Visiting Writers’ Series: An Interview with Min Jin Lee
If one were to write a list of literary accolades for contemporary writers, it would read a lot like Min Jin Lee’s biography. Her work has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard. With her novels Free Food for Millionaires (2007) and Pachinko (2017), she has become a National Book Award finalist, runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and New York Times Bestseller, as well as nabbing spots on the top 10 books lists with the New York Times, the BBC, NPR’s Fresh Air and USA Today.
But as Lee bravely admits, her road to success was paved with a mixture of diligent work and intense self-doubt. Living in New York, but unable to justify the cost of an MFA program after her law degree, she pieced together the city’s resources into what she terms a literary “apprenticeship” of her own design. After more than a decade of study and anxiety about her decision to switch from law to a career in writing, she sold her first novel in 2006.
Lee was kind enough to answer a few questions for the American University community in advance of her visit to campus next week.
There was a moment in your essay “On Selling Your First Novel After 11 Years” that really stuck with me: the humiliation of being mocked, if indirectly, at a prestigious workshop by a young writer with a full fellowship who dismissed the “housewives who had paid full freight.” It seems like a shot of confidence came at just the right time when you had a story published in The Missouri Review—an acceptance that signaled a larger acceptance as a writer. Do you feel that things have changed since then, that doors are opening wider in terms of latecomers to the field and/or the importance of “pedigree”?
It takes a long time to learn how to write something worth reading—a very long time.
Surely, this sense of time is difficult to convey to the average reader who might pick up a novel once a year or even less frequently. What is puzzling is when we writers are less than kind to other writers who are struggling with the process of learning and eventually publishing. I don’t expect non-writers to understand or support what we are doing—what we do is so odd and private. However, I think being unkind is always unnecessary. This might seem obvious, but I hear meanness now and then when writers discuss the quality of work, and that’s too bad. Unfortunately, I think pedigree matters in writing and publishing to a certain extent. That said, every now and then, a book breaks out from seemingly nowhere, because it is worth reading, and that should give all readers and writers joy.
In your Acknowledgments for Pachinko, you write: “The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that.” You share that you rewrote the book after interviewing dozens of Koreans while living in Japan. Would you mind giving us a little more insight into that process—how one particular character, for example, or plot line changed after your experiences in Japan?
When I realized that I did not understand my characters, I had to start all over again. When one plot line changed, everything changed. This was disheartening at first, but I have come to accept that for me, revising, throwing away, and re-drafting make up the heart of the writing process. First drafts can be a challenge, because they can feel so disappointing. I enjoy revising more because I have something to work with. I love research.
As I understand it, Free Food for Millionaires was your third manuscript, and the first to be published. And as previously mentioned, you completely rewrote Pachinko. But there’s a third manuscript that you left behind. How do you make that choice to either rewrite or let a novel go? What tells you when a manuscript is worth reworking, and when enough is enough?
My first fiction manuscript called The Revival of the Senses committed the chief sin of being dull. It was competent and dry. No one would want to finish it. The fault was mine. I was overly concerned with writing an important story rather than writing a story that was important to me. That story is no longer important to me, and that is enough reason to let it go. If a story is important to you, then you must persist, I think. Nevertheless, these decisions are so very personal, and I respect the writer’s wish to let certain drafts or stories go.
You’ve already been incredibly generous with your readers in terms of sharing your personal journey, both in terms of craft and life (the trove of insight at the end of Pachinko is wonderful). That said, is there a question you wish people would ask more often?
I can’t think of anything I’d rather speak more about. Perhaps that is good. Thank you so much.
Photos: Author’s website.
Tara Campbell is a staff editor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.