Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On the Shelf with Min Jin Lee

One of the best new books of the year is Free Food For Millionaires,a first novel about how more than one generation deals with the pressures of ambition and money in New York City during the 1990's. She's no stranger to writing,having had her work showcased on NPR's Selected Shorts and included in such short story collections as To Be Real(1995)and Breeder(2001).

Min Jin received both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Prize for Fiction while attending Yale. She then went on to Georgetown University and was a lawyer practicing in New York for several years before devoting herself to writing full time. Min Jin has also been awarded the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction,the Missouri Review's Peden Prize and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Min Jin is a true lady and I was thrilled to be able to have a lovely Q and A with her,as her book is about to be released this month:

1. Free Food for Millionaires is structured like a 19th Century novel. What is it about that style of writing that appeals to you?

Nearly all of my favorite 19th century novels are written in an omniscient style—the mode of storytelling where the narrator expresses the consciousness of the central characters and the narrator may switch instantly among the characters in a scene. I also favor a realistic and traditional mode of story telling found in 19th century novels, including aspects of Aristotelian reversals, symmetries, and a unity in each plot. That sounds awfully elevated stated in that way, but simply put, I am interested in stories with a clear beginning, middle and an end where each story line is developed and completed, and where the central characters change in response to conflicts. This kind of narrative is not always popular with contemporary literary fiction writers, and I can see many reasons why, however, within the narrow prescriptions in this sort of story telling, I believe there are enormous freedoms and pleasures.

By comparison, I take comfort in the rules of a sonnet—the number of lines, the kinds of rhyme, the type of sonnets (Petrachan, Spenserian...) and the infinite variety of poems that can be written within the narrow rules of a form. I have studied the techniques of traditional story telling in the hopes of making the story almost easy to read. I worry obsessively about technique and tools and demand a great deal from each placement and change of word or idea, but I think when a reader picks up my book, she should never have to think about any of this. It’s sort of like learning recipes versus eating a cake. It is my hope that the reader can immerse herself in the story and be engaged in the narrative, characterization and plot—and enter what John Gardner calls the “dream”—and not think about this author’s self-consciousness and anxieties. Also, the 19th century novel adheres to realism in both plot and character psychology, and I admire its expansive sense of community, complex morality and its meditation and critique of politics and the economy.

2. You’ve had several short stories published; do you believe that short story writing naturally leads to novel writing?

I wrote a novel in 1996, and it was roundly rejected by very fine publishers. I wrote two other novel manuscripts in pieces, and they were never sent out, because I didn’t know how to complete them. I started Free Food for Millionaires in 2001. Throughout this time, I wrote a handful of stories which I wrote and rewrote endlessly. It’s rather embarrassing how few short stories I’ve written in twelve years, but each was rewritten in full drafts no less than a dozen times each. The drafts of one story are unrecognizable from each other, because I would re-key the entire story with each draft. Having said that, I wrote the short stories, because I was interested in learning how to write different points of view (first person as a minor character, first person as a major character, second, third limited, third omniscient...) and in learning more about plot, theme, characterization and diction. These stories and the fragmented novel manuscripts were my private M.F.A. program. I’m not a quick study, and certainly by the number of rejections I have received, it is quite clear that I am not a natural at this. But perhaps that is just as well, because I know now that I am a very stubborn person, and I have learned just how much I have wanted to learn how to write good fiction.

I’ve heard writers claim that you have to face the blank page again and again, and I think this is very true. However, you can face it with better tools, and you can face it with greater ease and recall your love of the word and the sentence and the paragraph. Sometimes, when I’m rewriting, I feel like I’m a child with a small puzzle—nothing like a box of a 1000 piece jigsaw, but something elementary like the peg puzzles of a preschooler. I try to approach rewriting with that kind of innocence, because I am hopeful that somehow the pieces have to fit—that it is do-able—and the image will emerge, and at the risk of sounding overly earnest, I find it very gratifying when I recover something I felt was lost, like the missing yet critical piece of myself.

I do not believe that short stories naturally lead to novel writing or certainly vice-a-versa if anyone wanted to make that argument. I guess I am of the opinion that they are two forms of fiction that speak to each other. There are many people who hold the view that you are one or the other (short story writer or the novelist) and somehow it is a fish or fowl dichotomy. I guess that sort of strictness makes me nervous. And the other camp which argues that stories or novels come to you in one form or the other makes me anxious as well. So much of story telling has to do with personal stamina and the interplay of idea and image, and the length bit is sort of a mystery to me. I guess I am taking a long time to say that I think you can do either if you like. Perhaps my thinking is the most conceited of all, because you can choose whichever format you want to flog yourself with, and secretly adore your misery/ecstasy. Fiction is so difficult (I don’t know anyone who says it isn’t), yet it is the only vocation I want to continue learning how to do well. The argument I am making in part with FFFM is that you need to find work in your life that is somehow worthy of your abilities. That’s painfully lofty, but I believe it. Very much.

3. Which one of the female leads in FFFM do you think is most like you, Casey or Ella?

This is a tough question, and I admire you for asking it, because no one has. I think I have Casey’s emotional roughness inside, yet my outward life resembles Ella’s more. I am married now for almost fourteen years. I met my husband when I was 22 and married at 24. I have a nine year old son who will be ten in January. I love to cook like Ella does, yet I cuss like Casey. I have such enormous sympathy for Casey’s anger and wish for autonomy. The violence of her emotional life is something I like about her. You so rarely see angry female characters, and I find that to be dishonest, because I think women are very angry, but deny it or repress it, because women’s anger is punished across cultures, classes and ages. I am 38 years old, almost 39, and I find life more amusing and sad than anything else now, and this is a surprise, because I remember being upset, angry, and hurt in my twenties, and I wanted to give that expression through fiction.

There are aspects of my biography that I gave to each of my characters male and female. I gave Casey, my childhood neighborhood and my ivy league education, but I gave Ella, my love of the domestic arts and her conventional early marriage. I don’t have Ella’s qualities of passivity and piety, yet I admire her kindness, her wish to do good in spite of having been rejected, injured and insulted. I have always believed that kindness is not just inborn, but an act of reason and will—a kind of practice or discipline. I think I am like both girls, and I am glad you gave me the opportunity to state that, because the natural assumption is that the main character is the author’s primary alterity, and I think that is rather simplistic. To be honest, I have a great deal of love and sympathy for the obvious anti-heroes, Ted and Sabine, and I think my wish to give their humanity full expression in the plot line tells on me quite a lot.

4. What are your favorite books and authors?

George Eliot: Middlemarch
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair
Sinclair Lewis: Mainstreet
Honore de Balzac: Cousin Bette, Lost Illusions
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

5. Now that Oprah’s into reading current fiction again, how would you feel is she selected your book for her club?

I would be honored.

6. Do you have any ideas for your next novel?

My third novel manuscript prior to Free Food for Millionaires is called Pachinko. It is about ethnic Koreans who live in Tokyo. An excerpt of this work appeared as a short story called “Motherland” in The Missouri Review and received the Peden Prize. I was unable to finish this novel because I couldn’t do the necessary research in Japan, but I will be moving to Tokyo at the end of August, so I will begin working on it again. It is a novel I have wanted to write since I was twenty, so I have great hopes for it, and naturally, great fears.

My thanks to Min Jin Lee,for giving me her time and thoughts for this interview. Free Food For Millionaires will be available everywhere and if you would like to know more about Min Jin and her work,please visit her official website by clicking the title link above.


Robin Brande said...

Great interview, Lady T. Another book for my list!

Daniel said...

I like her books very much and most friends of mine on EbonyFriends.com like her works too. I hope that more and more people like her and buy her books.

Pop Culture Diva said...

Clever guestions!