AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MIN JIN LEE
This is an edited transcript of an interview with author Min Jin Lee, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Min Jin Lee is a Korean American writer. She's not only the author of Pachinko, but also the author of Free Food for Millionaires, which was her debut novel. Free Food for Millionaires was also a national bestseller and one of the Top 10 Books of the Year for not only the “Times of London,” but also NPR's “Fresh Air.” Pachinko was her second book, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017. She also received fiction fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard.
Teresa: I feel like when going to a school like UPenn, and generally, in college, we're often conflicted between what we want to do and what we feel like we should do.
Obviously, having that option comes from a privileged place. I know that you started off not as a writer. You started off as a lawyer before going into writing. Do you have any advice for college students or young people on finding their path or finding their voice?
Min Jin Lee: The advice I have sort of more like a truth of my own, as opposed to me telling you what to do, because it seems to me that Zoomers really know what they're doing and have a really good moral compass. That's one of the things that I really like about your generation.
That's one of the reasons why I wanted to talk on this podcast is that if the audience is Generation Z, this is a group I really admire. I teach your group. I think that if you really trust your moral compass, you're going to be fine. I think what happens very often is that you think you have to do what other people want you to do.
That kind of programming doesn't really last very long. So, you're going to try to white-knuckle it for a while, and I'm not just talking about parents, because it can also be your peers. Your peers might be saying like, "Oh, you don't want to study biochemical engineering." You might actually want to become a filmmaker, but you're kind of thinking biochemical engineering, that doesn't sound so bad. Does that make sense?
So, sometimes it's not like, oh, your parents want you to be a doctor and you want to go be a painter. Sometimes it can be actually quite complicated, but I think that you have to kind of be quiet, and sort of sit and say, "Well, what do I really want to do?"
Also, very often you can change it, right? One of the most important things I can say to people is that you could change your mind and you can see things on, let's say, a six-month schedule as opposed to a ten-year schedule. It's important to be fluid and adaptive and also innovative about your own life. Not just like thinking, "Oh, I have to go solve all the world's problems." I don't think the world is asking you to do that. I think it's much more important to say, “Okay, well, can I do to be a decent person?” Can I do good in this world? You know, they're not asking you to save it. Just like try to be decent, try to be good. I think that that's very important.
I'm saying all this because it's more important to understand thematically what you're doing rather than the transactions. The transactions will keep changing in your life, but the themes should actually still be the same.
Sam: Could you say a little more what you mean by transactions?
Min Jin Lee: Yeah. Let's say you have a paper to write, or a problem set to finish, those are transactions in college, right? Or you'd like to have a meeting that you have to attend, but that you may or may not want to do. Sometimes you can say, oh, well, those are transactions. Or let's say, even with a job, like an after school job or a summer internship, those are transactions.
But thematically who you are, if you are dedicated to self-exploration, doing decent things while you're alive. Being a good friend, being a good son or daughter, you know, a good citizen. All those things are incredibly important and far more important than those transactions. Does that make sense?
Sam: Yeah, that makes sense. I've heard you say many times in interviews that you work like an academic and most of our audience is made up of college students. At times, at least to me, I feel personally college can be a little creatively stifling. Do you have any advice on how we can leverage our academics into doing something as creative as writing, or as creative as the things that you do?
Min Jin Lee: Oh, isn't that funny? Because it really depends on what you think of academics. One of the things that I don't like about your generation, and it's not your generation, but what your generation has had to undergo, is I really dislike the admissions process for college. So, I feel like Generation Z has had to undergo this incredible trial by fire to get into fancy colleges like Penn and Columbia.
And it's really quite unfortunate because then what's happened is, and you had to tick off so many boxes in order to get in. Very often things seem too transactional to you rather than the actual subject. You have, and it's not your fault, you have been asked to fall out of love of learning rather than feeling that the outcomes become so important.
So, very often what I noticed with my students is that it's really hard to get into my classes just because my classes are capped at 15 per class. When they try to get in the class, one of the things that I really try to encourage and say is that there's a ton of work: It's a ton of work, but you're going to love it. Like you're really going to love it. And then it's really weird because all these kids were like, "oh, I want to go in. I want to go in." And then afterward, they usually tell me it's the most work I've ever done, but I really loved it. I kind of think, “Oh, I'm so grateful because what I want to do is to share the passion that I have for the stuff that I work on.”
So, it absolutely works, but it's actually really engaging and meaningful. The reason why I say I work like an academic is because I see a lot of scholarship beneath the truth of life. I write social novels, and social novels require for me to understand society. And if I want to understand society, I don't just study history, I also study anthropology, sociology, economics, and law. I study tax policy sometimes and all those things, they sound kind of dull, but actually they're incredibly meaningful if you think about how it applies in your life.
And I want my students, I want you, you're not my students, but I want you to really fall in love with learning because that's what's going to keep you, I think, employed for one. It's going to keep you employed and it's also going to keep you useful in the world. And also, it's going to make you enjoy your work because sometimes you'll be doing things and it'll be like, well, you got to do it. It's work, you know, that's how you get paid. That's right but its outcome-oriented. But if you just sort of put that aside for a second and look at what you're doing and say, "Hey, I want to learn that. That could be kind of cool. If I know how to do that, then it becomes something different." And actually, it becomes a lot easier.
Teresa: I think that it's incredible that you've caught onto that because I feel that way very much.
A lot of the time, the things that I'm interested in won't be on a resume. I've considered doing computer science too many times, even though I really do not care about computer science. I feel like the culture is very much like having some sort of academic safety net.
I know that you often say that when you wrote Pachinko, it shouldn't have taken you that long to write, but also, you're saying that you've learned so much in different disciplines in order to write such a social novel. So, do you think, that at the end of the day, it was a good thing that it took you this long to write, or it wasn't like you wrote it in like your twenties or even your thirties?
Min Jin Lee: I'm quite grateful for the life that I have. I'm also grateful for the way I work because I'm very proud of my work. And I think that not everyone feels that way. Very often I actually have friends who have published more than I have, and they'll say to me, "Well, you know, I really love my books number four and number one, but I don't like book number three."
And I kind of think like, oh, that's really interesting, because whether I've written an essay or whether I've written a speech or a novel, I feel really proud of my work. I mean, and it's interesting because I have a short story that I wrote in college, which I was able to publish recently on Amazon Kindle.
So, I turned to something that I had published in college, and it was also published again in a tiny literary quarterly that didn't see the light of day. Then I pulled it out of a drawer and I rewrote it and then I published it on Amazon Kindle. And it's based on a true story. You know, it was an assignment in a writing class for outside of my major. And I looked at the story and I really thought, you know, I'm really proud of that story. I'm really amazed that I did that at the age of 19. And I think it's because I approach what I do with a kind of seriousness.
When I was your age, it was weird because I was weird. I was not normal and I was okay with it because I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know how to be anybody else. And now I look back and I realized like, oh, that's just the way most writers grow up. You know, now that I've met enough writers, I go, “Oh no, all of us are incredibly bizarre and strange.” Some of us hide it better than others, and I didn't hide it terribly well when I was in college. I think I was absolutely strange.
You know, I look back and I don't have any disdain for who I am, or who I was, but it wasn't easy. And I think that that's something that I really try to talk about as much as I can, because, for what it's worth, if it could be a consolation to you being a bit different, being a bit odd and not doing things that other people around your doing, they're not necessarily bad things.
As a matter of fact, I feel incredibly strong as an adult because I can say no to things and it's from the muscle of saying no. Like when I was 20, when I was 19, I didn't do certain things that my peers were doing and I really didn't give a fuck; I wasn't going with the flow.
I wasn't interested in being chill. I wasn't interested in being a laid-back person and I wasn't interested in partying and I don't care. Like I really, really don't care. And even with my peers today, as an artist, I often don't do things that they do. And again, I don't care. So, in a way it's given me time. It's given me courage. So, I really say this in front of young people, because it takes a lot of courage to stay different. I want you to stay different because we need people to be different.
Teresa: How did you not give a fuck so early in your life? I feel like I have moments where I think that way and I'm like, "Oh, I don't care. I'm just my own person. I want to do this," but deep down I do care. Was there any turning point in your life where you were like, why should I care or has that always been who you are, do you think?
Min Jin Lee: I think I don't care about assimilation. I care a lot about being a decent person so that one I'm not negotiating on.
So, for example, if my friend is sick I'm supposed to be at the hospital for her, I'm going to be there. So, in that sense then, that's not assimilation. I'm actually experiencing discomfort and irritation and giving up what I want to do to be there. Does that make sense? But what if it comes to, let's say I'm not speaking out against something wrong.
That does require you to be different. There've been many times in my life where I've gotten in trouble for saying things that I really believe in and having people dislike me or disagree with me, or perhaps not include me in things or, you know, think of me when they're thinking of cool stuff to do.
I might not have been on their shortlist and I've decided that that's okay. That I would somehow survive it. And I think one of the interesting things is that you do. And that’s interesting to me is that sometimes like when you're younger and even now, sometimes I think it's like, "Oh, if I don't do this and oh gosh, I'm just going to die." And you realize like, no, you're not, you're not going to die. You're going to be really irritated. You'll have a bad Tuesday, but you'll get over it. It's nice to know.
Sam: If you wouldn't mind, we're going to turn to a couple of questions about Pachinko. One of my questions was you explore the idea of victimhood a lot. I think this kind of ties into a lot of the stuff that's going on in the country today. How do you think viewing people as a victim, or victims of their circumstance can erase their lived experience, and how can we make sure that we recognize the hardships that groups go through without like making them a monolith?
Min Jin Lee: Well, I think one of the most important things is that if a person is injured, or if our group is injured, or if a group or a person in a group is more likely to be injured, to recognize that that's happening. So, I really want more, more than anything is to recognize the truth of that experience. However, I think to label somebody merely as victim is in many ways dehumanizing and I'm guilty of that because when I first started Pachinko I did all this research and I saw all the horrible things that the Korean Japanese had to endure. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, this was really terrible. And I'm really angry. So, I'm going to write another book about it. And it was, I was kind of brandishing my sense of like, you know, my righteousness and how correct I was and then I wrote a really shitty book.
And, in a way, my art wasn't served by me being simplistic and binary. So, to go back to your point, what can we do when we see people being injured is to one recognize that it's happening. And two is to really listen and say, what can I do? What would be helpful if you feel like that is your place.
Cause sometimes it isn't your place. Sometimes it's just merely to listen. Sometimes it is merely to, I don't know, add your $10 to a GoFundMe. Sometimes it is to show up to a protest. It really just depends on what is necessary at that moment, but I think, respect, recognition, those things are very important.
And then if it is your place and if it is what you feel called to do, sometimes you write about it as a writer or make art about it as an artist. And then if you decide to do that, then again, you must be willing to be deeply humbled in the face of other people's stories, especially if it's not your own.
Teresa: You talk about revealing the truth in your art. One of the things that struck me about Pachinko is I'm also the daughter of immigrants and Pachinko resonated with me, because I often think about my ancestors in China, who I've never met. What about this story made you want to write it? What about this truth made you want to tell it in particular?
Min Jin Lee: I think that studying history has always made me recognize that our lives are significantly longer than our lived experience. And I really liked that connection. What really struck me about being an Asian-American person was that I knew so little about my own history, especially history that wasn't specifically mine.
So even if I learn more Asian American history, even if I learned Korean history, I didn't know very much about the diasporic history of Koreans around the world. And I believe, Teresa, you're of Chinese ancestry, right?
Min Jin Lee: So, I mean the diasporic experience of Chinese around the world, the overseas experience of Chinese around the world. It's so immense and so deep and rich, and it's not taught. So, if you want to learn it in the West, you have to go and seek it out yourself. But I mean, you could spend the rest of your life saying, "Oh, well, you know, what are the lives of the Chinese in Brazil or like the Chinese in Nigeria, and you really could learn all those things. Right. And yeah, I don't know what you connect with. I wanted to know more about that. And for me, it was a useful thing to say, "Hey, I want to learn it. And I want to research it. And I think I'm working on a book." So, but I didn't feel comfortable writing the book for very, very long time. I mean, I didn't have the courage for it. I don't know about you and Sam. I don't know how you walk around. Like, I don't know where you see yourself in terms of being an artist and making stories. And even when you, before you had the courage to make a podcast, which is another deeply artistic and creative form of sharing stories, you know, when did you say, you know what, let's do it, let me just like, figure this out and give it a go and actually do it right.
Because it's one thing to talk the talk, but it's another thing to actually do it. You know the difference between people who talk about it and people who do it. And then at some point in your life, you're like, damn, I really am very good at podcasting.
Sam: We're trying!
Min Jin Lee: And I think that's a really exciting thing because you're good! You're giving it a try, and I really applaud people who are trying to honor their goals. Little goals, big goals and I think it's really scary. I didn't have that kind of encouragement when I was growing up, but I really try very hard to encourage her generation with whatever I have whenever I can, to the limited extent that I have with the time that I have because it's so important to be given permission by other people besides yourself.
Teresa: Right. I remember in one of your interviews you said that art is all inherently political. And I think that that's, at least for me, that's what I felt in starting a podcast. One of our main goals is to give voice to minority artists or artists that we think should have more of a platform.
I feel like that's something I just realized is that our point of view greatly impacts what we put out and who we notice and recognize. I was just also wondering, have you always thought that way or is that what has influenced you to turn away from being a lawyer and to be a full-time writer?
Min Jin Lee: I think that because I was so lonely as a young person, and I wasn't even aware that I was feeling loneliness. All I knew is that I wasn't like the other kids. So, I turned so much into art and literature. So, I think for me to make books is a way for me to become a book, become something on a shelf, become part of dead people in a way or living people who want his kind of privacy.
Because what I'm doing is I'm going off by myself and I'm kind of putting this stuff together and then I send it out to the world and I may never meet my reader, if I even have a reader. I mean, fortunately, I have ears now, but I didn't know that I would when I was making the book.
And then knowing that maybe that person who picks up the book might have a connection to it. So, in a way it's a kind of conversation that we're having, right? I'm giving something to you and the reader takes the thing and imagines something deeply imagined and whole with it too. The books that I write and the experience that you have reading the book are different.
But it's a really cool dialogue and I wanted that and it made me feel less lonely.
Sam: Interesting. This year in school, I read a lot of Zora Neale Hurston. A lot of the themes that go through her books, I found echoed in Pachinko, such as the theme of women always suffering.
I was wondering, who are your influences? Have you been influenced by a lot of those writers or are you influenced by other things in life?
Min Jin Lee: Oh, I love Their Eyes Were Watching God. Oh, my goodness. It's one of the most beautiful books ever.
So, I think about Tea Cake. I mean, don't we all love Tea Cake? I've been really profoundly influenced by American writers like Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin. I think Tony Morrison very, very much so. So those are some African American writers I'm thinking of right off the bat. In terms of the Western white European writers, there are so many, especially in 19th-century writers. I've been affected mostly by Tolstoy. I think George Elliot, Flaubert who is French, and I've read him in translation as well as Tolstoy in translation, not in the original. Yeah. I've been influenced by D.H. Lawrence who was American, Sinclair Lewis, who was my favorite in college, and then Edith Horton, Willa Cather.
So, there's a lot of, you know, all these dead people. It's important that I mentioned those people as well because when they were writing, I don't think they were thinking about me. You know, they weren't. I just don't -- and it's not because they're a racist or sexist. I just think like, it was that they weren't thinking of being a global writer who'd be read for the ages. Does that make sense? Like I'm sure Tolstoy was thinking "I'm writing some books. I'll be read by some Russians. Maybe there'll be read by some Europeans on the continent."
I don't think he was thinking he would be read by some Korean writer from Queens who would say Anna Karenina changed my life.
But it did. And I think that's kind of cool to me. I have been so profoundly affected by readers writing to me from Pakistan, or let's say Brazil or Peru, or, it's incredible to get these letters from some, you know, a young woman from Iran saying, "I read your book and this is what I thought."
Or, some old white guy will write to me from Albany New York and say, I'm Casey Han. I think, golly, that's so cool because I wasn't thinking about them. I wasn't. And it wasn't because I'm racist it was because like, I couldn't even believe I could sell my book.
Min Jin Lee: Of course not. I mean, especially from my background, I don't have writers in my family and I wasn't encouraged to be a writer. I wasn't discouraged, but I wasn't encouraged to be a writer. I published my first book when I was 38. Like, I am not some raging young talent. I have nothing but admiration for those who are, but I didn't major in English, I don't have an MFA. So. I'm really surprised that I have so many readers.
Teresa: You said you weren't an English major and didn't get an MFA. So, did you ever think when you were younger that you were ever going to be a writer? Was there ever a calling and you put it aside or was it really like when you were older, you were like, maybe I could do this?
Min Jin Lee: Well, I wrote a lot in high school and I even published in newspapers.
However, I never thought that I would be a writer because I didn't know that people could make money being a writer. And actually, I was correct. You don't really make how much money, but yeah. I mean, I'm fine. I do fine now, but it's, it's interesting.
So, whenever my students tell me, can I make it as a writer? I think, well, what do you mean by making it? Because you can certainly keep writing. I don't know if you'll ever be able to support yourself and not because I don't have confidence in you, but because on average, most people make under $20,000 a year as a writer -- even as a published writer.
Min Jin Lee: And I want you to know that and someone should tell you that because that way you'll know that you'll have to have a different kind of life.
So almost every writer that I know who has an MFA at a very fancy place, if they're lucky, can get teaching jobs and write books. That's really a difficult life. And I say this to you, not because, I mean, I make more than $20,000 a year now, but there have been years of my life where I made nothing, like zero. When I want to be supported by my husband, that if my husband didn't have health insurance, we wouldn't have had health insurance.
But why do I say these things? Not to scare you, but actually just to ask you, is that what you want? Like, do you want to write more than anything? Because that's a different question than saying, "Oh, if I'm a writer that I'm going to have cute clothes and have a cool Instagram account."
I think people see that and people see that and kind of go like, "Oh, well, you know, gosh, like he must have a really great life or he must have a really great life." And I'm telling you, I'm on the board of both Pen America and the Author's Guild. And I know plenty of writers and it's not, it's not what you think, but it doesn't matter because if you want to read and write and create books, you're going to do it anyway.
Teresa: I think you're so right. I know one of my favorite writers, Jia Tolentino is at The New Yorker. I think she very much looks like that. Like if you make it, it'll be everything. And I don't know.
I think that is very important to say because I think that it is a balance between doing what you want, but are you willing to like risk it all for, for that profession?
Min Jin Lee: I think Jia, I know her a teeny tiny bit on social media and she's a lovely person and I think she would never mislead anyone to think that she has it all.
Teresa: Right, right, right. Yeah.
Min Jin Lee: She's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I don't know what her personal situation is, but just because she's an attractive, talented writer doesn't mean that she's got all the life's problems solved. And I'm sure she'd be the first person to tell you that.
Teresa: Yeah, well obviously, not on purpose. She would never, but I don't know. It seems, it seems like an idealistic life you know?
Min Jin Lee: Absolutely. Yeah. And also, she has to take her lumps too like everybody does Being a public person, you get all the goodies, but you also get people, people will knock you.
Sam: How do you know where to end your stories? Do you feel like you naturally come to an end, or do you just write until it feels like the right time to end the story?
Min Jin Lee: Well, always try to remember why you wrote the story. What is it that you wanted to say? If you know what you want to say, it's a very different than thing than saying I want to write a story or I want to write an essay. You'll know you're done when you finish saying what you wanted to say.
So, if I wanted to say, "I love you," and if I say "I love you" in a story or an essay then I'm done. But if I didn't get there then I'm not done yet.
Sam: That makes sense.
Min Jin Lee: Always remember what your argument is. And I know that your sixth-grade composition teacher probably said to you, "Well, what's your thesis statement?" It's not that different. As a matter of fact, you'll always know when a TV show, or film, or a story sucks, it's because they don't know what they want to say.
Teresa: Hmm. That's very true. I think that's also why it's hard to nail endings. Cause I feel like a lot of the times you realize that the creator got lost somewhere in between.
Sam: Yeah. A lot of the time when I write, I feel like what I want to say changes a lot.
Min Jin Lee: And that's fine, but you have to go back and start again then. I mean that's kind of a pain. Most people don't want to do that, but you're absolutely right. When you're really truly writing --I tell this to my students -- what you end up saying might be different than what you started and that's why the work looks confused. So that as soon as you know what you want to say, go back and start again.
Sam: Okay, thank you for that advice. That's actually going to really help my writing.
Teresa: Before we go, do you have one book recommendation? And do you have any advice or words of wisdom to leave us with?
Min Jin Lee: Well the words of wisdom I can share with you is to try to always choose the important over the urgent. Choose the important over the urgent. And by that, I mean sometimes there will be things in your life when you feel like, "Oh, I got to take care of that." But sometimes it violates what's really important to you. And this is another way you can have a stronger muscle to say no to things that are really stupid in your life.
Someone will say like, "Oh, I really want you to go and do this with me." And they're kind of like harping at you about it, but then you have to remember what's really important. You know, maybe I'm supposed to go visit my sick friend, or maybe I'm supposed to do my paper that I promised to do that's more important than someone saying let's go watch a TV show.
Or, sometimes the TV show is actually more important because your friend is really down then you going to another meeting that you don't care about. So just ask yourself what's really important rather than what feels urgent to you. So that's the most important thing that I'd love to share with, especially younger people, but even old people like me. You need to remember that all the time.
The book that I could recommend. Let's see. Hmm. There are so many. Well, I just finished reading Vivian Gornick's book on writing. It's called The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. I think that's terrific.
Another really terrific book is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. That's a really terrific collection of essays that you may enjoy.
Teresa: Got it. I will definitely look into it and take your advice when I have those moments where I'm like, "I don't want to do this, but I feel should."
Min Jin Lee: That kind of advice will really make everything clear. Especially when you have a sense of morality, it's kind of like what's really important versus what feels urgent.