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“Like drawing a chair by drawing everything around the chair”: An interview with Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Interview by Megan Giddings November 2, 2015

A story by you that I really enjoy is “Maps.” I know it’s been a while since you wrote it, but can you talk about how you decided it was going to be a flash piece?

Thank you so much! I hadn’t written a short story in some time, and I knew I wanted to submit something to Guernica as flash fiction. So I cheated: I gleaned the chapters of my novel for a scene that might work as a standalone piece. The editor, Catherine Chung, got back to me, and said it wasn’t quite a flash piece, but wanted to see this story through. I was grateful, and she was right. So I worked on it further to solidify it as a story.

The way I went about revising was to dig deeper into the narrator’s mind, to write very close to the details. To slow the narration down. To allude to other characters, but through concrete description—in essence, I tried to write the negative space, so that I could create the picture—like drawing a chair by drawing everything around the chair instead of the actual chair. I created the context and story in this way.

Which stories or novels do you think more people should be reading? Why?

Stories and novels by writers of color. By women writers, too. Much of what we learn about the world and other cultures is through fiction, and not through textbooks. We crave a story to illustrate what we are told. Stories are where we find a connection to others, however different they may seem. And to that end, I think reading fiction by previously unheard voices is critical to our humanity and to bettering our world.

So here’s a list off the top of my head…Roberto Bolaño. Kyung-sook Shin. Junot Díaz. Mat Johnson. Victor LaValle. Chris Abani. Nicole Krauss. Alexander Chee. Randa Jarrar. Patricia Engel. Danielle Evans. Jose Saramago. Celeste Ng. Chang-rae Lee. Roxane Gay. Haruki Murakami. I don’t know how it is some people say they don’t know where the writers of color are. Look, and ye shall find.

Additionally, I’m a big proponent of genre fiction. Science fiction, for instance, has taught me a ton about plot.

I’m still in an MFA program, so I think this conversation happens a lot around the edges of a writing program. But how do you balance working on many different projects at once? There has to be some overlap for when you were/are working on your memoir and your novel. What advice would you give to other writers trying to figure out how to work on many projects at once?

I think it’s all about the individual, and our own temperament as to how we organize our work and cadence. There are people who can multi-task and parallel process, thus getting a lot done all at once; and then there are people who are amazing at focus and do one thing at a time, and with brilliance.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I can’t work on two large projects at once. I’ve got a two-book contract with Ecco, but I’m very aware of how I’m organizing my time. I am trying to finish my memoir as quickly as possible, so I have time to write my novel before I have to engage in PR commitments for Whole. So right now, my novel Golem of Seoul is on the backburner, as I write and revise my memoir Whole. The most I’m doing with my novel is jotting down notes for later inclusion/revision.

But I can write short pieces alongside a large one. I find it gratifying to write essays while I’m working on my memoir manuscript, for example. It feels good to be able to “finish” something while I work on something long and arduous and tangled. I may be on a long hike through the mountains, but I like stopping at lakes and water falls to admire the view, and absorb those experiences.

On your website, you’re pretty straightforward about which Hogwarts House you would be sorted into. So, why do you think you’re a Hufflepuff?

I remember thinking I was Gryffindor. I WANTED to be Gryffindor. I’m courageous, aren’t I? Chivalrous? Determined? I even tried on a Gryffindor robe at Universal Studios in Orlando.

But my husband-at-the-time said, “Nope. You’re Hufflepuff.” And so it was that my ex-husband became my sorting hat.

I’m not daring to the point of recklessness. I don’t care much for ceremony. I’ll change my mind if something no longer makes sense. In the end, the sorting hat was right.

Hufflepuffs are trustworthy, loyal, and hardworking. Some may think these are boring traits, but they’re of great value to me, both personally and professionally. And as a writer, I think being trustworthy, loyal, and having a strong work ethic are critical. I have to earn the reader’s trust when I write. I must be loyal to my work and not be swayed by my own self-doubt or baking brownies all day. And of course, there is the work. Writing is all about sitting down and doing the work. There isn’t a lot of physical adventure in the act of writing. I think it would be inordinately tough (tougher than it already it is) to write a novel with Gryffindor temperament.

About the Interviewer

Megan Giddings will be attending Indiana University’s MFA in the fall. She has most recently been published in the Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review and Knee-Jerk.


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