An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Min Jin Lee
Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition, 14 November 2017)
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017, and a USA Today Top 10 Books of 2017 amongst others. Pachinko is a sprawling novel that highlights the historical oppression of Koreans in Japan by chronicling the cultural struggle of four generations of one family at the beginning of the 20th century right through to Tokyo in 1989.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Lee, thank you for talking to Authorlink today about your truly beautiful novel, Pachinko which we thoroughly enjoyed. Pachinko, as our readers might know, is a 203 billion dollar business in Japan with double the export revenues of the Japanese car industry. One out of 11 people in Japan play pachinko. What inspired you to feature this game as the cornerstone of your story?
Like any adult gambling game, the game of pachinko is rigged. …life can also feel rigged where we, the players, are likely to lose
LEE: Like any adult gambling game, the game of pachinko is rigged. Consequently, the odds favor the house. That said, life can also feel rigged where we, the players, are likely to lose. Especially for the Korean-Japanese and also for us, I thought pachinko serves as a metaphor for the inequities of life and yet, our need to keep playing.
AUTHORLINK: We understand you discovered the subject of Korean-Japanese immigrants and their descendants, ‘the Zainichi’ (Japanese for “staying in Japan temporarily), at university back in 1989. The plight of the Korean in Japan, which tends to admire monoracialism, has been downplayed for quite some time and was a subject ripe for exposure. Pachinko has been picked up by publishers in more than a dozen countries, including Turkey and Poland, yet it has not found one in Japan (as of the date of this interview). Why do you think this is?
LEE: In defense of Japanese publishers, perhaps they prefer a native Korean-Japanese to write this story. There are several Korean-Japanese authors who have written fiction and non-fiction about their lives. My book is the first novel to be written for adults, originally in English, about the Korean-Japanese people. I am not a Korean-Japanese. That said, at this point in time, this book will be translated into 23 languages. I have had great interest for a Japanese translation from Japanese readers, but Japanese publishers have not yet expressed interest.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. In the past, you practised as a lawyer. One month, you had billed about 300 hours and felt you had, ‘enough’. You quit when you were about 25 in 1995 but didn’t succeed in publishing your first novel, Free Food for Millionaires (Grand Central Publishing), until 22 May 2007. Were you writing fiction during all that time? Working? Raising a family? All of the above?
LEE: I wrote some fiction in college, but I was not serious about being a writer. Even now, I think of writing as hard work, but I don’t think about it so much as a career. It is difficult to make a living as a writer. I was recently turned down for two MFA positions, one editor position, and four fellowships. I did get two fellowships however, so I am grateful for 2018-9.
AUTHORLINK: That’s remarkable (and rather worrying!) You once made this comment, (Bookpage, February 2017) “In an increasingly polarized world with great economic, educational and socio-cultural disparities, I want to believe that we can turn to narratives to empathize with all the parties who participate in both inclusion and exclusion.” Can you kindly expand on this?
I believe that through well-crafted fiction, it is possible for readers to feel deeply for those persons and stories outside of their experience.
LEE: I believe that through well-crafted fiction, it is possible for readers to feel deeply for those persons and stories outside of their experience. This is how I understand the fact that I have read great Western literature and have felt seen by writers who are unlike me.
AUTHORLINK: Both your debut and Pachinko novels are written in the third person omniscient point of view where the narrator knows the viewpoints of each character, at all times. In Western literature, omniscient narration was the popular style in the nineteenth century, and we understand is your favourite point of view for community narratives. Would you agree that writing omniscient POV can sometimes be tricky? Does it come easily to you? Can you think of an example of when it is not written effectively?
LEE: Omniscient point of view is difficult to accomplish, and it took me over a decade to figure it out. Above all, it requires sympathy for all characters and fairness.
AUTHORLINK: How do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer since you wrote your first (unpublished) book? What is your usual writing schedule like? For instance, how may words do you like to write a day? Do you have any writing rituals?
LEE: I write whenever I can because I have many other requirements in my life unrelated to writing. Before I write, I read a chapter of the Bible. I pray. I read research. I drink coffee. I eat almonds. I clean my desk. Then I write.
As in life, there are people I don’t look forward to seeing, and in my work, there were characters I felt frightened by . . . ,
AUTHORLINK: You once said this, “As in life, there are people I don’t look forward to seeing, and in my work, there were characters I felt frightened by, or knew there would be danger or injury when they showed up. I had to ask myself why I was afraid or why I dreaded them.” (Lit Pub, 04/25/12) Can you elaborate?
LEE: I think my job is to figure out what is hard about life. I read for insight, and it is my job to earn insight. Dramatizing scenes can help us understand motivation and needed actions. Fiction is the space where I do this. Conflict exists when you have things that trouble you internally or externally. Difficult characters cause trouble. For fiction, this is a great thing.
AUTHORLINK: You intend to turn your work on the Korean experience into a trilogy. Your first book, Free Food for Millionaires, focused on the experience of Koreans in America, and Pachinko focuses on Koreans in Japan. Tell us about your third book.
My metaphysical questions are: How do you live a wise life? How do you parent wisely? How can a child be wise? What is wisdom?
LEE: I will write AMERICAN HAGWON next, and I am interested in understanding the role and value of education for Koreans around the world. My metaphysical questions are: How do you live a wise life? How do you parent wisely? How can a child be wise? What is wisdom?
AUTHORLINK: Those are all very interesting themes. And finally, just for fun, if you could invite any three people over for dinner, who would they be and why?
LEE: Robin Williams, George Eliot, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. —Believe it or not, I think they’d get along and like each other.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds like a brilliant dinner party! Ms Lee, it was so wonderful to talk to you today. Thank you for your time. We wish your continued success in the future.
LEE: Thank you so much.
About the Author Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires was a Top 10 Novels of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her writings have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The Times of London, Vogue, Travel+Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine. Her essays and literary criticism have been anthologized widely. She served as a columnist for the Chosun Ilbo, the leading paper of South Korea.
From 2007-2011, she lived in Tokyo where she researched and wrote Pachinko, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017, a USA Today Top 10 Books of 2017, and an American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next Great Reads. She lives in New York with her family.