Boulevard Craft Interview: Min Jin Lee.
The protagonist of Lee's novel, Sunja, is a teenager when she immigrates from her tiny fishing village in Korea to Osaka, Japan. The year is 1933, and at this time Koreans living in Japan face systematic discrimination, are confined to ghettos, and watched closely by the state. One of the few jobs open to Koreans is work at pachinko parlors, which both Sunja's sons take up in very different ways to very different outcomes.
Over five hundred pages, Lee's novel tells the story offour generations of Sunja's family who, like a pachinko ball tumbling through pins, are at the mercy of forces over which they have no control: politics, history, race. One of Lee's central arguments as a novelist is that recorded history fails ordinary people by chronicling the broader forces of an era but losing track of individuals' lives.
Min Jin Lee is the author of two novels, Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko. The latter was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and named one of the top ten books of the year by the New York Times. We talked over the phone in March about Pachinko, the research that informed it, and her life since.
Boulevard: You said in the acknowledgements for Pachinko that a lot of the novel was informed by interviews you conducted in Japan. You learned a lot about the role of the Yakuza, international finance, and missionaries by talking to Korean-Japanese people. It seems pretty intuitive how that research would inform the setting for a historical novel. But what sort of role does journalistic research have in the creation of your characters' inner lives?
MJL: Journalism is a really important part of fiction writing for me. All of my fictional work depends on a great deal of fieldwork where I actually go to the place and talk to people as well as conduct extensive interviews and spend time with people who are like my characters. Let's say I was going to write about a boxer. I would not meet one boxer; I would need ten. I would go to where the boxers work and train and go to their fights.
I've noticed that sometimes what people say about people is different than how those people behave. And, also, what some people say about themselves is different than what they actually do. That's the other part. Sometimes you just have to spend a lot of time with somebody in order to understand how they operate in the world.
Boulevard: Regarding the interviews that informed Pachinko, how did you begin those conversations?
MJL: In the beginning, it was difficult to actually get the interviews because I wasn't considered as a real writer--whatever that is. I didn't have publications, so if I said I was working on a book, regular folks would be like, "Sure, you are." They had a normal skepticism, and the people I initially interviewed were doing me favors or doing favors for my friends. That was the beginning.
Now, it's much easier for me to call somebody and say, "Hey, I'm interested in educational facilities in Orange County, and I heard that you run a really good one. Can I come by and see it?" They're like, "Sure."
What allows me access is that people know that I'm writing fiction, whereas I think real journalists actually have a harder time than I do because the people they speak to might get quoted and feel more exposed. Whereas with me, someone I talk to for a book will be completely protected with anonymity. I'll cloak you in a way that you'll be utterly disguised. My readers know that even though I may have based a character on you, they wouldn't necessarily know that it's you, and they can't prove it, and I would have to deny it.
The people that I wrote about [in Pachinko], especially because they are composite characters, the sources that I talked to don't even recognize themselves.
Boulevard: The last author we interviewed for Boulevard was Jane Smiley. Talking about literary nonfiction, she said that in her mind nonfiction is true in the sense that it actually happened but it's not complete. Whereas fiction is complete, but it's not true. She said fiction was complete because it is the only way you can really fully convey someone's totality, their outer and their inner lives.
MJL: I agree with that so much. Because there's so much that we can't say or there's so much that we can't say accurately about our experience for fear of hurting somebody, or because we may want to hurt somebody or something. Our desires are often complicated and embarrassing. When 1 observe how people behave in meetings, for instance, or with the most intimate person that you have in your life, I often notice the discrepancy between feeling versus behavior, between truth and what our words can do. There's so much limitation in the way we relate to each other, and I think fiction allows us to enter the spaces that can't be articulated in real life.
I find it to be very freeing for me, whereas I think some writers find that to be very inhibiting. I don't really know what to say about that. But I feel most free in fiction because I come from a culture where so much is unsaid.
Boulevard: Can you expand on that just a little bit?
MJL: Yeah, sure, absolutely. Fiction allows me to give voice to ideas that are difficult to say in public. That's something I feel like I need to do. I've been in meetings, for example, where I'm so astonished by the lack of truth, and I keep thinking, like, we all know that this isn't true, but we're all afraid to say something because the person who's in charge might get upset. A comment will be held against us or some truth should not get exposed because it will be misinterpreted. I mean, I face it every single day, and so do you, right?
And there's a space for this kind of reality in fiction, and because I do omniscient narration, I'm allowed to enter into every single person's point of view. I give myself that freedom, which I don't have in life. In real life, I can't say everything.
Boulevard: You get asked a lot about your omniscient narration, so I only have one question about it. How much of your energy in writing a novel like Pachinko goes into staring at sentences and making sure that the right words and thoughts and perceptions are attributed to the right person? That must be a never-ending process of checking and rechecking. Or maybe it gets easier?
MJL: I think that's a really important question because as writers we are in the weeds, right? One of the things that I will say is that my initial draft is messy, and I like it. I just want to give myself the permission to be messy and to be wrong. Then, as I keep going through the revision process, the words come, and it's much easier to just tell yourself it's going to take a while, and you're not going to do it very well, and you might get better, but you might not. I give myself the freedom to be bad. And, gradually, I notice that it gets better and cleaner the more often I do it.
I've decided this about my career: I'm not going to write that many books.
MJL: But I am going to write books over and over again, and I do. By the time it gets to you, that book has had twenty-five, thirty drafts. By the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth time, I did it the right way. I know it's going to be difficult, and I know it's going to take a long time, and I think, once I accept that, the expectations shift because I want to have more fun. There's so little acknowledgement, recognition, glory, money, status in writing fiction right now in America. I have to have joy when I make things, and I can't make it heavier than it needs to be. When you put expectations on your page from external sources, then it becomes painful and difficult and unenjoyable. Even when I have an editor or an agent, no one cares about that page more than me--nobody.
Even readers, a reader could read your book in five days or three days when you've spent twenty-five years writing it. So when you're working for the twenty-five years, you have to find great joy in what you're doing. When I teach writing, I'm always trying to figure out how I get more freedom to the writer who's in front of me because he's suffering.
Boulevard: Why is he suffering?
MJL: Usually, it's not the storytelling that causes the suffering; it's usually the external world and what that means. It's expectations or the carelessness of people who don't understand what you're doing.
Boulevard: In Pachinko, there are so many things that are not on the page: people's deaths, courtships, and big events in history and in your characters' lives. How do you sort out what to keep in, what to keep out, what can be said in like a sentence, and what needs to be a whole chapter?
MJL: I think it's such an important question because it's story editing, right? Because that's what you're talking about. We're not talking about sentence editing at this point but about what's important and what's not.
Everything has to be justified. If it's not justifiable, then I don't think you should put it in because I always go with the assumption that the reader is brilliant. Not all writers believe that, but I do because good readers catalogue what they're reading because of all the patterns they have in their heads. So you don't have to give a reader everything they know; they can fill in the blanks for you. If it's boring for them, that's the death of that book. You can't bore your reader. If someone gives you ten minutes, you better be useful with those ten minutes, and in order to be useful, you have to give education plus the pleasure, but it can't be just pleasure, and it can't just be education.
Boulevard: That makes me think of when a chunk of a novel is set in a far flung, fun to-write-about setting. It can feel like the writer chose that setting just because rather as service to plot or character. Readers are able to sniff that out.
MJL: Oh, yeah. It's called a novel for a reason. It must feel new.
Boulevard: A few weeks ago at a museum, a friend pointed out that very rarely do you see teeth in painted portraits of people. And that's because teeth are hard to render in a way that looks natural. I was wondering is there any analogy here to the novel? Anything the novel is not so great at conveying and therefore rarely does?
MJL: What a great question.
Boulevard: I know it's putting you on the spot a little bit.
MJL: No, no, no, I don't feel that way. I actually like this question. I think sex is among the hardest. Friendship is still rarely well done in novels, too. And they're both forms of intimacy, right? One is a physical manifestation and the other one is an intimacy between two people that is platonic. Intimacy is difficult to convey in general, and when you do it in drama it can seem dull or mechanical. So it has to be very precisely done. I really think friendship is harder to write about than sex actually.
Boulevard: Throughout Pachinko we spend so much time with Sunja, from girlhood to old age. Throughout her life she's so many different people in a way that's universal. But who did Sunja come to you as? In the earliest incarnation of her in your imagination, how old was she? What stage of her life was she at?
MJL: Well, this is an excellent question because it shows just how badly I was working on this book, and by badly I mean I didn't understand the book until I wrote a second full draft. The first full draft that I wrote was between 1996 and 2003, and in it Sunja does not even exist. The main character in that first version is the character Solomon who's basically about five percent of the book Pachinko.
I started to realize that Solomon doesn't make any sense until you look at the first generation [to immigrate to Japan], and that was his grandmother. When I started looking at all these grandmother characters, I thought to myself that these grandmothers didn't come to Japan as grandmothers, they came as young women. And then I realized, Oh, my God, I have to write about a young woman who came to Japan. I thought, Oh, my goodness, that means that I need to write almost sixty years of history, which is a lot of wars in Asia, a lot of political calamity--and I needed to understand it.
Because I had been trained in history in college, and because I was a lawyer, I approached all this with a very strong sense of sobriety, like I can't mess this up. I needed to learn so much to understand the architecture of history in order to place this young woman in it. I didn't think I was writing a historical novel; I just thought I was writing a novel, and it has to be politically and historically accurate. I got really overwhelmed; I got so overwhelmed because I'd thought I was going to write fiction. What happened? I just decided that, again, I was going to take a long time. That book took forever. It really took forever.
Boulevard: I can imagine that: the opening up of the story and the scope and everything. Wow, that must have been daunting.
MJL: And kind of a bummer because I thought I was going to be done faster. I quit being a lawyer in 1995, and I'd gotten the idea for this book, or I learned about the Korean-Japanese people, when I was 19, which was 1989. So most of my life I had been obsessed with learning about this community and about these people and also about the feelings that happen when people hate you. What do you do when people hate you? You don't want to walk around angry all the time; you don't want to walk around feeling unworthy all the time. I thought, well, how do I make a story about that? Because that's a situation. But then what's the story?
Boulevard: Right now there's a conversation about writers staying in their lane, not writing too far outside their own experience. Where do you come down on that?
MJL: I think that everybody should be able to write what they want to write about. It would be a shame if we lost a book because people felt self-conscious about writing it. That said, I think we can all agree that writing outside of your experience will take more time; it'll take more care, but I don't think people shouldn't do it.
Boulevard: It's safe to say that Pachinko really broke through in a way that only a few books do every year. I know a lot of people who don't necessarily stay up on literary fiction who have Pachinko on their nightstands. How has having a book like that changed your writing process and your life? You alluded to this when you talked about how the journalistic aspect of your work is easier now that you're established.
MJL: I had people contact me, like, I've had world leaders contact me. That's been weird.
I've had a lot of journalists contact me, people I really admire, and a lot of academics, too. These worlds I really admire and try to emulate--the academy and journalism. These people who do the work that I kind of do as a wannabe, in my capacity as a fiction writer. The fact that they respect my work and I respect theirs, that's been incredibly gratifying. And political leaders have contacted me. That's been really interesting, too, because they've all said they were able to learn this history in this way, in a personal way for them, and so I think, my sense of social activism was very gratified.
I do see myself as a very political person. I'm not political in a conventional way, like you're not going to see me on Twitter saying things that should be said. I'm not against Twitter, by the way. I learn a lot from Twitter, and people who write well on Twitter have a gift of economy. I'm going to say my politics in my fiction because I want very much to persuade people in my limited way. I need more time to say the things I want to say to you. I think that the way I could do it best is through my fiction, which means paradoxically that I can't be didactic. I need to be persuasive through empathy, to humanize these characters that are so often dehumanized. We're able to have wars against people because we believe that they're not human. The chief crux of what I'm trying to do is to humanize Koreans, and that means that they're not perfect, but I want you to see them in all the rooms in their lives.
That means showing them throughout the rooms of their time and space, and their time and space must have a sense of twentieth-century history as well as twenty-first century. My next book is about the twenty-first-century lives of Koreans and their places in the world. I want to show how much they want to be global citizens, and I believe they want to be global citizens by mastering a global education. I have an argument about that, I think. I'm working that out.