Chang-rae Lee landed on the literary scene with Native Speaker, a detective story about much more than just another crime. Detective Henry Park grows too attached to those he investigates as he discovers the connection between broad social questions and his personal failings. Critics responded, and Lee's debut received a string of recognition, including a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Everyone agrees that Chang-rae Lee is a writer to watch. His debut novel, Native Speaker, (1995) won the American Book Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Plus, two literary cornerstones, The New Yorker and Granta, named him one of the twenty best American writers under forty.
Lee and his family emigrated from Seoul, South Korea to the United States in 1968. His family settled in Westchester, New York, and Lee eventually attended Yale and the University of Oregon, where he earned his M.F.A.
Native Speaker is a story about a Korean-American detective, Henry Park, whose investigative eye is eventually turned upon himself. The novel takes a challenging look at Park's effort reconcile his two cultures in an even larger culturally diverse setting, New York City. The language is simple, yet the reader is allowed a deep and intriguing look inside the head of the main character, the politics that affect him, and his struggles with love and cultures. The New York Times called Lee's debut "highly original," and the Literary Review raved, "... Native Speaker seems like a new kind of novel, the plainsong of unassimilated man, and in the murmur of his nascent voice is the soft clash of borders."
In 1999, Lee's second novel, A Gesture Life continued the themes of identity and assimilation. Lee wrote the novel over the course of four years, although it was originally about the experience of a Korean "comfort woman," forced to sexually service invading Japanese soldiers. Lee traveled to Korea and interviewed surviving comfort women, but two years into the novel, one of the characters, previously considered a minor one, captured Lee's imagination and wouldn't let go. Remarkably, Lee abandoned everything he had written except for one character -- Doc Hata.
Franklin "Doc" Hata is a reserved, older physician, Korean by birth, raised in Japan, and now living in New York City. Only after much needling by his daughter, Doc Hata begins to reveal his painful secrets: his time as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II, his love for one of the Korean comfort women, and the guilt that has kept him silent for most of his life. It's an unforgettable story, and The New York Times called the book "... a work of astonishing psychological acuity and compassion."
With the 2004 release of Lee's Aloft, once again, readers are treated to a portrait of a man in the throes of a reconciliation. Readers who expect Lee's novels to deal exclusively with Asian Americans will be pleasantly surprised to see the author flex his writing skills with the creation of Jerry Battle, the semi-retired head of a (mostly) white Long Island family. On the ground, Battle is inundated with family bickering, his upcoming 60th birthday, and the mystery surrounding his wife's death. Aloft in his small private plane, Battle escapes all of this, although only temporarily. His is the story of how to cope with responsibility -- to the past, and to the unknown.
Lee a writer and a teacher, as well as the director of the M.F.A. Program at Hunter College of City University in New York City. Those fortunate enough to be his students get to learn from the man who knows the stuff of human nature -- that the aftereffect of any act is the core of every great story, and that even the most conventional characters can bear the weight of unconventional story lines.
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"If I weren't a writer," Lee reveals in our interview, "I'd probably be working in the food and/or wine business, perhaps running a wine or coffee bar -- or even an Asian noodle soup shop."
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In the winter of 2004, Chang-rae Lee took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests. .
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
"The Book" doesn't quite exist for me -- there are too many that influenced me in incalculable ways.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
These, in no particular order, are several of my many, many favorites:
Dubliners by James Joyce -- Stories so luminous that one would be instantly blinded by their beauty were it not for the revelatory poignancy of their narratives.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac -- This is a wild and inspiring book, and was especially so for someone like me, a middle-class suburban kid who was always taught to color within the lines.
Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike -- One of the few novels I might consider calling "perfect" -- it's all here, in a virtuosic and utterly unified presentation: voice, characterization, narrative sequencing, keen social commentary, metaphorical/pictorial wizardry. Updike at the height of his powers.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron -- A torrential display of Styron's prodigious imagination and lyricism.
The Names by Don DeLillo -- A brilliant, complex, brooding inquiry into the uses -- and essential position -- of language. A "novel of ideas" that goes beyond argumentation and ultimately soars with the force of poetry.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Apocalypse Now and The Godfather for the grand artistic passion and ambition that so clearly informed their making; Francis Coppola is a certified genius.
2001: A Space Odyssey -- I saw this picture with my parents when I was four years old. Its images, I believe, forever altered my brain chemistry and still haunt me with their chilly precision and beauty.
Tampopo and Babette's Feast -- Two foodie films very different from one another -- one hilarious, the other soulful, both revealing the great arts that are cooking and eating.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music while writing; it seems to me I'm trying to make my own kind of music, and to have anything else going on is just noisy interference.
I tend to prefer a wide range of music, and like to set my iPod on random shuffle when I walk to the university where I teach -- I'll get Otis Redding, Chopin, U2, Dar Williams, Eminem, and so on.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I think book clubs should read more contemporary poetry. I'd choose C. K. Williams's The Singing, a collection of poems that considers, among many, many things, the mysterious immanences of love, friendship, race, death, and (sadly) our culture of violence and war, sung in a voice of great conviction and timelessness.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Cookbooks -- they're always good reading, and useful in the best way.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My laptop, reference books, and lots of papers. Before I start my work in the morning, I need to have quickly browsed the entire paper, noting articles that I want to read during lunch.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wrote a novel before Native Speaker that I worked on feverishly, and had great hopes for, but that turned out to be a thoroughly bad pastiche of Pynchon and DeLillo; it wasn't a wholly wasted experience (it was terribly painful and depressing), as I learned how deep a commitment (and immense effort and stamina) it takes to write something as long and sustained as a novel, even a poor one.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I had the pleasure of "discovering" Gary Shteyngart (The Russian Debutante's Handbook), who was a student of mine in the M.F.A. program at Hunter. His writing is brilliant, hilarious, and oddly heartbreaking. I'm hoping that some other former students will soon be recognized; among them is a talented writer named Lesley Tenorio, who has published stories in The Atlantic and is working on his first book.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
First, read all you can. Reread the works you love, over and over. Then, don't try to write like anyone else. We read and remember certain writers because they offer distinctive voices and perspectives, because they've given themselves over completely and passionately to their obsessions while vigorously ignoring everything else.
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