“Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered is a haunting, somber, yet sometimes beautiful book,” writes PopMatters Catharine Ramsdell. Lee teaches writing at Princeton University, where he has served as the director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing. The PEN/Hemingway Award winning author (Native Speaker, 1995) talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about improvisation, the rigor of limitation, and sometimes having to take a risk.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Only one film has ever brought me to tears, and that’s Babette’s Feast. It’s known as a great “foodie” movie, which it is, as the main action presents the transformational power of exquisite cuisine, but for me it’s a film that celebrates artistic soul and integrity.
Babette prepares a wondrously luxurious meal even as it will deliver her into penury and an uncertain future, but she quietly proclaims, “An artist is never poor.” This line slayed me, as at the time I was a struggling writer with no prospects, but it girded me, too.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I’m not one to linger on the idea of “who” I am, and probably wouldn’t ever want to be like a fictional character, who if he’s interesting at all is surely damaged, deeply flawed, and probably doomed; but I suppose if I had to say, I would think that I had the temperament of a Wallace Stegner character, like Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird, a fellow who felt as if he was always observing and ruminating on the mysteries of life.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Impossible to identify the “greatest”, but I’ll name one of my rock favorites: Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd. The album is just plain cool, with its brilliant mix of synthesized music and sounds coupled with David Gilmour’s plaintive, exquisitely phrased acoustic guitar playing, which always breaks my heart.
A Gesture Life
(Penguin; US: Oct 2000)
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Definitely Star Trek, and preferably The Next Generation, a series that appeared to be written with humanities grad students in mind, as it is full of the dorky and revelatory, the brainy and cheesy, and which even managed, at its best, to achieve a certain poetry.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Lyric verse, baroque music, and traditional jazz, which are, like all true arts, lovely practices of connecting the dots, wherever they may be.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Finishing my “first” first novel, which was never published (and never will be); despite my knowing early on that it would likely not work out, I pushed on and completed it. In the process I learned one of the most important qualities of the novelist: perseverance.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Writing a good number of worthwhile, memorable novels, each one different from the last, each surprising and unlikely.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Walt Whitman, who bestowed upon perhaps every American writer after him a language of freedom, expansiveness, and soulful sensuality.
(Penguin; US: Mar 1996)
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Paradise Lost. I’m a sucker for blank verse, which seems to me the strum of the gods, and in this regard, Milton’s epic of the fall of man has no equal.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I can put together a pretty decent meal from whatever happens to be in the refrigerator and the pantry. I like the challenge of this sort of improvisation, the rigor of limitation and sometimes having to take a risk. Plus the fact that there’s no getting around the plain fact of whether it tastes good or not.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Honor what you love, whether it’s a person or vocation or idea. This from my mentor and good friend, the poet Garrett Hongo.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
An Isomac Milano espresso machine. I bought it from a coffee fanatics website. It offers me a literal shot of pure pleasure at the start of each day. I take only one cup of coffee a day, so it has to be good.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Pajamas. And not simply for sleep.
Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe I don’t like proper dress while working. I like writing in pajama-like clothing, which eases and relaxes me and allows me to connect with the decidedly improper.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
There would be many world-historical figures on my list, from Homer to Michelangelo to Martin Luther King, but the truth is my guest would be my own good mother, deceased now nearly 20 years. I would tell her, in great detail, about all that has transpired in that time, in the world and in her family, all the wondrous, glorious, confounding life.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
The beginning or end of time; I’m fascinated by what was before the dawn of existence, and what will appear afterwards. Is it a cold void? A pure, single thought? Nirvana?
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Movement, of any kind; a sprint, a longish run, a meandering walk. Then all the better if I happen to have a seven-iron in my hands.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Wine. Preferably something red and well-aged, European. Redolent of the earth, with a shimmer of the sun.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
No place is perfect but I admire Oahu for its offering of the tropical and the urban, and then its Asian-inflected culture and cuisines.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
President Obama, please don’t back away from your plans. Listen to the criticism, yes, heed your advisors, of course, but don’t swerve from your own path.
You are among the most intellectually and personally gifted politicians to have ever graced this office, so have faith in your vision. We need that vision now, desperately.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
An immigrant novel, of sorts. As with any novel you’re working on, though, one can’t bear to talk about it in detail. The more you talk, the more it fades.