He Can’t Carry a Tune, but Chang-rae Lee Has a Song to Sing

Maybe it’s his suburban roots. When his family first came to New York, they lived on the Upper West Side, but soon moved to Westchester C...


Maybe it’s his suburban roots. When his family first came to New York, they lived on the Upper West Side, but soon moved to Westchester County, north of the city. He and his family moved to San Francisco when he joined the Stanford faculty, but before that he taught at Princeton and lived in the New Jersey suburbs. In “My Year Abroad,” those suburbs are where the story begins and ends, not by accident.

“It’s a place where I think it’s easier to ask questions of yourself, because there’s not much going on,” he said. In a city bristling with energy and crowds, it can feel to him that there is a performative aspect to life. “In the suburbs, it’s not like that. It doesn’t feel like that to me. Which is dull, sometimes, or a lot of the time, but also it’s kind of comforting and liberating.”

After graduating from Yale, he worked as an equities analyst for exactly one year, and later received his M.F.A. from the University of Oregon while writing “Native Speaker.” He wrote a novel before “Native Speaker” that was never published. Titled “Agnew Belittlehead,” it involved members of a New York City cult who all had the same experience using certain magic mushrooms — “sort of a precursor to Instagram,” he said, “or Newsmax!” It was a terrible novel, he added, “and kind of full of itself,” though at the time he desperately wanted it to be a success.

Its failure was, for him, instructive. “When there was such a nice reception to ‘Native Speaker’ and ‘A Gesture Life,’ I guess I didn’t feel like that was preordained,” Lee said. “I just felt very lucky.”

Lee’s creative process is of the butt-in-chair school: When he’s working on a book, he has breakfast, then goes to his home office and writes, then goes cycling. He doesn’t like to show work in progress to anyone, even (or especially) if he knows they will praise it.

He might cut back on his fiction reading while at work on a novel, tending to read more poetry: Tracy K. Smith, Edward Hirsch, Campbell McGrath, his mentor Garrett Hongo. Lee’s tastes run eclectic, but all of it helps remind him what he loves about writing: “I love the sentence. I love singing that song.”

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Newsrust: He Can’t Carry a Tune, but Chang-rae Lee Has a Song to Sing
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