Chang-rae Lee on Writing as a Bodily Experience
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: That’s so interesting that you say that memory is a bodily thing, because I’ve been thinking about in my own life—when I have some trouble, sometimes, knowing what to do or where to go, I’ve started to ignore my head and my heart and listen to my body. And I’m in a phase of my life where my body’s leading me to some decisions, not to get too out there. But I’m just wondering if you have that experience too, and if that is part of your writing?
Chang Rae Lee: In fact, I think it always has been part of my writing. In previous novels, I’ve written in certain books about very weighty historical things—war, sexual slavery, deep moral reckoning. I think my approach to those things—and even though this book is entirely different in tone; it’s much more humorous, and profane, and kind of wild—but I think in all my books, there’s an interest in placing people in moments and then kind of assaying them afterwards and having them reckon through the viscera, and watching how they both accept that sensation and then also don’t trust it sometimes, or try to deny it. And I think in this book it was sort of a thought experiment meant for me to put someone like Tiller in positions where he increasingly just accepted everything. That he was this sponge, that he was so vulnerable, literally, and I wanted to see how far he could go in whatever, passion, idea, that could lead him to. I guess I’ve always felt that way.
I mean, for me, writing is a bodily experience. When I’m writing, I think something—whether it’s good or not, I don’t know—but if I feel like I’m writing and connecting up with something, actual and real, I start to sweat, I start to shake a little bit. I feel strange and out of myself. And you think, of course, I’d be thinking about language or tropes and all these things, and maybe that’s going on in the background, but the actual moment of that writing is absolutely and exclusively physical. It is strange. And that’s maybe the sense that I wanted to have for the reader of this novel, and certainly for the characters.
Chang-rae Lee is the author of My Year Abroad, Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, as well as On Such a Full Sea, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Stanford University.