By Mary Pickett
Mary Pickett: We just passed an anniversary for you - Your debut memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, was released last Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14, 2017). How have things changed for you within this past year?
Christine Lee: Thank you for recognizing that anniversary.
It has been a year of new experiences. And mostly, lessons learned.
There were amazing things that happened: I had the opportunity to meet and interview with Scott Simon on NPR and had my book reviewed in the New York Times. Those are dream scenarios. And most heartwarming of all—I received encouraging emails from readers.
But there were also so many things I’d not anticipated. Including the changing of my identity—for so many years, I’d been unpublished, and suddenly, I was an author of a book. And the only difference was one day in my entire life—and I had to say goodbye to that writer and embrace a future I’d only dreamt of. So, I was also strangely in mourning.
It’s like when I finally got divorced after four long years of paperwork and court appointments and many talks with lawyers. I seriously thought I’d be overjoyed when the divorce was announced. But when the judge began saying, “I dissolve the marriage of…” I broke down in tears in court. I did not expect that reaction. But you know, grief is part of moving forward and part of achievements—you say goodbye to the past.
It has also been a year of becoming more of a private person—which is ironic, because I just put out a memoir with very personal thoughts and feelings. It is because of that very fact that putting out a book can be a very bruising experience and so I re-prioritized yet again and focused on my inner life. This meant holding dear my closest friends. This meant focusing on my daughter and partner more than ever. This even meant ramping up my urban farm and falling in love with beekeeping. You know—non-writing stuff.
MP: I’m intrigued by your above description of book publication as a “bruising experience.” Can you tell me a little more about that? Might this experience occur only within nonfiction?
CL: I can only speak for my experience with my memoir, because my novel is still forthcoming. I hear publishing a novel is just as bruising for fiction authors, though. Maybe it’s bruising in different ways, because we each have different expectations that might not be met. You’ve spent a lot of time alone writing something for a very long time—maybe a year, maybe ten years, before releasing your dreams and expectations out into the world for judgment. I think in some ways, the MFA workshop is boot camp for that experience—your work, when read by others, is no longer your own. It is absorbed by different minds and it becomes something different altogether.
It’s heartwarming and, also, heartbreaking. Upon publication, your book is no longer your very own. Your book has its own life.
Publishing a book isn’t going to make you happy if you weren’t happy before you published the book. It isn’t going to open doors if you weren’t opening doors for yourself before you published the book. It doesn’t change who you are. To me, it’s like getting married; marriage in and of itself isn’t going to make or break a relationship or change a life. The work is the work. The love is the love. The passion is the passion.
MP: One of my favorite lines in your book is: “This book is about my stroke, but the stroke helped me come to terms with other traumas….” One of which, being your divorce. How did you decide to share these traumas with the world?
CL: I couldn’t not share the related traumas. My 14-year-old marriage (18 year relationship) fell apart and I was overcoming postpartum depression, and in my misery, I kept looking back at the stroke and the lessons learned therefrom. They were inextricably linked, especially at that time. So, I had to write them down. There is universality in the particular and I hope my readers, whether or not they’ve overcome a medical trauma, also glean helpful lessons from Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember.
MP: Was anything off-limits within this sharing?
CL: I did not share anything about the acute particulars of my separation. I wanted to prioritize my daughter’s wellbeing and that meant not tearing down her biological father. I wanted to write a book about which I’d feel zero regrets.
MP: You have written both nonfiction and fiction. Do you prefer one genre over another? Does genre classification matter?
CL: I really enjoy both fiction and nonfiction—though fiction is my first love, and there is always something special and unique and vulnerable about the thing for which you first feel passion.
Though both genres require craft, they have different requirements. Nonfiction has a hard line in that you must tell the truth as you experienced it. And because you are narrating facts, there is a great burden of curation on the writer to tell the story. You must pick from what you have been given.
Fiction does not have the burden of fact-telling, but it’s not any easier. I like to say that creative nonfiction is about describing the knife and slicing your wrists. Fiction is about building the knife and slicing your wrists.
MP: We first met in the Spring of 2016, when you were a guest lecturer for my Fresno State MFA fiction workshop. I still can’t believe that you drove a total of six hours every Wednesday (from Berkeley to Fresno, and back again)! That’s real dedication to teaching. How does your teaching inform your writing?
CL: That was an epic commute. I can’t believe I did that, either! I ate a ton of Hi-Chews during those drives out of sheer boredom. I think I ate about six packs of Hi-Chews each week and I listened to a lot of podcasts.
But I really did enjoy my time in the classroom with you. Part of the reality is that teaching takes time away from writing—and that is the dirty secret that many writing teachers won’t share. But the other reality is that teaching helps my writing, because by iterating theory and craft to others, it helps me refine my own process and awareness.
MP: What are some of your favorite podcasts?
MP: Can you tell me about your latest writing project: your upcoming novel, The Golem of Seoul?
CL: My novel is about two Korean immigrants who travel to the United States in 1972 to find a long lost relative. They build a golem out of a tin of soil they’ve brought with them from North Korea to help them out. It is a cross-cultural retelling of an old story.
That’s what the novel is right now, but I just got editorial notes back from my editor, so that may change.
MP: I want to thank you for coming back to Fresno State to lead a craft talk and read from your work during WordFest. The focus of your talk was on building worlds - which, as you said, can be applied to both fiction and nonfiction. Do you find the world building process similar for both genres?
CL: I think the world building process differs for each and every book and story. Each story and narrative requires different things out of the writer each time. In one story, you might be intimate with the physical terrain, but have to explore its emotional connection. In another story, you might be imagining a world with which you're not familiar and have to build from scratch, which in some ways means freedom, and in other ways, means more work. I wish I could provide predictive information, but it really is a new start each and every time. But you do hope you've built more muscles and tactics and strategies as time wears on.
MP: You turned the talk into a bit of an art class, by having us build our own worlds out of clay. How did you come up with this exercise? Is this something you might recommend as part of the writing process?
CL: I thought that after sitting and listening in your seats all day that it would be nice for you to get your hands literally dirty. I am very aware that students learn things in different ways - some of us through watching and others through physical experience. And I am aware that playing is very important to art. So, I was looking for an exercise in which you could have "hands-on" experience.
This turned out to be a literal hands-on exercise. I am going to credit Victor LaValle for this exercise. While I was writing the first draft of my novel, Victor suggested I go and build my own golem as my characters do. So, I went out and got some clay and sat down, expecting very little out of the experiment. I learned that it's not so easy to build a little figurine. I learned that it is an emotional experience. I got to embody my own characters and understand what it was like to be in their world - the questions that go through their mind and even the order in which one would build body parts.
Some people don't have to have the kinetic learning experience. But many of us do to some point. And we need all-hands-on-deck to write a book. We need to learn in as many ways as possible. We need to engage in as many ways as possible. So yes - if you're stuck or even if you're not stuck, go out and build something. If your characters are in agriculture, go plant one of the vegetables or fruits they're tending, whether it is a strawberry plant, cotton plant, or an artichoke. You don't have to plant an entire field, but you have to know what it feels like to plant something, to feel the soil, and to see what it looks like when it first pops up out of the soil. You even have to feel and understand what it's like to watch a plant die; so, if you fail at growing the thing, there's opportunity in that, too. If one of your characters is a housekeeper, go out and clean a friend's home. See what it's like to be tasked with something and to wander around someone else's house and have to clean a mess that isn't your own. Embody the experience. Put yourself physically in your world's space, to the extent that it's possible.
Born in New York City, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is the author of the memoir Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Zyzzyva, Guernica, the Rumpus, and BuzzFeed, among other publications. Her novel, The Golem of Seoul, is forthcoming from Ecco/Harper Collins.
Mary Pickett is a third-year MFA fiction candidate at Fresno State and Senior Associate Fiction Editor for The Normal School.