She talked to the crowd about researching PACHINKO, a National Book Award fiction finalist. She discussed her harrowing but ultimately fulfilling and successful road to publishing, and her love of the omniscient point of view in novels.
A historic novel, PACHINKO tells the story of four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century and then in Japan from just before the second world war to the late 1980s.
I am a fan of Min Jin Lee's first novel, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES. I'm crazy about her second novel. When I finished reading PACHINKO, I found myself dreaming about the vivid characters for weeks. She knocked it out of the park. It's the kind of book you press into people's hands, a you have to read this! kind of novel.
While there are dozens and dozens of interviews with Min Jin Lee detailing how PACHINKO came to fruition, here are a few intriguing points about her background and writing process that she shared with her fans at Fiction Addiction:
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
After law school, Min Jin Lee passed the bar after two tries, but her heart wasn't in it. She saved several thousand dollars to live on and write. "I thought, 'How hard is it to write a novel?'"
Pretty hard as it turns out.
Her first novel was rejected by every publisher in New York. "Even my husband said it was boring!"
Where did she get the idea to write PACHINKO?
It took thirty years to write PACHINKO.
Inspired by a talk from a white missionary while a student at Yale, Min Jin Lee began to write about Koreans who lived in Japan after a lot of researching. Alas, she found her own writing "academic and stiff."
The draft of the novel was "worse than my first book."
That was in 2003. "I had nothing. Nothing but a pile of rejections."
But then--I'm speaking from my own experience here--sometimes the miraculous bright heat of another writer's beautiful book can lift a writer up, remind her what literature can do, and open a portal into her own work:
To comfort herself, Min Jin Lee read V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul, an Indian who grew up in Trinidad, uses postcolonial perspectives to view a vanished colonial world in the story, hailed by many critics as one of the twentieth century's finest novels. "I read it on subway, and at the end of the novel I burst into tears."
She knew then what her next novel was going to be: "I'm going to write about poor people in Queens I know and grew up with."
That was FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES, which came out in 2007.
Min Jin Lee then moved to Japan, due to her husband's job. And there, she interviewed many people about the Koreans in Japan, historically and present day, and learned more about the pachinko industry. (Pachinko, by the way, is a kind of pinball gambling.)
After talking to so many people, hearing a wealth of stories, she knew how to breathe life into the novel she began in 1989, that she had researched and drafted and put aside: "I realized I got all the facts, but missed the story." In 2008, she started that novel all over again, as a historical novel. That is PACHINKO.
I've posted here before about the power of omniscient point of view. Min Jin Lee masterful at using this POV, in part because both her novels are sweeping, with large canvases and constellations of characters. "I love the omniscient point of view," she said. "It can take longer to write, but it's more organic and flexible." And it's ideal for exploring communities, class, and minor characters, and "big juicy themes."
And by the way, how in the heck does she write such multigenerational, complex novels? Does she outline?
Yes. Min Jin Lee uses Scrivener to help outline, and plans chapters by briefly noting what she envisions the conflict will be. "But I'm always open to changing it. I try to not get too attached to an outline. You have to stay flexible."
What she doesn't do: "I never check (book) sales."
What she recommends writers do: "Be kind and gentle to yourself when writing. Be nice as possible to yourself."