As a Yale undergraduate, Chang-Rae Lee ’87 was admittedly a quiet one. He majored in English, but avoided creative writing courses, including “Daily Themes,” about which he said he “didn’t take it, thank goodness.”
But Lee, who was born in Seoul and moved to the United States at a young age, has become one of the most acclaimed writers of our time. His fiction experiments with setting and style, and his novels have collected accolades like the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, awarded to “Native Speaker.” “The Surrendered,” a novel centered on the Korean War, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, and his most recent novel “On Such a Full Sea” has been described in The New York Times as “a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work but to the ranks of ‘serious’ writers venturing into the realm of dystopian fantasy.” Currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton, Lee spoke to us about folk tales, finding stories through characters and how he runs his fiction seminar (which, he confesses, he would not have taken when he was in college).
Q.You’ve previously written novels set in the past or in the present. What made you want to tackle the future with your latest novel “On Such a Full Sea”?
A.Let me back up a bit. I had no intention of writing a book that was speculative fiction. I came across a premise about populating abandoned urban areas in the United States en masse with settlers from foreign countries, particularly from China. I liked the idea, but obviously the premise wouldn’t be very plausible set in the contemporary moment. And so, in wanting to pursue the idea, I set it in the future. But of course, once you set a story in the future, then you have to describe the future. That’s actually how the novel came about. Some science fiction writers of a certain type are deeply and obsessively interested in that world and all its details, and really, their joy is to describe everything about that world: the governmental structures, the architecture, the technology. I only do it insofar that it informs how we might think of the characters rather than for its own sake.
Q. You write a lot about culture and the idea of belonging and culture contributing to belonging. What do you try to convey in portrayals of these struggles in your novels?
A.To be honest, I don’t start with a theme or some broad kind of philosophical or psychological idea. I really start with an individual, and in exploring that person and looking into their history and present life and all the things they might think about, certain ideas come up — larger ideas about the society or the culture in which that person lives. I don’t start out with an agenda and then look for characters that fit that agenda. It’s really the other way around. The characters suggest ways of thinking and ways of looking at a community or society or culture. In this book “On Such a Full Sea,” I suppose I was, in some ways, forced to look at the society first, just because of the world-building. Of course the only way to think about those societies is to interrogate — at least through a thought experiment — those inhabitants just to see what kinds of things they held as true and what beliefs they had, what kinds of expectations they had for their lives. Then a picture of a community or society starts to form. In those things, you have a sense of theme, but nothing really too definite.
Q. Speaking about character then, I have to bring up the idea of race or minority groups. Your novels have been described as great Asian-American novels, and you as a great Asian-American writer, but you’ve also written before as a white narrator and from the point of view of A Chinese-American female in “On Such a Full Sea.”
A. Actually, it’s narrated by a collective “we” voice of her community.
Q. But the protagonist would be the Chinese-American female?
A.Yeah, she’s the hero, but it’s not really from her point of view.
Q. So, then, how do you feel about being thought of as an Asian-American writer? Do you think it’s possible for someone of one racial or ethnic group to write in the voice of another?
A.Well, those are two separate questions. I think these days it’s funny because I’ve always said that being described as an Asian-American anything is probably just the vaguest way to describe anybody, whether they’re an Asian-American artist or Asian-American writer because “Asian-American” is composed of so many different kinds of peoples and languages and traditions. So really what we’re talking about is the racial category, right? Because you can’t define Asian-American very finely at all. So in one sense I accept the category because I am Asian-American, and because I am a writer, but I think that ends up being one of the least interesting and descriptive ways of describing me or my work. It is a way to do it but it’s not terribly provocative. I just don’t think it’s an interesting term or even an idea. I would rather — as all writers would — be described in terms of my craft and the kinds of notions that my work brings out and to be spoken of — as all people would like to be spoken of, especially artists — as individuals rather than always being put in a group.
I’ve always felt that people can write about anything they like and from whatever perspective they like. That doesn’t mean they’re successful at it. It doesn’t mean that we should like it. But I think that if a writer approaches a project with an open mind, a lot of thinking, a lot of personal integrity and a lot of desire and purpose to get at a certain kind of truth, then I feel like they should be able to write about anything they like. So whether that’s me writing about an Italian-American guy in my third novel “Aloft,” or a white writer like Robert Olen Butler writing about Vietnamese people in “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” there’s a big responsibility on the writer to do as much as he or she can to bring as much open thinking and good hard thinking to the project.
Q. That’s a really positive way of thinking about it.
A. I think if you start disallowing people or censoring people in doing certain things that they’re “not supposed to do,” that’s a very dangerous game, [chuckles] both politically and artistically.
Q. When you were at Yale, what sorts of literary pursuits did you embark on, academically or extracurricularly? How did those experiences shape you as a writer, if at all?
A.Well I was just a generalist, but I enjoyed and concentrated in American literature. That’s probably an affinity I had entering Yale rather than something I found out there. I surely preferred postwar American lit to, say, Victorian literature [laughs]. It just spoke to me. Who knows why? Whether it’s just aesthetically or partly because of my being from an immigrant family and considering American-ness in all those ways and trying to figure out what American-ness meant. It’s all part of what made me interested or focused on those things. I think writers are influenced by all things that they’ve read, but I don’t know if it was formative more than any other reading I’d done in other times of my life. I didn’t really do a lot of creative writing at Yale. When I was a student, there were just a couple of writing classes — fiction writing classes — and maybe one or two in colleges like college seminars. But I was shy about sharing my work even though I was writing on my own. I don’t think I was cut out for those kinds of classes, and I don’t think I was cut out for the kind of classes that I teach. [laughs] I always thought I was a pretty good writer, but I was hesitant to share that writing and have it talked about. I had one really fun and great class with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was teaching a class in autobiography, and we were reading all these great classic autobiographies, but he would also have us write autobiographical pieces. Of course, he allowed a lot of latitude in the way we might write them and what we would write about, so that was a lot of fun. It was probably my favorite writing experience at Yale. Aside from that, I was more of a reader in college.
Q. A good amount of writers think that writing can’t or shouldn’t be taught.
A.I think that one who wants to write should write and practice writing, and those classes are great for that because they prompt writing that you otherwise might not do because of your schedule or what have you. There’s lots to say about the practice of writing, whether writing can be taught through techniques or theories or exercises. I don’t really feel that that’s the case. I do think that people can be helped to become competent writers. I don’t think that competent writers can be made by virtue of a class into really fine writers. Other things need to have happened, and other things need to be there.
Q. What is your approach to teaching writing to your students at Princeton? Do you ever have them read your own work? How is the writing and literary environment there different from what you experienced at Yale?
A.I never have my students read my own work. I think it’s a strange thing to do. If we’re really going to discuss it or do a close reading of the text, I think they need to feel completely at liberty to do or say what they want. If it’s the professor’s work, I don’t think that’s possible. There are so many good stories and novels out there to be read. There’s no need to be focusing on mine. In the end, it’s about those discussions. My class is partly a workshop where there’s a critique of people’s weekly production. But really half the class is about close reading short stories that I assign. Really, it’s just a contemporary literature class in my view, but it’s not just to expose them to literature but also to get them in the practice of reading as a writer, rather than a critical theorist or a feminist or what have you. Our agenda is quite different from what you might get in the Lit Department.
When I was at Yale I was in the English Department. I’m not in the English Department here. We have our own little creative writing program. No one can major in what we do, and they’re selective courses. Therein is a big difference. If I were in the English Department, things would be quite similar to what I experienced back then. But I really can’t compare the two things.
Q. So there’s no creative writing concentration at all? Do students just take these classes for fun?
A. Most of the time students take them completely as electives. There are some people who want to get what’s called a certificate, and they end up writing a thesis in creative writing after taking a certain number of courses, but those people have to apply for the certificate at the end of junior year, rather than having a concentration within the English major. Our students are drawn from across all majors, which I like.
Q. “On Such a Full Sea” has been described as a dystopian novel, but from what I’ve gathered, the novel is a rather mild take on the future. What made you decide on this specific setting?
A. I never conceived of it as a dystopian novel. I thought I was writing a kind of folk tale set in the future. All these strange and bizarre things end up happening, and the society is a little warped and different, but that’s the case in a lot of folk tales. I considered it as an adventure tale about this girl who goes into a wild and odd landscape, but really also as a kind of fable about her adventures. I guess it’s been easiest to say it has a dystopian feel to it. While I can accept that notion, it’s really not how I preconceived of the book.
Q. What were your influences in creating this story and universe?
A.Probably more fables and fairytales, frankly, rather than the classical dystopian novels like “1984” and “Brave New World” and “The Road.” While I’d read those, I really didn’t have those in mind. I suppose I wanted to write a novel that was quite strange in a lot of ways.
Q. That’s funny — I was just wondering because I read a review that compared “On Such a Full Sea” to “The Hunger Games,” but that doesn’t seem like what you were going for.
A.Well, if you read the novel, you’ll see that there’s really no [connection]. Whatever is so common is so basically common that it’s not even remarkable. And the way that my book is written, I hope, is distinctive and original.
Q. You’ve been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and won many other awards. Your most recent novel has gotten glowing reviews, and I’m sure we’ll see your name on many award listings at the end of the year. I’m sure many Yalies and aspiring writers want to know how you define success, and when you think you reached it as a writer?
A.That’s a big question [chuckles]. I think it changes a little bit. When writers start out, they dream about a whole career, but they really just focus on publishing a book. A worthwhile, honest book. For a long time that was my definition of success. Once you begin to see that maybe you can have a career as a literary writer, then I think the measure changes a little bit. For me, it’s not about the prizes or anything like that. I guess I measure it when peers that I respect tell me about their appreciation of my work. That’s the most gratifying feeling. Obviously I love it when readers will email me and say that they love the book, that’s really great stuff. But what truly makes me think that I’m on the right track or maybe I’ve done good work that could last is when fellow writers and really serious readers can appreciate some particular thing that I did either in my approach or my language. It’s usually something specific that makes me feel that I’ve done something really good. But I don’t think there’s an end point where I’ll suddenly be “successful.” I really don’t accept that. Each book has seemed so difficult and mysterious and almost impossible at times. I think it’ll always be that way. Success to me is where you can stop doing what you’re doing. I don’t really think that exists in art. Maybe that exists in a Wall Street career because you’ll get a certain number in your bank account [laughs].
Q. Who are some of these peers that you speak of? Who are some writers that you respect or enjoy reading?
A.Those two groups are not the same. Time prevents me from reading all the writers that I want to read and respect. But I don’t have to look very far. At Princeton, we have an incredible department. Think about the people who teach here. From poets like C.K. Williams and Tracy Smith to my fellow fiction writers Jeff Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, I mean, those are exactly the people that I deeply respect. There are lots of people like those everywhere.