Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee is the author of Free Food for Millionaires.

From an interview posted on her website:

Q: You’ve chosen to write this book showing many points of view. Is there a reason why?

More than anything, I wanted to try to write novels in the style of the ones I loved. I have always loved 19th century literature from England and Europe, and early 20th century literature from America. The books I re-read for pleasure almost always employ an omniscient narrator — either a fictive person who knows everyone’s thoughts and how the story will be told or the author himself who knows how the story ends and why. There is a godlike quality to omniscience, and it is that I am vainly approaching in story telling.

Also, I think I loved Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Thackeray, Flaubert, George Eliot, Balzac, Edith Wharton, Maughm, Dickens, the Brontes ... because they reveal marginal characters as well as the central characters. I don’t know if this is important to me, because of my own background where I have felt both marginal and central in different spaces. Obviously, none of those books featured anyone biographically like me. I wonder if George Eliot could have telescoped that someone of my background would be so inspired by her. Well, come to think of it, George Eliot could have probably anticipated anything — she was that intelligent, but in the cosmic joke of my life — among other things, that I am fortunate enough to write fiction and to write in a language that is not my first—I have learned that pretty much anything can happen. I always feel that sense of amusement in Balzac who I admire deeply for his social intelligence. He knew everything about human behavior. It’s very difficult to share what you learn and speculate only through one point of view. The omniscient point of view lends itself to far greater flexibility and spaciousness.

I feel profoundly fortunate that I have been able to finish this book and to get it published. It took twelve years for my first novel’s publication, but it could have been longer. It could easily have been never, and waiting and working can teach you a lot about chance — especially in a city where I am surrounded by many, many talented writers. I’ve been told that this book might have been finished faster if I wrote it from one or two characters’ viewpoints. I don’t know. Middlemarch, perhaps my favorite novel of all time, is about a village and its people. It has central characters, but the book would not work as a masterpiece unless it had so many strands to truly express the character of a community. I was also this affected by Sinclair Lewis’ book Main Street when I was in high school — a beautiful and important American book which I think should be picked up again. On a minor note, I am tickled by the fanciful nature of a Russian novelist including a brief line from the point of view of a dog or a horse. Too much of this may not work, but sometimes, don’t you want to know what your dog thinks about you? Just a scrap? When you write something for a long time, you have to humor yourself because there is really no other payment in sight. I think it was lucky that in my first twelve years as a fiction writer, I had the wish to learn a curious technique and to be nourished by the learning along the way.

Perhaps I am taking this space to explain the merits of an omniscient narration because though it is an unpopular way of storytelling for modern writers, it can reveal how everyone in the room is thinking about the issues and each other and themselves rather than what they are actually doing and saying. Even the people of the finest character don’t speak truthfully or act honestly all the time. It is in fiction where all the dimensions of personality and behavior might possibly be witnessed. I wanted to have a go at taking it all down.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue