“That’s the fun part of writing. You can go anywhere you want.” Chang-rae Lee talks with Zibby about the role of storytellers, how writing helps him cope with his fears, and how being a college professor has kept him from growing old.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chang-Rae. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Chang-Rae Lee: My pleasure.

Zibby: First of all, I feel like I am catching you at such a moment because just this weekend you were front page of The New York Times Book Review and another review elsewhere. You’re just everywhere. What does that feel like to you to wake up and see your book and your life plastered on all traditional media? What is that like?

Chang-Rae: You know what? To tell you the truth, I try not to look at those things for a while. I do, however, and especially reviews. Sometimes, a profile, I’ll read just out of curiosity. I try not to read reviews until after the book is out for a while just so that my head’s clear. I want to talk about the things I want to talk about and not try to even scores with anybody and also because I respect that that’s their job. That’s their opinion. It’s all fine and dandy. My phone did blow up a little bit with all the news and kudo and congrats, which is always so wonderful. I’ve been lucky in the past. I’ve gotten some nice recognition and notices for my previous books. Not to say that this is old hat for me, but it’s gratifying. One writes a book, and you never know what’s going to happen. I suppose all you really want is the chance to get in front of people, get their attention just for a little bit, and see if they might want to take a look. The writer’s art is a solitary one, but in the end, we do want to share our work. That’s great.

Zibby: Yes, I am familiar with your past accolades as well. I just thought I should bring up the current torrent.

Chang-Rae: Friends have been commenting. There’s a lot of photographs, I guess, in one article. In those photographs, I was wearing board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. People were commenting on how skinny my legs were. I kept telling people, had I known they were going to take pictures like that, I would’ve been bulking up this whole pandemic.

Zibby: Exactly. Got to go to the ankle lift machine or something. Tell me a little bit about how you even started writing. Take me back to the beginning. When did you know you were a writer? When did you realize novels were your thing? Tell me the whole thing.

Chang-Rae: Professionally, I didn’t really know until quite late, probably in graduate school working on my first novel that was published. I wrote a novel before that that was never published. I think that was the first time I felt that I was taking it as seriously as, say, my teachers were taking me. Before that, I hoped to be a writer. I had dreams of being a writer. I had fantasies of being famous and writing great books rather than really being focused and committed to actually writing a good book. Those are two very different things. Obviously, everyone would love to be wonderful at something, but especially with the idea of the great writer, someone who’s inspired by the gods and somehow flowing through their veins onto the page is some beauty and glory. I think I was pretending more, hoping, maybe at that point. I’d always loved reading. I’d always enjoyed writing as a schoolboy and as I grew older. Actually thinking “I have to do this work and I care about doing this work” rather than “I want to be a writer and I care about being a writer,” the posture and position of a writer, maybe I was too focused on that.

Zibby: Interesting. When you say you grew up loving to read and all of that, what are some of your go-to books or the types of books that you liked to read? And even now.

Chang-Rae: Now I read all kinds of books. I read novels, of course. I’m a pretty passionate newspaper reader, online now newspaper reader. When I was a kid, I had slightly different reading beginnings. Most kids, they read all the classic children’s books. They’re introduced to those by their parents. Because my parents were immigrants and weren’t really comfortable in English and had no idea about the books that they were supposed to show me, I didn’t have anyone read to me. I depended on librarians and my teachers. I ended up just kind of on my own. I remember joining Book of the Month. My parents signed me up for Book of the Month Club. They had no idea what to choose. In a funny way, I was left to my own devices. I picked these really strange books that probably weren’t suitable for young kids.

Zibby: The truth comes out, how Book of the Month destroyed Chang-Rae Lee’s trajectory.

Chang-Rae: That was, I guess, just as well.

Zibby: It’s interesting to hear you describe yourself as an avid newspaper reader. I love reading newspapers. I read them in print. I keep longing to talk to somebody who also reads them in print too, but it seems to just be me.

Chang-Rae: We used to until recently. Then my wife said, “No, too much paper around. I don’t want to recycle it all.”

Zibby: My husband keeps taking all the papers and throwing them into the fire. I feel like I can’t even read them fast enough. I’m like, wait, I haven’t read that section. Give me five more minutes. Tell me about My Year Abroad. Did you have to do research to do this? Tell me about witness protection and the sketchy people in Escalades and riding skateboards around cul-de-sacs and all of that. How did you come up with that type of stuff? How did you inhabit these different characters?

Chang-Rae: As you’re suggesting, there’s a wide range of characters, locales, situations. I did kind of want to cram the entire world into this book. The book was a lot longer, if you can believe it.

Zibby: Really?

Chang-Rae: Yeah. It’s like anything else. The China parts, I had been doing research. My last novel had a China component to it. About seven to ten years ago, I was doing a lot of research on modern Chinese history and contemporary China. That part helps with a part of the story, and particularly one of the heroes of the story, the Chinese businessman in this novel named Pong. The other stuff, I guess it’s just about being in life. Also, the narrator of this novel, Tiller, is a twenty-year-old kid. Because I’m a college professor and now my daughters are in their early twenties, I spend a lot of time with twentysomething-year-olds. As most writers are, I think we’re pretty attentive to how people talk, the kinds of things they’re interested in, and how they’re in the world. In some ways, it came naturally to me even though I’m in my mid-fifties. Being a college professor too, my students never grow old. They’re always the same age. It sounds pathetic, but sometimes I kind of feel like I’m the same age too.

Zibby: We’ll pretend.

Chang-Rae: I’m just sitting in class. I don’t see how old I am to them. We’re just talking. I think through osmosis and delight, I’ve taken up a lot of their interests. Of course, these days with the way social media is and the internet, so much information is at hand not just for me as the writer, but for the character. For the purpose of thinking about this twenty-year-old kid, so much is within his grasp to know and to mimic and to play back to us. Research is easier than it’s been, but I still think you have to go out in the world, which I tell my students.

Zibby: Was any of it at all based on your real life? I know that novelists hate to be asked that question, but I’m always so curious. Did you have a moment where you snuck into a members-only golf club as a caddy? Did any of that stuff happen to you?

Chang-Rae: I do play some golf, so I know about caddies. I did do karaoke when I go to Korea. Although, I’m mostly just a listener rather than a singer. There are a couple things, obviously, that I’ve had experience with. Other things in the novel, I’m glad to say that I didn’t have any personal experience with given the extreme nature of a lot of the stuff that happens. Of course, that’s the fun part of writing. You can go anywhere you want. Most of all and maybe most importantly is sometimes you write not out of our desires for something, but of ours fears of something. That’s sometimes where lots of scenes in this novel and other novels of mine come from.

Zibby: What are you really afraid of?

Chang-Rae: I’m afraid of pain, rejection.

Zibby: Keep going. It’s okay.

Chang-Rae: Humiliation, all those things, all the things that happen to Tiller, and maybe also in a more real vein, losing someone you love. That is a fear that I’ve had all my life and I still have, especially now with daughters. I think about them. That’s the stuff of what drives a lot of writers, is that unspecific fear for things. Then we find the shape of them in seemingly unrelated scenes, but it’s still there.

Zibby: Do you feel like it helps? Do you feel like after you address it in fiction, you feel any better, or do you still carry around the same fears?

Chang-Rae: No, you don’t feel better. I think you can maybe not understand it, but kind of can live with it a little bit. You can walk around it, peer at it. It becomes more complex, just like people. The more you know somebody, the more complicated they really become, if you want to continue thinking about them at least. They are who they are. That’s about it.

Zibby: Also, writing about the fear, at least now you’ve shared your fear issues with all of us. Now we also feel the same fears if we didn’t already. It’s really like a contagion. If you guys feel as scared as I do about these different things, it’ll somehow make me feel a little better.

Chang-Rae: We all vicariously experience life. Sometimes we don’t want to experience life because it’s just too much. That’s the job of novelists, and friends.

Zibby: To many, I feel like a good novel is like a really close friend. That’s why so many people turn to novels in the worst times of their lives. You can escape immediately.

Chang-Rae: I think that’s absolutely right. It gives you a way to live in a consciousness that you wouldn’t choose yourself but that you can play out things with. It’s not just that you’re passively reading stuff that happens. You’re also thinking back on it and thinking upon it and thinking about yourself in those situations. It’s an active experience. It’s not just watching.

Zibby: No, totally. Your emotions get so triggered by it as well. You’re in it. The amount of times I’ve closed my eyes, hands over my eyes while reading, peeking through my fingers, I’m like, this is not going well.

Chang-Rae: Did you have that feeling reading my book?

Zibby: I read the whole thing. I was okay. It was okay. I made it through. What was your writing process like for this book in particular? Do you outline it ahead of time? Do you have an office where you have Post-its everywhere? What does your writing environment look like?

Chang-Rae: I don’t have Post-its everywhere. I do write little notes to myself. Sometimes I don’t look at those notes or I lose them. I think it’s more a way to put down things. Then the things that stick, I kind of don’t have to rely on notes for. They build up in my head. I do some planning, but those plans are pretty general. I like to find my way to those plans. If I’m diverted by some interesting thing a character says or this degression feels right, I’ll just go with it. That’s something that I’ve learned over the years, is not to try to engineer things too much. When you engineer things too much, it can feel flat and a little bit airless. Especially this book, which is so much about what life is and what vitality is and what it is to feel something, I certainly didn’t want this book to feel like it was planned out.

Zibby: It takes a considerable amount of skill to do that. If I sat down and tried to just wing it, it might not work that well. I feel like you need to get to a place of mastery of some of the finer points of fiction. There are some people who are just starting out who have to map it almost like a screenplay with different beats and different this.

Chang-Rae: I don’t think that’s unhelpful. I think that can be good. I would just always say, yeah, map the whole thing out, but don’t let yourself do it. Once you’re in a certain place and if things are happening in an interesting way that you hadn’t planned, don’t try to bend it back towards that other plan because maybe you’re not ultimately interested in that other plan. We actually don’t know what we’re interested in half the time when we start a novel. We think we’re interested in this, in X, but actually it’s (X) or Y or Z. Once you figure that out, that’s when you’re writing something that’s distinctive and singular and just you rather than writing something you think you should write for someone else.

Zibby: You could’ve just said that same thing about life. We try to make all these plans. We have all these things in our calendar. Yet maybe we get there and we don’t want to go to that event. It’s all just a guidepost to make you feel like you have a path. Really, we just end up doing whatever we want in the end, essentially.

Chang-Rae: Right. That’s what people always ask me sometimes. What was your path and journey? What was your story as a writer? I say, as a storyteller, I know there is no story. That’s all just a dream. That’s all something that we put up on our lives after the fact to make sense of it and to make sense of it to other people, but actually, no, there’s no story. There’s no story. Things happen for good, for bad, for worse sometimes. We need to make sense of it, sure. That’s why we tell ourselves story. No, there’s no sense of it at all. This doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. Just accept the fact that you’re a storyteller.

Zibby: My high school English teacher used to say that fiction is really just the illustration of change. I feel like in that way, it is almost a story. We are constantly changing.

Chang-Rae: Everything is a story, but we don’t play out stories, my life as a success story or my life to here as a story of reconciliation. It’s great to say. It’s great to put that. If you can live well by it, sure, great, but I don’t really feel like that’s really the way it goes. Going back to the novel, I always felt like that’s sort of how I thought of the people in the novel. They’re not planning anything, especially the hero of the novel. He’s just kind of on the rough seas and being tossed about and trying to make sense of all these things for his own life.

Zibby: Wow. What did you do with all of the stuff that didn’t make it into the book? Where is it? What are you going to do with it? Is it just on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

Chang-Rae: It’s in snippets here and there. There’s some scenes that I really like that I wish could’ve been in there. They’re funny or something. They’re lost for good. They’re useless for anything else.

Zibby: I feel like this is an obnoxious question to ask when someone has just come out with a massive book, but what’s coming next for you? Are you working on anything else?

Chang-Rae: Yeah. I work on trying to figure out what the next project is. Because I write novels only, I don’t really write short stories, I have to make a big commitment to it. I have to be pretty sure that this is it. I do some test novels where I’m testing different kinds of books and different kinds of narrative modalities and different kinds of voices. I’m working with maybe three different ones right now and trying to figure out which one I care most about and that I’m most curious about and that delights me in the ways that it needs to delight me to sustain years of work, which is something that, again, I had to learn through trial and error. Sometimes you think, oh, yeah, that’s a cool story. I’d like to do that. Sometimes that cool story isn’t the one you care about most. I’ve learned through some unfortunate things where I’m throwing away a novel because in the end, it was not really the thing I was so jazzed about and that I can continually be curious about and discover. That’s the key for me.

Zibby: I’m just wondering, have you ever shared with your daughters — I’m sure you have. Have you shared with them your fear of something happening to them and how your coping with that informs your novels? If not, I feel like you should tell them.

Chang-Rae: Every day I tell them I fear for their lives. Nothing to do with my work, just our sanity. Of course, they’re not in danger. As we know now, the world is a place where it can you get back. I wanted to celebrate the world in this book and celebrate all the things that can happen. Part of that is also that the world can take a chunk out of you through no fault of your own.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors aside from the eight million things you’ve already said? which are all great pieces of advice, but if there’s one nugget to share at the end.

Chang-Rae: Especially for people starting out and younger people who might enjoy writing, I think they have to read as much as possible. Don’t read about writing. Just read, and any kind of books, anything, really anything, and especially the things you like. Don’t get into writing advice. Don’t read writing advice. Just read. That’s probably my number-one bit of writing advice.

Zibby: I’ve been debating collecting all this amazing writing advice that everybody has given me on my podcast into some sort of book, but now you’re saying don’t read writing advice books. Now I’m thinking maybe I should just scrap that idea.

Chang-Rae: Writing advice books have good advice. Again, they’re not applicable to you because it depends on what you’re doing. What is applicable is just having a deep and wide and varied reading experience. That way all this kind of language, storytelling, voices, lingual music is there for you, not to copy, but just to be part of who you are.

Zibby: Okay, fine, I’ll scrap it. Thank you so much, Chang-Rae, for coming on this podcast. I just loved talking to you. Congratulations on all of your success. I’m hoping that by the next time we see you in board shorts your calves are much more defined.

Chang-Rae: Yes, me too.

Zibby: Good luck with that.

Chang-Rae: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m just kidding. Have a great day. Thank you so much.

Chang-Rae: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

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