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5 Q's with Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee is yet another example of the lawyer-turned-writer phenomenon. This Yale alum is the author of Free Food for Millionaires , a delightful debut novel about a recent college grad trying to reconcile the thriftiness of her immigrant parents with the expensive habits she picked during in college, among other issues. The "caught between two worlds" protagonist reminds me a bit of Gogol in The Namesake (one of my fave novels). Here Lee shares a bit about her writing process.
Urban Muse: The protagonist in Free Food for Millionaires is a young Korean-American woman. Do you think the book resonates with other cultures and ages, too?
Min Jin Lee:
This is a good question, and it reflects the issue of readership. A story has its own code, language and culture. Readers are by nature sophisticated interpreters, and I think that as long as a book’s morality, diction and atmosphere are coherent and logical, any reader can identify with any kind of character. So for example, a reader can follow and empathize with a narrative—science fiction, fantasy or even horror—though she is not an alien, knight or criminal. A writer should be able to provide meaningful emotional logic and detailed characterizations so that a thoughtful reader can go beyond his or her own experiences whatever that might be. I think readers are very generous. My main characters in this book are Korean-American, but I think their troubles and struggles are cross cultural ones. I have been fortunate to have had advance readers from different backgrounds, and their responses have been profoundly moving and gratifying to me, precisely because, the group has been very diverse.
UM: Where did you find the inspiration for the book?
A friend told me a story about the free lunches given at investment banks after a deal ends, e.g. If an investment bank closed a bond offering for a Chinese telecom company, there might be a free dim sum lunch for some of the employees of that investment bank. My friend told me that where he worked, sometimes, the wealthiest employees were the first in line to grab a lot of food. I thought this was ironic and funny: Free food for millionaires. I had intended to write a short story, but my best friend Dionne Bennett, a professor at Loyola, said it would make a great novel because I am familiar with this world of Wall Street and New York’s complicated class structure. I started this book in 2001 and finished it in 2006.
UM: You submitted lots of stories before getting published. Any tips on dealing with rejection?
Rejections hurt. I don’t know how to make them not hurt. But this is what I will say about those of us who still feel the sting of naysayers—vulnerability is a kind of strength for writers. I would be lying to you if I told you that rejections haven’t kept me back. They have definitely affected me, made me more shy about submissions, and doubtful of my abilities. But I have also taken classes, read more books, and re-written more before submitting again. I’ve always sent things out here and there. Not that much, but always something somewhere. I can be injured, but I am still capable of hope. Perhaps that’s the best I can offer in terms of what has been my experience. I think you’re supposed to be tougher in the arts, but I never think it’s possible, at least for me, to be tough just because I wish it so.
UM: What other books or writers have influenced you?
I have been most influenced by 19th century writers and turn of the century writers from Europe and America: Tolstoy, Dreiser, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Wharton, Turgenev, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. As for contemporary fiction writers: I admire William Trevor, Shirley Hazzard, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice McDermott, Rohinton Mistry and Edward P. Jones.
UM: What’s your next project?
I am writing a novel called Pachinko. An excerpt, “Motherland” appears in The Missouri Review . The manuscript is not done by any means, but bits and pieces of it were worked on quite a lot before I started writing Free Food for Millionaires. I am moving to Tokyo in August, so I look forward to completing my research and knocking out a real first draft. Wish me luck.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful questions.

Good luck, and thank you for sharing your experiences!

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