I first met Chang-rae Lee at a party to celebrate the release of On Such a Full Sea, a few months before the novel dropped. On a hotel rooftop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a view overlooking Manhattan, a few of us, including Lee, circled up to talk with cocktails in-hand. The author’s quickness and sense of humor were what struck me most upon meeting him—qualities that, when I tucked in to read his latest novel, I looked for in the work.
Lee’s dynamism is evident in Sea, but he expresses it in a wildly different way than in conversation. It’s there in the way he’s created an entirely different world, mood, and palette than in any of his previous works. It’s discernible in how he seamlessly builds a narrative structure that’s an experience unto itself, and in the tangibility of his dystopia. As I turned each page, I became more acutely aware at how powerful a mind the man behind the pen was—and is.
“I can’t feel my extremities,” I tell Lee as I walk into Midtown New York’s Korea Society to meet him for our interview. It’s twenty degrees out, and when I waddle in looking like a puffer-coat penguin, Lee is sitting comfortably in a chair at the head of the table. When I finally get settled, he says, “It’s days like this that people say, I’m buying a place in Florida! I don’t care if it’s the worst place on the planet.’” I have an iPad full of questions about Lee’s dystopia at the ready, but once we get talking about craft and the novel’s place in the mind, I don’t need to touch a single one.
And that is the Lee, I realize, that I came in hoping for in the first place.
The Rumpus: So this really took off for you, didn’t it, this book?
Chang-rae Lee: Well, I don’t know!
Rumpus: I’d say so. It’s done some pretty dynamic things.
Lee: People seem to be responding to it, which is better than nothing.
Rumpus: What about the book are people responding to the most?
Lee: Well, that’s one of the things that’s surprised me a little bit. I assumed just from being around, all these years, that people would immediately glom on to, Well, it’s a departure, and it’s a dystopian kind of thing, and that’s natural, of course. But it’s surprised me—not even surprised me, but it’s pleased me—how much people have been responding to the way the book was written.
Rumpus: The chorus of “we?”
Lee: Yeah, and the language the “we” has, and the character the “we” has. Because that was the part of the book that I didn’t plan out, but the part that I was most curious about as I was writing. You know what you’re doing, but you’re sometimes still sort of curious as you’re writing it.
Rumpus: When you talk about what people are responding to, are you referencing conversations with people, or are you talking about reviews by critics?
Lee: Conversations mostly, but also some reviews.
Rumpus: Do you read your own reviews?
Lee: I try not to, but sometimes Jynne [Martin, of Riverhead] and her crew send stuff. They only send the nice stuff. But I have gotten notes from a lot of people, both writers and friends and strangers, and I’ve been happy how they’re not focusing on the dystopian stuff. And maybe that’s because it’s me and they know me, and it’s because writers talk to each other differently.
Rumpus: What do you mean?
Lee: We can skip through a lot of the stuff people might ask about the writing of the book, and so their comments always start well, well down into the nitty-gritty.
Rumpus: The guts.
Lee: Yeah, you know, the stuff writers think about. The little moves a writer makes.
Rumpus: Do you ever talk big picture construction or plotting with writers?
Lee: No. I rarely talk about work with writers, and I love getting together with writers. I think writers are great to get together with, because we can talk about everything. I think that’s why I enjoy it. Writers tend to be pretty open-minded, and pretty profane and loose. They have fun minds.
Rumpus: Have you always surrounded yourself with writers?
Lee: Not really. It’s not that I don’t enjoy other people, but what I find with writers is this back and forth. And also, there’s no need to talk about work. Usually, when you’re talking about work with other writers it’s because something seriously bad is going on with your work and you’ve absolutely thrown out a lifeline and you’re hoping that someone will help you with something. Either there’s some bad feeling you have about the work, or sometimes it’s not specific—just kind of solidarity.
Rumpus: Has the company you keep changed over the years as your writing career has progressed? The creative company you keep?
Lee: Not really. Before I had published anything, I still hung out with people who liked to write. None of us had published, so there was no talk about the business, and there was probably a lot more angsty talk back then. But these days maybe there are some more laments about the culture, but I would say no. One of the things my friends would tell you is that I hang out with a lot of non-writers—just regular people like bankers and teachers, and I actually try to steer our talk away from my work when I get together with them.
Rumpus: When they do talk about your work, has anyone ever brought in a perspective to you that has kind of shaken the way you’ve looked at a piece you’ve written?
Lee: Not to any really influential effect, but certainly there have been comments that have surprised me. It’s surprising sometimes to get particular perspectives on your work, and it’s enlightening sometimes to know that non-writers and readers out there have certain assumptions about everything that I both want to keep in mind and want to forget about why I write, and about the connection between me as a private person and the stuff that I think about on the page.
Rumpus: Do you think the things that you think about and the things that come out on the page are always parallel, or do you keep certain things in you?
Lee: They’re not parallel at all. They’re my concerns, but how they’re expressed particularly on the page is completely divorced from who I am in my street life.
Rumpus: And that’s how you want it to be?
Lee: That’s just how it is. And maybe that’s just how I think about my work. Maybe someone’s who’s a different kind of writer [would think otherwise]—someone who’d be just as comfortable writing essays on what their novels are about. Sometimes you feel like certain novelists are like that.
Rumpus: Certain people think about their work a lot.
Lee: A lot. I think that’s great—I just try not to be one of those people. I find the more I think about it, the less free I feel when I write and when I work.
Rumpus: Between drafts, how much do you put a book aside and let it sit? How much do you think about it versus how much do you action on it?
Lee: I think the action is ninety-three percent, and the consideration is peppered throughout but pretty short… Once I start it, I feel as though I don’t want to look over my shoulder too much. I want to trust the preparations I’ve made.
Rumpus: So, you’re not the kind of writer who’s looked back on his past works and thought, Eh, I wish I’d done that differently.
Lee: No, absolutely not. I really try to forget. I only look at my old works if there’s an interview and someone asks me about it. Otherwise, it’s not even in the rearview mirror.
Rumpus: Nothing you’ve done in the past has any bearing on works that you produce now or the momentum you have going forward?
Lee: I don’t want it to. It’s just a weird idea to me because each book is a complete universe unto itself, so why would I want this other universe from this other galaxy that has nothing to do with mine? That’s how I really feel about it. Let’s be honest—I’m still the writer, so certain things will be common denominators. But that I just want to keep natural and not studied.
Rumpus: This reminds me: I was at a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez was talking about two different bodies of work—either writers who constantly write the same novel, or writers who write a totally different novel every single time, as if they’re a different author.
Lee: It is a little bit of that. Some writers are writing one great, big book and just taking all these different avenues towards it. They might seem on the outside to be different, but they’re really not. And that’s a different kind of mindset. I don’t know why it is, but I just feel like I really want to escape myself as much as I can—myself as the artist, or as the writer, or as the thinker—with each new project, because one, it’s just boredom, but also, I guess I just feel most comfortable starting a new book if I just feel a little in the dark about it. That’s more about modality than about subject matter. That’s what I was saying going back to On Such a Full Sea: the whole “we” business—it’s easy to start, but with anything that’s easy to start, you really have to start questioning, How am I going to sustain this through the whole book?
Rumpus: It’s such uncharted territory.
Lee: Yeah! And what happens to that? It’s not just a technical perspective, and that’s part of what I enjoyed about the writing of the book, and what kept me interested in the work in general.
Rumpus: Did you at any point find that elasticity too freeing? Because sometimes the constraints of perspective can be really focusing.
Lee: Yeah, I did feel a little afraid, as you say, the complete liberty and “elasticity” of it. But I found that I liked some of the things that it availed me of in terms of emotion and tonal stuff. I came to find it appealing.
Rumpus: If you divorce yourself so much from each work, how does that affect the lessons you learn from them if you’re almost too afraid to dip your toe back into that pool? You have to sort of go back into memory to take something from each.
Lee: I don’t think that stuff is gone—I just don’t want to dwell on it. There’s a difference. As I said, I think we all have tendencies as writers, and I think we all have experience that we bring as readers to each project. So my first book I had no experience having written a book, but each book is a little snapshot of who you are at that moment, accrued all through time, so I accept that. I try to be aware of what I’m concerned about, aware of how I feel about myself in the world, aware of how I feel about the issues of the day, but I guess I don’t want to write essays in my head about my craft and maybe it’s because I teach and talk about craft of other writers as a reader. I feel the moment I start doing that is when it’s going to kill me.
Rumpus: So, does that mean you’re hyper-honed-in on your craft, or hyper-divorced from it?
Lee: I think divorced from it.
Rumpus: But you’ve got the tools to be hyper-cognizant of it if you wanted to be.
Lee: I think I do, but I really try to be as free as possible.
Featured image of Chang-rae Lee © by David Levenson.