Monday, March 15, 2010

Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. His new novel is The Surrendered.

From his Q & A with James Mustich:

JM: [The Surrendered is] 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...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue