Why Novel-Writing Is Like Spelunking: An Interview with Chang-rae Lee

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Riverhead Hardcover

What happens to war-scarred people when war is over? Chang-rae Lee's fourth novel, The Surrendered, explores the way harrowing past experiences remain current—even for characters who believe they've moved on.

At age 11, June loses both parents, and all four siblings, in a flight south during the first, chaotic days of the Korean War. A troubled American soldier, Hector Brennan, discovers her, terrified and half-starved, in the Korean woods, and brings her to an orphanage near Seoul. There, both June and Hector vie for the affections of Sylvie, a missionary with her own tortured past. Slowly, the characters' misguided attempts to heal one another become self-destructive and violent.

Many years later, June's a tough-as-nails Manhattanite, dying of stomach cancer. When her adult son disappears, she tracks down Hector and enlists his help—unburying secret memories both characters tried to leave a world away, in Korea.

The book's been praised—and criticized, in some corners—for its unrelenting, emotionally rending depiction of wartime horrors, so I wanted to ask Lee about violence and memory in the novel. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he's a Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. We discussed the author's family connections to the Korean War, the challenges of narrating human trauma, and the ways psychological wounds can remain open throughout a person's life.

When the novel begins, June's 11 years old—and, with her two younger siblings, she's traveling towards Pusan on top of a refugee-packed boxcar. Can you explain the historical context?

Right before the war, just in the first days, there were difficult things happening throughout the country, particularly in the North. There were a lot of killings. I remember my father talking about how towns were divided, their loyalties split between the communist and pro-Western factions.

When the novel opens, the folks who live in the north of the country—what we now consider North Korea—are moving southward, hoping to escape the fighting. June's family is one of the many, many thousands who moved southward.

The scene was inspired by something my father had told me about his own journey southward in a refugee family. He actually lost two siblings during that time—a sister to pneumonia, but also a younger brother, who, like June's siblings in the book, fell off the top of a refugee train in the middle of the night, and was killed.

Did your father become de facto caretaker for his siblings, like June?

He was never really quite clear about it. He was on top of that train with his brother, traveling south. My understanding is that the rest of the family was inside—but that there wasn't enough room inside for everyone. During the journey, he and his brother fell from the top. I don't know the exact details, but he found his brother with one of his legs amputated—I guess, below the knee. And he lifted him, carried him back to the train, back to his family. My father ended up becoming a physician, and I always thought it was a formative experience for him, for who he became, at least professionally.

Many sections of the book address the ravages of war. As a writer, how do you approach the unspeakable?

It's a tough thing to do, actually. I found myself conflicted about it. I absolutely wanted to show the violence—to engage the reader in the most visceral way possible, in a way that's beyond intellectual understanding. But at the same time, I didn't want to overwhelm the reader so much that they'd just want to stop reading. My aim was to try to elicit a real, visceral reaction in the hope that it would help us try to gain an understanding of what the psychological and emotional burdens are after such experiences.

So I tried to approach these scenes without much ornamentation. My style has always been more lyrical, but in these moments, that kind of lyricism would have unbalanced things. I didn't want to provide a "literary" experience, then—I just wanted provide an experience. That's what I've always loved about certain books, especially some war stories, stories of extreme human possibility. In Hemingway's In Our Time, there are these little inter-chapters—some of them are about wartime. As you read them, there's a dropping away of everything else. Your heart is simply pounding. That's kind of what I wanted to get to. An early reader, after I showed him a little piece, said—"for that one moment, I felt like I was in an IMAX movie." Which, most of the time, I would not be so pleased: it's a novel, it hopes to be literary. But I actually didn't mind his comment—I appreciated it. I felt I had done the right thing.

When we link up with June many years later, she's living in New Jersey, and the details of her Korean life are a secret from her son, from her few friends. Are you interested in the ways refugees can emigrate to other countries and reinvent themselves?

They have to reinvent themselves. After my first reading from this book, last year, in New York, an older fellow, about 70—Korean fellow—came up to me. He said that after he read the first few pages of my book, and I put him on that train, he thought about his own train experience for the first time in 60 years. Which was exactly like my father.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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