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.

For many people who've experienced war, that's absolutely what they do. Add to that an immigrant layer, the way immigrants must recast themselves professionally and personally for a new culture and all of its requirements, and it's easy to see how one can compartmentalize it, or put it aside. To put it aside so much, even, that one can believe it never happened. Often, I think, my father didn't want [his Korean war experiences] to have happened. At all. It was a part of his life that was over, forever.

This is your first third-person novel. How did you arrive at that decision, and how did it affect the development of the work?

I thought about it for a long time. In early versions I 'd written out first person narratives from different characters points of view. But I decided to use third person because of the scale of the story, and its different parts, and the fact that there's also different time periods associated with each character.

I saw this book sort of as a mural. I liked the idea that you could look at different parts of this big mural, and that you and I, the readers, unify all of the different pieces, rather than, say, a master character who's looking back and organizing them for us intellectually or emotionally.

And this fit into the idea that these characters, in the scale of things, are very small. As people in wartime are. They have no real control over what happens to them. I saw these characters as little pieces of dust. Grains of sand, under this wheel of history. So I didn't want the "I" to be so prominent in each of their cases.

Did this shift change the way you write sentences?

Absolutely. Even if you're writing intimately in third person—third person very close to a character—it's psychological in a different way. In first person, there's an oral quality to it—both oral and aural. We're hearing the transcript of someone's voice, or the transcript of their consciousness. For me, that's always been one of the great charms of the first person: we gain access to a very personal, private kind of music.

But in third person it's slightly different. That music is more narrative—it's about the music of the entire work. You have to be conscious of how this character fits into the scheme of things in every sentence. And so the music has changed, for this book. Though I think it's still recognizable as my work.

Another main character, Hector Brennan, lives in Ilion, New York. His name and hometown are references to Homer's Iliad. While writing this novel, which spans decades and moves from Korea to the United States and Europe, to what extent did you see yourself working within an epic framework?

It's hard to write a war story without thinking about the Iliad. Because the Iliad knows everything about war. And about rage, and killing, and death, and misery. So it's hard for me not to think of that, or to think of the Iliad whenever I read any book about war—or the Odyssey.

Has anything about the book's reception surprised you?

I knew that this book would be difficult to read in some ways. Just given what happens between the characters, given the violence. But it still sort of surprised me—considering what you can see on television, and what you can see on the Internet.

Does this demonstrate the power of the written word? Or does it reveal a cultural expectation about what literature should be?

I don't know! I thought we'd all been so inured to violence that people wouldn't really be shocked by it. Maybe if you read a sentence, and it makes you feel something intensely—maybe that's more shocking than seeing an image now. We're used to the image being awful. We're used to seeing horrible things. But maybe we're not so used to reading it. Maybe if you read something, and it overwhelms you, maybe that's more shocking now.

In another interview, you said this book nearly killed you. What about the execution was so difficult?

I felt I could write another 1,000 pages. And I did write a lot of other pages—I wanted to go into everything about the characters. Back to the mural idea: In each scene, I felt as if I was painting one square foot of this mural, and I knew there were a thousand other squares I had to do. Those thousand other squares were just as important—but I didn't know quite how they fit. And that felt daunting and grueling to me.

Part of writing a novel is being willing to leap into the blackness. You have very little idea, really, of what's going to happen. You have a broad sense, maybe, but it's this rash leap. And with this book, much more than my other books, I felt that the chasm was deeper.

Writing a novel is like spelunking. You kind of create the right path for yourself. But, boy, are there so many points at which you think, absolutely, I'm going down the wrong hole here. And I can't get back to the right hole. I'm not going to be able to get this section back to the right hole—so I'm just going to have to cut it. [Laughs.]

Do you have a new project that you're working on?

I do, but I don't want to talk about it too much. I will tell you that it's going to be a short book. I'm conceiving it that way, and I'm writing it that way. It's a book, obviously, that interests me—but it's something I feel that I can handle. [Laughs.] Personally and artistically. A book I want to handle.