On Selling Your First Novel After 11 Years
Min Jin Lee on the Road to Free Food for Millionaires
I had already failed at two novel manuscripts. Publishers had rejected my first manuscript, and I rejected the second, because it was not good enough to send out. I was 32 years old and beginning my third novel.
I had been trying to get a novel published since 1995, the year I quit being a lawyer. Since high school, I’d had a chronic liver disease, and I couldn’t work the hours of a Manhattan law firm without getting ill, so I thought I’d write fiction. My husband Christopher had a steady job with health insurance, but we had gotten our apartment and mortgage with two incomes in mind. Money was tight. After a miscarriage and a difficult pregnancy, our son Sam was born, and that same year, we learned that beloved family members, who could no longer support themselves, were awash in catastrophic debt, and suddenly, we were responsible for another household.
It is never a financially prudent idea to be a fiction writer, but I had not anticipated running through my savings in a year, being unable to earn even a modest living, not being able to afford part-time childcare to write, having a debilitating liver disease, and taking on the debts of people I love.
I was ashamed. After six years, I had not yet written a published novel, and I was broke from the choices I had made. I wondered how we’d pay all these bills, send Sam to college, and save for retirement. When my friends asked me to lunch, I made excuses because I could not afford the luxury of eating out. I could not answer when they asked kindly when my book would be available to purchase. I hid my failure by staying home.
From the moment I quit lawyering, I tried to learn how to write good fiction. I had written and published personal essays in high school. I was a history major in college, but for pleasure, I’d taken three writing classes in the English department. To my surprise, in my junior and senior years, I won top writing prizes for nonfiction and fiction, respectively. It’s possible that the college prizes misled me to believe that I could publish a novel immediately after quitting the law. However, the more I studied fiction, the more I realized that writing novels required rigorous discipline and mastery, no different than the study of engineering or classical sculpture. I wanted to get formal training. Nevertheless, after having paid for law school, I could not hazard the cost of an MFA. So, I fumbled around and made up my own writing program.
Always a reader of the 19th-century greats, I read more widely. I read every fine novel and short story I could find, and I studied the ones that were truly exceptional. If I saw a beautifully wrought paragraph, say from Julia Glass’s Three Junes, I would transcribe it in a marble notebook. Then, I would sit and read her elegant sentences, seemingly pinned to my flimsy notebook like a rare butterfly on cheap muslin. Craft strengthened the feelings and thoughts of the writer. When I read and reread Junot Díaz’s stories in Drown, I was struck by his courage and genius. His perfect narrative voice matched the intricacy and greatness of his plot architecture. Great fiction required not just lovely words or fine feelings, it demanded emotion, structure, ideals, and bravery. Fine works of fiction made me feel glad, the way I feel glad when I see a painting by a master, an ocean at dusk, or the face of a child.
In New York, it is possible to study with great writers for very little money. If one can afford to live here, there is a shock of riches in culture, so much so that artists work for almost nothing. Once a week, when Christopher could watch Sam after work, I took a turkey sandwich in a baggie or a carton of hummus and went to my writing classes or met with my writers’ group. For less than $200, I was able to study for several weeks with Lan Samantha Chang, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Jhumpa Lahiri at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop early on in their careers. I took a class at the Gotham Writers Workshop with Wesley Gibson. For about the same amount and for a season’s length of classes, I studied with Jonathan Levi, Joyce Johnson, Joseph Caldwell, Joan Silber, Shirley Hazzard, and Nahid Rachlin at the 92nd Street Y. The Y runs a famous preschool, and in the evenings, grown men and women sat in these preschool classrooms, smelling of tempera paints and box apple juice, anxious to know if their stories made any sense. Teachers generously encouraged me to continue, but privately, I wondered if I should quit. I was getting older, and I was afraid that I could not return to a steady profession.
The year after Sam was born, impulsively, I applied for a spot at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and was accepted. The tuition was more money than we could spare, something like $1,000. However, I knew it was difficult to get a spot at all, and I felt I had to go. I had nursed Sam for a year, and I thought this might be a good reward for having given up my body—or so it seemed to me—for the pregnancies, the illnesses, and the breastfeeding. Christopher took time off from work and stayed with Sam, and I went to Tennessee. For nine days, I studied fiction with Alice McDermott and Rick Moody. Each day, after my class, I would go back to my dorm room and cry because I missed my baby.
At Sewanee, it felt like everyone had gone to prestigious MFA writing programs like Iowa and had book contracts. Back then, conference attendees wore name tags, and mine read just my name, indicating that I had not received any scholarship money to defray the cost of the conference tuition. One day, during lunch, I met a young woman whose name tag stated her name plus the name of her fellowship. She hadn’t paid any tuition because her publications had merited her a scholarship. There was a group of us at the table, most of whom had scholarships, and the young woman casually mocked the housewives who had paid full freight to attend the conference. I didn’t realize at first, but she was talking about me. That summer, I was 30 years old, a new mother, and I learned that a talented young woman artist held housewife writers in contempt. I couldn’t eat so I returned to my room. I avoided her for the rest of the conference, because I sensed she was right. It had been a mistake to come all this way to take a class. Then at the end of the conference, Alice McDermott nominated my workshop story for an anthology called Best New American Voices 2000, and though the editors didn’t take my piece, I thought that maybe I could keep trying.
Then something else good happened a few months later. I got an Artist Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in the category of fiction. It was for $7,000. I used some of that money to pay for a five-day writing class in California with the famous editor and writer Tom Jenks and the novelist Carol Edgarian. To improve my understanding of the sentence, I began to read poetry. I took a class at the Y with David Yezzi to learn prosody, and it changed the way I looked at every word. Whenever the poetry critic Helen Vendler came to the Y to give one of her seminars, I did whatever I could to attend.
There was so much to learn and practice, but I began to see the prose in verse and the verse in prose. Patterns surfaced in poems, stories, and plays. There was music in sentences and paragraphs. I could hear the silences in a sentence. All this schooling was like getting x-ray vision and animal-like hearing. I had no way to prove objectively the things I was learning, and I can’t tell you why I thought my self-curated education correct, but I followed the steps I could afford to take and somehow trusted that I would learn how to write something fine.
When I ran out of money for classes, I went to readings and bought hardcover books I could not afford. At the bookstore or library, I’d sit all the way in the back. If there was a Q&A, I would have half a dozen questions forming a lump in my throat, but I wouldn’t voice a word. I went to the readings of Herman Wouk, Marilynne Robinson, Junot Díaz, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, Julian Barnes, Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, Chang-rae Lee, Veronica Chambers, Ian McEwan, Joan Didion, Susanna Moore, Shirley Hazzard, James Salter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, Rick Moody, Susan Minot, and many more. I wanted to know: How did you do that? How did you send me into this whole other world of your creation? How did you make me feel these new and old feelings? How did you keep trusting that it was all worthwhile? And yet, I could barely form an audible sentence around them, but I suppose I didn’t have to, because I had their work, and their work spoke to me and stayed with me in a private way without me having to prove anything to them or them to me.
As a habit, I read on the subway. One day, I was finishing V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas on the 2 train, and I burst into tears, amazed at the magnificence of Naipaul’s literary achievement. I knew of his politically controversial attitudes (e.g., he thought women writers were unimportant), and yet I understood that in this work, this man had done something extraordinary with fiction. Through characterization and sympathy, Naipaul had made me care deeply for a humble and curious character, who so clumsily yet so vitally struggled for his wishes. Later, I learned that Arwacas, the fictional setting of the novel, was based on Chaguanas, an immigrant town where East Indian-Trinidadians live and where Naipaul had grown up. Naipaul gave me permission to write about Elmhurst, my town in Queens.
After the classes, the readings, the discarded drafts, I started to research my novel like I was a journalist. When I wanted to learn more about my character Ted Kim, the investment banker, I interviewed several men who went to Harvard Business School. One of them told me that I should pretend to apply, because one had to see a school like that to believe it. So I did. I logged into the website, and I filled out a visitor’s form, and I was able to come in for a day.
I sat in on a class. There were maybe 25 students, and each person had a name card in front of him or her. It was impossible to hide in that room; however, what was clear to me was that no one was hiding. It wasn’t like any class I had ever attended in high school, college, or even law school. I don’t know if everyone in that room had done his homework or if she understood the lecture and the complicated spreadsheet on the whiteboard, but I learned something about these attractive young people. I surmise that what distinguishes a Harvard Business School student is his confidence in his abilities. I have never been in a building so filled with young people who look like they can do anything and want to solve very difficult problems. After a few hours, I started thinking that maybe I should apply for business school because the energy was so buoyant. If anyone was depressed or anxious or doubtful, I think he or she must have stayed home that day. No, I did not apply to HBS, but that day changed me, because I started to value research, not for the details or the velvet scraps of dialogue, but for the feelings that new information made me have. I felt confident just by being with other highly energetic people. I wondered what it would be like to have two years of that atmosphere when even I, an applicant pretender and a writer with no book, felt that positive after mere hours. So I took that feeling and gave it to Ted, a man who believes that he is right even when he is troubled or afraid. Ted’s convictions propel him to great economic success. However, even his convictions are weakened in the presence of sexual desire and a secret yearning for a kindred person. Ted is not good, but research allowed me to recognize his vulnerability, which allowed me to love Ted in his totality.
Then something wonderful happened. The Missouri Review published a story I’d rewritten 17 or 18 times. I had a Bankers Box filled with just drafts of that one story. Maybe that’s what it took.
Not much after that, my wrists began to hurt. I had trouble lifting a coffee cup. My son was in preschool then, and to drop him off and pick him up, I had to walk a few blocks, but it was painful. My ankles were swollen and holding hands with my son to cross the street was hard. I couldn’t turn round doorknobs or walk up stairs with ease. After several misdiagnoses, I was sent to a rheumatologist who guessed correctly that my liver disease was making me ill. I had developed liver cirrhosis, and I had never had a drop of wine.
There were a lot of doctors, and they wrote about my case to each other. A gastroenterologist wanted me to try a course of treatment with Interferon, because I was so young, and liver transplants were not so easy to be had. For three months, I gave myself a shot of this medicine in my thigh each day. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower. When I bent down to sweep the floor, blood vessels would break in my face to make bruises. I could not leave the house sometimes because I had diarrhea or because I could not stop vomiting. Each day, I had a few hours of energy, and I would store them up for Sam, my three-year-old. I wanted him to think that I was well.
When the treatment ended, my liver function tests improved markedly. My doctor was cautious, so he took more tests. I continued to work on Free Food for Millionaires, compelled to finish a first draft. A year after the treatment, the doctor told me that I was cured of my chronic liver disease. One in a million, he marveled. I went home that afternoon, and I lay down on my bed with my good news. This life was unexpected. I told myself that I could not be so afraid of judgment that I would hold back. And so I did not.
When I sold the manuscript in the summer of 2006, I counted 11 years as my apprenticeship. I was 37 years old.