Novelist Chang-rae Lee Advises UT Audience: Make an Oblique Entrance

 

Novelist Chang-rae Lee. Photo by Matt Valentine

“What makes for good fiction is some kind of oblique entrance to the subject that you’re particularly interested in. If I don’t have my particular way into it, then anyone could’ve written it.”

This is the advice that Chang-rae Lee, a novelist and professor of creative writing at Princeton, gives his students, and that he shared with an attentive UT audience Thursday night.

Dozens gathered in the Joynes Reading Room, a small library and study space tucked in Carothers Hall, to hear a reading from the acclaimed author of four novels. His 2010 work, The Surrendered, was a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

But a writer is ever moving on to his next project, and Lee took the opportunity to read a few pages from his current work in progress.

Originally interested in a book about factory workers in China, Lee eventually decided that the subject was overexposed in the media. The new story, from which he read the first few pages, is based on a community of people whose ancestors emigrated from China to a new country and who work in a fishery.

Although not the focus of the story, the new country is loosely based on a future United States. “It’s probably more than I think, and less than I imagine,” said Lee, in a lighthearted attempt to clarify exactly how distant of a future.

The story features Fan, a diver in the fishery, and her boyfriend Reg, a gardener, whose mysterious disappearance leads to Fan’s contact with the world outside the community walls, and which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. According to Lee, this novel will be shorter than his previous works. Of course, he joked, it’s not the first time he’d said that (The Surrendered runs 469 pages).

The Surrendered, as well as his first three novels, all feature the theme of culture, identity, and assimilation. Having emigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of three, Lee professes a strong interest in characters who find themselves “in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance.”

His newest story, however, is “not a story about assimilation but about how some people’s will monitors them.” This self-monitoring he contrasted to the type of “Big Brother” surveillance of George Orwell’s 1984, which he suggests is actually less frightening than the kind presented in his work.

“The scary thing is when the people watch themselves,” Lee said.

Told from the first person plural perspective and following a linear organization, Lee’s new story differs from The Surrendered, which was written in third person and jumps around among different time periods and characters.

The reason for using a more structured organization? “I want to create a new world, but a small one,” he said.

Although only a small sample of the unfinished work, this is what Lee’s first few pages do. His subdued vocal tone contrasted with the bright picture the words painted, as details came together to form the world of the fishery.

Laughing at the slow speed at which he works, Lee admits to writing without knowing exactly how the story will go.

“I rarely have anything planned out,” he said. “I have a general sense of speed and direction but within that, I try to allow for whatever comes up.”

Despite this lack of certainty, Lee says he hopes to finish the book sometime next year and have it out by 2013.

Until then, check out one of Lee’s other novels for a look at what it means to write from an “oblique” perspective.

 

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