Creative Writing

Chang-rae Lee: How I Write

The Korean-American writer, whose new dystopian novel is On Such a Full Sea, speaks about his first failed book, his favorite assignment for his students, and golf.

David Levenson/Getty

I understand you went to Exeter Academy. Tell me about your time there.

Vis-a-vis writing, Exeter was the place I got interested in writing. Not sure that would’ve happened at my local public high school. Exeter alum writers were really promoted and we always had a troop of them coming through: Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, John Irving. We had a James Agee year, where we all read Agee’s work. It’s a place where writing and writers were revered. I’d always been an avid reader, but it was there that I started to focus on writing.

Was there a breakout moment for you, when you first felt that you’d written something that you’d like to put out there?

After college I was living in New York and wrote furiously, a huge novel that I knew was a failure. I hoped that the book would work, but to be honest I think I knew it would never work, even as I was finishing it. I knew it was deeply flawed. Just not good enough. When I went to graduate school shortly thereafter I remember writing the first chapter of my first published novel, Native Speaker, for a workshop. After I wrote it, even before anyone said anything, I did feel that I’d tapped into something essential, something I’d been mulling over for a long time without knowing I’d been mulling over. I didn’t know if it was really good or not, but I did know it was real. Does that make sense?


I could just sort of viscerally feel that there was something real going on there. Not “real” in the realistic sense, but something emotionally real.

Most Anglophone readers know little or nothing about Korean fiction. Can you recommend a Korean novel, and is there anything unique and distinctive about Korean literature that you could pinpoint?

To be honest I’m not that much of a reader of Korean fiction since so little is translated. The one that made a huge splash in recent years, by Kyung-sook Shin Please Look After Mom won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize]. That’s a really interesting book. To me, I read it as a sparely-written, but deeply, emotionally powerful. And it translates pretty well because of its style.

You teach creative writing at Princeton. Tell us about your approach to teaching the craft of writing. Do you have a favorite assignment to give your students?

My basic approach is to force the students to do very, very, very close reading of our texts, the short stories that I assign, and even their peer work. I don’t like to use writing assignments, exercises. I think too often people get comfortable writing in that vein, but you can’t go on to write a novel comprised of short writing exercises. They can initiate ideas and catalyze a certain form, but the trick is not to begin, but to sustain. You really need a great understanding and feel of how your particular form of storytelling works. I consider my workshop a close reading class. If we can really break down, say, the beginning of a short story, and sometimes spend the entire class just talking about the first two paragraphs … I think it really helps students get inside authorial choices. Not to figure out what was intended, but to go through all the possibilities. And the knowledge and experience of those possibilities might later help them in a moment of their own stories.

There have been quite a few popular post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels in recent years by prominent literary novelists. What drew you to the subject and why do you think the general public is so keen on the subject of late?

I think dystopian novels are really about present anxiety, aren’t they? The environment, genetic engineering, economic inequality that tackling head-on might not be as delightful and interesting for the writer. But with a slightly different form, circumstance, context it can bring out new language and ideas about the issues. And we’re not necessarily writing about issues, but the emotional sensibility that underpins our worrying about those issues. And also people just enjoy entering new worlds, from the perspective of writers and readers. I know I did. Rather than tackling a realistic setting inside a suburban house, a domestic drama—obviously you have to put something fresh into that for anyone to want to read it. When you change the context radically, to fast-forward a few hundred years, it changes the assumption of how we think about a place, so the human expression and human action change.

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Describe your morning routine on a day that you’d be writing.

I wake quite early, about 6:30. Make breakfast for the children. Have my coffee. Very important. Just one cup. I have my own breakfast, send the kids off to school. Perhaps change into my daily writer’s clothes … A pair of comfortable writing pants. I have a lot of different writing pants. I don’t like to wear constrictive … if I can use that word. They could be pajama bottoms, sweats, fleece kind of things. They range.

But no writing in blue jeans.

No, no writing in blue jeans. No writing in suits. In the summer maybe I’ll just write in shorts. And then I sit down at my desk around 7:30 or so, and I’ll write until lunch. I’ll rest a bit after that, or exercise for an hour. Then back to work for another few hours, ’til 3 or 3:30.

Is there anything distinctive about your writing space or routine, besides non-constrictive writing trousers?

Pretty typical. I write on a computer. On breaks I’ll make myself green tea. I don’t want something too caffeinated. I guess I don’t believe in chemical enhancement of my writing. Just slight, but nothing crazy.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

It would absolutely be my mother. My mother died in 1991, when I was 25 years old. During that time I was working on that first failed novel I told you about. So she died knowing I was trying to be a writer but never got to see me actually succeeding at it. And she was worried about it. And for my own sake, I’d just love to see her again, because she died relatively young. But I think she would love to see that I continued in my writing career.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

At the end of a book tour you’re so exhausted, and because you’re talking about yourself you get disgusted with yourself. I was so tired, and one night I was eating late at a Korean restaurant. You know the Korean-style barbecue that you wrap in lettuce leaves to eat?

Sure, that’s good stuff.

You wrap barbecue beef and pork in lettuce and eat it that way. Literally, one night I bit into my own finger. I was so tired and out of it that I didn’t at first realize I’d done so. And I think I actually consumed a small amount of my finger, which I later thought was, metaphorically, just right for where I was psychically!

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

Maybe “I always sought beauty.”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

Most things are unknown about me … I do love playing golf.

Are you any good?

I’m pretty good at it. Most people think golfers are round republicans, but I found that some writers really enjoy golf. It’s such an intricate, complicated, difficult game, and it’s never the same thing twice. I think that appeals to those who write.