Chang-rae Lee’s third novel, Aloft, released earlier this month, is a book of firsts. It is Lee’s first book whose protagonist is not Korean-American; Aloft’s narrator, Jerry Battle, is a sixty-year old Italian-American. (Lee explained in a telephone interview that he did not consciously choose to write from the point of view of a white man: “The fact that he’s white wasn’t the original spark. Of course, now that I’ve created him, I’m going to think about all he is.”)
Aloft is also the first novel that Lee has published since he joined the faculty of the Princeton Creative Writing Program in 2002. Lee claims that his teaching does not affect his writing. This is an interesting assertion, considering that some of Jerry Battle’s statements (when discussing his elderly father’s reaction to his girlfriend’s stroke, Jerry remarks, “He’s definitely being a bit too dispassionate now”) sound as though they could have come out of the mouth of one of Lee’s Princeton students. Still, Lee insists, “Teaching and writing are completely different things—opposites.”
Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1965. Three years later, Lee, his mother, and his sister Eunei immigrated to the United States, following Lee’s father’s move the year before. The family settled in New York, and Lee embarked on a path familiar to many Princeton students: he and his family lived in the suburbs (Westchester County); he attended boarding school (Exeter), then an Ivy League college (Yale). After graduating from Yale in 1987, he went to work for an investment banking firm in New York because, he explains, “I didn’t want to go to law school or business school.”
In his first year after graduation, Lee says, “I kept gravitating toward my computer and writing.” So, he did what every Princeton student who has ever taken an upper-level Creative Writing class claims he, too, will do: he left Wall Street to become a writer. Lee lived in New York for three years after quitting his banking job, working odd jobs and writing until he was admitted to the graduate writing program at the University of Oregon. Lee remained at Oregon as a member of the faculty until 1998, when he returned to New York to become the head of Hunter College’s graduate writing program.
Meanwhile, Lee was writing, and publishing, to wide acclaim. (In 1999, the New Yorker named Lee one of the twenty best writers under forty.) At Oregon, he wrote the bulk of his first novel, Native Speaker. Published in 1995, Native Speaker tells the story of Henry Park, a Korean-American spy. Park, like many of Lee’s main characters, feels like an outsider and cannot handle difficult emotions. Park is, as his wife tells him as she is leaving him, “a B+ student at life.” Native Speaker won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the American Book Award. A year later, Lee published A Gesture Life, about an elderly Korean immigrant trying to forget his experiences as an officer in the Japanese army during World War II. Though in some ways a departure from Lee’s previous material, Aloft, like Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, details an unemotional man’s attempt to deal with emotional crises—in Jerry Battle’s case, his wife’s death by drowning in their backyard pool, his daughter’s terminal illness, his long-time girlfriend’s decision to leave him, his son’s financial ruin, and his father’s escape from an assisted-living home.
As a writer, Lee would seem an obvious role model for his students. After all, he is what many of his students aspire to be: a talented writer who broke out of the golden handcuffs to become a successful novelist. As it turns out, though, Lee, is a tricky man to emulate. He does not plan his novels before he writes them. When asked what authors have influenced his writing, Lee replies only that he is reading a new translation of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, adding, “It’s a grim and beautiful book.” He is even more reluctant to discuss his own work. “The more I talk, the more it kind of dispels the magic. I think the mystery is why we read,” he says.
Lee does have some advice for his students and other aspiring writers: read. “Young people who are interested in literature should read,” he says. He especially recommends that young writers reread books they admire over and over and over to gain clues about what makes a good piece of literature work.
Lee also encourages his students to support published writers. When Russell Banks came to read at 185 Nassau earlier this semester, Lee told his advanced fiction class not only to attend the reading, but also to buy Banks’ book. One of the members of the class remembers, “He said something along the lines of, ‘You’re students. If you don\\\’t buy these books, who will? We’ve got to support our fellow writers.’”
Noticeably, Lee does not urge young writers to take creative writing classes. In fact, considering his extensive experience as both a student and teacher of such classes, he is surprisingly ambivalent about their effectiveness. “They’re helpful to people who don’t need the help,” he says. He calls the writing process “solitary and monastic” and laments the fact that “sometimes, people who should be alone get into writing programs.” When asked how he feels about Princeton’s creative thesis option, considered by many students the holy grail of the creative writing program, Lee responds: “For certain people it can be good, but sometimes art can be difficult and cruel if you try to make art before you’re ready. When I look back to senior year, it’s probably good I didn’t do it then. I wasn’t ready.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson to learn from Lee’s example is the value of patience. Lee admits to rewriting the same sentence up to twelve times before deeming it sufficient and moving on. Unlike many contemporary Ivy League writers (to name a few examples: Nick McDonnel, a sophomore at Harvard who published Twelve during his senior year in high school; Travis Muir ’05, who just released Thomasovich; Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, whose bestseller Everything is Illuminated started as his Princeton creative thesis), Lee took his time writing his first novel. Compared with McDonnel, Muir, and Foer, Lee was an old man when he published Native Speaker at 29. But Lee’s slow care paid off; critics remarked that Native Speaker is unusually mature for a first novel. As the New Yorker review put it, “[Native Speaker] takes as its subjects the things that often preoccupy novelists on their first outing—language, family, identity—and it turns them inside out, making literal what is usually only metaphorical.” Critics observed a similar sophisticated insightfulness in A Gesture Life; according to the New York Times Magazine’s Charles McGrath, “A Gesture Life reads like someone’s fourth or fifth book.”
Whatever he may think about their effectiveness, Lee’s fiction workshops are among the most structured in Princeton’s creative writing program. Each class begins with a discussion of an assigned story from an anthology. (Readings for his introductory-level class include Jack London’s “To Light a Fire,” Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and Joyce’s “Araby”.) Then, the students turn their critical attention to their classmates’ stories. Lee does not allow the writer to speak while the class discusses his or her work; only after the discussion is over can the writer ask questions of the class.
Finally, Lee himself comments on his students’ work. He asks that his students send him their stories a week before the class discusses them so that he can have time to read and respond. Again, Lee’s patient deliberateness comes through, as well as his critical insight; he is famous within the program for the thorough, page-long typed comments he produces for each student story. One of Lee’s students remarks that he “penetrates a short story to its often-stuttering heart.”
But the word students most often use to describe Lee is “laid back.” Last spring, two members of his class staged a fight in class to see if they could faze him. One of the “fighters” recounts the event: “Seth lunged across the table and started choking me, and we ended with sobbing apologies and a declaration of love and a hug. Professor Lee just let a beat pass and then said, ‘Does anyone else have any comments?’”