Write What’s Growing in Your Heart, Advises Janice Y. K. Lee

March 31, 2009
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The Piano Teacher
The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y. K. Lee
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Reading the richly interwoven story of two women and the man they love in Janice Y. K. Lee's THE PIANO TEACHER it is hard to believe that it was originally a short story. Lee, who started writing fiction in junior high school and never stopped writing, used to find the short story “the most natural form” for her writing.

“THE PIANO TEACHER came out of a short story I wrote, and the short stories I write come out of an image or a moment that I want to capture. I had started reading about the war in Hong Kong, and that helped me place the story in a time and setting,” explained Lee.

From that beginning, Lee built a novel that alternates between Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion of World War II and its aftermath ten years later, and tells a tale of romance, intrigue and betrayal.

“I learned about writing in a setting where I could see how much work went into a single magazine page.”
—LEE

Lee honed her writing skills as a freelance writer and a former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines.

“I learned about writing in a setting where I could see how much work went into a single magazine page. You saw how you got the best possible writer, the best possible editor, and a lot of time and effort went into producing every single page. You learned to respect the work. It maddens me when people say, "Oh, I'd like to write a column for the magazine" or "I have an idea for a piece" and they never see how much competition and effort there is for opportunities like that," said Lee.

She applied similar methods and discipline to writing fiction.

“It helped that I learned how to spend a day in front of the computer and how to shape a piece of writing,” said Lee.

She attended the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College, The City University of New York.

“I think the main value of an MFA is a having a community of people who are taking writing as seriously as you are, and that may form your community going forward. Also, it forces you to write, so you will get some material out of it. I don't think an MFA program can teach anyone how to write,” said Lee.

“II have a hard time working straight through. I'm a very up-and-down writer.”
—LEE

She finds it hard to separate the demands of her everyday life and her writing life. “I always write in my study, at my desk, with all the accoutrements of my daily life close at hand (calendar, checkbook, to-do list) so I can manage my life as I work.”

“I try to sit at my desk from 8:30 to 12:30 and then have lunch with my children. However, those four hours are filled with many things, one of which is writing. I have a hard time working straight through. I'm a very up-and-down writer. I used to think this was bad and reflective of my efforts. Now I think it's just the way I work,” observed Lee.

Lee took five years to complete The Piano Teacher.

For magazine pieces and book reviews, she writes a few lines that come to her during the research or the reading of the book, that distill what she intends to say, and then works around those.

“I move things around a lot and move the bulk of the writing to the bottom of the page, most of which I will not use, and then I keep honing what I have above. This is how I also wrote short stories. For the novel, I did much longer, shaggier version of this,” noted Lee.

She didn’t work from an outline, but constructed one as she finished the end of The Piano Teacher.

“I realized I did need something to help me keep track of time and what had happened when, so I just wrote it out on a piece of paper. Not very sophisticated, but it worked,” noted Lee.

She immersed herself in memoirs by people who lived at the time, scanned newspapers on microfiche, and watched movies set in the time period.

"I had never written a novel and was unsure that that was something I could do."
—LEE

 

At first, Lee was daunted by the prospect of completing a novel length work.

“I had never written a novel and was unsure that that was something I could do. I thought my short stories were pretty good, but placing stories is so difficult, and I wanted to try writing something that more than a few hundred people might read. So I decided to write this novel, and didn't know what I was doing, but I persevered,” said Lee.

She worked on this book for five years, revising it as she went along, and only showed the manuscript to her agent, her husband and an old writing teacher.

She was introduced to her agent, Theresa Park, by her teacher, Chang-rae Lee, who “thought they might be a good fit.”

“My agent was very encouraging all along and so I kept at it. I finished it or, as I said, “could not look at this thing a minute longer” and sent it off to her, flaws and all,” said Lee.

She sold the book in October, got my editorial letter in November, finished revisions and handed it the final manuscript on Dec 13th just in time for the birth of her twins on December 17th.

She worked with Editor Kathryn Court at Viking Penguin to shape the final version of the book while she awaited the birth of her twins.

“It was a very friendly and cooperative interaction . . . I added around 30 pages, mostly to the ending, fine-tuning that. I also worked on the character of Claire because she was problematically unlikable. I made her more sympathetic–the suggestion of my editor, but one that I wholly concurred with. They suggested I cut a couple things, but when I didn't want to, it was fine. The copy edit was also helpful as it really just cleaned everything up and always good to have a fresh set of eyes,” said Lee.

Having met the challenge of writing a novel, Lee advises first time novelists to “read, read, read. The greats, the classics, what's new, all of it.”

"Write your book, the one you have to write, that is growing in your heart."
—LEE

 

She cautions writers not to write to “the market” because that's always changing. “Write your book, the one you have to write, that is growing in your heart. And know that it's not about you. It's often about them (the publishing house) and the pressures they are under. Read about all the great books that got rejected. That's always heartening,” said Lee.

About Janice Y. K. Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee is the author of THE PIANO TEACHER, a New York Times bestseller that won praise from publications as diverse as The New Yorker, People, and Good Housekeeping. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Hong Kong with her husband and four children.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris