I'm thrilled to be here today with Min Jin Lee. Min Jin Lee is the award-winning bestselling author of Pachinko, a multigenerational novel about a Korean family and the Korean diaspora. Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and a New York Times “Ten Best Books of the Year” in 2017. It will be translated into twenty-four languages. Her first book, Free Food for Millionaires, was also a national bestseller. Min Jin Lee has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and many other notable publications. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018. Born in Seoul, Korea, Min moved to Queens and graduated from Bronx Science High School, where she was inducted into the Bronx Science Hall of Fame, and then went on to Yale University winning prizes in both fiction and nonfiction. Now based in Boston, she will be a writer-in-residence at Amherst College from 2019 to 2020.
You’ve said that you worked on the story Pachinko for almost thirty years. You've written it and rewritten it multiple times, even starting completely from scratch in 2008. I want to know what it felt like the minute you threw the draft away and then you had to sit back down at your computer and start over again. When the cursor was blinking, that moment, what was that like? What did that feel like? How did you motivate to start it again and then again?
Min Jin Lee: I'm really familiar at feeling discouraged, so it helps. It’s kind of funny. At the same time, it’s also something that I realize about not expecting very much from what you do. I have really low expectations of outcome. I feel very committed to my projects. I'm also really slow. No one’s expecting this. I didn't have a contract. I don't work on some sort of contract basis. I work on spec, so it was okay. I decided that nobody cares anyway, so I might as well just do it. I know that sounds really strange. In a way, not having expectations is really freeing. A lot of people get blocked because they have all these expectations of how this book is going to somehow save their lives. It’s going to give them money, power, and glory. I've never actually met a writer who has any of those things. Let that go. [laughs]
Zibby: When you actually finished, how did it feel? Did you feel this enormous sense of accomplishment once you said, “This is my final draft. I'm done”? To see it come out, what does it feel like?
Min: I felt free. This project is not normal. I don't think most writers work on books for almost three decades. After I finished and they agreed to publish it, I felt this sense of “I'm free.” I don't have to work on this book anymore. The fact that it’s been well received, that's totally gravy. I did not expect that. I didn't think anybody would care about six hundred thousand people. That's pretty much how many Korean-Japanese there are in the world today. I wrote this thing. It was really hard to do. For some reason, I felt called to write it. I didn't think people would actually buy this book. The fact that it’s doing so well, that's a real mystery.
Zibby: It’s not a mystery. It’s so good. It’s dense and powerful and full of heartbreak and ups and downs. I'm sure you know. Whatever you did over those years…
Min: Thank you. It’s not about being modest. If you really think about it, why would anybody care about these people? They haven't before. This is the first book ever written for adults about the Korean-Japanese in the world in English as a novel form. I used to think nobody wants this book. That's the reason why when I finished it, I could forget about it and go to the next thing. It almost felt like somebody put a spell on me. I had to go finish it. I was like, “The spell is broken. Now I can be free.” I figured if it does well, great. If it doesn't do well, that's to be expected.
Zibby: It goes back to what you were saying in the Literary Affairs Escape that you spoke at today. It’s not really about just this group of people. It’s about all humanity and family. Everyone can relate to that.
Min: And parenting. It became about parenting, which was not in the first version because I became a parent. I don't think I realized just how much I would change as a result of being a mother. My son’s going to be twenty-one. That space of twenty-one years, that really dovetails in with the period that I was working on with the book, especially with the versions that were working. In a way, every aspect of parenting really fit into this book. What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to have children? What does it mean to have wishes for your child which you can't fulfil? That was a really important thing. As I get older, I think, “I want all these things.” I realize, “Does he want all these things?” Also, everything that he wants, will he get them? If I have to witness him getting things and not getting things, it’s so hard. It’s really different than when I don't get things that I want.
Zibby: It’s so much worse.
Min: It’s so much worse.
Zibby: It’s heartbreaking. You had this passage, speaking of mother-daughter relationships and parenting. You have a mother-daughter scene towards the end of the book with Hana and Etsuko, mother and daughter, and Etsuko sitting reflecting about the difficulty of their relationship and what ended up happening in the family. You wrote, “When Etsuko had been a young mother, there used to be only one time in her waking hours when she felt a kind of peace, and that was always after her children went to bed for the night. She longed to see her sons as they were back then. She wished she could take back the times she had scolded her children just because she was tired. There were so many errors. If life allowed revisions, she would let him stay in their bath a little longer, read them one more story before bed, and fix them another plate of shrimp.” That got to me. I feel like that's every parent’s -- what they say, right? It goes so fast. You wish you could go back. All the mistakes, then you're left sitting there. They're grown up. When you're in it, there's too much.
Min: There's too much. You're so tired. You want things to be according to your plan. Children don't go according to your plan. If you really think about it, it’s the real gift of having these children and being with them. You don't see it at that moment. I was holding this baby earlier today. Her name is Esther. She's so little and this perfect little bundle. I thought to myself, “I wish I had been as grateful as I am right this moment when I had my own son.” That felt interminable to me. When will he walk? All of a sudden, he's running. Now, he’s in college. I'm holding Esther and I thought, “What a gift it is just to hold this little person,” and her not crying. That was a gift.
Zibby: That is a gift. [laughs] In terms of the process of writing Pachinko, how did you keep all the storylines straight?
Min: Outline. I outline a lot. For my second book I used a software called Scrivener which is an academic and nonfiction software. Usually, people who write dissertations and nonfiction books use this. It’s a very organizing software. I used it because there was so much research.
Zibby: You said earlier you do about a hundred interviews for each book.
Min: Easily. Usually more. Sometimes they're fifteen-minute interviews. Sometimes they're actually several days long. I could take a class. That's a whole semester. I do it because it makes me feel confident about my subject matter. I'm very confident about my subject matters after I finish my book because at that point, I know it. I produce so little. I only have two books. Also, I was a parent. I was really busy. I'm a full-time mom. Writing was my second thing. It’s true. It didn't pay anything. No one was paying me to do it. It was my job to deal with the dishwasher and the laundry and show up to PTA. I did all those things.
Zibby: I think there's this belief fiction is just what's going on in your head. You just write up all these stories. Yours is not really like that. Yours is serious historical fiction with a lot of real-life influences throughout.
Min: That was my second thing, though. My first thing was really being a parent. If I had to clock my hours in a spreadsheet, you would see that most of my time was spent being a mom.
Zibby: I won't ask you to compute your billable hours for this session. In the book, Hansu is a real central character. In fact, it was Sunja’s first interactions with him that ended up changing the whole trajectory of everyone's life in the whole book. I found as a reader that my feelings towards Hansu kept shifting. I don't know if that was deliberate on your part. I was wondering. I wanted to ask you. At times, I really hated him. At times, I felt very grateful to what he was doing for the family. Sometimes I felt pity, like towards the end. How did you feel about Hansu? Would you want Hansu to be a person in your life?
Min: Yes, but I wouldn't let him be my lover. When you have a person like that who's that powerful, they're really intoxicating to be around. They can make things happen. It’s very cool to have somebody make things happen. You and I have all these wishes. Imagine if you could just call somebody and go, “By the way, could you get my friend a job? Can you make this building open for me for the use that I need?” He's that kind of person who could just make it happen. Doors open. That said, if that person became your lover or the father of your children, they have that same level of control. You become the thing that they control. That's very different. In my experience with meeting people like that, you want them in your life in a way, but you have to be really careful about how much intimacy you have with them. I always tell women, “Don't sleep with Hansu.” Don't do it.
Zibby: [laughs] Now, I won't. Before…no, I'm kidding.
Min: He's very sexy. I think people like that are very sexy.
Zibby: The confidence too.
Min: Sure. The confidence, the power, the ability to move the dial, it’s very cool.
Zibby: In fact, you address this in the book in the beginning. Hansu says to Sunja -- I'm sorry if I'm pronouncing these wrong, by the way -- “People are rotten everywhere you go. They're no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let's see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.” Do you believe that? You said earlier you believe that empathy is inversely proportional to power. As power goes up, the empathy levels go down. Do you think people, when they achieve power, become bad?
Min: I think when you have an extraordinary amount of power, you have to work very hard to check yourself. We need to have checks and balances all the time. Your heart is filled with things that you want. Sometimes what happens is you can become more comprising with your ethics. You think, “I'm a good person and I want this, so it’s okay if I fudge a little bit here.” That's when you start to get in trouble. That’s the reason why you have to become more transparent about what you're doing to other people. Someone could say, “I know you want that. I know that you're a good person, but that's a little shady.” I find that a lot of really powerful people aren’t transparent. They justify that because they're benevolent, it’s okay that they're authoritarian. It happens. That's really what I found. I don't have that kind of power. I think if I did, I would have to become more transparent with other people, especially people who are going to be brave enough to tell me the truth. You can become isolated from people who are willing to confront you. We all need to be confronted.
Zibby: That’s why you have to keep people from back in the day, right?
Min: Right, to keep you honest.
Zibby: It’s like the guys in Entourage, have to keep those guys from way back when. I don't want to give anything away about anything in the book, but the scene that you wrote when Isak returns home was so heartbreaking. I was literally covering my eyes and trying to read it through my eyes, opening it. It was like a movie. I felt like that scene was happening to me. Do you get overwhelmed by emotion the that way I was getting overwhelmed by emotion at that scene? Do you ever find when you're writing that your eyes are tearing up or your heart is pounding?
Min: Absolutely. I have so many feelings. They're very uncomfortable. I'm very uncomfortable with the fact that I feel so much. When I was younger, I used to think it was really bad that I had all these feelings. As I've gotten older, I realize that's where I'm really strong. I'm very good at feeling things. I'm very good at recognizing other people's feelings of certain things. I realize I have to use that in my fiction. When I am working on difficult scenes, I do sob all the time. Part of my job is to stay there sobbing and to finish the scene rather than walking away. Do I always have that courage? No. I do eat a lot of cookies. “You've had the cookie. Now, go back to your desk and finish your sobbing and finish that scene.” [laughs] It’s uncomfortable because you don't know if that scene will destroy you or that feeling is too much. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much.
Zibby: I know what you mean. Kyunghee and Yoseb’s marriage was really complicating and heartbreaking itself. When I was writing out my questions, every question I wanted to say was, “This is heartbreaking.” [laugh] Your book should've just been Pachinko #heartbreak or something. Everything is heartbreaking.
Min: You know what Carly Simon says?
Zibby: What's that?
Min: She says in the song, “Don't mind if I fall apart, there's more room in a broken heart.” I love that. I love this idea that after your heart is broken, there's actually a lot more room. We were constricted by having our heart intact. A part of me always feels like you have to make a mess sometimes. Then somehow, you'll become a more expansive person. I think it’s a good thing. I'm sorry if I made you cry.
Zibby: It’s okay. It’s all right. This particular woman in the book shows so much strength and selflessness. She becomes this ultimate model of not thinking about herself at all despite all the challenges which kept piling up throughout the book. What do you think made her that way? Do you think it was this whole culture-wide mandate that you reference in the book about a woman’s, not just right, but obligation to suffer, [indiscernible] I think you called it?
Min: Her lot is to suffer. [indiscernible].
Zibby: [indiscernible], suffering. Was that just something that she inherited? Was it a good thing that she was so selfless and suffering? Should we feel sorry for her?
Min: I don't think that it’s a good thing that women suffer.
Zibby: Not the suffering, obviously. Sorry.
Min: I know what you're saying. Her selflessness and her suffering -- you're absolutely right -- it’s almost a cultural mandate. For so many women of this generation, including today if you look at the fairy tales in South Korea and Korea, basically throughout the history of time, it is about women should sacrifice and suffer and forget about their own happiness and their joy. I find that to be very problematic. I don't like it. I want women to be empowered and happy and fulfilled and all those things.
That said, it’s realistic to say if you love somebody, you will sacrifice. You will suffer. You can't always have your way. Being a parent, oh my goodness. You're going to have to give up a lot of things to be a parent. Yet if you do, you also get to be part of something that's much bigger than you. It’s one of these trade-offs about love. Whenever you love somebody, you have to give up something about yourself. As I get older, the more I realize it’s a privilege to be in a loved relationship, whether it’s vertical or horizontal or diagonal. Whatever kind of love relationship that you're in, it does require negotiations and compromises and some suffering.
Zibby: It’s true, and some suffering. You were so funny, what you said in the lunch how people are sending you messages on Twitter. “Page 414, what's going on? How could you do that?” What happens with Noa in the book, again, heartbreaking in this portrait of him. I was wondering what makes you want to write these heartbreaking stories? Did something happen in your life that made you want to explore this pain element or the inner workings of people's hearts and the tragedies?
Min: I study Aristotle’s Poetics. Part of the thing that he writes about, about the way tragedy works, is that when the viewer of the play, of the tragedy, experiences catharsis, then you have done for the viewer what the viewer needs. We all need to experience catharsis. All of us are carrying this pain within us. Art has the power to release that emotion. It’s really cool for me to create something that can make you feel this catharsis. Also, I'm feeling it when I'm making it. You're absolutely right. There's something in me that has all this pain. I'm trying to figure out how do I get this thing out? Ideally, it’s not just about releasing it. How do I create something beautiful and intact and a kind of model in which you can experience catharsis and become more whole? We don't want to be carrying that pain around. If you could feel more connected to your sense of why you have a family and what you want with your family and your sense of history, you become a bigger person and more powerful person as a result of it. It’s worth releasing that pain. Most of us are kind of frozen because of the pain that we have. I do see that quite a lot, people stuck in a certain pattern.
Zibby: Yup. Thanks for giving us a vehicle.
Min: I hope so, even in a little way, even in a small way. It’s really something that I want to do.
Zibby: Going back to the beginning of your career for a second, when did you know you were a writer? Do you still not even consider -- you're so self-deprecating. You're going to say, “I'm not a writer.” [laughs]
Min: I feel like a writer, but I don't think that I'm the same writer that I was when I started. It took me a really long time to figure out that I know what I'm doing. It took me a really long time. It took me the twelve years to publish my first book. After I published it, I thought, “I know how to do this omniscient thing.” Most people don't do this anymore. I really have figured it out. That was really amazing. Then I thought, “My second book, I'm going to figure out how to write that book.” I knew how to do the craft of it. I didn't know how to do the subject. For Pachinko, I kept on trying to approach the subject in every different corner. I couldn't get it in it. It wasn’t the craft part. The craft part took a really long time to figure out. In terms of when did decide I was a writer? I think you're a writer if you're writing. I don't think you're a writer because you're publishing. In terms of how you perceive your own talent level and your skill level, that takes a really long time. It does.
Zibby: You said earlier today, which I hadn’t read anywhere else about you -- I tried to dig up what I could learn -- that you didn't speak, really, until middle school.
Min: Yeah. I didn't really talk to other kids.
Zibby: I had a lot of social anxiety as a kid too. What you were saying about not being able to figure out how to enter into a conversation, I had this one summer where I was travelling in France with this whole group. I just couldn't talk. I just couldn't. I felt paralyzed. I spent a lot of time thinking about language and conversation. How is it so easy, usually? I would watch everybody else talking, and thinking, “How were they doing that? It’s coming so naturally to them.” What you were saying earlier today about your experience, that you would just watch and not jump in made you feel like such an oddball. I related to that.
Min: I read a lot of interactions. Reading interactions in fiction really helped me, as well as observing other kids. Then I would watch these other children and young women who are so successful socially. I would think to myself, “I can't do that.” I don't look like them. I don't know how to have that sort of manner. It took me a really long time to figure out they're really just being themselves. They have given this freedom away of being liked. At some point, I decided I'm going to be okay if they don't like me. I know I'm a little off. That, again, gave me a kind of freedom. Maybe two people will like me and ten will not -- that's not terrible odds -- rather than thinking I'm going to get all twelve people to like me.
Zibby: You can't please everyone.
Min: No. Also, I decided that I would like all twelve people. That was a huge decision for me too. I decided forget about the response. What will be my action? I'm going to like all twelve of them and try to see them for their intentions. That gave me a lot of power in the social dynamic.
Zibby: I agree. Being nice to everybody is the way to go. Everybody has something to offer.
Min: I totally agree. I do. Even the most reprehensible person still wants to be loved. I really have seen that. I've interviewed a lot of people who do very, very bad things. I'm going, “Oh, my goodness. What am I going to do with you? You are not nice.” Then I think, “You probably have a mom. What is she thinking when she sees you? She probably thinks that you're the apple of her eye even though you have done not-good things.”
Zibby: Or, what happened to you that made you want to do that?
Min: Yes. I think about that a lot. I think about, “What would your mother think, or the person who delights in you?” Somebody delights in you, at least I hope so. You hope so, that somebody loves you in this spectacular way, not just tolerates you, but just adores you. What is he or she thinking about you? I want to see what that is. Even if I don't feel that way, I want to understand that. Somehow, you're appealing to somebody.
Zibby: You're writing, now, another book? The third part of this Korean diaspora trilogy? What's that called? What's that going to be about, if you can say?
Min: Absolutely. It’s called American Hagwon, H-A-G-W-O-N. A hagwon is a for-profit tutoring center. A very simple explanation would be like Kumon. That's a hagwon. You send your kid for enrichment. They become better in math or English or something, or SAT tutoring. You send your kid to get SAT tutoring. In South Korea today starting at the age of four, children start getting enrichment tutoring, even before starting kindergarten. I am writing about these tutoring centers that are all over the world like Koreans start. Now, it’s not just Koreans who go to these tutoring centers. Other people go too. This book will be set in Los Angeles and Boston and Sydney and London and New York and Washington DC, that area. I'm writing about the tutors themselves, who are often artists who are pursuing dreams. They need to make money. I'm also writing about the parents, who have these wishes for their children. I'm also writing about the young people, who are the students themselves. It’ll be a very global book. The question that I'm asking is, how do you live a wise life?
Zibby: That sounds great.
Min: I hope so.
Zibby: Are you on any sort of timetable for this?
Min: I'm in the interview stage right now and also doing field work. I actually go visit the sites. It’s really nice because it dovetails in very well with all of my touring.
Zibby: There you go. Are you going to check out some here in LA?
Min: Already have. Orange County, for example, has a very serious tutoring culture. I’ll be doing some more interviews with them at the end of December.
Zibby: We really love this place called Mathnasium. Have you heard of it?
Min: Oh, yeah. They have them around the country.
Zibby: We've been to a few of those, not the four-year olds.
Min: Mathnasium apparently makes math really fun and more of a game for kids, which is great.
Zibby: Totally. My daughter keeps asking me to go. I'm like, “You don't have to do this. You don't have to.” She's like, “That's what I want to do. I want to go.” Great. Okay.
Min: That's interesting. It’s not that I'm so pro-academic enrichment or I'm not. What I've noticed in the United States is an incredible stress towards sports. Sports are incredibly important in this country. I like sports a lot too. There's a lot of virtue in being in a team and also learning how to be personally excellent. If a kid says to you, “I really like math and science,” and they want to pursue this, why not?
Zibby: Exactly. You don't have to play lacrosse.
Min: People often make fun of kids and parents in this country if they focus on those things. No one would ever blink if you said I'm going to go to tennis camp in Florida and you're going to pay ten thousand dollars to go. If you said I'm going to spend ten thousand dollars a year on your kid going to a physics camp, people would roll their eyes. Why is that?
Zibby: You're right. Maybe people feel like you're trying to get ahead in some way, like it’s cheating or something. Do you know what I mean?
Min: If you play baseball and you pay ten thousand dollars, why is that not cheating?
Zibby: I don't know. You're right. You're absolutely right. Do you have any advice to any aspiring writers out there?
Min: The most important thing is reading. That's how I learn. I don't have an MFA. I would read the books that I really love. I would reread them, especially the ones that are truly great at point of view. That's the thing that I think is the most important decision that a fiction writer makes. Which point of view will I employ? For me, I chose omniscient, which meant that I had to study all the omniscient narratives and try to figure out how it’s done and how the transitions work. I was very mechanical in the way I approached it. The other thing that's harder than learning the skill is just staying with a project. That's really difficult because no one’s asking you for this book. For most of us, no one’s asking us for our books. To toil in obscurity or to toil in privacy, whichever way you look at it, that's difficult. The other thing that I think is curious is I think most of us have the wrong projects. This is very upsetting for people to hear this.
I had to recently write a letter for National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. It’s going to come out pretty soon. If you sign up for NaNoWriMo, you'll be getting a letter from me. One of the things that I try to share with people that I've worked with who are my students is a lot of the times you think you want to write a book about something, and that topic is very respectable. That respectable topic, whether it’s your grandfather who did something heroic or some important subject that commands attention, they sound great, but if they don't have your personal important questions tied up with it, you're not going to finish it.
I always say that the topic that you choose and the questions that you have, have to be as important as something intoxicating and alluring as something like an illicit love affair. It has to be that compelling that you would break public and social bonds. Then you'll get up in the morning every day and you'll work on your book. I really encourage people to find their very most important questions, the questions they're almost afraid to tell their best friend. Choose that question and try to answer it in your book. Then you'll do it.
Zibby: I love that. That's fantastic. Thank you so much. Thanks for doing this interview and coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Min: Thank you, Zibby.