A video interview with Chang-rae Lee; followed by a text interview in which he discusses his fourth novel, The Surrendered set in 1950s Korea
Youve said that the inspiration for The Surrendered was something that happened to your father, who was a refugee during the Korean War. What happened, and how did it lead to the novel? Was anything else in the novel based on actual events? Indeed the first chapter is very loosely based on something that happened to my father during the war: one night, his younger brother was killed in a terrible accident while they were riding on top of a refugee train. My father told only of the narrow details of the accident and so I had to fictionalize most all of the surrounding circumstances of action and character, which eventually, as inevitably happens in writing, led to other stories that I hadnt originally conceived of or anticipated. This is the only part of the novel that was based on actual events.
Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Youve remarked, however, that your book is not so much a war novel as it is a story about the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit. Can you elaborate? There is certainly much in this book that could be found in a war novel and yet in the conception of it my focus was always on the aftermath, what follows the egregious violence and loss as manifest in the hearts and minds of those who have experienced such conflict. In this novel I wanted to explore the varieties of human reaction to war: guilt, heartache, bitterness, self-loathing, confusion, detachment etc. And then perhaps the most haunting reaction of all, which is a quiet, almost invisible, endurance.
Were you influenced by the suffering that weve seen in recent years in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan? I think weve all been influenced, whether one followed the conflicts closely or not. Ive not had any direct experience with a combatant or civilian but I did read much of what I thought was excellent reporting from the war zones, profiles and stories of horrific injury and suffering, but also of amazing luck and chance, of mystifying survival. Ive been awed by those tales as I was awed by my fathers story of the train, and as a novelist I began to consider all the possibilities for storytelling and psychological investigation.
This novel took you six years to write. How did you construct it? Was the whole framework in your mind from the beginning, or did it come to you piece by piece? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you keep shifting back and forth between the Korean War period in the early 1950s, New York in the 1980s, and China in the 1930s, as you do in the book? The novel, as it appears, is nothing like the book I first conceived. Although I did have a clear sense of who the main characters were, I didnt know until I was quite deep into the book what truly concerned and dogged them. For me, structure derives from character, as what we need and/or wish to see and the order and scale in which we see those things depend mostly on what I want to tease out about this or that character. One of the challenges in this book is that there are multiple main characters, and thus the orchestration of past and present, and of action and repose, was especially difficult, and all but impossible to figure out and outline beforehand. So I wrote what I needed at a given time, say, a scene set in Manchuria in 1934, to answer in part my own questions about a character who first appears in the 1950s. I think thats what happens in the writing of most novels the writer writes to answer certain pressing questions, questions that mirror the readers concerns. Only later did I decide on the final ordering of the chapters.
What sort of research did you do? I read a lot of first person accounts of the Korean War, from both soldiers and civilians. I also looked at many photographs from the war and afterwards. Much of these were simply shots of the ruined landscape and dwellings but I found them quite helpful anyway, as a lot of what gives one (or at least me) confidence to write about something is the visual, as well the factual. This is what led me to go to northern Italy and find the actual church that the main characters make a pilgrimage of sorts to in the book. I needed to see it and the surrounding ground in person, even though I wasnt sure at the time that the story would end up there.
One of your main characters is Hector Brennan, a young soldier with movie-star looks from Ilion, a small town in upstate New York. His father doesnt want him to go to war, but names him after the doomed Trojan hero of the Iliad, who is miraculously protected from death until the gods decree that he must die. Did you rely on the Iliad to any significant degree in structuring or conceiving your book? I think the Iliad, and the Odyssey, loom over much of Western literature, not just because of their greatness, but because of the sobering narrative of human history, which is in great part the narrative of war and postwar. Arent these, sadly, the two primary stories of our time? But its funny, for Hector was the name of a very different character that I was sketching out almost ten years ago, a man of partly Latino background whose namesake was more familial than Homeric. But in doing some reading I came across a mention of the town of Ilion, and its history as the home of Remington Arms, maker of famous rifles, and the connections seemed serendipitously rich to me. And yet I certainly didnt want to make too much of them: my Hector is nothing like Priams son, and is almost willfully anti-heroic and even ignoble.
When your Hector points out to his father that his namesake was ultimately killed and his city destroyed, the father tells him, No matter, boy. They tell us stories not to live by but to change. Make our own. Can we ever change the age-old story of war and its horrors? Thats the hope, isnt it, the ultimate dream of humanists and good statesmen?
Another literary touchstone of your novel is A Memory of Solferino by J. H. Dunant, a nineteenth-century work about the aftermath of a massive battle fought in 1859 between French and Austrian forces near a tiny Italian hill town. The carnage there, and especially the appalling suffering of the wounded, was the impetus for the founding of the Red Cross. Why is that book so special to Sylvie Tanner, the missionary wife who helps to run the Korean orphanage? How did you come across it? Dunants book was celebrated for its unflinching descriptions of the wounded and their needless suffering, and its call for the place of mercy during wartime. I remember looking into the origins of the Red Cross, as the organizations presence was often noted in the war accounts I read. And I wondered if it might be the notion of mercy that drove much of Sylvie Tanners energies and failings in my story, and as I was stunned myself by Dunants book I felt it could be a kind of precious object for this impassioned, fragile person, both a lash and a charm.
June Han, the young Korean girl who is orphaned at the beginning of your novel, is not an especially likeable character as an adult. But what we learn about her in your opening chapter puts her later actions in a much more sympathetic context. Was it essential for you to begin the book as you did, for this and other reasons? Indeed it became clear to me that I should begin with the story of Junes childhood, even though it was perhaps the fourth or fifth section that I wrote. She is a difficult person, for sure, and it made me want to contextualize her childhood experiences in the war, as well as find a language and a way of seeing for the novel that was simultaneously quite intimate and removed. Its also a dramatically active opening, which I liked. My previous novels have fairly subdued first chapters, so this opening was attractive to me.
June eventually goes into the antiques business in the United States, as does her son. Isnt this an ironic career for someone who has experienced so much loss, who has witnessed the brutal smashing of everything that we call civilization? It is ironic, although part of me also felt that June was someone who had in many ways ceased to be able to value the beauty of anything, that her sensibility and world was almost completely depleted. In this sense, it seemed right that she deal with older objects, rather than the new, for she is a person who has never quite escaped the past, despite all her furious efforts.
In another instance of irony noted by June herself, she comes down with stomach cancer in middle age. As a starving youngster in Korea, she was obsessed with satisfying her constant hunger. The cancer paradoxically makes her feel full, but it is also consuming her, slowly depriving her of life itself. Is Junes cancer a metaphor for the psychic and emotional hunger she feels throughout her life, as well as the physical hunger she experienced as a girl? Well, everything and nothing in a novel is metaphorical. I will say, however, that I was taken by the idea of how deeply hungry and even greedy June is for life, and how cruel it is that she should be dying from this fullness in her belly. What we crave is often what we get.
Addiction to alcohol and drugs plays an important part in your story. Can it be explained as more collateral damage from the traumas of war? Or is it ultimately inexplicable? Addiction is certainly an expression of suffering and the need for amelioration, but its also of course a manner of self-indulgence in the form of self-punishment, which is what all the players are engaged in.
The notion of surrender is of course central to your story, as your title implies. What is it that your characters surrender to, or resist surrendering to? They surrender to forces beyond anyones control; to their own delusions and headlong desires; to their own darkest selves, who they know to be mistaken; and perhaps, ultimately, to each other, for better or worse.
One of your characters says that theres a surplus of loving mercy in the world, but its no good at all if its misspent. Do you agree with that? Is it possible for human beings to discern when, or if, mercy is being misspent? Actually, I dont think I do agree. Or I hope I dont. Im sure much unhappiness and wrong has come about from the misapplication of mercy but theres little else to do but for us to continue, even as we cant know if were right or wrong. What else is there for people to do? Few things are within our control, and if anything, mercy is one.
There are missionaries in your story, some of whom act out of explicitly religious motives. But none of your three main characters is motivated by religious impulses as such. Two very emphatically profess no religious beliefs at all. Yet your novel concludes in an ancient Catholic church in Italy. Do religious belief and unbelief somehow meet there, and if so, how? I dont think this novel has much to say about religious belief, one way or the other. I suppose a telling detail is that the church June and Hector visit isnt primarily a house of God, but rather a sanctuary expressly devoted to the unimpeachable value and dignity of man.
Youve said that as you were growing up your father always seemed to be a cheerful, optimistic man who was not haunted by anything. But as you learned when you were in college, he had in fact gone through traumatic experiences during the Korean War, and the effects of those experiences remained with him. Also, your mother died from stomach cancer when you were a young man. Is it possible for you to say how deeply the events and emotional dynamics within your own family have informed this novel? They have certainly informed me, particularly my mothers struggle with cancer, which occurred almost 20 years ago, but I can only say this after the fact. I didnt consciously think about her illness when I was conceiving this novel. Sometimes I think you never need to write about certain things directly, because theyll always arise anyway, and that its the unanticipated mutation that makes for the most interesting forms, at least artistically.
Your characters are irrevocably changed by what happens to them, in some ways damaged beyond repair. But they are not simply creatures of fate. As Hector says, Like everyone else he was at the helm, whether he wished it or not. Can these two realities ever be fully reconciled? The hero of my first novel, Native Speaker, tells himself (after the accidental death of his son), to stop this falling in love with Fate. For me thats the rub, as I see it, which is that fate often prevails but sometimes, too, because we wish it, or make it so. I think this is the struggle for Hector, particularly, as he attempts to figure out how much agency he really has, or more to the point, how much of it he wants.
Your last book, Aloft, was about a contemporary Italian-American suburbanite and his multi-ethnic family. In your first two books, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, you wrote primarily about Korean and Japanese immigrants in the United States. The Surrendered is clearly your longest and most intricate novel, and perhaps your most emotionally powerful. Is it fair to say that this is the novel youve been writing towards in your previous works in theme, structure, and language? I dont know that Ive been writing towards this book, in the sense of culmination. I did decide early on, because of the various characters and storylines, that this would have to be a larger book than the previous three, and also one that needed to be told in 3rd person narration. It was clearly a challenge for me, and I will admit right now that I struggled mightily with all the various elements throughout the writing. I cut perhaps 200 pages and shifted course several times. I was often dispirited and felt at times that the book was spinning out of control. And yet the larger scale of the book helped me, too, in that I eventually relented and ceased trying to make perfect sense of everything and went back to thinking and working as I always do, which is sentence by sentence. I will always believe that language always provides, in this way.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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