Best known as the acclaimed novelist of Free Food Millionaires and Pachinko, Korean American author Min Jin Lee is one of the most vital and thoughtful voices in the literary world today. Praised for her attention to detail, vivid characters, and cultural nuance – Min Jin Lee’s compassionate and truthful stories have immersed readers into the sprawling tapestry and rich complexities of the Korean diaspora across the world. Ahead of her upcoming appearances at the Singapore Writers Festival 2019, Popwire was privileged to speak with the bestselling writer about her meticulous research process, her struggles after giving up a promising legal career, her Asian American perspective, and her highly-anticipated third novel American Hagwon.
From what we understand, you were a corporate lawyer until your mid-twenties. What prompted you to switch to a literary career?
Well it wasn’t necessarily a very wise choice. (Laughs) Yes I was an attorney, and I worked in mergers and acquisitions for the healthcare industry. I quit being an attorney when I was 26-years-old, and the reason why I left was because my hours were too long. And it wasn’t just the long hours – I worked non-stop. I worked seven days a week with very little sleep… until it just became untenable.
Also, I had been diagnosed with liver disease when I was very young, in high school, and I knew that I was very vulnerable to getting sick. I had also been told when I was at university, that it was very possible I could get liver cancer in my 20s or 30s. So I was a bit more aware, not to sound morbid, of my mortality. It gave me a greater sense of freedom to leave the law because I thought it wasn’t sustainable to work in this way. I think that if I was a more healthy person, I would still be a lawyer today.
So writing, or at least writing professionally, wasn’t something you wanted to pursue until your health concerns?
Well, I had always been writing but I never assumed that I could make a career as a writer. And certainly the kinds of things I wanted to write – I knew the likelihood of ever being successful was almost zero! Which, I think, is a very objective and fair statement to make even today. (Laughs) The fact that I ended up doing fine for myself was a real long shot.
As a person growing up in a working class background – I had no interest in being poor, and obscure, and suffering. I didn’t have any romantic attachment to being a suffering artist. I thought long and hard about switching careers, but because I had this illness which manifested in a serious way, I made a decision to adopt a life that was less stressful. And I’m glad to say that I’m very healthy right now, in my 50s.
You left your job in 1995 but your first book, Free Food for Millionaires, wasn’t published until 2007. Could you tell us about the struggles you faced during that 12-year journey to become a published novelist?
It was really hard. It was really hard because I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t have the money to get a Masters in Fine Arts in the first place, and I felt really stupid for getting another advanced degree because I had blown it as a lawyer. Don’t get me wrong, I was a very competent lawyer. I had the right personality for that kind of work – I worry a lot and I’m very detail oriented. But because I couldn’t handle the corporate lifestyle, I didn’t know what other professional paths I had. What’s funny is, growing up as an Asian-American, I thought the only options were the law, or medicine, or finance, or something like that. And of course, that’s a really stupid way to look at the world. Now I see that, as someone who realises that there are tens of thousands of different careers that one can have. However at that moment in time, I was feeling very sorry for myself because I walked away from a very good job to be a writer.
I took a lot of inexpensive writing classes at community centers, for a couple of hundred dollars here and there. And it took me a very long time to publish my first book, although there were some earlier writing successes. But I believe having published my first novel at the age of 38, after starting at age 26 – that my first book reflected a more mature voice. I’m writing about a young person, but I wrote it a much more mature voice, which I don’t think I could have done in any other way. (Laughs) So when I see younger work, and I judge major prizes in literature around the world right now, I see what life experience on the planet can do. You think in a different way. So I’m very grateful for my very long apprenticeship. (Laughs)
From what we’ve read, you were born in Seoul and moved to New York with your family at the age of seven. Growing up in America, what was your relationship with your birth country? And how did that shape you as a person and as a writer?
I’ve always felt very connected to Asia. I’ve lived in Japan as an adult as well, so I feel deeply inspired by the growth and vitality of Asia. So it’s very important for me to study it, to visit it, to really think about it deeply, and to meet the people who live there. And whether we like it or not, we exist in a global economy in which all of our futures are tied to each other. As I see the rise of Western education, and the interest in Western education, for Asians who are middle class – I realise the impact of what it means to write in English, to speak in English, to think about things as a Western person who comes from an Asian country.
I like being an Asian person, and you may think that’s a preposterous thing to say, but that is not what all Asian-Americans feel. I think it’s an act of resistance to identify with Asia, because when you are an immigrant, you feel so much pressure to assimilate. So although I have assimilated in terms of language and education, I have a deep romantic attachment to the nation of my birth. Also my father is from the Northern region, and my mother is from the Southern region, which are now two different countries. And the reason I say regions is because when they were children, it was one country. So in my imagination, I don’t see Korea as two different countries. And I think the way the West understands Korea is so often filtered through its caricatured depictions of North Korea, which I think is really tragic.
Your novels span so many places, periods and characters – and yet not an inch of the world you’ve weaved feels superficial or inauthentic. To capture that level of detail and perspective must require a lot of groundwork. What does your research process entail?
For example, I’m heading to Singapore to speak at a literary festival, which is a great honour. But another reason I’m going to Singapore is because I’m researching Singapore! One of my characters has worked at a tutoring center in Singapore, so I’m actually going to visit some tutoring centers there. That is the level of research I’m willing to do.
I’m very fortunate because I’m being funded by a fellowship, and I have an academic position which allows me to conduct research in this way. So it’s a great privilege to be able to do that level of study. But also, I just enjoy it so much! I love talking to people with regards to the questions that I have. Normally I’m a very private person, so when I work as a journalist or as a researcher, I feel like I have the courage to inquire because I want to get to the truth of their choices, and of my characters’ choices.
Besides filling in the historical, sociological and cultural elements accurately – you’re saying that your research greatly alters and affects the stories and characters you’ve already sketched out in your head…
Yes! People change me all the time. As a matter of fact, I sometimes think that I have these clever ideas, and then I meet real people and I realize that I’m a fool! (Laughs). I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good to change your perception, and recognize that sometimes the way you understand the world is wrong. And unless I’m open to that possibility of being wrong, and starting again, I don’t see how I can ever believe my readers can change their minds.
Your next book is set to be American Hagwon – about for-profit South Korean education centers. Why was this subject fascinating to you? And what ideas do you want to explore with this book?
In terms of the overarching theme, I’m writing about the Korean diaspora. And in the diaspora of the Korean people around the globe, I was asking the question – what unifies Koreans? So I did some research and I listened. And from experience, the thing that Koreans care about more than anything – is not money, is not status, is not power – it’s actually education. And because they were so focused on education, I tried to understand it more.
One of the things that Koreans have that’s unique to them are these hagwons – or for-profit private institutes. I believe the romantic notion that undergirds the tutoring centers is a real wish to learn more and improve oneself. That’s beautiful! And yet, these hagwons can also have the impact of creating greater social inequality. And it can also really hurt children – I’ve seen it hurt children! So I’m trying to understand this phenomenon, which can be noble and lovely, and yet can also become something toxic to some.
What kind of people have you interviewed in the course of your research for American Hagwon?
I’ve talked to parents, children, tutors, tutoring center owners, and admissions officers. I’ve even visited universities around the world in order to understand the phenomenon.
To your earlier point, did you have any preconceived notions that were changed by talking to these people?
Yes! As a progressive person, I thought in many ways that these tutoring centers caused more harm than good. But as I’m studying these tutoring centers, I’m realizing that I was wrong. Because for some people who are poor, who are disenfranchised, who have no one to help them with a favour – sometimes these are the only avenues they have in order to advance socially, economically, and politically. Therefore, I’ve had to really rethink what these things mean, rather than just, sort of, lean into my progressive politics.
You’ve previously said that Free Food for Millionaires, Pachinko and American Hagwon function as a trilogy. Were these books conceptualized as a trilogy from the beginning?
No, not at all. I only realized that I was writing a trilogy after I finished my first book. I realized that I wanted to write about the diaspora, and therefore it could be better explored in three books. I didn’t even know it was going to be about education. And then once I figured it out, it became really clear to me that these three books were unified thematically.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’m also writing a memoir, which will actually come out before American Hagwon. That book is called Name Recognition, and it’s about learning how to be visible in the world in which you are rendered invisible.
Once your current projects are done, have you thought about what kind of other stories, genres or topics you would like to tackle in the future?
The book I’m going to write after American Hagwon and Name Recognition is called The Marshall Plan. I want to understand its impact on Europe and its impact on the world. I think the greatest thing that America has done in the 20th century is the Marshall Plan and I’m trying to understand this idea of having global reach for good. How can we do good things for the world in a political, organized and generous way – that we build things rather than destroying things. So I have a real romantic curiosity about the Marshall Plan, so I’m going to write about that next after finishing my current books. So to that extent, I have my work cut out for me. (Laughs)
Besides looking forward, can we look back a little bit? Do you remember the first piece of fiction you ever wrote?
Sure! I wrote lots of fiction in college, and to be honest, they were terrible. (Laughs)
Is there anything from earliest writing that you might want to revisit though? A gem in the rough so to speak…
It’s funny that you ask that question because a short story that I wrote in college, which I’ve rewritten several times, was finally published this year! So yeah it can happen, and I like returning to things because I think that when you’re young, the things that you’re drawn aren’t necessarily wrong. And in a way, you’re trying to fumble through to figure out your identity. When I was young, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing mechanically and aesthetically in terms of trying to get my prose across, I don’t think my impulses were wrong. So when I teach my students, I really try to honor their impulses, and I try to honor the process of them fumbling because you’re supposed to fumble before you know how to walk straight.
What’s the best thing you’ve read this year and why? It could be a book, an essay, a comic, a short story – anything.
Oh my! Well, I’m judging two major prizes this year for fiction – which means I can’t really talk about fiction. But I recently read a short story by Frank Conroy called Midair, which I thought was so, so stunning. I felt very grateful that I was able to read that story and that it existed at all. There is also a memoir called All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, who I’ll be doing a conversation with next week. I don’t know her, in fact I’ll literally be meeting her for the first time at the event. But I was so moved by her story of being a transracial adoptee. I think this young woman has written a very brave memoir.
We’re not sure if you’re legally allowed to talk about this, but before we let you go, what are your thoughts about Pachinko being adapted as TV series by Apple?
What I can say is that I’m not happy with the process. I’m really not okay with the way its proceeding at moment. There is a certain amount of dread with my work being adapted, but I can’t talk about it too much at the moment.