The Olasky Interview: Min Jin Lee

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, The Olasky Interview. Today, author Min Jin Lee. She was born in South Korea and came with her family to the United States in 1976 when she was 7. She would go on to Yale and have to demonstrate perseverance in dealing with physical and professional challenges.

REICHARD: Then last year Min Jin Lee became a National Book Award finalist for her novel Pachinko. It impressed WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky, so he invited the author to join him for an interview in front of some aspiring writers at Patrick Henry College.

MARVIN OLASKY: Tell us a little bit about growing up in Queens and suddenly being in this amazing place called America.

MIN JIN LEE: Well, when I first came to America, I was really surprised. We came to JFK, the airport, and I realized it looks exactly like Seoul but with not Korean people, and I was really disappointed because I thought, oh, it’s going to be kind of like Cinderella. There’d be stagecoaches and ball gowns and people wearing party dresses as if a fairy tale would occur in JFK, which did not, and then I thought, oh, it’s just like there. So that was a little disappointing, but then, of course, it was also wondrous because they had all these cool things that we didn’t have in Korea when I was growing up, like peanut butter. Delicious. I love peanut butter.


LEE: Yes, right? I mean, hallelujah, peanut butter, and then, also one thing that was really expensive in Korea was bananas… My uncle, who we were staying with, uncle John, he knew that bananas were quite dear in Korea. So as soon as we got there, he bought us this enormous tub filled with bananas, which, of course, now I know it’s like the cheapest fruit they can possibly get, and he just said, “Eat as many as you’d like,” and I’m thinking, “What a great country. You can have as many bananas as you’d like,” and peanut butter, too.

Now, Were you one of those kids who sort of starts scrawling and writing a lot and writing stories?

LEE: No, not at all. I never thought I was going to be a writer. I was a reader, and even now, I really see myself as a reader. I can read very quickly. I can read very thoroughly. I can tell you exactly what happened. But I didn’t see myself as a writer. I didn’t think that people like me became writers. I come from a working class background. Also, as a Korean American, there were no Korean-American authors that I knew of when I was growing up, and even when was in college, when I started to write stories, I think I was 20. So it wasn’t like I had this early start but I had a very early start in reading.

So you’re going to Yale. You’re sitting in college at Trumbull College at Yale and you say one day, “Oh, I’m going to write something.” How did that happen?

LEE: I took two writing classes, and I was not the brightest kid in the class. As a matter of fact, it was embarrassing because very often, my socioeconomic class revealed itself very quickly. There were all these things that I didn’t know. So, for example, you were sitting in this really big oval table with all these other kids who are writers, and I’m the rube in the room, and I was also the only non-white person in the room, because it was an advanced class. One day we were talking about, we were critiquing a story. So everybody gets copies of the stories that get written and then I was reading this one story written by some kid and she had mentioned Stonehenge and I said—I raised my hand like an idiot—and I said, “Oh, Stonehenge? I don’t know what that is. Maybe you should define what that is for the reader who doesn’t know.” And all the kids turned around and looked at me like did you just crawl out of a cave? Because a lot of those kids had gone to Stonehenge, and I remember thinking, “Oh, right. I’m from Queens. They don’t have Stonehenge in Queens.” So people would know right away if you hadn’t had that experience. So that class, I did feel intimidated, but I wrote a story in that class and I submitted it and it turned out that it won the best nonfiction writing of the college.

What was it about?

LEE: It was actually about my mother. It was about my mother and it was about just growing up and all the questions that I had about what it means to be a mother like my mother who had just endured so many things about coming to America. So it was personal but it was blind admissions so you didn’t put your name down. So I remember submitting it and then it won this thing and I was like, “That’s kind of cool. Maybe I’ll do that again.” So then I took a fiction class, and then I wrote a story based on a newspaper article that my teacher just happened to hand me. She cut out a little tiny article from The New York Times where four little girls had attempted suicide because they were so poor and they did it in order to make sure that their younger brother had money for school fees. She gave me this little piece of news and she goes, “Why don’t you write something about it?” So I did, and it won a prize.

So two for two.

LEE: Two for two. I know, and still, I was like, “I’m going to go to law school because that’s a real job.”

So, despite being two for two in college, you write a first novel and it’s turned down. You write a second novel and you decide it’s no good.

LEE: It’s terrible, yeah.

God composes very interesting stories.

LEE: I mean, I always think about God being a writer because the Word is so important, and whenever I’m in this whole publishing word, I think, well, God is a writer and He’s a publisher and He kind of gets it. He’s an editor and all those things. I wonder what God thinks about my little troubles. I hope that He can give me a break. Writing is really hard. You know what I always tell my fiction students whenever they go, “What do I do? How do I get published?” and I always say forget that it’s a career. Don’t think of it as a profession. Don’t think of it as a job. It’s work. It’s a vocation. It’s really, really difficult. But earn a living somewhere else because this is not how you’re going to make it. I know very successful writers and they don’t make money from selling their books. So you do it because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it’s going to deliver something in your life. As a matter of fact, I recently said this, it’s not redemption. Your book is not redemption. It will not redeem all the pain and suffering in your life. It’s something that you make because you feel called to write that story, and if you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.

When you look back at these two, I mean, two terrific novels you’ve done, Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, don’t you think, yeah, it’s worthwhile with all the struggles?

LEE: I do. I don’t think of myself as this big intellectual, this big artist. I think I want to make something really beautiful. I want it to shimmer. I want it to stand the test of time. So, I feel really humbled by the fact that I get to do this, but I hope that I get to continue to do this because it does take all this time.

REICHARD: That’s author Min Jin Lee speaking with WORLD’s Marvin Olasky.

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Author Min Jin Lee attends the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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