An Interview with Chang-rae Lee
Sarah Anne Johnson | May/Summer 2005
Chang-rae Lee is the author of Aloft, a New York Times Notable Book for 2004, as well as A Gesture Life—winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, an New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) Book Award for fiction, and an Asian-American Literary Award—and the author of Native Speaker—winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Oregon Book Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and Quality Paperback Book Club's (QPB) New Voices Award. Selected by the New Yorkeras one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.
Sarah Anne Johnson: I know that you worked on Wall Street right out of college. How did you get started in writing, and what did you do to develop your craft?
Chang-rae Lee: I worked at that job for a year, and all throughout that year I was starting to write in earnest, trying to write a novel. I found that it was too hard to work and write, and that's when I decided to quit my job to focus on writing. I was living in New York then—my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer—and it was a good time not to have a steady job, if not necessarily a good time to be writing. I wrote as much as I could. I did part-time jobs to support myself, and my parents helped me out with the apartment where I was living. I spent a lot of time with my mother going back and forth between New York and Syracuse, where she lived. When I wasn't with my mother, I worked hard—seven or eight hours a day—but without any real direction. I feel now that that time was not wasted, though, because I learned something about the endurance and stamina it takes to write a novel.
Johnson: Was this Native Speaker?
Lee: No. It was a novel that I couldn't publish. It was an escapist novel. I was trying a lot of things, a lot of voices. I was exploring. It had a certain kind of very intellectualized energy. But it wasn't a happy time for me, though I did get a kind of solace from the writing.
Johnson: What made you decide to go to a writing program?
Lee: After my mother died, I came to realize that the novel wasn't going anywhere, and a friend of mine suggested that I get out of New York City, to get out of a rut and away from all that had gone on. She had attended the University of Oregon as an undergraduate, and said it might be a good place to get some work done, and on that basis alone I started looking into programs on the West Coast. It was sort of crazy. The University of Oregon's MFA Program gave me a fellowship based on that first attempt at a novel. The director of the program, Garret Hongo, the poet, happened to be in New York before I decided to attend, and we had a drink. I felt an immediate connection with him. We didn't work together in terms of the writing, but he was someone I could relate to, both personally and artistically, and it tilted my decision to go to that program. I wasn't interested in school so much as I was interested in having a couple of years supported, and the company of peers. I had the ideas for Native Speaker, and I wanted to get to work.
Johnson: What did you get out of the program?
Lee: I got a lot out of it. I had a weekly forum for the chapters of my novel. I quickly learned that you have to leave a lot of the suggestions on the table, but it was great to hear the range of responses to the work. It was a wonderful time for me to have a respite from everything. Being away from New York helped me write about New York in a way that I wouldn't have written had I been in the midst of it. It gave me a perspective that was more imagined than real, which is of course the approach one needs for fiction writing. It's not about the real.
Johnson: All three of your novels so far have been written from the first-person point of view. What draws you to this point of view, and what are the benefits and challenges of writing a novel from the perspective of one main character?
Lee: The first novel had to be in the first person because of my explorations and interest in identity and how someone figures himself out, particularly through voice. That's often the underlying theme of first novels. In the other two, I've been deeply interested in the drama of consciousness, which is partly to do with identity and how people come to be and inhabit a place and a context of their choosing. For me it's been very interesting, and it has an intimate connection to what I believe about literature, which is that it has everything to do with language. In these first three novels, language has so much to do with the human void. That's how I understand character, and how I understand story. I've enjoyed it because I can get so deep inside one person's head and focus on that for the whole book. It gives me so much room to explore internally. The drawback is that it doesn't give me as much room to explore the world. Everything is filtered through a consciousness, so it's limited. It's a great challenge to tell a story that sustains dramatic energy despite the limits of a single consciousness, and that can continue to draw fascination from the reader.
Johnson: What are some of the ways you've been able to do that?
Lee: The characters, I hope, are consistent. They're who they are. That's part of the traction of it. They'll offer these small surprises. Not large ones, but small ones-that's partly why they might be interesting. Another reason is that they're all wrestling with context—about where they are, where they live, and how they inhabit that place. That's a modality and yearning that's very central to what people are. There's something essentially dramatic, too, when someone is telling his own story. We as readers encounter the reliability and the unreliability of that telling, and have to uncover the filters the teller chooses to put on his self view and world view. Those things are endlessly fascinating. It's not a master voice telling a story. I don't see the characters as real so much as singular, and that singularity is endlessly interesting to me. This fits with my focus on the language of the story. Again, the first person limits you greatly. It's easier to write stories that are outwardly dramatic when you can enter multiple characters' heads and offer a more panoramic view of what's going on, but at the same time it doesn't have that sustained magic. At this point, I've done the first person enough, and I feel a great desire to move on. I've explored enough of it for now.
Johnson: Your prose is infused with a poeticism that you have become known for. Have you written poetry? How does your sense of the poetic inform your narrative?
Lee: I haven't written poetry, but I read poetry a good deal. I first became enamored with literature through poetry. When I was a schoolboy, I did write a little poetry, but I don't count that as writing. I love the musicality of poetry and its cadences. There's nothing more beautiful to me than blank verse. There's a rigor to it, but also possibilities within the meter and stresses that are amazingly wide, and strangely natural. I love reading contemporary free verse poetry, and I read it all the time. Some of my best writer friends are poets—there's a deep connection there. I feel that we do the same thing. I go into each sentence thinking about the sentence and working the sentence and listening to the sentence. Obviously I'm trying to say a few things, too, and get to some ideas and some plot elements. But if it doesn't sound right, if it's not the right melody, I can't move forward. I see the unit of the paragraph as this extended kind of verse. Although it doesn't literally turn, it feels to me that that's the measure of the breath that makes sense of everything I'm doing in the story. I can't understand a story without understanding its sound. That, for me, is the glory of writing. That's where I find excitement and heartbreak and sadness and melancholy. That's where I find it all. Unless I find that language, it's hard for me to understand the story at all. Jerry Battle, in Aloft, comes to life because of how he expresses himself. His particular American vernacular is something that I found, and if I hadn't found that I couldn't have written his story. He could have been a side character, but not the hero. That's what sustains a first person novel. Holden Caulfield is an interesting young man, but what we remember about him and delight in, is the smartness and edge of his language.
Johnson: Do these books come to you with that voice?
Lee: Yes, Jerry did and Hata did. In Native Speaker, Henry Park is trying on a lot of different voices. That's something I was consciously working on. An exploration of language as a costume. For the next book, which is in third person, I had to find a voice as well—more of an overriding voice, but a voice.
Johnson: Each of your novels seems to have required research of some kind. For example, Native Speaker must have required research about spying and speech therapy and inner city politics; A Gesture Life required research about the Japanese comfort women, as well as research about the details of life as a soldier and medic; and Aloft required research about flying, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and pregnancy, among other things. At what point do you conduct your research, and how do you go about finding what you're looking for?
Lee: A Gesture Life took the most research, and in that case, the research happened first. In the other books I backed into it. Both Aloft and the Native Speaker feature landscapes I knew quite well. With Jerry Battle, I researched the plane. With Henry Park, once I discovered who he was, I had to go back and learn more about industrial spies, or speech therapy. Research is important, but it's not terribly important-except for in A Gesture Life, which partly focuses on a historical period. I wanted to make sure that I had that period right so that it would be as accurate and authentic as possible.
Johnson: All three books employ a similar technique for creating a subtle sense of suspense, and this is to reveal a bit of information without the surrounding details. For example, in Native Speaker, we know Henry and Lelia had a child who died, but we don't learn what happened until well into the book. What reasons are there for waiting to reveal key information beyond that of creating a narrative drive?
Lee: It's very true to a first-person story. People will tell you and mention things that have happened in their lives without going into the real story. You get the fact before you get the real story. The deeper revelation comes later. That seems like a natural rhythm to me. It's not meant to be dramatic in real life, but it feels that way. The teller isn't telling a story, but a story is that kind of advance of real detail that's true to who those characters are. They're all very different, but they do all have one thing in common—they're not dealing with what they need to deal with right then and there. But that's true of most people. It's a natural rhythm we have, to survive the moment. We marshal our forces, and then later on we're able to talk about it, tell the tale.
Johnson: Native Speaker redefines what it means to be American much like Gish Jen's Typical American. It challenges our assumptions about what the "American Experience" means today. Was this your intention at the outset?
Lee: I was more focused on Henry Park as a certain kind of American figure, someone who was trying on lots of guises through language. That's where the cultural part of it comes in. As Americans, we're allowed to put on so many guises, and we have a range of them to pick from. Some essential American stories are those in which people put on costumes that they can't quite wear, and in doing so, invite doom and tragedy—Jay Gatsby, for example. People call Native Speaker an immigrant novel, but all immigrant novels are American novels at the core. They speak to that initial American desire and yearning, which is the possibility of becoming someone else.
Johnson: Native Speaker struck me as particularly American because it shined a light into neighborhoods and lives that we never hear about.
Lee: That's part of Henry's desire, to try to bring those lives to life. There are sections where he talks about the shopkeepers who stay open all night and wait for the kids to come out of the clubs. He has a lot of empathy for them, which is veiled empathy for his father. He's trying to show you a part of the world that's the center of his world-it's just not yours.
Johnson: In Native Speaker, the main character is a corporate spy, and his wife a speech therapist, which plays in nicely with the themes of language, speaking, and communication. But how did you arrive at Henry's profession? What drew you to explore the emotional and metaphoric possibilities in living a life undercover?
Lee: That novel is a response to what was, I think, becoming expected of Asian-American writers—which was that we write these very circumscribed family stories, within-the-house kind of stories, where there's also a keen intergenerational conflict. As wonderful as those stories are, I wanted to widen the stage in which my character was going to act. I wanted an occupation for him in which he'd have to get out in the world and see others, particularly the politician John Kwang. I liked the fact that, because Henry Park was dealing with different immigrant populations, he was dealing with different languages and different forms and stages of English, which is something he considers quite deeply in the book. All that came together for me in his occupation as a kind of spy, and thus seemed more interesting than making him, say, a banker. I wanted to put him in harm's way, or at some kind of risk so that he would have to put himself on the line and speak, whether falsely or truly. I thought I could find lots of dramatic moments in those situations and reveal how he forms himself.
Johnson: Part of Henry's job is to be a "clean writer" of what occurs in his dealings with the subject in question. He says, "The teller, I know, can keep his face in the shadows only so long. We want him to come out, step into the light, bare himself. This the shape of our era." Is there any aspect of that statement that you identify with as a novelist?
Lee: I agree with that statement. I think it's true, but sometimes I wish it weren't. I think that's what's happening with the book business. People focus on the personality, the celebrity, the who, and it begins to taint how they read the language. The great thing about books is that they transport text from other ages of which we have no idea about the who, and they still move us. That's the mark of a classic. As for what's going on in Native Speaker, Henry Park shows us, I think, that the more you speak about others, the more you begin to tell the story of yourself. That's inevitable for him. He has to step into the light, not because he wants to, but because that's how we'll get to know him. Henry Park is the person who's trying to hide by telling other peoples' stories. It's a strange sort of humanity, but it's his.
Johnson: Native Speaker is a meditation on language—how language and identity are intertwined, how language can gain one entrance into a society, how language can be a barrier or a bridge, or how language can be turned against you. For example, in preparing Kwang for a television spot, Janice orchestrates his speech. "If she let him talk for minute to minute whenever he wanted they'd just pick and choose quotes to suit their story, and not necessarily his. She made him speak in lines that were difficult to sound bite, discrete units of ideas, notions. You have to control the raw material, she said, or they'll make you into a clown."
Lee: That's what politicians try to do. I worked in a political office once—a US senator's office on Capitol Hill. There was a feeling that we had to be very careful with language. That's what politics is—it's about taking care with language for certain purposes; not the same purposes I have, of course, but for others. Janice's sentiment is an unfortunate one that arises out of the culture, and the media, and the way that people consume language and repackage it. We therefore have to package it in such a way that it can't be repackaged. It's an ongoing battle for who will tell the story. She's talking politically, but Henry's interested because he's telling other peoples' stories and defining them. And he's begun to realize that he doesn't want to be defined by other people either. He has to be able to speak. He hasn't figured out yet what the nature of his speech is, but that's what he's thinking about.
Johnson: You also explore the idea of action as a kind of language: "...when you make a bomb you are also constructing a statement, employing a more complicated grammar than is required. It's the way civilized man now encumbers his territory, not with great walls or stretches of wire but with a single well-placed device, a neat bundling with the workings of a mind. It reads time, speaks volumes. Long after the flash, the concussive burn, it will speak to you again, at your fine desk, in your fine bed. Saying these are your certain ruins."
Lee: I'd forgotten that I wrote that.
Johnson: You riff your brains out on language from every angle.
Lee: That book was so important to me. I had so much exuberance for it. When you write a novel, you often forget what you're writing about. It's strange, but true—Faulkner said exactly that. But in Native Speaker, I never really did. I wrote on a piece of paper above my desk, "Language." Everything, every character and action, everything that Henry sees, every act precipitates down to him through language. Everything is an attempt at communication. From his wife, to his son's death... in some ways he's a language freak. He fetishizes it. That's what I was working out, not personality, but voice, and not just his voice, but the human voice. In the passage you quote, he's talking about this metaphoric bomb that's in fact an enduring message, which is what he's looking for. He's trying to reject messages that don't last, because maybe he's been sending out too many useless messages.
Johnson: Henry Park remembers a poem that Lelia wrote about a woman who cleans out her father-in-law's house after his death, and through the remembered poem, we experience the cleaning of Henry's father's house from Lelia's point of view. It's an interesting method for getting another character's point of view in a first-person narrative. How did you arrive at this?
Lee: With the first person, at a certain point, you need to get around the narrator and get other people involved. You can do that with dialogue and with that example there. You get into a rut. It's deep and full, but sometimes you have to shut down the usual process and let in a little air. That air is usually someone else's language, someone else's voice.
Johnson: The theme of invisibility comes up over and over again in Native Speaker. There is the invisibility of the immigrant, regardless of ethnicity, the invisibility of the nonnative speaker, and the invisibility that Henry Park assumes as a spy. What draws you to the idea of the individual blending into the social landscape?
Lee: It's about the draw and power and attractiveness of assimilation, and then its attending problems. There's a deep-seated human need to assimilate and be part of a group. It's a survival technique. All of us talk about being individuals, especially in this country, but really we're not. We're members of many different little groups. For an outsider like an immigrant, the idea is not to stand out, because when you stand out, you get cut down. To be an individual is to be in a dangerous position. It's about the very overriding desire to join, but then most of that book and especially in A Gesture Life, it's about the darker side of assimilation, and what people become when they've given up themselves. This invisibility is self-imposed, an invisibility that is also a kind of self-protection; but it's not without ill effect.
Johnson: Let's talk about beginnings and endings. Each novel opens with a memorable line, a line that characterizes the narrator and the tone of the narrative to come. For example, Doc Hata, in A Gesture Life, finds security in his position in his town of Bedley Run. The book begins, "People know me here." What do you look for in an opening, and how do you arrive at your opening line?
Lee: I look for a line that institutes many things, such as a kind of metaphorical condition and a voice, which is literally the sound and tone. That institutes a moment of the story. Without that, it's hard to start the story.
Johnson: The endings are distinctive as well, and each gathers up the threads of the story and spins a wonderfully resonant image that carries the narrative into some unknown future. Native Speaker ends with Henry helping his wife dismiss her speech class. She pronounces each student's name as they leave. "Now, she calls out each one as best as she can, taking care of every last pitch and accent, and I hear her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are." What does a great ending accomplish, and how do you arrive at your endings?
Lee: It's more like a feeling than anything intellectual. When you're toward the end of a book, a lot of things are building up. There's pressure that keeps accruing in terms of all the ideas that you've been talking about, and all the language and all the emotion. It points you toward a certain kind of feeling at the end, whether it's explosive or quiet. In that book, it was going to have to deal, at least emotionally, with what Henry is left with after all that language. With each book, I felt that the person was in the right place in the world he's in, and he's thinking about the right things in terms of what's gone on. Jerry Battle's off by himself, but still close by. He's with the family, but without them, too. He's not at the center anymore. That felt right to me. It's a question of where the story wants to place the character. With Henry, he's in a mask, but he's still there at ground zero for these young kids learning the language. That seems to me the right place for him. The word "difficult" was something I made sure to think about and put in. The difficult part speaks to the turmoil and frustration that he's seen and experienced, and saying that it's not easy to have all this difference and variation, though he still embraces it.
Johnson: When you first started to write A Gesture Life, it was from the point of view of a comfort woman, with Doc Hata as a minor character. How did the book change to the point of view of Doc Hata, with the story of the comfort women in his past?
Lee: I'd written quite a bit of that first story, and it wasn't doing a lot of things for me that I wanted it to do. It didn't feel particularly fresh and different compared to the research I'd done. Even though I was writing fiction, there was something that wasn't new about it. So I tried to turn the story around and find another way to get inside. That's when I figured out that this young medic might be the one that I would want to follow. I thought about him outside the particular scene, and started to imagine the rest of his life, and how he perhaps survived and had a prosperous life. I then began asking the usual questions about how he conducted himself and how he thought about his life. Not to reflect solely on his experience in the camp, but to let that experience sear him psychically, forever. Once I started writing him, I then began to feel that this was a new story, definitely one I hadn't encountered in my research, and one that is the other side of the story, the perpetrator's tale.
Johnson: Once you had this expanded view of the story with Doc Hata being central, did it change how you wrote him as the medic?
Lee: I'd only written him as a side character, so I hadn't gotten into his consciousness. I didn't really pay attention to him before. Changing the story taught me a lot about paying attention to all parts of a narrative. If you think long enough about anyone in a story, they probably have something interesting going on. Hata's story is particularly interesting to me because the book ends up not being a story of the comfort woman, but the portrait of a man, which is a larger book in the end because it expands the story into the future and considers one man's effect on others' lives.
Johnson: It's interesting that you chose for Doc Hata the role of company medic, as this gives him a particularly intimate contact with the comfort women. Were you aware of the advantage of proximity in having him be a medic rather than a soldier?
Lee: I didn't question it to start, but once I started writing, I realized that it was better than his being a soldier who was visiting them, because he was there to care for them. I'd read a book about Nazi doctors—not just the ones who did experiments—and they had a unique ethical and moral position. Doc Hata is there to keep the girls well so that they can continue to be degraded. At that point, as a young man not thinking about the situation, it's a fascinating and difficult situation that makes for good fiction. Though not all-powerful, he's also someone with a measure of control, which puts him in an unenviable position with respect to the women.
Johnson: You also don't cave into a sentimental position in which Hata could actually save K, or even help her in any way that could ultimately matter.
Lee: The context does not allow for what any of us would think of as a real love. His love for her is perverse, even if he doesn't think of it as perverse. Any love that she might have for him is completely colored, and made strange, by the context. She can't reciprocate in the way that he would want, and of course, something terrible is going to happen to her. It's my recognition of what that place and time is and what it cannot allow.
Johnson: What were the challenges in writing sections set in a historical time and place?
Lee: Those were hard at the beginning because I'm not a historical writer, and I didn't want it to seem at all inauthentic or false. Once you start writing it, it's like anything else. There are particular features of that time and place and a certain language, but in the end, people are people. Once you get into it, the story moves along. The only thing that I tried to remember was to try not to make it seem so historical. In the end, I acknowledged the context, but realized that these people were just people, and they'd do what they had to do.
Johnson: This narrative also touches on the themes of language and identity when young Hata first speaks with K in his native Korean. "I found myself listening to her closely, for it was some time since I had heard so much of the language, the steady, rolling tone of it, like ours and not theirs; perhaps coming more from the belly than the throat. It was almost pleasing to hear the words, in a normal register. But her talk was also not vulgar or harshly provincial-sounding as was the other girls; she was obviously educated, and quite well, and this compelled me even more, though it shouldn't have." He discovers her through speaking to her in Korean. Comment?
Lee: This is not a huge moment, but it's important. Her speaking the Korean language calls him out and reminds him of who he is. He's not this pure Japanese, and he can't have the same kind of detachment and detached view of her that other people at the camp can have. He knows his origins, and those origins still have a very visceral effect when he talks about her language and he hears it. There are things that we hear from our childhood—sometimes in different languages if we're immigrants—that are like powerful old songs. Hearing her speak Korean transports him and makes him a different person, and makes possible his connection with her.
Johnson: I'm curious about how you arrived at the structure for this novel. At first you emphasize Doc Hata's distance from his own life and from those closest to him, the set routines that mark his days. Only later do you reveal his role with the comfort women and how the presence of the past infiltrates and informs his present-day life. Why did you wait to reveal the story of his involvement with K? Was this balance between the past and the present difficult to strike?
Lee: It was difficult to keep at bay. In conception, I started in the past, but in the actual writing, I open up in the present and stay for a long time, almost fifty years later. That was difficult, because I wanted to get to the historic material as it helps makes sense of the present. But not doing so helped me focus on the present. Had I started with the past earlier, I might have fallen into the trap of seeing the present only as a result of the past instead of looking for all the little interesting details in the present time. The story is not only about remorse. In Bedley Run, it's also about assimilation. That's how Hata finds a certain kind of comfort in his present life. He's not a man sitting in his room, racked with guilt. He's a successful shopkeeper in a tidy little town, which was a nice contrast to what would come. I loved moving back and forth between a vernal, tidy, and controlled suburban setting to an intense, violent setting where bizarre and sadistic things would happen. That only comes about because I tried to institute and develop that suburban setting to an extent where it feels like that's what the book is, and only then switch gears.
Johnson: What's your process of revision like when you're working on a novel? How many drafts do you do?
Lee: I do all my revisions as I'm writing on the computer. It's easy for me to work through the sentences over and over and over again, until I'm satisfied. There might be things that I take out of the story afterwards, sometimes whole sections, but once the language is set, it's set. It goes from one sentence to the next, so it's hard to revise after the fact. It's not a great way to write. I write slowly but carefully. I'm not someone who rips out twenty pages and keeps five. Maybe it's a function of the fact that I teach and I have kids. I have to make my writing time work well. It's also the nature of how I like to hear the language and see the story develop. One sentence to the next, it's just this long rope I'm making. I like the feel that it's seamless going forward rather than these little bursts. It may change later on when I have more time. Though I like the idea that my books will become freer at some point, or looser, I don't know if it will ever really happen.
Johnson: Aloft is a departure from your earlier books in several ways. First, the main character is not Asian-American, but an Italian-American retired landscape business owner and laborer. How did you arrive at the character of Jerry Battle? What drove you into his particular narrative?
Lee: Jerry's story is different. I'd been thinking about someone his age, living in this classic suburban landscape. I wanted to write a suburban novel. These days the suburbs are at the center of what it means to be an American. I was thinking about a guy around sixty years old, who is caught between certain points of life—not being a young man and not being too old, having a lot of pressure from the surrounding generations, and being at a point in life in which the questions should be fewer and the solutions obvious. Part of the inspiration was what I'd seen around me in my parents and my in-laws' lives. There seemed to be lots of questions about retirement, what to do now that the heavy lifting was done, but feeling as young as ever. This was a time of life that I hadn't heard much about. There are plenty of stories about middle-age angst and midlife crisis with marital problems and what not. But this book isn't about aging. It's about someone who's been too comfortable in his life, and is now trying to figure out what all that means. It's also, in a way, an immigrant story, but a couple of generations past. I was very interested in that. But I decided early on that the hero wouldn't be an Asian-American character, because an Asian-American character at that age in that setting would have required a very different story. It couldn't be a story about someone who felt like he completely fit and belonged in his context, or felt too comfortable. It just couldn't be. That's why it had to be someone who was white, but perhaps not so landed and established. I wanted someone who didn't question his belonging, and yet someone who still had ties to the old world. The book, I think, also looks at class. There are three very distinct classes in the book. Jerry Battle is squarely middle class, his father has working class roots, and his children tend to be upper middle-class aspirants—his daughter, intellectually and his son, financially. I liked that Jerry was sandwiched between those generations and could think about the legacies of his working-class father that he didn't fill, and the problems of Jack, his son, and where all those years of family work was heading. He's more like me, too. I have a young family and a life in the suburbs. It's one of the first times I was writing somewhat autobiographically, and because it's through Jerry, it surprises people.
Johnson: What drew you to his obsession with flying?
Lee: This is one of those things that starts you out on a character. I had this idea of Jerry as a certain kind of person, not knowing the exact details. But once I figured out that he was a man who liked to fly his own small plane, that's when it clicked for me. We were talking about beginnings, and the beginning of Aloft is exactly that moment of instituting a character and language. I began to think of him not just as an abstract character, but as the protagonist and teller of the story. Metaphorically, his flying seemed right to me, and in terms of language, it reflects the kind of yearning he has to be on this other level in his life. It's very different from Doc Hata, whose language is so compacted and careful and constructed. Jerry's very free and loose. He riffs all the time, and he feels at liberty to talk about anyone or anything. It appealed to me to do something quite different than in A Gesture Life.
Johnson: In Aloft, Jerry Battle is preoccupied with Harold Clarkson-Ickes's attempt to fly a balloon around the world in what is both a heroic and foolish adventure. Why did you include this story in the narrative? What did you want to show readers about Jerry?
Lee: There's this idea of glamour and danger and daring in what the balloonist was doing. That's the ideal version of who Jerry is or wants to be. In his life, he's just a guy who flies his own little plane over his own patch of land in good weather only. It's very human. He's not an explorer. He's not a dashing, swashbuckling sort of fellow. He's not the fighter pilot that he wanted to be. It seemed natural that he would pin a lot of hopes upon Sir Harold, just silly, private, human hopes, and be crushed when Sir Harold meets his end. Jerry is a very careful guy. He likes his security and comforts, but he still dreams. The book is about the struggle to shake himself out of that comfort, and he does it vicariously through Sir Harold.
Johnson: Another interesting and symbolic scene is the Discovery Channel's story of the defeat of a lion king, which leaves Jerry with the feeling that even the king becomes vulnerable with age. What was your thinking there?
Lee: I love those nature shows because they're so anthropomorphized. Who knows if there's a narrative there, but it's presented as a narrative. There's this upstart, and then the king is defeated and finally dead. Jerry is thinking about his father, because his father is in a decline, and he's also thinking about himself, his own mortality and the cycle of life. It's a way for him to think about it, a narrative upon which he can begin to consider himself, because otherwise it's too painful and difficult.
Johnson: Through the voice of Jerry Battle, Aloft in many ways becomes a social commentary, remarking on contemporary aspects of our culture—such as AOL and the constant influx of pornographic junk mail—and the surge of people involved in growing their businesses beyond what is possible to maintain, and how a suburban man can expect to live out his retirement. Did you start out thinking of this character as providing a lens through which you could view contemporary living?
Lee: Definitely. When I conceived of him, he was a figure in a generation. I knew that he had his own story and his own private family struggle, but I was also interested in looking at the way that our society is developing, particularly the suburban society where a lot of outlandish things are happening. I thought that, along with that private family story, he couldn't help but look around. He's a strange figure because he's suburban and doesn't reject suburbia. He believes in having comfort and security, but he can still look around at the details of the culture, good and bad, though mostly bad. He doesn't reject them out of hand, but it does all begin to worry him. That's the sense that a lot of us have. Where is all this heading, all this comfort and security and access? Jerry doesn't want to change things radically, but his anxiety is growing.
Johnson: How did you arrive at having the entire family live together under the same roof in the end? That could be every person's nightmare.
Lee: I wanted it to be Jerry's nightmare. I wanted Jerry to be uncomfortable at the end, along with everyone else in his family. Like a lot of family stories, everyone gets together in the end, but I wanted a different feel to the gathering, that it was difficult and uncomfortable, but still somehow endurable. I liked the idea that they were all there, but only semiwilling. We all try to get together with family, and even though it doesn't quite work out the way we want, we still contrive to get together again the next time. It's a basic human tendency that can't be erased, even in our world of easy communication. We still need to get together, for better or for worse.
Johnson: You're part of a very prestigious literary circle at Princeton, including Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Paul Muldoon. How does your involvement with other writers inform your writing life?
Lee: It's informed in a really wonderful way. Most of the time when we get together it's very social, but I'm aware of everyone's work; I see their seriousness and their artistic integrity. It's a wonderful feeling to know that these people have been working all their lives, not just because they're successful, but because they're serious artists who would do nothing else. It's remarkable. The writers here include Robert Fagles, the famed translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey. His translations are the ones we've been reading for the last ten years. He's an incredible man. He's translating The Aeneid now, and he just gave me the first four books. To be able to read his work in progress, or Charlie (C.K.) Williams's newest poems, is an incredible gift, and it's not only informing my work, but it makes me think about the larger project of what we do. These people make literature. That's an amazing thing. It's not about the market. It's not temporary stuff. To talk to them and listen to them about what they're thinking about when they work on such things is heartening and inspiring. It reminds me all the time about what I'm really trying to accomplish.
Johnson: What would you say to new writers working on their first stories or novel?
Lee: Don't listen to anyone else. It's great to get opinions and advice, but you need to follow the particular private passion or obsession that you have for a story and follow it, giving no quarter to anything else. In the end, that's where writers come up with something unique. That's why novels still mean something even in this age—they're distinctive performances, utterly singular and surprising. Follow your passion. Feed your obsessions, and in the end that will work best.
Sarah Anne Johnson's book of interviews, Conversations with American Women Writers, was published by University Press of New England. The Art of Author Interview will be out in February 2005. She teaches in the MFA Programs at Bennington College and Lesley University. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices. www.sarahannejohnson.com.