Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Min Jin Lee, Free Food for Millionaires

If you want a thick, extremely well written literary novel then rush out and pick up Free Food For Millionaires. It took me a while to read but every night I crawled into bed with it and marveled at how Min Jin Lee crafted this satisfying novel that weaves together so many themes.

Casey Han went to Princeton and is floating around with no real source of income to support her very expensive taste. Her parents are Korean immigrants who have worked hard all their lives at a dry cleaning store in Queens. Casey has so many options to lead a life better than her parents but can't seem to get it together. She is complex and flawed and very real. The book takes place in Manhatten which is a fabulous setting.

Free Food for Millionaires is a study of friendship and work and parents and love. It's about hard work and dreams and culture. You can read more on Min Jin Lee's website here.

This book was enormous, I can’t help but wonder how long it took you to write and edit it? And then work with a professional editor and go back and edit again?

The books I love to re-read have always been long ones. For me, the mark of a fine book is when you grieve its end, because you wish to continue the dream. I wanted to write a book about a large community—intimately peopled with characters I cared about, and I wanted each character to have a beginning, middle and an end within the narrative frame. The book totaled at 670 manuscript pages which became 560 published pages.

It took me at least twelve years to understand how to use the omniscient point of view, but this manuscript in particular took five years from beginning to manuscript page 670. My agent Bill Clegg read the sixth rewrite of the manuscript before it was sent around, and he made great comments, all of which I used, making rewrite number seven. My editor Amy Einhorn offered marvelous suggestions for changes. With Amy, I did two go-arounds.

The published book is the ninth rewrite, not including the two copy-editing rounds. Phew. I worked alone for such a long time that when smart readers like Bill and Amy gave their insights or asked me thoughtful questions, I was grateful to have any and all shortcomings pointed out to me. Bill, Amy and my copyeditor made it a better, certainly, cleaner work. Other readers like Alicia Gordon, Suzanne Gluck and Emily Griffin gave me good notes, too.

When the reader finishes the book, what do you want them to take away from reading Free Food for Millionaires?

I hope the reader feels pleasure throughout the reading and at its end—that is very important to me, because reading has always been this nourishing and pleasure-giving aspect of my life. I want my reader, this person who has spent at least a few days with my pages, to have been happy and satisfied to stay with this work. Perhaps, even to one day, re-read the book, because it is missed.

In this busy age, it is no small thing to have a reader of fiction at all, and to have her rare time and thoughtful consideration. I think you have to earn his trust, to allay her anxiety, to satisfy his questions—I want to do those things in the work. Sure, I want to enlighten and elevate, but I also want to amuse. The fundamental takeaway: The reader should feel seen.

Good reading is an exchange of attention—a private yet shared act between two parties, and being seen accurately comes only with heightened concentration and absence of self-consciousness. This can occur best, I think, if the writer stays out of view. The writer should see without being noticeable. Sometimes, I think being a writer is like being a good servant (a problematic word in our allegedly democratic culture, I realize)—and the reader should be feted and cosseted without hardly any consideration of the writer.

Why was the father Joseph so mean to Casey? What was your intention with his character?

To me, Joseph is mean to his daughter because he is profoundly frustrated. Language is the palpable and limited form of expression that we employ to understand each other, but it fails us. This is not news. Joseph is handicapped in his command of the English language, but even if he possessed native fluency, he is limited in what he feels he can say to his daughter who has migrated to another social class.

When my son was in preschool, a child once bit him. The biter’s mother was horrified as was I. But we both understood that her son, a lovely child, was incapable of expressing his anger at that moment in any other way. I think if we didn’t know better, we would bite a lot, and perhaps we do bite in other ways, in grown up ways—and that is no less upsetting.

Through the omniscient point of view and through Joseph’s story line, I hope that he does not appear as a monster for having hit his daughter, because, to me, he is a person who struggles to be good.

I read on your web site that there was no relief from rejections you accumulated after quitting law to become a writer. How many times did you submit Free Food before landing an agent? And with all the rejections, how did you keep moving forward?

A year ago, I did a multiple submission of my FFFM manuscript to four agencies with every agent being notified that he or she was receiving the manuscript simultaneously. It was, to my profound shock, taken almost immediately. Less than two weeks.

However, as you know, I had been writing fiction seriously for eleven years before that moment. As for rejections, I think they are absolutely horrid. I will not sugarcoat this. For what for it’s worth, I pray a lot, and I think about what I care about over what the world cares about. Sometimes, this offers consolation. Sometimes, this does not.

I think writers swing between feelings of superiority and inferiority. I am that kind of writer—anxious, confident, neurotic and bold. Fiction (almost all of it is writing on a speculative basis) is not for the skinless, and I am not a well-armored person. I do trust that technical expertise can distinguish your work. I work very hard on understanding techniques in storytelling. Having said that, I am not immune to the the blues.

Could you be friends with someone like Casey?

Casey is not an easy person, but she is a very good friend, and someone who thinks about loyalty a great deal. The reason why Casey might occasionally offend a reader is because the reader is privy to her thoughts, but consider how offensive we might all be if our thoughts were transparent—our thought bubbles being compared to our actual dialogue. What readers love about fiction is that we can experience the behavior conflicting with the intention of the character, because we natively understand that reality is rife with this contradiction between the internal and the external.

Where did the character Delia (a woman with loose morals when it comes to sleeping with married men) come from?

There are many Delias around us, and having met a number of them, what I have learned is that they always have very specific reasons for their sexual engagements. I was interested in what a woman like this can do, what she knows, what she can achieve ultimately, and her weaknesses.
Incidentally, the Delias I have met are uniformly perceptive, sympathetic and often highly entertaining. Looks is just the top tray of the seduction toolbox. Sex is another tray. Namely, Delias know how seduction works.

Don’t we want to know what the mistress knows or how she holds sway her objects? It doesn’t really help anyone to dismiss the individual who might do things you don’t agree with. I often wonder why people seek or succumb to that which our society deem as taboo.

You are such a talented writer, I’d never guess this is your first novel. Were you always interested in writing? What made you go into law?

Thank you for your kind words. I have been writing non-fiction essays since I was fourteen. I began writing fiction in college. I did not have the nerve to become a writer after graduation, however. Also, my family didn’t think it was a great idea. I went to law school because I love school (really, most any school might have done). I practiced for two years, but it was too difficult for me to continue at that dramatic pace when I had so little love for the actual work. I am not sorry however, for having gone to law school.

I use many of the underlying principles I have learned in torts, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law in my work. I haven’t written about the law specifically, but beneath any rule of law is the rationale for human interactions and expectations. I think certain legal subjects should be taught in college if possible—definitely the study of contracts.

What was the turning point where you said, enough with law—I want to write full time? Presuming you said that at all.

I worked for two years as a corporate lawyer. I did junior level associate work—due diligence, mocking up forms—but I was a competent attorney, and I was given an enormous quantity of work. It was all doable, but time consuming. One month, I billed three hundred hours which meant that I was in the office every day of the month, and I was very unhappy.

Although my husband and I had discussed the possibility of resigning, I had not intended to quit the day that I did. One of my bosses, a partner at the law firm, came by with more work, and I found myself announcing to her that I would quit, and I couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. She was stunned. Me, too. It was as if my voice knew before my mind. I worked for another week or so, then I left.

What inspires you?
I am inspired by history, casual anecdotes, images and old books, including the Bible. Occasionally, I am inspired by real people, but mostly, I start with images, phrases and unproved pet theories. I am inspired by some of my personal problems.

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