Award-winning Riverhead Books author Chang-rae Lee took the time to answer a few behind-the-scenes question for us about his new literary dystopia, ON SUCH A FULL SEA, which comes out in January 2014.
Lucy: The titles of your books (NATIVE SPEAKER, THE SURRENDERED, ALOFT) are easy to remember, but also poetic, evocative. Tell us how you choose titles in general, and how this title was chosen.
Chang-rae Lee: Choosing a title is rarely easy. I start thinking about possible titles early on in the writing, testing out candidates as I go along, for meaning and a certain ‘music’ – both have to feel right. ON SUCH A FULL SEA was especially difficult, and came quite late in the process. I happened to be reading JULIUS CAESAR by Shakespeare and came across the phrase in a famous quote by Brutus, in which he advocates via metaphor the seizing of an opportunity. I simply liked the ring of it, too, immediately picturing my heroine on the ‘tide’ of her adventure, and so leaped on it.
LS: ON SUCH A FULL SEA will be published early next year. Can you give us the inside scoop of what it’s like for an author once they have submitted their final manuscript to their editor? What happens during that run-up to publication?
Mostly just decompression! I take a break from writing anything, and catch up on my reading and other, psychically gentler pursuits. Of course there’s some light editing and copy-editing to be done, but really it’s a chance to breathe normally again, rather than being in a state of heightened focus and exertion. Then closer to publication I get busy again with interviews and such, and gird myself for the whirl of book tour.
LS: You are a Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. Does teaching writing have an effect on your own work?
CL: I hope my teaching doesn’t have any effect on my work, to be honest. I enjoy the teaching and my students but I try to keep the readerly work we do and our investigations into how fiction works in the classroom. I don’t want those notions crowding my thoughts at my writing desk, where I hope I can remain as natural and instinctive and un-theoretical as possible. Encroachments no doubt occur, I’m sure, but I hope at a minimum.
LS: The main character in OSAFS, Fan, travels outside her protected working class enclave of B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), where she encounters a gruesome vision of a future America. Can you tell us about some of the current societal trends that inspired your worldbuilding?
CL: The America of OSAFS is split into three very separate realms: the labor colony Fan decides to leave, the wild and ruthless ‘open counties’ where people must fend for themselves, and the super-elite ‘Charter’ villages, a structuring that reflects my concerns about how partitioned our present society is between the haves and have nots and ‘have alls’, and how those partitions seem to be ever-hardening. Mobility, in this reality, is possible only when one risks everything.
LS: The narration in OSAFS is done from a first person plural POV. Why was that the best choice for this story?
CL: One of my primary interests in this novel is examining how a contained community like B-Mor regulates itself via rules and customs, and how a prevailing, all-enforcing ethos might develop over generations, for better or worse. I wanted to give voice to the communal ‘consciousness’ that promotes that ethos, yet at the same time endow it with not just authority but with the first rents of reservations, even doubts. There’s a burgeoning wonder and curiosity in this ‘We’ narrator about what Fan experiences in her travels, and a growing yearning for a different way.
LS: What is the biggest thing you wish aspiring writers (whether they are your students, folks you meet at a reading, or Book Country members) would do to get their work to its best level? Is there a piece of advice that you find yourself repeating over and over?
CL: What I often say to aspiring writers is to have faith in their particular project, to trust that their long thinking and deep passion for it will see them through to the finish, and to not get distracted by what any perceived ‘market’ or reader or tradition expects of them. This is a solitary endeavor, after all, and the most distinctive, memorable work most often comes from someone doggedly pursuing some odd obsession or mode.
Chang-rae Lee is the author of NATIVE SPEAKER, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction; A GESTURE LIFE; ALOFT, and THE SURRENDERED, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century,” Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.
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