea where I’m going. And even as I’m building, say, Manchuria into a story that has its own arc and its own aims, I am wondering to myself, “How in the world is this connected to anything else in those other lines?” That’s something that I realized in the course of the book — you know, you draw it out in your mind. You do thought experiments, and somehow you think, “Of course, yes, it will come together somehow.” But actually when you’re doing it, there’s no clue to how it’s going to work out. The actual writing of it disproves that you can actually plan any of those connections. You can’t.
JM: The stories of these three lives are extremely entwined, but they all come together at only one point, and then the book goes forward and backward in the individual stories. Did you write it in discrete sections, rather than consecutively? How did you arrive at the final architecture of the book?
CRL: This was one of the challenges, as I did not write it in sequence. Nor did I write it in sections. I didn’t write Sylvie’s section and Hector’s section, and then splice them together. What happened was, I would try to imagine a certain moment, say, in Hector’s life, and then, in terms of orchestrating that with other skeins of the story, decide if this is the moment that I want to hear about, if the story needs this information, and that it makes sense and is relevant and is expanding the story – as well as sharpening it.
But as you say, this is not just a story about three different people in one time. It’s three different people, and their settings and times are varied. So it’s not three people sitting in a room and you’re examining their consciousnesses. There’s no ready anchor, even as you move through the story. I mean, there is an anchor that emerges, but it wasn’t apparent to me as the writer what that anchor really was. I’m not sure that I’ve found that anchor even now. It’s not that I conceived of one and that that helped me write the book. In many ways, I tried to focus on the small, even as I knew the big canvas needed to be filled. It’s a funny kind of feeling when you think you have this huge mural to do, but boy, this little 6-by-6-inch section of it – here I have to make it perfect. Even though that 6-by-6 section has to absolutely fit somewhere in the mural and you don’t yet know its placement.
JM: In a wonderful way the final scene ties everything together in a completely unexpected way, at least for me. It’s almost as if it’s the novel you’ve created that is the anchor — not something with the book, but the very novel itself. It’s this ur-story that you’ve created that transcends and expands all the constituent parts. But one doesn’t recognize that until the very end.
CRL: Well, that’s what I was trying to describe to you. That ur-feeling, that ur-novel is so beyond the grasp of the writer in the moment. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I guess it’s just artistic faith and experience and trying to understand all those characters and times in your head. After a while, it permeates you so deeply that something coalesces — there are these mystical connections that aren’t consciously made but somehow are there.
JM: Yes. There’s a kind of faith in the novel — as a form, if you will — in this book, that’s very rare in contemporary writing, where there’s more typically more faith in the writing than in the novel.
CRL: Yes. [LAUGHING] I would definitely say that this is my most 19th-century novel.
JM: It doesn’t feel old-fashioned, but it has that kind of — well, faith in the novel is the best way I can put it, faith that this created thing is its own organism. It’s interesting that it’s not written in the first person, because the first person can have a very odd distancing effect. What struck me in thinking of this book in relation to your earlier ones is how much closer, in a way, I felt to the characters in The Surrendered than I did to the characters who were speaking to me directly in the other novels.
CRL: Absolutely. And you know why?
JM: No. Tell me.
CRL: Because those first-person narrators are — well, they are products of postmodernism. They are narrators who are very conscious of their very act of telling, very conscious of genre, of kinds of narratives, conscious of a certain kind of self-construction and self-creation. In some ways, it’s incredibly intimate, intellectually so, but in other ways, emotionally, there’s a serious displacement in those books.
CRL: I was interested in telling those stories in that way – obviously for different reasons with each book. While the new book celebrates novel-writing, I don’t think that it’s conscious of novel-writing in the same manner as my previous books were.
JM: I think that’s true. That’s one of the things that’s so striking about it: there’s an embrace of narrative in the novel, narrative as a thing taking care of itself that sweeps us along. And while clearly, sentence-by-sentence, image-by-image, scene-by-scene, you are investing an enormous amount of intelligence and creativity in the composition, the reader is not as aware of the writing as he is in the earlier books.
CRL: Yes. I think partly that’s due to the subject matter for me. As I started writing, I made a decision early on to get out of my own way, to let myself story-tell more. I don’t know that war stories – or post-war stories — need much ornamentation, at least the kind of ornamentation that I’ve been interested in. The story took me over a little bit, and told me not what was going to happen in the story, but how to write it. I definitely felt much more that I was reporting, rather than “crafting.” This is not to say I didn’t labor over every sentence. I certainly hope the craft is there. I hope the little moments are worthwhile. But never before have I been so willing to allow things to happen. In my other books, things do happen, but they are kind of bookends to the real action, which for me was an exploration of consciousness. Not that I don’t get into the consciousness of the people in The Surrendered, but you could say there’s not as much anxiety about it.
JM: They’re each rich creations, but they’re pretty set in their characters, right from the start. The sense you get of June early on, or Hector early on, is enriched by the time you get to the end of the novel, but it’s not different.
CRL: No. There are a couple of ways that I saw this book. One way was that I saw a certain kind of coloration to the book. I actually saw it as a kind of high-burnished grayness. I thought that sort of hue — the same color that the church has at the end of the novel — would infuse the book. A lovely color that’s nearly devoid of color.
The other thing that I thought was: this is a tragedy. It took me back to all the tragedies that I’d ever read — Homeric, Shakespearean. In a way, I think those are the stories that helped me write these characters. Not so much what happens, but the characters, and how they take on all this suffering. There may not be the sort of Shakespearean or Greek hubris in this book, but there is this real larding on of wounds and misery. They all hold it so heavily! And that’s what I love about Homer, I love about Shakespeare, I love about Euripides, Aeschylus. I thought I would like to write characters like theirs.
JM: What’s astonishing to me is that, even though you are unflinching in observing the limitations of these characters, especially June and Hector, by the end of the book, in that last scene in the church of Solferino, he has endured his way to a certain kind of heroism, and she has endured her way to a certain kind of nobility. It’s interesting that you brought up tragedy, because — and this goes back to what I was saying before about the novel, but tragedy is even more germane to what I was trying to express — there’s something about the way the story is told that evokes those qualities from them in a way that’s almost related to something beyond character. Does that make any sense?
CRL: Absolutely. In some ways, they have all their minute histories and all their minute psychologies, too. But in the end, I don’t think the novel is primarily interested in those histories. I think the novel is interested in — the story is interested in — seeing these figures, these very small figures, against the backdrop or in the wake of immense forces.
That’s how I saw the proportions of who these people were and what was around them. War. Violence. Heartbreak. Loss. These huge things that come out of conflict. And they’re like this [Makes gesture of smallness with his hands]. Whereas in my first three books, it’s completely the other way around. The “I” is so big and the world, although described, is not.
CRL: This maybe connects up to my willingness to tell all these different stories. I felt that I needed to write the world, to write a world that was not the real world, but this emotional, tragic world, this world – I think that you used the right word: this world that we must endure.
JM: It really felt to me at the end of the book that I had just experienced something on the scale of a Verdi opera. It was the same kind of created world where large forces are at play and human figures are moving through their shadows.
CRL: Yes. And for it to work you have to invest in these figures. You have to understand them and feel that they’re really alive. But in the end, I think part of their nobility — if a difficult character like June has any nobility and decency – is that they’ve gone through this crucible. In June’s case, she’s continued to survive, no matter what she’s done or not done for her son or for herself, no matter the hardness or cruelty she has exhibited.
It’s like this: there’s something poignant in watching an ant move. You just can’t help it. She picks up this little breadcrumb that’s three times her size and just keeps walking. The more you watch that, the more you’re moved. Look at this modest but incredible scene of life. I’ve told people: I don’t know what this book is about in terms of war – that you can tell me. But I think it’s essentially about how awestruck one can be at the world, which includes history, political forces but also the acts of a single human being.
JM: Talk a little bit about the volume that Sophie treasures, the blue book that becomes a kind of talisman for all three characters.
CRL: It was A Memory of Solferino, and it was written by the founder of the Red Cross, J. H. Dunant. Again, I can’t quite remember how I got to that book.
JM: That’s what I was going to ask you.
CRL: I have no idea. It must have been some idea about mercy. But misplaced mercy. Dunant’s idea at the beginning, of course, was “Let’s have some gentlemanly protocol so that after the carnage we can all move in and help out these suffering soldiers,” which is a wonderful humanitarian desire. He never talked about the fact that we shouldn’t have these god-awful wars! But then reading his book I became more curious. He was actually the first winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was just a normal, ordinary, sort of well-to-do fellow who had been traveling in northern Italy, and he came upon this battle, and it changed his life.
But after reading his book, particularly his descriptions of all these soldiers in a church, I thought that it hooked up with an idea I had about Hector. In fact, Hector in a previous iteration was a defrocked priest, like an Army chaplain. And isn’t an Army chaplain an interesting figure, too: what a strangely contradictory function and presence. So I think that the original angle was a kind of inquiry into mercy, and what mercy really was. In the book, mercy is played out in different ways — you know, the double-edged sword of it. I found out later that, of course, there’s this church, a real church in Lombardy that I describe at the end of the book, which is one of the most incredible churches you’ll ever see.
JM: Is the real church as you describe it, filled with shelves of human bone?
JM: Let me read your description.
They were not entombed as he’d expected but rather on open display. Behind the altar, at a subterranean level, open to view, were built-in shelves stocked tight with the bones. They were arranged by kind — piles of femurs and tibias, nested pelvises and jaws. There were bins full of the smaller bones of the feet, of the hands, like countless pieces of chalk. Many bundles of ribs. Then, rising to the cornice of the vaulting, even stacked above it, were rows upon rows of skulls.
Have you been to the real church in Italy?
CRL: Yes. I went there not knowing whether or how it was going to figure into the book. But when I saw it, I knew that it was absolutely where the story was going to end up. It’s a fairly modest-looking church. People go to Italy and look into churches all the time. They all look gorgeous, even if some are more Spartan than others. This one in particular — this one is astonishing because you go in and you don’t realize at first what you’re looking at, and it’s not until you step into the main area that you realize it’s full of bones. It’s the kind of church that maybe all churches should be. Not a place in celebration of God, but one of man, and not Michelangelo’s man — not in alabaster, but humbled and ruined and fallen, and maybe forgotten, too. Just all these old bones. I remember my kids saying to me, with a little horror, “Daddy, why are we here?” We’d only been in pretty churches, you know, which were boring. “What is this church?!” [LAUGHS] And all the skulls looking out at us. But I thought, “This is perfect.”
It’s a funny thing. Because what would have happened to this book if I had not taken that trip? You’ve got to wonder. It frightens the hell out of me to think, “What if I hadn’t gone?”
JM: Having it as a destination serves a narrative purpose, but the imagery at the end also casts its gray light back over everything that you’ve read.
CRL: Over everything.
JM: What would this book have been without that?
CRL: I don’t know. I would have written a different book, I guess.
JM: It’s an extraordinary conclusion. One thing I’ve admired about your writing since the first book is that it has a distinctive and keen sense of imagery, sentence-by-sentence. In this book, there’s a kind of orchestration of imagery across the historical periods, across the three lives you’re telling, on a vast scale. Did you find yourself writing in a different way? There’s no apparent backfilling or patching when you’re reading the book. It all unfolds seamlessly. I’m wondering, in terms of drafting it, did you get to a point where you had the whole shape from beginning to end, and then went back to do another draft, start to finish?
CRL: My editor, Sarah McGrath, helped me greatly with this book. There were other storylines that I cut out completely. The book originally had an entirely different frame, where we come upon Hector as a dying old man, attended by his nurse. There was another whole section about Hector’s life in New Jersey and lots of other storylines. I cut those, but I don’t know that I rewrote anything that you see. I have a hard time revising sentences, because I spend an inordinate amount of time on each sentence, and the sentence before it, and the sentence after it. My paragraphs — I’m not saying that they’re perfect, but I get them so that they do what they need to do. The problem is, sometimes they’re irrelevant, or they’re not considering the right thing. So I am someone who has to cut and then rewrite. I can’t massage language. So that’s maybe why it feels as if there are no seams. I don’t know.
There’s no manicuring in this book — there’s chopping off the limbs and then suture. [LAUGHS] I think that’s the case with all my books. It’s a terrible way to write. This is a fairly long book already, and I probably wrote 200 more pages. I wish I could have used them, or I wish I could have said, “I just didn’t write that that well,” and I’d just rewrite it. But it’s stuff that just doesn’t make any sense for the book as it is, so I couldn’t use it. I tell my writing students, “You shouldn’t write the way I do,” because they always ask me how I work. I say, “This is the way I do it, and it’s not a great way.” It takes a long time. It’s very frustrating. You make a commitment to the small without a real sense sometimes of how, or even if, it’s going to work out across the larger scale of the book. And often it doesn’t. That’s the truth of it. Often it doesn’t work out. You have to throw away a lot of material that reads well.
JM: Let’s talk about the title. The “surrendered” could be people who have surrendered to something. Or it could be a thing or an idea that has been surrendered. It could also be a person who has been surrendered. All of those things come into play. How would you apply it to the characters we’ve been talking about?
CRL: I would say that they’ve been surrendered by historical circumstance, by family circumstance, and by their own particular psyches. But once they’ve been surrendered by whatever — war, family — tt doesn’t end there for me. The book is not about simply being at the whim of fate. Because after fate is character. I would say that these folks are people who have surrendered to their weakest points. Surrendered to their own blindness. Surrendered to their own—in some cases—vanity. They all have. Sylvie is someone who has clearly surrendered to her darkest infirmities.
JM: At one point in the book, June — at least we’re in the mind of June, I think — she says to herself, “You could never love someone out of his nature, out of his fate.”
JM: And to echo a line from Native Speaker, your first book, Hector seems to have “fallen in love with his fate.”
JM: But then, quite poignantly in the scenes with Dora, he seems to in fact to undergo the experience of being loved out of his nature.
CRL: Out of his nature, yes.
JM: And out of this fate that he’s fallen in love with.
CRL: Yes. And when June says that, half of it is, of course, just her justification for her own failings. She’s speaking the truth in many ways. But it’s an easier truth for her. A convenient truth.
JM: Towards the very end of the book, the narrator — the third-person narrator — says of Hector, “Like everyone else, he was at the helm, whether he wished it or not.” There’s fate, as you say, and there’s character beyond fate.
CRL: Yes. My view of the story and these characters was I never wanted the reader to be able to say, “Oh, this is the reason why he or she’s this way.” Because that would be a silly book. That’s a book about PTSD. That can happen and does happen, but that’s not the interest of novels. The interest of novels is not just cause and result, but cause, result, and then the real constitution, or the truer constitution, that arises afterwards, is created or sometimes exposed. I would hate if someone said, “Oh, these people just went through a terrible time and that’s why they behave as they do.” I would rather have it that a reader said, “They went through a terrible time, and yet I don’t feel as if they could be any different.” That’s what I want, that’s what I think every novelist wants from his characters — that they exist almost outside of their circumstance.
JM: That’s interesting.
CRL: That’s what life is. I hate when people say, “Please tell me the story of your life,” as if in real life there’s a narrative, and there’s a theme. That’s the biggest crap I’ve ever heard. Every story is by nature contrived. There are things that happen, but “being” is independent of everything, especially something like narrative. Ultimately independent.
JM: One’s life has an existence that’s separate from its description.
CRL: As I said, there can be a narrative, a described, contrived narrative. But existence is ineffable. And that’s how it should feel in fiction.
JM: You talked before about the post-modern angle of you first three books.
CRL: I think most readers don’t see them that way. They view them as immigrant stories. Some of the literature professors who have written about my work are focused more on the post-modern angles, but most readers I think aren’t seeing them that way. Which is always kind of interesting to me.
JM: Reading this book after those books, it’s apparent how different it is in the storytelling.
CRL: It’s funny that way. It makes you look at the other books differently.
JM: Yes, exactly. In the new book, you deal with these enormous events, and these three small lives in the throes of these historical and even cosmic forces, and the book is neither earnest, you know, in a tendentious way, nor is it ironic in any way. That’s extraordinarily rare in contemporary fiction, and it’s quite an achievement. One of the things about a book with an agile first-person narrator, or a book that’s really focused on language, or in which you find deployed the whole post-modern arsenal of distancing effects, is that artifice can go a long way to entertain, enlighten—all kinds of good things…
CRL: Absolutely. I’ve been entertained.
JM: … but it can’t deliver catharsis of any kind. What you’ve done in The Surrendered is on such a grand scale, I can see why you felt like you were jumping off a cliff at times. Because it has a combination of emotion and artistry that, as I said, you might find in a Verdi opera, but not in many contemporary novels.
CRL: I’m struck by your phrase, “It’s not ironic.” I think that was ultimately why it took me so long to get into the book. I had to unlearn all the irony that’s been built in to my reading and writing life. Most of what we read is ironic. On whatever level — structurally, character-wise, lingually. I can see my first three books as ironic works. This book is different. I tried to sit to the side and have a slightly different engagement with the material. It’s only recently that I actually realized this! [LAUGHS]
JM: Does teaching nourish or sap the strength of your writing?
CRL: I always say the two activities are completely opposed. Writing is all about the I — it’s me-me-me. You have to be willfully selfish and exist in your own world, and do those things that can put you in a place where you can imagine richly and deeply and smartly enough. On the other hand, at least for me, teaching is about trying to understand someone else’s consciousness, not just criticize their writing, but try to understand what the ideal form of that piece of writing is for that person and that story.
So they are completely different exercises, which I think helps, in a way. When I go into my writing workshop, obviously, my students want to know what I think about this or that. But really, I’m focused on them, and it’s nice that way — and they are lovely kids, and smart, so it’s fun to work with them. But sometimes teaching is incredibly inconvenient. Sometimes I don’t want to go to class because I’m working on something that I need to stay inside of. That said, after class I am always happy that I have been in class, because I enjoy the discussion and I enjoy the students. In a way, if there’s one inspiring aspect, it’s the students’ enthusiasm, their freshness, their bravery, which I remember myself having at their age. Their excitement. That’s always the same, even with students who don’t write particularly well. You sit back and you think, “Wow, how great is that?” But sometimes it’s highly, highly inconvenient. The timing sometimes isn’t right.
JM: One more question, if I may. About your reading. You mentioned DeLillo. I’m wondering what other contemporary writers speak to you particularly, and also if, in writing The Surrendered, you found yourself reading 19th-century novels.
CRL: Actually, I was doing a lot of reading of the work of my friend, the late Robert Fagles. For the few years before his death, he was working on his translation of the Aeneid, and he lived in Princeton. We became very good friends, and we would have lunch regularly.
JM: He was a wonderful man. I went to Princeton myself, and the most memorable class I had while I was there was with him, on Aeschylus’s Oresteia. He had just published his translation of it. I don’t remember college with a great deal of affection, but I would pay a lot to have that seminar with him again.
CRL: Absolutely. My class with him was that we would have lunch at the Faculty Club once a month or so, and he would tell great stories about poets, and then talk about the work he was doing. So I was one of the lucky people who got to see the drafts of his translation of the Aeneid. I hadn’t read his Iliad and Odyssey. In school I’d read the Lattimore, I think. So I was reading a lot of Fagles at the time. I think that helped me a lot.
JM: I never would have made that connection, but now that you say it, I can see it. Have you read his Oresteia?
JM: Oh. You must. One of the greatest reading experiences of my life.
CRL: I will. The way he would talk about those epics really helped me think about the characters in a different way. He took such a long view of things, particularly of the immense forces that we’ve been talking about, and he had very clear opinions. He was very anti-war. But the ways in which he would always return to the fundamental humanity of those characters, regardless of who they were — Achilles or Agamemnon or Patroclus or Hector, impressed me. He seemed to always talk about the humanness of them all. That’s what I think enraptured him. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at.
JM: I’m delighted that our conversation took this turn. You were very fortunate to know him so well.
CRL: It was a great friendship, and I loved the man. I miss him dearly.
JM: What’s next? Have you begun another novel?
CRL: I have. I’m writing an immigrant novel, but a different kind of immigrant novel, I hope. It’s about a Chinese immigrant in contemporary times. But it’s not the classic immigrant story of a greenhorn who comes over, a naïf who is at the behest of the society. It’s a different kind of immigrant story, where the immigrant is in fact the one who is knowing and “at the helm.” I thought it would be an interesting way to retell an immigrant story, and maybe to make it a global story: this is a character who has expertise and skill and knowledge that the natives don’t have, a different sense of possibility. I haven’t really figured out whether this is an ironic or un-ironic work! [LAUGHS] It certainly suggests to me that it should be an ironic book. But part of me also (and maybe it’s having written The Surrendered) is interested in a wider canvas, too.
–February 4, 2010