Q&A: Chang-rae Lee

Article by mark

At the beginning of 2014, some Brazos employees decided to begin an in-store book group. Our inaugural choice was Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, ON SUCH A FULL SEA. The reviews were glowing, and for many of us, it was the first opportunity we’d had to read anything by Lee, a highly regarded and popular author.

We loved this novel, a fantastic, literary, and dystopian story with a complex heroine at the center. ON SUCH A FULL SEA was an ambitious departure from Lee’s previous books like NATIVE SPEAKER and THE SURRENDERED, which were grounded in reality. Lee, however, had not abandoned the themes of identity, race, exclusion, and the anxiety inherent in social upheaval, subjects that all resonate strongly in ON SUCH A FULL SEA. It’s a novel that bristles with tension, written in Chang-Rae Lee’s trademark elegance.

I asked Lee some questions about ON SUCH A FULL SEA.

Brazos Bookstore: ON SUCH A FULL SEA is a departure from your earlier books. Was changing genres a challenge for you; did it ever feel like you were taking a risk?

Chang-rae Lee: To be honest I didn't feel as though I was writing in a different genre, for other than the speculative aspects of the story, it seemed to me that I was writing as I always do, considering language and character and action in much the same ways as in my previous novels, which is to say both rationally and irrationally. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the beginning, when I really did have to institute a 'future' world. But after that, well, I just followed the narrative and laid it down as always...

BB: Fan is such a strong yet sympathetic character; she seems fully realized. Was she a challenge to write, or did she come easily?

CL: I would never say she came easily, but I did 'see' her very clearly, right from the start. That wasn't the case with many of my previous protagonists, who seemed to have hidden mysteries throughout their creation. But Fan I saw in high definition, as it were; the question and mystery was not about her but within the "We" who tells her story, and how the "We" would tell and mull her exploits.

BB: In the novel, the “future” has strong ties to our present-day landscape (culture, race, the environment), as if it would only take a few steps (and perhaps a few decades) to reach that place. Is making a plausible setting important?

CL: Indeed it is, but I think any setting--whether 'realistic' or 'futuristic' or 'dystopian'--is only believable if the people within the setting are believable in what they desire, how they conduct themselves, what they believe in and value, all within the given context. So it's not about 'staging' things faithfully so much as unearthing what makes these particular people in this particular context tick.

BB: There must be a plethora of possibilities when a writer decides to invent his/her own world. Was it difficult to decide what worked in this dystopian future and what to leave out?

CL: I decided very early on that I wasn't interested in filling out every last detail of this new 'world'--I had no desire to write that kind of detailed 'manual' or 'constitution', but to provide only enough to erect a contextual architecture, if you will, for the inhabitants, who only live in their time and can see no others.

BB: You have no idea who we'll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

CL: What keeps you up at night?

Please join us Wednesday, January 14th, to see Chang-rae Lee read from this remarkable novel and sign books after.

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