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Chang-Rae Lee

Year of Graduation: 
’83
Chang-Rae Lee

"Fiction writing continues to be the most difficult thing I do. And I hope it continues to be that way."

Katherine Towler, former Bennett Fellow at the Academy and author of a trilogy of novels, interviewed Chang-rae Lee ’83, a novelist who was cited as one of the 20 best American writers by The New Yorker and whose works have garnered, among others, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the American Book Award. His book, The Surrendered, was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Towler and Lee’s conversation debuts a new series in the Bulletin, where writers speak with other writers about their craft, how and why they do it, and the backstory behind recent and upcoming publications.

—Editor

A Conversation with Author Chang-Rae Lee ’83

Q: Your fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea, published earlier this year, is a dystopian story set in a version of Baltimore now called B-mor.T his book represents somewhat of a departure from your earlier works, with their focus on immigrants, identity and assimilation. What led you to a dystopian story?

My intention was in fact to write an “immigrant novel,” though of a very different kind. I was toying with a premise that I happened upon during a ride on Amtrak from NewYork City to D.C., a premise that had certain decayed and abandoned urban areas of America— such as one might find in cities like Baltimore—repopulated en masse by a group of foreigners, their purpose being to revitalize these long- forlorn neighborhoods. I was doing research on contemporary China at the time for a different novel and so I envisioned the repopulating group as Chinese. Of course, no such thing would be allowed to happen in the present, but I began to imagine that in a future time such immigrants might indeed be allowed to settle here, and even welcomed. And once I began to consider what that future society might look like, certain “dystopian” features began to emerge.

Chang-Rae Lee Book JacketQ: On Such a Full Sea depicts a world in which class stratification and other ills of our current age have been taken to extremes. How difficult was it to imagine such a future and how close did it feel to present-day reality? How effective do you find fiction in delivering social commentary?

As you note, I took what I saw as certain realities of our present-day society and world and pushed them, extending them to what I felt were still fairly logical and certainly possible scenarios concerning class division, environmental degradation, health care, etc. The frightening thing for me was that I never felt those extrapolations to be “extreme,” but rather somewhat intensified versions of what I think keeps us all up at night. By its very nature fiction has the unique capacity to illustrate how life is lived without having to employ direct or patent commentaries or advocate social agendas, which I’ve always thought was the most enduring form of “argumentation”—great social novels like Germinal and The Grapes of Wrath compel a depth of empathy that can’t be matched by any opinion piece or essay, for they place us in the heart of the action and don’t let us go.

Q: How do you see the place of the novel in a digital world? Has your understanding of the novel as a form changed over time?

I believe the novel will always exist, at least as long as written language is in use. Unless there’s an existence that’s driven by only voice and image, people will always want to write long-form stories and there will always be people who wish to read them. We are a storytelling species, as it’s the only way we know to mark our time in this life and give it significance.

Q: You have taught throughout your career as a writer. How do you balance the creative demands of teaching and writing?

Balance is the dream but not the reality! Juggling is more like it, I think, this constant exercise in keeping my various responsibilities and passions progressing, alive. Perhaps because I’ve taught from the beginning of my writing career, this juggling seems like second nature to me. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d handle being a writer only. The key for me is to return to my own work daily, even if it’s for just an hour or two, so as not to lose too much momentum. Novelists are like sharks, or at least I am—you stop moving and it’s all over. And while I enjoy the teaching immensely, sometimes I’m working on something and hate to leave it. But it’s just as often the case that I’m looking for a diversion anyway, and talking literature and the craft of writing is one of best I can imagine.

Q: How do you continue to challenge yourself as a writer? What is it about fiction that keeps you returning to this form?

Fiction writing continues to be the most difficult thing I do. And I hope it continues to be that way. The day that I feel it’s coming too easily or automatically is the day I should probably turn off my computer for good. For it’s the persistence of the challenge that attracts me, the way even a story or character or modality you think you know perfectly can suddenly and wholly defy you. So I don’t have to set “challenges” for myself, or contrive to do something “different.” I’ve always believed that real writing—the kind of writing that breaks open our reality—is the most elusive quarry.

Q: Were your years at Exeter significant to your career as a writer? Did you see yourself as a writer then?

It was at Exeter that my love of reading and literature began to find another expression, which was to begin to write. I started out writing poetry, and I became the editor of PIP.The interest in writing might have come anyway, but it was certainly catalyzed by my wonderful English teachers, some of whom, like Charles Terry and Peter Greer and Claudia Gallant, encouraged me to write creatively. One of the great things about Exeter was how writers were celebrated there, and those who came to campus to speak while I was a student—Gore Vidal, John Irving, Jorge Luis Borges among them—were hugely inspiring. I certainly wanted to be a writer, though many years would pass before I could ever voice that desire.

Q: What do you read for ideas? What do you read for inspiration?

I read a little bit of everything. I don’t read for anything but pleasure. I figure the ideas and inspiration will come if they come. I have faith that way. There are about 14 books on my nightstand, novels, of course, but also poetry collections and nonfiction. I alternate between newly published books and classics. I also am a newspaper reader, and can’t really start my day without going through The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. There’s information there, of course, but the ritual of it is still pleasurable, even when the news is horrifying and depressing, which it often is.

Q: What are some of the challenges for you in the time between completing one book and starting the next? How long does it take for new work to find a shape? Have you begun another book or do you have plans for one?

I always have ideas for novels brewing, and at some point after finishing my previous (usually with about a six-month hiatus), I’ll follow the idea I’m most curious about and begin to get serious about finding my way into its world. Again it’s always the mystery of a story or character that compels me, rather than what I “know” about it. The knowing gives one the confidence to pursue a years-long project, but it’s the mystery that makes the work worthwhile and exciting, sentence by sentence. I’ve just begun a new novel, which I won’t say much about, except that it’s quite different once again. I guess we’ll see how it turns out.