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Culture Q&A

Min Jin Lee

A novelist’s struggles

Author Min Jin Lee says writing isn’t a career—it’s a vocation

A novelist’s struggles

Min Jin Lee (Frank McGrath/The Irish Independent/Eyevine/Redux)

Min Jin Lee, born in South Korea, came to the United States in 1976 when she was 7 years old. She grew up in Queens, New York City, went to church, and worked behind the counter of her family jewelry store. She graduated from Yale, survived a serious liver disease, persevered through writing disappointments, and became a National Book Award finalist last year for her novel Pachinko. It’s really well-written, as is her first novel, so I wanted to interview her in front of some Patrick Henry College students who are aspiring writers.

What was your initial reaction to this amazing place called America? We came to JFK, the airport, and it looked exactly like Seoul but without Korean people. I was really disappointed because I thought America was going to be like Cinderella, with stagecoaches and ball gowns and people wearing party dresses. But America was also wondrous because it had all these cool things that we didn’t have in Korea when I was growing up, like peanut butter. Delicious. I love peanut butter.

Amen. Yes, hallelujah, peanut butter. America also had something rare and expensive in Korea: bananas. My uncle bought us an enormous tub filled with bananas—now I know it’s a cheap fruit—and said, “Eat as many as you’d like.” I’m thinking, “What a great country.”

Some people dream of pairing certain foods and certain wines, but the best pairing is peanut butter and banana. Absolutely. Couldn’t get any better.

Were you one of those kids who starts scribbling and writing stories? Not at all. I never thought I was going to be a writer. I’m a good reader—quick, thorough, understanding plot—but I didn’t think people like me (working-class, Korean-American) became writers. Today, kindergarten kids come home and say, “I published a story today.” They’ll show you four pieces of paper folded together with staples and say, “I’m an author.” I didn’t have that liberating feeling.

Why did you go to Yale? Because I got in and because my favorite writer, Sinclair Lewis, had gone there. If he had not, I would not have applied. Totally true.

You won two writing awards there. Yes, by a fluke.

How did you start writing? I was in a writing seminar where my socioeconomic class revealed itself very quickly. There were all these things I didn’t know. You’re sitting at a big oval table and I’m the rube in the room—and also the only nonwhite person. One day we were critiquing a story that mentioned Stonehenge. I raised my hand like an idiot and said, “Stonehenge? I don’t know what that is. Maybe you should define what that is for the reader who doesn’t know.” All the kids turned around and looked at me: Are you stupid? A lot of those kids had visited Stonehenge.

But your story, not theirs, won Yale’s writing award for best nonfiction story. What was it about? My mother, who endured so many things about coming to America. It was personal but it was blind admissions, so you didn’t put your name down. It won and I thought, “Maybe I’ll do that again.” I took a fiction class. The teacher cut out a tiny article from The New York Times where four little girls had attempted suicide because they were so poor: They did it to make sure their younger brother had money for school fees. The teacher gave me this little piece of news and said, “Why don’t you write something about it?” I did and submitted that. It won a prize.

Two for two. Two for two, I know. And still I thought, “I’ll go to law school because that’s a real job.”

Parental pressure there? No—I didn’t think I could make a living as a writer. Even now, I’m almost 50 and considered a successful writer, and it’s really hard. I was just turned down for two teaching positions. I didn’t get four fellowships this year. That was right after the National Book Award finalist.

You’re a National Book Award finalist. What does it take to get a fellowship? I have no idea, but I did get two fellowships from the eight I applied for. Not two for two anymore. But I only needed to have one, so two is good.

You graduated from Yale and then Georgetown Law School. You went into corporate law. How many billable hours did you accumulate? The month that I quit, I billed 300 hours. If you’re an honest person, you’re actually in the office about 350 to 360. I was there every single day and the only time I left was to go to church on Sunday—and I’d come right back.

Was there a certain breaking point: 300 hours a month? It was exactly that. I was a very good baby lawyer because I’m compliant. If you tell me, “Min Jin, read 12 boxes of documents,” I’ll say OK and will read every page and write the due diligence report. After 300 hours I had finished the task. I went to the partner and thought he would tell me to go home to rest. But I just got another assignment. I said to him, “I quit.”

Actually those words: “I quit?” “I quit. I can’t do this anymore.” Once I said it, I knew I wouldn’t go back.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Lee at the 68th National Book Awards ceremony in New York (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

At this point you’re married, and you go home planning to write. Were you also interested in having children? No. I wasn’t thinking about kids. When I was growing up, I didn’t want to get married and I didn’t want to have children. The fact that it has happened to me is a marvel. I got married at 24 because my husband asked me to and he was really attractive. I thought, “OK, I guess I’ll get married.” It worked out. This year is our 25th anniversary. I wouldn’t have had kids except that my husband is such a nice person and he’s very principled. I thought, “He’s more patient than I am. Maybe this could work.” So I had a child, Sam, when I was 29.

You found you liked being a mother? I love being a mom, but it’s really humbling. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It makes novel writing look like a joke.

When you left corporate law, you had one income rather than two in New York City, a very expensive place to live, and then came financial problems involving relatives. Was the question “Where’s the money coming from?” going through your head? It’s still going through my head. I could’ve stayed being a lawyer and we’d have a lot more money, but the work I produce is important to me. I was really worried about it last year because my husband lost his job, but then he got a job, so we’re fine. We have health insurance again, which is huge, and the two fellowships, which shows that someone believes in my future. 

Besides the financial problems you had health problems: You had only a couple of hours of energy a day, and you wanted to save those for Sam. I had cirrhosis of the liver. From the moment I delivered my son until he was about 3, my energy level was terrible. I had inflammation in both of my wrists, and if I was going up the stairs, my tendons really hurt. After different diagnoses I had surgery, and my doctor put me on an experimental treatment with interferon-b for six months. I became cured. It was like a miracle. Many people haven’t been cured.

You had cirrhosis of the liver without ever drinking. I still don’t drink.

‘You [write] because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. … If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.’

So, financial problems, health problems, and writing problems. Your first novel was turned down. You wrote a second novel and decided it’s no good. It was terrible.

Were you starting to ask at this point, “Why me, Lord?” I’m the kind of gal who asks that all the time. I always feel whiny in my head, irritated at everything. I try hard not to share it with other people, but I have this “Ugh!” When I read the newspapers, I’m always angry because such horrible things are happening all the time and I know we’re all pretty horrible.

So you are Jacob wrestling with God. You wrestle a lot. Then what happens? I lose every time. If you believe it’s God, capital “G,” it’s not an equal relationship—but I do feel the sense of personal relationship. Most people think God is really angry. I think of God as very funny. I think God tolerates us like we look at puppies trying to move furniture: “Isn’t that cute? That puppy cannot move that sofa, and the puppy is really mad at the sofa.”

You still believe? Yeah, for me, this is it. I’m in it.

You don’t say “I quit” because God doesn’t quit on us. I am convinced. This is what I believe.

And you’re reading Hosea now? I’m always reading the Bible. Hosea is a book I really admire because it’s so troubling.

God tells Hosea, “Marry the prostitute.” God tells Hosea, a perfectly nice guy, go marry the town slut. That’s pretty much what it is. We shouldn’t use that word, but she’s very promiscuous. He knows she’s going to hurt his feelings, and God says, “I want you to do it, Hosea, so you’ll know what it’s like when you cheat on me.” What an interesting, very troubling idea. 

God composes very interesting stories. I always think about God being a writer because the Word is so important, and whenever I’m in this whole publishing world, I think of God as a writer and a publisher.

When your health gets better and you’re able to write, you’re struggling. I’m still struggling. Writing is really hard. Fiction students or earnest fiction writers come to my readings and go, “What do I do? How do I get published?” I say, “Forget that it’s a career. It’s a vocation. It’s really, really difficult. Earn a living somewhere else.” I know very successful writers, and they don’t make money from selling their books. You do it because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. It will not redeem all the pain and suffering in your life. It’s something you feel called to write. If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.

When you look back at your two published novels, do you think all the struggles were worth it? I’m proud of my work. It’s really cool in the Old Testament where Bezalel and others craft parts of the tabernacle. I like the idea of being a craftsperson. I don’t think of myself as this big intellectual or artist. I want to make something really beautiful. I want it to shimmer and to stand the test of time, but do I think it’s really worth all that? I’m really not sure. Last year was really not pretty—and that was considered my best year. So I don’t know.

You wrote a story in which your main character reads a chapter from the Bible every morning. In “Axis of Happiness,” one of my very few first-person stories, I had my main character do that because I thought it was so weird. In my world of New York writers nobody reads the Bible. 

Did you decide to start your day that way? For a time I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times every day. I would think inspiration will come. It did not come. I was writing every day, but it wasn’t really good. Then one day I read that Willa Cather, a fiction writer I love, read a chapter of the Bible every single day before she began work. I started to do that. Later on, my mother’s best friend from childhood gave me a study Bible at my wedding.

Great wedding gift. I didn’t think so at the time: Great, a Bible. I wasn’t a grateful person. I told you there’s something wrong with me. But I had time, I didn’t have a job, so I would read the chapter, then read the commentary, then read the chapter again. Then I’d pull a verse that sometimes consoled, but most likely troubled me: Why is that in there? I would write it down in a notebook. I’ve done that since 1995, read the Bible like that five or six times. It’s such a foundational, incredible, beautiful work of art. It has helped me to understand story better, and I feel very inspired by it. Now that I’m older and have cataracts, I even bought the large print.

Lots of Christian aspiring writers enter the Christian subculture: “Christian” fiction, “Christian” movies. You don’t live in that world. No, I don’t. Most people are really surprised when I tell them I go to church. They’re like, “You?” How many people read The Hobbit and refuse to believe Tolkien is Christian? That’s what’s interesting about art: Multiple audiences can perceive it. At the same time, I do know that the Christian publishing market is a very big one. It’s probably more lucrative than literary nonfiction, where you’re lucky if you sell 2,000 copies.

Sometimes “Christian novels” means “clean novels”—but some WORLD readers didn’t like my recommendation of Pachinko because it includes F-bombs. Yes. A lot. And there’s sex.

Some readers ask, “Why are you recommending to us a book with bad words and sex?” How would you respond to complaint letters? Well, I am a Presbyterian and Presbyterians are probably the dullest Christians—but we’re pretty accurate textually. The Bible has explicit sex. There’s prostitution, illegitimacy, murder.

And in Jesus’ family line. In Jesus’ family line. If you are a Christian and believe in God, there’s a lot of room for discussion. You can’t seal yourself off from everything that you disagree with.

Should novels leave us feeling happy, with things working out so the world makes sense? I don’t believe in the pursuit of happiness. I always tell students, “I want you to be good, to do the right thing. I want you to learn as much as you can. Happiness will come now and then, but the pursuit of it will make you miserable. The idea that everybody’s always happy all the time, and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you, makes so many of you miserable. So try to be decent.”

How do the students process that? They always go “ugh.” But I tell them there are seasons in your life when you’re not going to be happy. People get sick. People lose jobs. People get injured. They have every right to be grieving, and it may take a long time for them to heal. There’s a lot of evidence in the Bible where people aren’t enjoying God at the moment. They’re throwing things at Him.

He doesn’t zap Abraham for giving Him some back talk and asking questions. I love the story of Job so much because Job gets to do this and Job is constantly saying things like, “Just curse me and let me die,” and I think, “Sure. I would say that, too, if I was covered in boils. Sure.”