I was fortunate enough to meet Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires, at a reading here in D.C. a few months ago. She had read my first blog post about her book, and graciously signed my copy. A few months later, when I posted here about how I had misplaced my copy of her book on a business trip, she emailed me and thanked me for buying a second copy. (Here is my full review of the book). In the course of our correspondence, I asked her if she’d be willing to answer some questions for the blog about Free Food for Millionaires and her writing process. She generously agreed, and this morning sent me a very long and thoughtful set of responses. I feel very lucky to be able to post them here on the blog. Here are the questions and answers:
1) When you started writing Free Food For Millionaires – did you have the major plot points already laid out (such as the night Casey re-met Unu, Ted’s affair with Delia, the introduction of the choir teacher, etc.), or do these develop organically? In other words, is your writing process akin to fleshing out a timeline, or do you create the story as you go?
MJ: I start all of my fiction work with a cryptic outline. I would analogize it with a rudimentary map, e.g. on a child’s globe, you can see where Antarctica is or where Europe is, and you can see capitals, but not all the cities, and certainly not the streets. In this way, I begin novel manuscripts and short stories—with a superficial and childlike understanding of this other world. I use cheap note cards (whatever is in the house) and write one or two words on them. I do not write chapter headings or anything like that, because I can move the cards around on my dining table. I also start to keep character cards that also begin with one or two words, but soon the character cards become far more complex. In the beginning, we have a name, and soon, we know birthdays, where he or she went to kindergarten, eye color, college major. It may not end up in the story, but I know if my character smokes, drinks, swears and, or sleeps around by the final edits. I mention all this here and in this circuitous way in answer to your question, because through slowly learning or visualizing the whole in pieces, the characters and I work together to develop plot. Aristotle in Poetics argues that plot precedes character and Lajos Egri in Art of Dramatic Writing argues against this notion and says that character precedes plot. If I can weigh in between the ancient Greek and the modern Hungarian, ahem, I would say the dynamic interplay among plot and character and writer is where the story becomes organic. I’m a writer who likes plot, however, I’ve found in my experience that stories don’t always listen to me (the writer who has her own plot ideas), and the characters inform the plot, but I try to avoid character rebellion. With this notion in mind, I try not to manipulate the story too much either in the ways of plot or character, instead I try to respect how one affects the other. Practically speaking, the way this works is that I end up rewriting a lot. The terse plot note card grows into a sentence fragment, and that fragment grows into a “paragraph” summary. I have handwritten timelines and computer files in many versions for Free Food for Millionaires.
What I found helpful in the day to day writing was to give myself a tiny sentence like “Delia and Ted meet again at the office”. So in that portion of the day’s writing, I might scribble a scene where Delia might be coming out of another managing director’s office, Ted hearing the ruckus in the halls and popping his head from his office door, then seeing Delia again. And so on. This sounds bizarre, but the thing I try to do more than anything when I am unspooling the story is not to judge myself harshly. Props like cheap note cards, leftover loose-leaf paper, and freedom with incorrect grammar —all these things are helpful, because I find that if things get precise or precious from the beginning, I feel self-conscious. Believe it or not, I try harder than anything to tell myself that it doesn’t count, that I am fooling around, and I won’t expect that the pages will be a book, or that anyone might read it, etc. All that stuff is sort of true anyway, because so much of what I have written has ended up in the recycle bin (not a metaphor here). If I can be of any help to anyone who is writing and struggling alone, I would encourage her to keep reading seriously, to let herself be playful in the drafts, then be ruthless in the editing. Writing and editing are close first cousins, but I find that they have to be in different parts of the house. Which really leads to your second fine question.
2) Do you spend a lot of time editing and rewriting, or do you usually get it close the first time?
MJ: The manuscript Free Food for Millionaires that sold was a seventh revision, and a fourth total rewrite (Retyping from the first word to the last. Not the smartest way to work, but it’s what I do.). It was edited three more times before it became a book (Not including the copyediting). So, I guess, ten times is the charm. I quit lawyering in 1995, my manuscript sold in July 2006, then it was published in May 2007. There was never a period from 1995 till 2007 when I wasn’t writing fiction. I worked on a lot of manuscripts which just didn’t work out, or to be more forthright, I didn’t know how to tell the story I saw in my head. I believe that the life’s work of a writer is to shorten the bridge between the mind’s lovely image and the scratches on your pages. I read somewhere that John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samarra, Pal Joey) routinely wrote and published short stories for the New Yorker, no less, in one draft. This apparently upset his colleagues at the New Yorker offices. I don’t know of anyone else.
3) Casey can be a somewhat frustrating person. Do you have sympathy for Casey because you share some of her impulses, or does she frustrate you as well?
MJ: Casey can be a frustrating person. I think her behavior is occasionally textbook (psychology) “acting out.” In my vain mind, she was drafted in light of the heroines I loved from the old novels who are stubborn, clever, foolish and spirited—an homage of sorts to Lily Bart (House of Mirth), Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Caroline Meeber (Sister Carrie), Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch), Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair), et al. I have some of Casey’s impulses, but for good or for bad, not as many. Among the qualities I admire about Casey are her integrity, her wish to be a good person despite her stubbornness, her work ethic and competence, and her loyalty to her friends. She grumbles and grouses, but she tries very hard to do the right thing. I find that refreshing. Casey is also aware of her limitations. I have great sympathy for Casey, because she is trying to figure out who she is, and well, she is young and wants to be independent. I didn’t have Casey’s life in many ways: I went to law school right after college when I was twenty one, practiced corporate law for two years, got married when I was twenty-four and became a stay at home mother at twenty-nine. My husband and I have been married for fourteen years. I’m thirty nine years old, I own a home and pay a mortgage, and our son is almost ten years old. I have never smoked a cigarette, and I don’t drink alcohol. I met my husband at twenty-two so I stopped dating pretty young. I have lived a fairly anti-Casey lifestyle, but I know many girls like Casey, and I see how they enjoy and suffer their choices, delusions and ideals. I wanted a girl like that to be the center of this story. I like people who make mistakes or take the wrong way—there is great honesty in failure and stumbling.
4) All of the major characters in Free Food for Millionaires are Korean, with the exception of some of the significant others in the book (Jay, David Greene, and Delia). What can we expect from future Min Jin Lee novels?
MJ: My next novel is mostly about ethnic Koreans in Japan and the expatriates of Tokyo. My central characters will be Zainichi Koreans, Japanese, Korean-Americans and Westerners, and a variety of Americans. The book will take place mostly in Tokyo and New York.
5) The character I found the most challenging in the novel was Ted. The first half of the book sets him up as a villain, but his relationship with Delia and his father’s death both softened him and made him more dimensional. Tell me more about Ted – did you grow to like him more over time?
MJ: Ted is my favorite character in this book. He is selfish, ambitious, hardhearted and competitive, but I found that in my interviews of many men on Wall Street, that these folks were just as lost as everyone else. The real live Teds made Casey seem level-headed and sure-footed. The trick with the Teds of the world is that they look like they know what they are doing. The Caseys are visibly struggling. I find Teds to be more challenging, and he was the character who I wanted to know better. More and more, I wanted to understand a person like this, and you are right, in the process of writing this book, I learned to like him a great deal. Maybe it’s what mothers say about their most troubled child about how you are most attached to him. Well, the world would probably say that Casey is more troubled than Ted, but I don’t think so. Ted is also inspired in part by the chief protagonist Soames Forsyte from John Galsworthy’s three novels known as The Forsyte Saga. Soames makes Ted look like an adorable puppy.
6) What’s the oddest question you’ve gotten on your book tour?
MJ: I haven’t gotten many odd questions, but I have been asked many personal questions about my family which seems a little odd to me, probably, because I know that my family is well, not that unusual. Oh yes, I have been asked why I cry during my readings. The question isn’t odd, but the whole tearing up thing is horribly embarrassing. I am trying to keep it together lately, but depending on my feelings that day, PMS, or what I recall of a scene, I do lose it now and then.
7) What are you working on now and when will we be lucky enough to read it?
I write freelance pieces for magazines from time to time. I just had an essay in the November Vogue about my father and millinery, and a few essays are forthcoming in 2008 anthologies Why I’m A Democrat (ed. Susan Mulcahy) and Walk This Way (ed. Rebecca Walker). I just wrote an essay about Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac which will be coming out in the “Rediscovery” section of the Barnes & Nobles Book Review. I might be writing a piece about South Korea for a travel magazine and will review some books next year. As for my second novel, it’s titled Pachinko, and I am working on it, but as you know, I’m no John O’Hara. I just hope it doesn’t take me eleven years for my sophomore attempt.
Gayle, thanks so much for these marvelous questions. I enjoyed this. And yes, I do believe that every day we should write our books.