January 01, 2016

Janice Y.K. Lee

Writing between two worlds
Interview by
Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2009 debut, The Piano Teacher, was beloved by readers and critics for its pitch-perfect portrayal of Hong Kong in the years after World War II. In her second novel, The Expatriates, the author—who was born in Hong Kong and educated in the U.S.—explores modern-day Hong Kong through the eyes of three American women who are all struggling to find their roles in a land far from home.
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Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2009 debut, The Piano Teacher, was beloved by readers and critics for its pitch-perfect portrayal of Hong Kong in the years after World War II. In her second novel, The Expatriates, the author—who was born in Hong Kong and educated in the U.S.—explores modern-day Hong Kong through the eyes of three American women who are all struggling to find their roles in a land far from home. 

Lee answered a few questions about the new novel, her writing process and the reasons that being between cultures can be a good thing for both a writer and her characters. 

It’s been a while since your debut, The Piano Teacher. How long have you been working on this novel, and how did the experience of writing a second novel compare to the first? 
Both books took around five years, which I've come to think of as my normal gestation period, if you can draw any conclusions from a sample of two. When I was writing The Piano Teacher, there were a lot of unknowns for me: Could I finish a novel? Could I sell it? Would it ever see the light of day? So I labored at it, sort of in the dark and without telling most people what I was doing when I disappeared into the library or was at my desk. It was a fraught and anxious time but I've romanticized it in my head as a glorious time of discovery. 

When I started The Expatriates, I also didn't know if I could finish another novel. I always remember a short essay that Jeffrey Eugenides wrote in the New Yorker about how being a novelist is the only profession in which you sign up to be an amateur every single time you start a book (paraphrasing wildly, with apologies to him) and I felt that acutely. I never write with an outline or a plot in mind so it really does feel like fumbling around, looking for a lifeline. This time, though, I felt comfortable saying, "I'm working" when people asked me what I was doing, and the greatest benefit was that I could spend my afternoons reading books and calling it work. 

The book opens with a lovely set piece about the expatriate mindset and the different reasons people try to start a new life somewhere else that immediately establishes the tone of the story and gives insight into the characters. Did you always plan to frame the story that way?
I wish I could say I had had a plan, any plan! I never had an inkling where it would all go. I started The Expatriates with the image of a woman, lying on her bed, unable, unwilling to get up. That's all I had. Then, after I had delved into that character for several dozen pages and found another character for her to interact with, I understood the novel was set in contemporary Hong Kong. After that realization, I wrote the opening passage in a feverish rush, sort of channeling the arrivals that happen every day, trying to get right at the feel of the world the reader would be entering. I wanted the readers to be plunged into this world. 

This story is told from the points of view of three very different women. How did you settle on this structure, and did one voice come more easily than another?
When I was entangled in it, I wished more than once that I had written a simple A to Z timeline with one perspective. I got bogged down in the weeds trying to figure it out but it just worked out that way. I wish I was able to be more deliberate with the way I write, or that I had more control, but I sort of nose around in the dark until it feels right, print it out, read it, and change what feels wrong. It's a very inefficient, laborious process but the only way I know. When I began The Expatriates, it was with this image of the woman in bed. From there, I started to develop a story and eventually another woman came along. A year into it, one of the woman started acting erratically and unlike herself. I could not figure her out. 

It was at this critical juncture that I had coincidentally managed to carve out some time to go to Yaddo, the artist colony. When I was there, away from family obligations and life stresses, I was really able to delve deeply into the women, and I suddenly realized that that odd woman was actually two women. She had been acting oddly because those had not been her actions, her words, her thoughts. The book was about three women. It was such a relief and so obvious when I realized it, and from there the story started to unspool in a much more organic way. 

You grew up in Hong Kong, but you have said that, as a Korean, you didn’t feel at home there. How did that experience shape this novel?
I've always felt more at home in America than in Hong Kong. I love Hong Kong and it's an amazing city and a wonderful place to grow up and raise children but I never saw myself there permanently. So I think you'll see that feeling infused into the novel. Very few expatriates choose to make Hong Kong their permanent home so there's always a temporary feel to their experience. I have never lived in Korea either, so I don't know how that would feel. I always tell people that I am not an expatriate but I'm not a local either. I think being between worlds is a good thing for a writer. 

What is your relationship with Hong Kong these days? Do you think it will continue to inspire as a setting for your fiction?
I'm nostalgic about Hong Kong. We just moved back to the U.S. this summer, and there's a lot we miss about Hong Kong, my children especially. We miss hiking the beautiful mountains, swimming in November, everything being 15 minutes away. Life in Hong Kong is easy, in a way, because it feels like your life is on pause. Hong Kong will always be in my DNA and I love it but I'm not sure that it will be the setting of my next book. I think I'd like to venture further afield. 

Your debut novel was set in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and this book is contemporary. Was it harder to capture the past or the present? 
I did a lot of research for The Piano Teacher, in libraries and universities. I'd have to stop and find out how much a ferry ticket cost in 1950, what movie would have been playing in the theaters, or what people would have worn on an airplane flight, a rare luxury at the time. I loved that process, as it was fun to be a student again. For this book, I didn't have to do any research, just live my life and take from it liberally. So that was very different. Sometimes, I found myself longing for the structure of the library and the materials. But it was also freeing, to know that I was already an expert in the field, as it were. 

For a lifestyle that is outside the norm in many ways, expatriate life can be very traditional, especially for the so-called “trailing spouse.” Could you talk a little bit about this and the way it affects your characters?
It's an odd situation that's hard to describe. Imagine giving up your friends, family, and most likely, job, to follow your spouse halfway around the world. Imagine when you get there, you are given a house, a servant, possibly a driver, and a country club membership. And then imagine that you suddenly have eight more hours in your day. Because that's what it feels like. 

It's hard to generalize because everyone has such a different experience but I saw spouses who ran the gamut from ultra-traditional housewife to globetrotting entrepreneurs. But the stereotype is of the housewife “trailing spouse” because a lot of people do come because of their spouse's job. So people do different things with their new worlds. Some women get very into charities, some get very fit, some start small businesses. What I came away is that everyone is trying to do the best that they can in the situation they find themselves in, so I think that's the positive part of it.

One of the novel’s central themes is forgiveness: how to get it, who deserves it, etc. One of the main characters is even named Mercy. What made you want to explore this topic?
As I get older, I realize that all those tropes you're told when you're younger—Be kind and people will be kind to you; Be open; Be generous; Give without expectation—they are all true. They seem wildly impractical and somewhat insane when presented to you as a child and young adult, not to mention impossible. But to move forward in life, you have to forgive and go on. I don't pretend to be able to keep to these ideals but I like to remember that that is the goal.

The men in the lives of these women don’t seem to struggle with guilt and the need for forgiveness as much as the women do. If the book were told from a male point of view, how would it be different?
Oh, I don't know. Men seem an utterly different species to me, a species that I cherish and adore, but I don't pretend to know anything about how the male mind thinks. I have a wonderful husband and three amazing boys, but their existence on Earth seems to run on a parallel plane to the one women are on. Of course, we interact closely, but what the other takes away from any given situation seems to be wildly different. I have a lot of close girlfriends and we share our experiences. Men don't seem to share their experiences in the same way. They blow off steam by doing physical activities together, and women get closer by exchanging confidences, at least that's what it's been in my experience. I think I know something about motherhood and women but I don't ever claim to know a lot about men. If this book were told from a male perspective, I think it would have been a lot shorter and had a lot more action! I don't know about how men forgive themselves either. I don't think they find it easier, but I think they find it easier to compartmentalize their anger and sorrow. I think that's a skill well worth having and I envy them that. 

What are you working on next? 
I'm working on getting on the pre-publication work done for The Expatriates, so nothing is on my radar yet for next project. I'd like to write for television, and so I get to watch a lot of television and call it work. But also noodling on images and characters, which may then go forth to populate a future novel. 

Author photo by Xue Tan.


RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Expatriates

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The Expatriates

The Expatriates

By Janice Y.K. Lee
ISBN 9780525429470

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