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An Interview with Min Jin Lee

“IF YOU SHOW UP EVERY DAY, KEEP YOUR WORD, BE SOMEBODY WHO HAS DIGNITY IN THE WAY YOU COMPORT YOURSELF, THAT’S QUITE ASTONISHING.”

by Alexis Cheung
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Min Jin Lee

“IF YOU SHOW UP EVERY DAY, KEEP YOUR WORD, BE SOMEBODY WHO HAS DIGNITY IN THE WAY YOU COMPORT YOURSELF, THAT’S QUITE ASTONISHING.”

by Alexis Cheung
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Min Jin Lee

Alexis Cheung
5 Snaps

What truly matters? It’s a deceptively simple question, one with no uniform answer, that has served as a mantra of sorts for author Min Jin Lee. When we spoke by phone in July 2018, she didn’t say this outright, but over one year later, the question’s impact on her life still feels palpable to me.

Originally born in Seoul, Lee immigrated to Queens, New York, in 1976, when she was seven years old. A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, she majored in history at Yale University, where she won the Henry P. Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction, before attending Georgetown Law. In 1995, Lee abandoned her law career—and with it security, health insurance, and a steady paycheck. Her risk assessment was simple. After chronic liver disease tested her mortality, she realized, “If I’m going to die, what do I want to leave behind?”

The answer for her was writing, specifically about the Korean diaspora. Lee determined her mandate by considering this foil question in equal measure: What is superfluous? Upon examination, her assessment included success, money, glory, fame: all those things our society lauds. Instead she prioritized good health, interpersonal relationships, inhabiting one’s gifts, and pursuing one’s calling. For the last twenty-four years, she’s done exactly that.

Although Lee’s success now feels inevitable, she struggled for eleven years. In an essay for Literary Hub, she wrote about two failed manuscripts, the shame and financial stress of writing fiction, and the eventual sale of her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires (2007), which became a national best seller. Then, of course, there’s her historical novel, Pachinko (2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, was deemed one of The New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2017,” and was optioned for a TV show by Apple last year.

Although she didn’t invoke this reference, Lee’s insistence on purpose felt similar to Annie Dillard’s in The Writing Life: “Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.” Like Dillard, Lee advocates for a creative life in pursuit of rewards beyond earthly riches.

Although both Lee and I live in New York City, we spoke by phone. Understandably, her time is scarce. When we spoke last summer, she was supported by two fellowships in fiction: one from the Guggenheim Foundation and the other from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. From the moment Lee answered my call, an easy intimacy ensued. We spoke for nearly two hours, engaged in the kind of conversation you walk away from with calm clarity, despite knowing the world revolves in an uncertain blur.

—Alexis Cheung

I. “HIGHLY SEDUCTIVE PEOPLE”

THE BELIEVER: You mentioned that you’ve been working all day.

MIN JIN LEE: Yes, I have two fellowships right now, which means that I have to rent my place and move all of my stuff by the end of August. It’s a big change for me. I’ve never been funded before, and people actually expect me to finish a book and everything.

BLVR: That sounds nerve-wracking to me.

MJL: I’m almost fifty, and I’m mostly amazed by these things now. However, I know this about myself: I finish things. Most people can’t start things or most people can’t finish things, but if you can start something and finish something, you’re going to be fine. As for status, riches, fame, and splendor? Those are out of reach for everybody. If any of those elements happens at some point, then you kind of look at it for what it is. I think good health is very important. I think being kind is very important. That doesn’t sound like a writer; sorry.

BLVR: I once said to a writing professor: “The beginnings and endings of things are easy, but what about the middle?” You’re saying if you can start, great; if you can finish, even better. What about that middle part? That’s the slog, right?

MJL: That’s actually the vital part, because I think that’s when you show up. Showing up every day and having integrity about the way you live your life: that’s really the magic, because the ending and the beginning and the expectation and the outcome—all that stuff is nonsense. It really is. I know so many people who work really hard and don’t get those things. If you show up every day, keep your word, be somebody who has dignity in the way you comport yourself, that’s quite astonishing. In New York City especially, I meet a lot of people who I call “HSPs,” or “highly seductive people.” They’re very alluring, but you’ve got to watch out because they might not share your values.

BLVR: How did you figure out your own integrity and keep yourself from becoming one of these people?

MJL: Well, I never felt alluring. I never had the skill set to be an HSP. I live a very quiet life, and I like it. Whenever I have to go out and be social, I’m aware of the fact that it’s not normal for me. I feel overwhelmed by social engagement and the public world. I can do what I need to do, mostly; however, I am an introvert who can function at a professional level. Research interviews, public events, and meetings—I do them because it’s part of my work, and I try to be helpful. I am heart-attack serious about my work and being aware of other people’s talents, time, and labor. What’s also important to me is being helpful or useful. I don’t like waste. I want to be aware of the opportunities given. Otherwise, it’s just grandiosity. I want to write about the world, and even though it’s not easy for me, I need to be a part of it.

BLVR: As you’re working on your third novel, American Hagwon, how would you define your body of work?

MJL: It’s part of my diaspora trilogy, which is called The Koreans, and it explores the effect of the diaspora on the Korean people and the impact Koreans have on where they settle. The first book [Free Food for Millionaires] is about Koreans in America: it studies class and race and money, and what it means to have certain kinds of ambition when the rules are unclear on how to succeed. My second book [Pachinko] is about Koreans in Japan: it’s about finding a home when you literally experience expulsion and migration because your nation has been colonized. And the third book, American Hagwon, is focused on what is most important to Koreans around the world. I want to understand what thematically unifies Koreans who have experienced diaspora. For me, the answer is education. It’s the thing Koreans care about more than anything, so the locus of that book will be the tutoring center that a Korean American woman and man own together as partners, and also about the tutors, the students, and the parents. It’s also about the boardinghouses that are for parachute children. You know about parachute kids, right?

BLVR: Can you refresh my memory?

MJL: Parachute kids are dropped off by their parents in a foreign country in order to learn—usually in some Anglophone country like Australia, the Philippines, the US, New Zealand, Ireland, England. Usually the home country is some Asian country, like China, South Korea, Taiwan, India. Then you also have the “wild geese” phenomenon, where the father stays home and the mother and the child live somewhere else for the purposes of education. You have all this diaspora caused by political persecution and colonization, then you have this postcolonial development of separated families and diaspora as a result, which requires mastering a Western education, so I’m writing a novel about that. After I finish, I’m going to go to Disneyland.

BLVR: Which one, though?

MJL: You tell me. [Laughs] I will say, I’ve never been institutionally supported before in this way, and I’ve never had so many people thinking I could do this. I guess it may seem like pressure, but it also feels like permission. It took me only twenty-
four years to get here, but whatever.

BLVR: Did you know it would be a trilogy? Or did you realize after finishing the books that they’re linked?

MJL: I don’t think I realized until I finished Pachinko that there would be these three books connected by diaspora. I’m profoundly interested in diaspora and what it means to all of us. Because diaspora is going to be the permanent human condition. Geography keeps changing and national boundaries are growing more permeable. Even if we’re not moving around, even if we’re not scattered, we’re interacting with people who are. Diaspora becomes something we have to understand.

 

II. “WHENEVER THE EGO STARTS TO SURGE, MY WRITING SUFFERS.”

BLVR: Everything that’s happening with immigration right now confirms your thesis. In our country, everything is so shocking that almost nothing seems shocking anymore.

MJL: Which is not good for us as writers, right? We need to be really sensitive to everything, so I’m aware of that.

BLVR: How do you deal with that: staying sensitive to everything?

MJL: I take the long view of history even though certain things are shocking to me now. There is a long history of nativism, and there is a history of racism and sexism. All of those things have been there and are here, so what are the strategies of resistance? I try very hard to be an activist in my own way. Everything I write about is very political, but in the frame of an old-fashioned social-realist novel. In my fiction, I think you will see all of the different sides presented in a human way because I care about people with whom I disagree. I can’t just cut people off because I disagree with them politically.

BLVR: When you take the long view of history but all of these atrocious things are happening in the world, how do you fix them or make them better? Can you do that through writing?

MJL: I believe that my interpersonal behavior matters. I want to bring light and utility and service to my interactions. Also, I want to find joy. Some people are so full of joy. You can find joy in moments, and that’s very important. And, of course, working on the things that I feel called to do, which is writing and being of service to my readers.

BLVR: Personally, the ego part of writing drove me for a really long time. How did you come to the realization that writing was a service for you? And did you encounter ego-driven impulses to write earlier in your career?

MJL: Whenever the ego starts to surge, my writing suffers. It’s not that I don’t have ego and I don’t have vanity. I have lots of vanity. Because I failed for such a long time and I failed so publicly and I failed financially, my attitude is: I must like this thing called writing. I must like it enough to stay with it, because I’m probably not good enough at it. And I wanted to get better.

I also don’t know anyone who is writing what I write, so clearly, I’m in my own little hell. [Laughs] But the two things I wanted to do very much were these: I wanted to take on the mantle of writing a social-realist novel, and I wanted to do it in a way that was fun. I wanted it to be entertaining as well as edifying. And I didn’t want these things any less the more I worked; I wanted them more. After a decade, I was pretty sure I would never get the recognition. After two decades, I was 99 percent sure that nobody gives a shit about this, but I thought, You care so much that you’ve actually walked away from a real job with health benefits to do this. So then go do it. And after you finish, if you can’t afford to do it anymore, go do something else. After I finished Pachinko, I thought I’d place it with some third-tier academic press and they would publish it without paying me since the topic was so weird, and I would just take some other job. Probably not writing related, because it would just be too heartbreaking. So much of my life has been heartbreaking about the thing that I love. So I focused on: How do I make this interesting? How do I make joy from the fact that I’m allowed to play in these pages? I think playing is really important.

BLVR: Now you really don’t sound like a writer.

MJL: What’s really freeing about not being around other writers is that I don’t have anyone telling me, You should have done it this way. Instead, I would read a lot of books I really liked and work toward those examples. The fact that I wanted to do omniscient narration—that’s bizarre. MFA programs don’t advise that.

BLVR: How do you endure failure, rejection, and isolation in your attempt to create a vision only you can see? I know you’ve had a makeshift MFA program, because you’ve taken classes at the 92nd Street Y. Could you speak about craft, how you’ve created your own syllabus, and how that informed your oeuvre?

MJL: I really loved reading old-fashioned books. Tell me a book that’s as good as House of Mirth or as good as Middlemarch or Anna Karenina. Even An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser or Sister Carrie. You read the Odyssey because every writer is obsessed with going home. You take these books and you read them and go “Holy shit” every time. I’m judging the [2018] National Book Award for Fiction, and what’s amazing about having read the classics is that I can see the original template. You have to figure out the originals. If you read those originals really, really well, you’re going to be in pretty good shape at identifying patterns. So that’s worth doing, I think.

When I look back on my old self, I can make fun of the fact that I didn’t know how to do certain things, but I don’t diminish my intentions. I think I’ve always had very good intentions about the stuff I wanted to write about. I wasn’t seeking fame, fortune, and glory. I wanted to write about things that mattered to me. Because a lot of things really upset me about life. I see so much inequity and unfairness. I see so many hurt feelings. Every day I see hurt feelings. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a global problem, but it is a global problem, because if you take a large community and put a geographic border around it containing all those hurt feelings, then suddenly you have a wish for war. But in terms of enduring, oh boy. That’s tough. That’s really, really tough because not everyone gets their due. Sometimes the most sensitive and the most talented among us are the most vulnerable. It’s not just a matter of grit and working hard. Sometimes people need more protection, and they don’t have that.

BLVR: For those wildly talented and deserving writers who haven’t received their due, is there anything you would say to them or want them to know?

MJL: I think I would love to see people manage their expectations. It’s absolutely possible to be published. Absolutely possible to have fifty readers, a hundred readers, even a thousand readers. But for you to become a New York Times best seller or have a book that sells several hundred thousand copies or a million copies or whatever? That level requires a lot of institutional effort and readers who want to share it. Your book can have all the corporate support you wish for, but if the reader didn’t love it, it’s not going to keep going. That’s almost impossible to predict. Once you understand the arbitrariness of it, you can’t blame yourself. But the whole game of publishing has changed so much that I’m not quite sure how to navigate that. One of the things I’ve seen in MFA programs is that the kids have to suffer so much about all this business stuff. And it’s quite contrary to art, I think.

You’re exposed to all this glitter and dishonesty in New York. There’s a lot of hurt feelings about money, and we have to carry with us all those hurt feelings about being diminished or being treated badly because someone does have money. It goes the other way too. It’s not that if you’re poor you’re necessarily virtuous. And it’s not that you lack virtue if you have money, but there’s a discussion about money that doesn’t exist right now in making art, and I find that to be troublesome, because money is a barrier. Whenever I meet young people who want literary success, I say to read Lost Illusions by Balzac. Do not end up like the main character, but be aware of the incredible meanness of people who are star-makers and star-fuckers. That’s always existed, and money has always been an obstacle to making art. It’s not a new thing.

 

III. “THE BOOK IS NOT REDEMPTION. IT WILL NOT SAVE YOU.”

BLVR: When you say there’s this conversation about money that isn’t being had in the context of making art, what is that conversation specifically?

MJL: That you need money and you need time and you need to have connections to get certain fellowships. If you’re working as a writer, that takes creative effort too. When I was a lawyer, I was so burned-out when I came home. Something’s going to have to give if you want to write, whether that’s your social life or exercise or whatever. You’re going to have to dedicate the morning hours or the evening hours, but also because you want it. I wanted to work on my manuscripts. They were fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk to writing students who can’t finish their manuscripts, I tell them it’s sort of like having an affair. If you have to have forbidden sex, for whatever reason, your manuscript should be like that: it should be the most luscious, high-hanging fruit, for which you are willing to give up almost everything, including your integrity. Does that make sense? Something for which you would be willing to be publicly flawed, have a letter A branded on your chest. It should be tantalizing enough to risk all the things that are horrible and punitive about having that affair. Whenever you’re working on a manuscript that doesn’t have that kind of appeal, you’re working on the wrong manuscript. Otherwise you have to ask yourself: Why do I want to finish it? Do I want to finish it because I want to publish it and have a book party? Terrible reasons. That’s not going to make you get up in the morning. Not every day.

BLVR: What was your reason for waking up?

MJL: Oh, I love my books. I love my manuscripts. I love the things that I’m interested in writing about. I really wanted to understand money and class. I was obsessed with trying to understand how power works in America. That was my first book, and that was worth looking like an idiot to most people for, because I was like, I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to understand what social status is, what social anxiety is, what it means to go to a fancy school but then you don’t really belong there. What does it mean not to have poise and understand sophistication and that level of playbook class and ease? In my second book, I wanted to understand what it means for people to decide they’re home at last. It’s always been important to me, this sense of belonging and not belonging. I found these characters, and I wanted to stay with them. I had great joy in writing those scenes. I think you can tell how much fun I have while I work. Even when it was upsetting, I was involved in the architecture of the thing and that engaged me fully. Novels can really engage the maker in a very full way, and if they do, then I think they can create pleasure for the reader too. And I care very intensely about my readers’ pleasure. And mine.

But also I want people to know that the book is not redemption. It will not save you. It will not fix your life. It will not solve problems. If you’re seeking that redemption, then you have to ask yourself why you’re doing this.

 

IV. SIXTEEN HOURS

BLVR: You’ve said that if you’ve done your job well then the reader changes as a result of reading the book. But how does writing change you—especially if the book isn’t redemption? Something must happen when you finish a book where you’re no longer the same person who started it.

MJL: I think I have a lot more compassion for most people because I am attempting to fully imagine their lives. As a fiction writer, my job is to fully realize their lives. If you think about class-
ism or racism, it’s really just a failure of imagination: someone can’t figure out what you’re feeling, and they can’t figure out what it’s like to be you in that situation. I can always tell when I meet a person who has true empathy—usually, she or he has extraordinary imagination.

Recently I read a good book by a talented writer, and all of her Asian characters were pathetic. They were ornamental dressing in her scenes and very device-y, yet all the white characters were fully realized. Isn’t it interesting that this writer is so talented and yet refuses to fully inhabit the lives of her ethnically Asian characters? I think her work would have had far greater power if only she had used her imaginative gifts for all of her characters. Even though writers of color can feel marginalized, in many ways we can have more scope in what we can imagine because we’ve been given this primarily Western, white education. Marginalized people and minorities are forced to have multiple perceptions and multiple identities—they can conflict or they can expand our points of view. That said, I have noticed that some writers of color write better white characters than characters with whom they share ethnicity—I don’t think we can make simple assessments based on a writer’s identity. Everyone can be limited, and everyone can be less so. I think enlarging one’s perception takes work and some portion of humility.

BLVR: One of the questions I was going to ask was about the role of whiteness in your books and process.

MJL: I write stories where whiteness is not the center. I think that when you are not white in America, you are not at the center. Asians definitely aren’t at the center: they’re not even part of the binary of black and white. If you’re Latinx or Asian or Native American, you’re on the fringes. In my little space, in my pages, I want to be the center. I’ve met Asian Americans who come to my readings and will break down in tears. I tell them, “I wrote this for you. I want you to know that I see you because I see myself.” Maybe it’s crazy that I say this, but I see how much we can suffer when we believe that we deserve to remain in the margins. My education didn’t put me at the center, and I don’t have to accept that this should be true. To say that I am at the center of my narrative is not to say I am more important than anyone else. No. I am saying that I am equal to all who are in the world; I am saying that I am no less a person than anyone else. I am correcting this failure in my Western education in my writings.

BLVR: During a reading you gave, you said that you wrote Pachinko for the women you were interviewing in Japan, who were illiterate and uneducated. In a lot of ways, the success of your novel ended up being in your hands because you chose whom you wanted to speak to, and that was everyone, if that makes sense.

MJL: I’ve met many people who are poor and illiterate, and they’re brilliant. They don’t have access to the same social or power spheres as we do, but it doesn’t take their intelligence away. I’ve also had access to many elite people, so I’m at the point where I know a lot of this is external rubbish, and I decided that if I was going to walk away from money and status and power and all of those things, then I might as well choose something that makes me feel like my work matters. My books matter to me enormously, and if they matter to somebody else, I’m incredibly grateful, because to get a reader’s time is quite a gift. It’s not the fact that somebody spent $15 on your book, because people spend $15 on two cups of coffee. I get paid something like $1.15 for every paperback sold. I could clean houses and make more money, but when someone says, “I spent fourteen to sixteen hours with you and it gave me something,” I’m blown away, because to get sixteen hours of anybody’s time is quite extraordinary.

BLVR: Earlier, you were talking about a book you were reading and how its Asian characters felt so unrealized. What are the antidotes to that in fiction? Or a way into characters’ interiority?

MJL: I think if you write about people of color in your work, you’re going to have to do something really radical, which is to assume they’re human. I say this because so often people of color, especially those who are poor and powerless, are seen and described and written about in inhumane terms. So when we see that all people are deeply human, this is a radical, nothing short of revolutionary gesture. Again, I want to reiterate that people of color can also write two-dimensional characters of color. We can all be dumb as posts. But here’s the rub: if we do this, our art will suck, and eventually no one will read it. That’s the other problem with racism: it disempowers art.

BLVR: Before we started this conversation, I was reviewing my questions, and I was thinking about how I didn’t want to talk about the burden of representation. I didn’t want to have to talk about how race influences our writing.

MJL: Why?

BLVR: Not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I wish it wasn’t necessary. There are so few minority writers within the published English-American canon of writers. We’re not asking white authors how their race has influenced their work or to explain themselves in the same way.

MJL: I have a lot of questions, and I’ve always felt embarrassed about having all these questions, but they haven’t gone away. I think negotiating your race and gender is difficult. And negotiating parenthood is difficult. If I have strategies for dealing with any aspects of those things, or even aspects that have intersections of those things, I think for me, the political gesture of equality and liberation is to share those strategies. It’s not to say, Don’t ask me. I don’t believe that. For example, I’ve had people in publishing tell me that I’m not Asian enough or I’m too Asian. Obviously, these are confusing things to hear. As a fellow writer who has Asian ethnicity, if that happens to you, you can think: OK, that happened to Min Jin Lee too. And then maybe you’ll think, That’s not my problem; it’s somebody else’s problem. In that sense, in the sense that I think we need to share plans and strategies and feelings, I’m an old-school, consciousness-
raising person. I believe in collective engagement. I am not very interested in rugged individualism.

Earlier, you had asked about enduring. Enduring requires community, collectivism, organization, and it also requires fun. We have to have some fun while we’re together. And it’s OK to prefer each other now and then. My goal isn’t to have everything that a rich white man has. It’s not. Not even close. What I want is to be fully me, with everything I am, and not to be limited. A lot of women of color leave feminism because they think all feminists care about is having everything that powerful white men have. No: that’s ridiculous. There are a lot of cool things Asian American women have; I want to keep them. But there are also difficulties. Because for Asian American women, or people who are ethnically Asian, there are obstacles when it comes to art. I’m not going to lie to you and say those don’t exist.

V. POWERBALL

BLVR: We were talking about enduring in a writing sense, but endurance feels like a very defining characteristic of your female characters and of Asian American women generally. I’m thinking specifically of my father’s mother, who worked after her husband died.

MJL: And she worked to take care of whom?

BLVR: She had four children.

MJL: Oh my goodness. What did she do?

BLVR: When she first moved, she worked in a fun noodle factory in the early morning and a restaurant in the evenings. Later, she ended up working in a manapua factory in Hawaii.

MJL: And she did that raising four children? That’s so amazing.

BLVR: And despite everything, she wanted to work the entire time. She was never like, Woe is me.

MJL: Well, because her life had purpose. Sometimes with all of our education and abilities and gifts and talent, we forget what our purpose is, and sometimes that’s when we can get confused and depressed and sad. Connection with your purpose—whether it’s survival or flourishing or sacrificing for the next generation—is a very powerful engine. I think you were being a bit hard on yourself earlier for being a young writer and just having ego. It’s not just ego. Sometimes what you feel is a mandate. A historical mandate. I could feel the mandate of your grandmother to me, and she’s not even my relation! I didn’t have these opportunities. What are you going to do? You’re right, Grandma. I didn’t have those things, so I have to do something. I have to do whatever it is I’m qualified to do, because of those sacrifices. So what is your purpose? Maybe it’s not to go to some fancy college and be a prizewinning person. That’s the whole model minority schtick. I didn’t write to impress anyone. I did it for me. I did feel this sense of mandate for my purpose, because I was sick for a really long time, and I thought I was going to die really young. I thought, If I’m going to die, what do I want to leave behind? And that’s the same kind of mandate that pretty much every human being feels if you’re aware of your mortality. I think if you can connect your purpose and sense of that historical mandate with something that gives you great pleasure, that’s the powerball, man. That’s winning.

You’re really lucky, and I’m really lucky, too, in that we have ancestors who are so badass. That’s badass to me—selling manapua and working in a restaurant and taking shit from other people and still raising four kids. And knowing, Hey, I showed up. I did not drop the ball. She deserves a trophy, right?

BLVR: I believe that more and more. Recently I asked if she could write down the names of her family members in Cantonese, and she said, “I’m not educated. I can try, but I don’t really know how,” which was shocking to me. I’ve had all of this education and been fortunate enough to have been published in these widely circulated publications. It humbles you.

MJL: I always think about the mastery of language and how that’s connected to power. A lot of people talk about the worthlessness of an English major, and I always think, You couldn’t be more wrong. Because if you can master the English language, you can control the world. Because the people who control the world actually control the language. And the language that’s most important in the world, whether you like it or not, is English.

Just recently, I had something in The New York Review of Books. When it was published, I remember thinking, Wow, I have done this. I have fucking done this. And I’m almost fifty. It took almost a lifetime of knowledge to make those ideas and then to make those thematic connections and then to make those sentences—and then to assert those ideas as mine. Above all else, to be published in those types of publications takes courage and audacity. You know, I would love to know how many Asian American women have been published in The New York Review of Books. I’d love to know that. Only because in order to be published there, you have to be willing and able to believe: My ideas are that important. And they’re original and interesting, so there.

All this to say, it takes confidence, and that’s not something you or I were given to drink every morning when we were growing up. How does that happen? I know how I did it: I did a lot of homework. I still feel like I have to earn my way to be on that panel, to give that speech, to write that book. By the time I’ve done all that homework, I think, Go ahead: Give me a fucking shot. I’m ready. There’s that ridiculous mentality of: I have to be more excellent. It took me a really long time to think that my ideas were so valuable that they should be shared with other people. I don’t want that to happen to you. I would want you to feel really confident of your ideas today, right now. I wouldn’t want you to wait until you’re forty-nine.

BLVR: You talk a lot about your research, and obviously Pachinko required loads of it. What is your approach?

MJL: I research so much, it’s baffling. It gives me a sense of authority. If you read my work, there’s a tone where the narrator knows. I try not to be obnoxious about it, but I want you to feel calm because I know the beginning, the middle, and the end, and that there’s going to be a sense of moral purpose in this work. But I have to know my stuff and my people really well. That requires me to take classes, requires me to interview, requires me to travel. It requires me to read all the secondary materials and primary materials I can. For my first book, I took a class at FIT for a whole semester to learn about millinery, and I went to Harvard Business School, where I interviewed a lot of people and pretended to apply.

BLVR: Really?

MJL: At HBS, I sat through a class and an admissions lecture, then later I interviewed half a dozen HBS graduates to understand this one character, Ted. I knew his strengths, obviously, but you have to understand your character’s kryptonite. And it was helpful to have met so many people who seemed utterly invulnerable. I like research; it allows me to ask questions. I’m not the kind of person who would approach another person without a sense of consent and purpose. So I would have to ask: “Is it OK for me to speak to you? Are we allowed to talk about certain things?” I don’t record our conversation. I take handwritten notes. I love studying people’s physicality.

BLVR: What about that interests you?

MJL: I think how you conduct yourself in your body says a lot about how you feel. Because what you say doesn’t match what you feel very often. It doesn’t mean that everybody is lying: it means that there’s a contradiction, and I think physicality can often reflect your true intention. Everybody has tells. But it’s one thing to inhabit your body; it’s another thing to inhabit your gifts. That takes courage too.

BLVR: Yeah, with courage comes a lot of fear. We’re all working through that.

MJL: But, you know, like the Good Book1 says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” You have to love what you do so much that the fear diminishes. Not that it’s eliminated, but just that it’s significantly less. That’s the trick: focus on the thing you love so much that it’s worth the fear.

1. Since 1995, Lee has read the Bible before writing every day. She picked up the habit from Willa Cather, saying, “I really admired her work and the way she lived her life, so I started doing it. Now I can’t quit. I really couldn’t quit if I tried. Even if you paid me or persecuted me. Most people think that is fucking weird, but it’s my thing.”
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