Books

20 Questions: Chang-Rae Lee

Photo (partial) by ©David Burnett

The award winning author of The Surrendered talks about improvisation, the rigor of limitation, and sometimes having to take a risk.

“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.

Book: The Surrendered

Author: Chang-Rae Lee

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2010-03

Format: Hardcover

Length: 480 pages

Price: $26.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lee-surrendered-cvr.jpg1. 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.

Book: A Gesture Life

Author: Chang-Rae Lee

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2000-10

Format: Paperback

Length: 368 pages

Price: $15.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lee-gesturelife-cvr.jpg4. 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.

Book: Native Speaker

Author: Chang-Rae Lee

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 1996-03

Format: Paperback

Length: 368 pages

Price: $15.00

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lee-nativespeaker-cvr.jpg9. 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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image