Design Matters: Min Jin Lee

Posted in

The author of the award-winning novels “Pachinko” and “Free Food for Millionaires,” Min Jin Lee, discusses her remarkable career and the long journey and intention behind her Korean diaspora novels.


Debbie Millman:

Min Jin Lee is an author and journalist who was born in Korea, grew up in Queens, and now lives in Harlem. She’s published two novels. The first Free Food for Millionaires is about the daughter of Korean immigrants from Queens trying to make it among Manhattan’s rich and glamorous. The second, Pachinko, chronicles several generations of a poor Korean family living in 20th century Japan. Pachinko was an international bestseller, a National Book Award finalist, and was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by the New York Times, the BBC, the New York Public Library and more, and it has been translated into 35 languages. Min Jin Lee is also the recipient of South Korea’s Grand Prize for literature, and she has fellowships in fiction from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She’s a writer in residence at Amherst College, a trustee of Penn America, and she joins me today to talk about her extraordinary life and career mind. Min Jin Lee, welcome to Design Matters.

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, hello Debbie. What an honor to be on Design Matters. I feel like I’ve made it.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, please, that’s so kind of you. So I have a question for you. I understand that when you were 17 years old working as a cashier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you sold a book to Tina Turner.

Min Jin Lee:

It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Debbie Millman:

That was my next question that I read that. And is it true?

Min Jin Lee:

It is absolutely true. I was working in one of the cash registers all the way in the back of the shop. And this little person, this really beautiful, tiny person walked over to me and I realized it was Tina Turner. And in my imagination I thought she’d be really tall, but she was very petite. And she bought a very expensive photography book, like an art book, like about a hundred dollars. And she gave me her gold credit card and it said Tiny Dancer Inc., Tina Turner.

Debbie Millman:

Wow.

Min Jin Lee:

Pretty cool, huh?

Debbie Millman:

And you don’t remember the book? It was just a photography book?

Min Jin Lee:

I think I was just so gobsmacked by the fact that Tina Turner was right in front of me, and I am a super fan, so I just felt really special and I was telling all the other cashiers, “She picked me. She picked me.”

Debbie Millman:

And I read that this just happened to be your last day at the job and the evening before you left for college. And then you spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the museum thinking how cool am I? Tina Turner choose me. I am the shit.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah, I am the shit. I think what really happened was that she just wanted a more private space to buy a book, but I felt pretty special. I had a kind of an unpopular cash register in the back, but you got to take the wins when you can.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. There you have it. Min, you were born in Seoul, South Korea, and your family came to the United States in 1976 when you were seven years old. Do you have many memories of your time in Korea?

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, yeah. I think when I think about my childhood, I really think of it as all being in Korea. And then once I came to America, you would think that my childhood have continued, but it felt so adult once I came to America. And even though I was only seven, when I think about innocent, very foolish, kind of goofy, fun, playful things, I think of Korea. But when I think about America, I remember feeling very aware of my surroundings and having to survive. I also remember feeling really worried when I first came to this country because I didn’t know what was going on with my parents. My mother worked at home in Korea. But once she came to America, she worked with my father at their store. So our domestic life really changed.

Debbie Millman:

I read some really harrowing details about how your parents had to manage working in the shop that they did. But before we get to that, I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about what it was like to come here at seven. I read that when you first got to the United States, you thought that you would exit the airplane as Cinderella and somehow the airport would be a 17th century fairytale, the women would all have big Marie Antoinette hair and they’d be wearing ball gowns and they’d be stage coaches. How did it feel when you realized the airport was just like the airport at Seoul except with non-Korean people?

Min Jin Lee:

Well, I thought it was so dismally boring and sad because I was expecting some Disney spectacular, beautiful ball, literally a ball. I don’t know why I thought this. It’s because I so lived in books and in children’s books of that time. And when I got here and everybody just looked exactly like people from another city that I was born and lived in, I was kind of disappointed. And it’s kind of funny now, but I really don’t know why I felt this way. In my imagination, I always think things are going to be infinitely better.

Debbie Millman:

There’s that optimistic part of you. You moved from a nice middle class home in Korea where your mother was a piano teacher, your dad was a white collar executive, to what you refer to as an ugly one bedroom rental with dirty orange shag carpeting in a squat red building with mice and roaches on Van Kleeck Street in Elmhurst, Queens. You’ve written that even as a little girl, you knew there was something wrong. What felt most wrong about it?

Min Jin Lee:

I think I wasn’t used to the dirt and the ugliness and the danger. So all of that really surprised me because it wasn’t like we were well off in Korea, but we weren’t poor. And I remember thinking I had everything I needed. And also for a child to always have a parent around, it’s such a secure thing. And also as a child, I didn’t ever think about money because I had everything that I needed. Whereas when I came to America, I realized like, “Oh, I think our situation has really changed in the world.” And I couldn’t quite understand why because my parents had the same clothing, but we had lost everything in terms of our household goods because some of it was brought with us, but most of it we didn’t bring. We had to get new things. I remember being afraid. I do remember feeling afraid.

Debbie Millman:

What motivated your family to come to the United States in the first place? I know your uncle was very significant in bringing you here, but what was the motivation from your parents’ point of view?

Min Jin Lee:

Well, my father is a war refugee so he lost his entire family during the war. He was 16 when he came down from the north to the south. And I think that for him, he really thought that the war could always happen again. And to be honest, he’s correct. I mean, even right now it’s very possible for north to invade south right now. And I think his thinking was, “I need to get out because I can’t go through that experience. I wouldn’t let my family go through that experience.” And when he learned that it was possible to apply for citizenship and to immigrate to the United States, they gave it a shot. And very quickly they were given visas to do so and it felt like a sign to them so they decided to come.

My mother didn’t want to go.

Debbie Millman:

No?

Min Jin Lee:

No, she didn’t want to go because she’s from the south and she didn’t have the same anxiety. She still had all of her family. Her father was still alive. Her brothers and sisters were still in Korea at that moment in 1976. And she had a thriving little practice as a piano teacher in the neighborhood. She was very popular and she felt like we’re okay, so I don’t know why we have to go. But he really, really wanted to go, so we went.

Debbie Millman:

Your dad taught himself to read English with a dictionary and some books. He practiced speaking by running errands for American soldiers, and initially he wanted to be a doctor but contracted tuberculosis and decided instead to become a businessman. How hard was it for him to adjust to his working conditions in the United States?

Min Jin Lee:

My father’s a kind of person that even today at the age of 88, I’m not kidding you, if we had some crisis, some apocalyptic event, he would somehow figure out how to survive. He has that canniness and he has a kind of hearty humility which will allow him to survive. And that was really great because I grew up with that problem solving person. And he doesn’t have grandiosity, so it’s very helpful because then he’ll figure out how to do the next thing. So I think that in a way, even though he lost everything, he was able to rebuild everything again. And he always has a plan. My dad always has a plan. It’s kind of interesting.

Debbie Millman:

Initially he ran a newspaper stand which you thought was very glamorous because of all the candy. And it reminded me when I was growing up, my dad had his own pharmacy and I also thought it was quite glamorous because of the barrettes. I would be able to go in and look at the spinning displays of ponytail holders and all kinds of headbands and just thought it was the most glamorous place on the planet.

But about a year after running the newsstand, your dad and your mom bought a tiny wholesale jewelry store in Manhattan’s Koreatown between 30th and 31st Street on Broadway. And they started out selling 14 karat gold chains and then later brass and nickel jewelry. And then they sold plastic hair beads and ponytail holders and barrettes. And each morning at six o’clock, your parents left, took the subway to the store where they worked six days a week. I read that in the time that they owned the shop, they were fairly regularly robbed, and you were once robbed at gunpoint when you were working there. As you were growing up, you were in constant fear that something was going to happen to them and that you would lose them. How did you manage that constant fear?

Min Jin Lee:

Well, I don’t think I’ve managed it very well because even now I feel really anxious about people that I care about. And I think that even though there are moments in my childhood and even now, I always identify with working people always. And when I think about the vulnerability of people who are working, especially if you have to open the store to everybody, I’m fully aware as a real New Yorker, but it can be a very dangerous place. I would say probably 95% of the interactions that you’re going to have in New York are really positive and interesting and mind blowing kinds of interactions. But then there is that, I would say 5%, where you can have something quite dangerous happen to you. And I’m fully aware of it.

So even though I can be really focused on something, I’m always aware of my surroundings and that someone can get hurt. And I’ve surprised myself where if I see somebody coming, I could immediately take my left arm and shoot it out to protect somebody because I know that these things happen. I have been held up at gunpoint in front of my father. I have seen my father be mugged right in front of my eyes. I’ve seen my father catch muggers in front of my eyes. I’ve seen my father fight with people who wanted to rob him. And he’s not a big guy. And so in a way, the need to survive, the need to fight for what you believe in, it’s something that I grew up watching my father do. I do it myself. There are things that I think are important, and I will argue even though I really don’t like to. I am profoundly an introverted person, but I can perform a kind of toughness when I need to.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I think that having to be constantly aware of one’s surroundings in New York City, particularly back in the seventies and early eighties, teaches you a little bit about how to take care of yourself. My dad with his store, he had people break in. I remember being a little girl and being told that someone came in through the roof by pouring acid on the top of the roof and then coming through that way to steal the drugs. We were always very careful about how we were going to be there without him. But ultimately we had to leave Staten Island because it was just too dangerous for a mom and pop shop of drugs.

Min Jin Lee:

It’s kind of heartbreaking because you know that in dangerous and poor neighborhoods, these services are so deeply needed. But as a small business owner, you also realize how impractical it is because you can’t protect yourself sufficiently. So you have that constant dynamic between how do I serve and also how do I survive?

Debbie Millman:

You and your sisters attended P.S. 102. I attended P.S. 207. And there you’ve written about how pretty girls took turns bullying you in class. You found it hard to concentrate. You said very little hoping that if you tried to shrink yourself, you wouldn’t be noticed. And you’ve written that at that time the world felt dangerous to you. Do you still feel that way?

Min Jin Lee:

I do. And I do think it’s so strange because I’m not a small person. I’m 5’8. I’m about 145 pounds. I’m not small. I’m not really big either, but I’m a very visible person. And I do think it’s so interesting that in all my life I’ve always been big for my age, for my class and my size. And for an Asian American, I’m unusually large. So I’m aware that in some ways if I’m not careful, I can be noticed and targeted. Do I walk around feeling paranoid? Probably not. There’s a part of me that, again, I’m deeply optimistic and I kind of think 95% of the time I’ll have probably a positive interaction ,and 5%, it’s very possible that something terrible can happen.

Debbie Millman:

Your grandfather was a Presbyterian minister who went to seminary in Pyongyang and Japan. And when you first got to the US, your family went to the Newtown Presbyterian Church in Elmhurst, Queens. Why that particular church?

Min Jin Lee:

My parents wanted us to be American and they chose an American church, what they thought of as an American multiracial church in Elmhurst, Queens. It’s interesting that they picked that one but it turned out to be a lovely place where it was very welcoming. And I remember all my Sunday School teachers. I remember the lessons that I learned and it was a very positive experience. I know there are many people who’ve had terrible experiences at church, but I did not. I had my communion at Newtown Presbyterian Church. I still have the little red Bible that I got from Pastor Sorg.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, so was religion important to you at that age?

Min Jin Lee:

It was very important to me and I think it’s still important to me now. I’ve always felt this very strong relationship with God. And it’s a curious thing because I think in my world right now with writers, it’s a very weird thing to believe in God at all. But I can’t imagine my life without my practice and my faith.

Debbie Millman:

You still go to church every week, don’t you? Every Sunday?

Min Jin Lee:

I do. I go to church every Sunday, wherever I am in the world, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

How do you envision God?

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, see, this is really a very smart question because you can usually tell what people think about religion if you ask what their image of God is. I think of God as somebody who has a terrific sense of humor. I think of God as very accepting, deeply loving, incredibly long suffering. And also I think of God as somebody who is really infinitely creative, and that helps me because I don’t really believe in writer’s block.

Debbie Millman:

Why not?

Min Jin Lee:

I think if I am made in the image of God, that means that I too am infinite. And that sounds like such a crazy thing to say, but I guess I really believe it. And it’s always helped me to get through impossible situations. Like I’ve been in so many bizarre, impossible situations where I don’t even understand how I got there. And it’s really helped me to think if I’m meant to be here, I’m meant to be here and somehow have the resources to figure it out or some answer will come.

Debbie Millman:

What do you like most about being a Presbyterian?

Min Jin Lee:

I like this idea, the dynamic between free will and predestination. It’s a really difficult thing that Presbyterians and Calvinists believe that somehow you can have free will and yet there’s a divine plan and things occur the way they’re meant to. So very often I approach my life as I try to honor my wishes, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay.

Debbie Millman:

And you read a chapter of the Bible every day? Is that true?

Min Jin Lee:

I do. So I read somewhere that Willa Cather did this, and I don’t know if Willa Cather is a Christian, but because I like her writing I thought I would try it. And I didn’t do it before I read that Willa Cather did it after I quit being a lawyer to write full-time. And then now that I’ve done it, now that I started the practice, I can’t quit. So I’ve read the Bible now I think seven times in a loop because I read literally one chapter a day sequentially. It’s not out of order. So it’s very in line with my OCD.

Debbie Millman:

Now you’ve said that it’s been helpful to understand how things are written with a long scope and I’m wondering how that’s helpful.

Min Jin Lee:

I think for the kinds of books that I want to write, I want to write social realistic novels, especially with dealing with societal problems and the way oppressed minorities fit into them and I’m dealing primarily with the idea of diaspora. The idea that I could work in the context of a biblical understanding gives me a kind of, I guess not just scope, but also compassion for the minor characters in life and also all the reluctant prophets, all the wins of history, it’s all in there. And pretty much every major western writer has had to be steeped in the Bible by training. And therefore it’s helpful for me to read the classics in light of my understanding of the Bible because it’s all there. In the same way you have to know mythology if you really want to write literature in the West.

Debbie Millman:

Do you think that there’s a lot of compassion embedded in the Bible?

Min Jin Lee:

I do. I do I think there’s a lot of compassion in the Bible and there’s a lot of evil. A lot of evil is chronicled in the Bible and I think that in a way that it’s helpful for me to think about it that way. There are things that I really disagree with. There’s a lot of cruelty, there’s a lot of misogyny, there’s a lot of hatred, there’s a lot of segregation in the Bible. There’s so much of present day in the Bible because even today I see so much evil. I’m really quite struck with how evil people can be. And I don’t know what it must be like if you can’t use the word evil, whereas I feel like I can because I believe in the divine.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s so interesting to see ourselves as just another species on the planet that behaves in many ways the way less intelligent with intelligence being in quotes here, species behaving in a more instinctual way. I was on a safari in Tanzania several years ago. Other people on the safari were very excited about the idea that we might see a kill. And I was horrified but was also struck by the fact that this is the way these animals needed to survive. It was really, really hard for me to make sense of the fact that whether we evolved here in this way or whether there is a bigger divine plan, that this was a behavior that was way older than we were, and then this type of survival of the fittest was inherently cruel.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah. So you could take the Darwinian point of view and say that’s how we survive. You are either eat lunch or you are lunch. And you can look at late stage capitalism and go everything is hunger games. And then the thing that I really think of as even as a greater evil than having to kill in order to eat, which is what animals have to do if they are carnivores, is the deceit that I see, the deceit and the greed that I witness every single day, whether I’m lied to or betrayed or people lie about each other. And it’s become so normalized to lie in order to get what you want.

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Min Jin Lee:

That’s been really hard. When I see young children lie, especially college-aged kids, I’m always so stunned because I keep thinking I wonder if I can still reach these kids to say that practice ultimately will be terrible for you. And you’re a professor, too. So when we work with students, I’m always thinking how do I give them these power tools that I have figured out how to use over the years to this next generation? And is it appropriate to teach ethics with it? That please use these tools for good. And if I gave you these tools, all the things that I have worked so hard to understand, will you use it for good or will you just use it for personal gain? Because I think that if they only use it for personal gain, then I feel like in some way perhaps I have failed them.

Debbie Millman:

Well, I think that in many ways it’s society and not you necessarily failing them but the generations that have come before them failing them. And that’s what I feel very guilty about, that when I talk to my young students, this is the world you’ve inherited from me, from my peers, from my ancestors. And geez, it’s really hard out there.

Min Jin Lee:

It is really hard out there, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

But I think it’s almost impossible not to lie now if you spend as much time as most people seem to on social media. I mean it’s just a lie scape where you’re just projecting who you want people to think you are. And then in living up to it or not living up to it, there’s that shame and just being who you are. And that’s I think the hardest thing about being young today.

Min Jin Lee:

And the children are swallowing all these lies and believing them to be true. I don’t know if we give all the kids the skills to understand what is true and what is not true. I am also kind of worried about the fact that when we have an education that is so focused on valuing technology over humanities, that if they have the philosophical discernment to understand what you use your tools for. I really like math and science. I’m not somebody who’s against those things or afraid of those things, quite the contrary, I went to the Bronx High School of Scienc.e and yet I think that a strong humanities practice can really help you so I kind of think you need to have a balanced education.

Debbie Millman:

While you were at the Bronx High School of Science, you read Sinclair Lewis’ books and you decided to go to Yale. You decided to apply to Yale because he had also gone there. What was it about his books and his going to Yale that provoked you to take that direction too?

Min Jin Lee:

It is a really curious thing. A really good friend of mine, Andrea, had read him and she said, “You should really read this author.” And then I happened to take an English class with Mr. Green and Mr. Green made us read, I loved Mr. Green, Mr. Martin Green. Give him a shout out.

Debbie Millman:

Hi, Martin.

Min Jin Lee:

He said that you had to read through an author. So you couldn’t just read one book by a writer. You had to read all of them. And he had written too many so I think I chose four or five novels that he had written. And after I read four or five novels, I became very critical of the world because I think Sinclair Lewis was so critical of the world and he was tackling very big social problems. And I remember thinking, oh, I would like to be a big thinker like a person like Sinclair Lewis.

I didn’t know very much about him. And back then we didn’t have search engines. So whatever I learned, you had to go to the library and look at the index of periodicals and go look at the encyclopedias. And I loved what he was saying about trying to prevent provincialism. We couldn’t be narrow thinkers. We had to be bigger thinkers. We had to be against fascism. So his book It Can’t Happen Here was something that people really heralded when we had the recent administration of Trump because we are seeing the rise of fascism around the world today and demagoguery, and he was somebody who really understood that even back then. So I really admired and I thought I want to go to a college which gave him that education. So I applied and bizarrely I got in. Back then it was much easier to get into colleges. Of course I go there and he wasn’t there because he was dead. But this is not that different from what I wanted to come to America in 1976 and expected a ball. I keep thinking that what I read, it’s frozen in time.

Debbie Millman:

What did you think you wanted to do professionally at that point? This was right as you were going to college.

Min Jin Lee:

I think this goes back to this whole idea of when I was younger, I thought that I wanted to be a carpenter or a cabinet maker. I don’t know if you knew that.

Debbie Millman:

I did not.

Min Jin Lee:

Which is really weird.

Debbie Millman:

And I love that.

Min Jin Lee:

I wanted to make things. And when I was at Bronx Science, I took a class called Scientific Technical Laboratories, which is essentially woodworking with electricity. And I loved making things. So I kind of thought oh, maybe I should do something with that. But I knew that you couldn’t really make a living as a cabinet maker in New York City or it didn’t even occur to me. So I thought maybe I’ll become an architect. I love design. I love art. And I thought oh, I would like to build homes. I didn’t know what architects did. I thought they designed houses.

And of course I met real architects and I realized oh, that’s not what real architects really do unless you are much, much older and much more powerful. So you can design parking lots or at the corner of a parking lot or something or a ramp or something. And I was like oh, maybe I don’t want to be an architect. And I thought I would maybe major in economics because I thought that I needed a stable job and I took an economics class and I know nothing about graphs. I just couldn’t understand pictures and data being presented in a different way. So I thought I should do something else. So I ended up majoring in history because that sounded very solid.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 16, a friend had a blood drive and after you gave blood, the Red Cross sent you a letter that stated, “Please don’t ever give blood again because you are a chronic Hepatitis B carrier.” Is that when you first learned that you had a liver disease?

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Just like from a letter.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah. So I gave blood because my friend was doing a blood drive and I wanted to do a favor. I’m very good at saying yes. I’m terrible at saying no. And then I got that letter, and I didn’t know what that meant. I knew it was something bad. But then it turned out that I had the latent carrier status. And then when I went to college I was okay. And then I think my sophomore year I got incredibly sick, so my carrier status became active and then I was almost incapacitated.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, your doctor told you that you would get cancer in your twenties or thirties. Instead when you were 30 you had liver cirrhosis and you received interferon and were able to get better. But was there any time while you were sick, whether it be at Yale or after, before you were treated with interferon that you thought you might not survive?

Min Jin Lee:

Well I thought all along that I wouldn’t survive because when Dr. Adrian Rubin of Yale New Haven Hospital said to me that, “You will likely get liver cancer in your twenties or thirties,” and he was very calm when he said this. And I was by myself because my parents couldn’t go to the doctor with me because they were working. And I remember telling my dean about it afterwards and then she went with me for the next appointment because she was concerned.

Debbie Millman:

Wow. That’s really kind of her.

Min Jin Lee:

Dean Joyce Baker, she was incredibly kind. So when I went to the doctor and I heard this news, I remember thinking oh, okay. And he said that the liver is this really magical organ because in some ways you can get every place or it can get it operated on. It grows back. And he made it seem like it’s not so terrifying. At the same time he said, “It’s something that you can die from.” And that’s when I read Sister Outside about Audre Lorde, who also had a very serious liver cancer. And I remember thinking oh, people die from this and it’s a very painful death. And it was very helpful for me in some ways because I never drank.

So even now I don’t drink. I never drank then. And I thought I will do whatever I can to somehow not get sick. And that is very, very [inaudible 00:31:50]. If you tell me that this is something that you should not do because it’ll be harmful, then I will not do it. And I take advice very seriously. If I meet a smart person, smarter than me about anything, if you happen to be better at lawn care than me, I’m like, I’ll take notes. I’m not quite sure if that’s the immigrant thing or survival thing or I’m ready to learn because it helps me with my anxiety.

Debbie Millman:

What are you most anxious about?

Min Jin Lee:

I think harm coming to people I love. I think that a long time ago I’ve gotten used to this idea that something might happen to me that my life might get cut short. So I’ve always lived with this sense that if this is my last day, I will live it with integrity. I will try not to have regrets. I do have this very pie the sky idea of life, but the thing that I can control is harm to people I love.

Debbie Millman:

I hear you. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, I didn’t think I was a writer. I was writing and publishing in high school and college. I even won prizes in things in college, but it never occurred to me.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, I know.

Min Jin Lee:

But it never occurred to me that I was a writer. I think after I quit being a lawyer, I thought nothing can be as hard as this. I was a corporate lawyer and I was a very good little grunt. I did all the due diligence very well for the most important partners in my firm. I kept on getting put on these deals. And after I quit one day having billed 300 hours, I said, “I’m going to quit.” And I went home and I told my husband. I hadn’t planned on quitting that day.

Debbie Millman:

I know. It’s an incredible story.

Min Jin Lee:

It’s insane. I can’t believe I did that. At the same time it felt like I just don’t want to die at my desk because I knew that I could. I had been told that I would. And I was already 26 at that point. So if I was told by Dr. Rubin that I was going to get liver cancer in my twenties and thirties, I was right at that point. My husband Chris and I had $15,000 in our bank account and I thought, I am rich. How long could it take to write a novel?

Debbie Millman:

But we’ll go into that in a moment. But you were writing and you were getting so much positive feedback. I mean, while you were at Yale, you won the Henry Wright Prize for non-fiction and the James Ashman Veach Prize for fiction. So you won a fiction and a non-fiction prize. You didn’t think you were a writer and you decide, okay, I’m going to go to law school. You just decided to study law at Georgetown University. Why did you want to be a lawyer at that point?

Min Jin Lee:

I don’t think it’s so much that I want it to be a lawyer. I think that I didn’t know what else to do and I knew I loved school, and my father said to me that he would pay for law school. So I thought, okay, well I’ll go get more education. So I think that if you told me man, I’ll pay for you to get a PhD in classics.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, sign me up.

Min Jin Lee:

I know. I mean, I’d be tempted. It’s like Latin and Greek? Yes, let’s do it.

Debbie Millman:

Let’s do it. Road trip. So in 1995, you finished this tough assignment. You gave it to the managing partner at your corporate law firm. They immediately gave you another assignment. And I read that without even thinking you just said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And you said that the words just came out of your body. You just simply said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And then you went home. How did that feel?

Min Jin Lee:

It felt really final. You know that line and Dangerous Liaison when you say it cannot be helped? And that sentence is almost enviable. Once you say it, you can’t take it back.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Min Jin Lee:

I knew I would never take that back. I was right when I said I can’t do this anymore. And it was almost as if maybe because I am so long suffering, I have a very, very long fuse. It’s really hard to actually break from me because I will put up with a lot. But then there will be a line that we cross and I’ll go, oh, we don’t know each other. And getting to that point of my law career in me was really that point when I thought, the more I work, the more work you give me. Oh, this is a stupid game.

Debbie Millman:

Well, in thinking about your Presbyterian-ness, I thought, oh, that’s so interesting. It’s both a free will and a just predestined moment for Min. She’s asserting her free will but moving towards her destiny in the best possible way.

Min Jin Lee:

And they didn’t talk to try to get me back. It was like they knew because I was just so clear. And I’m so glad that I’m not a lawyer anymore. That said, I loved my friends in my law firms and I love lawyers. So when people make fun of lawyers, I always kind of think that’s kind of a shame because they’re some of the most interesting thinkers out there. So I still have a lot of friends for lawyers.

Debbie Millman:

When you left, you didn’t have a plan but you decided at that point you were going to write a book, sell it, and make the same amount of money you were making as a lawyer, which was at the time, $83,000 a year. That’s a lot of money now. It was a lot of money in 1995. What gave you the sense that that was going to happen right away like that?

Min Jin Lee:

Well, I think it’s because I was so innocent and naive of the world of art. I didn’t know that world. I really didn’t. And I didn’t know publishing. I didn’t know any writers. I had met some briefly in college. In my writing classes, I would meet let’s say Calvin Truly. He would come visit, but it wasn’t like he was my friend or a family friend. I didn’t have that planet. So I figured it couldn’t be that hard to write a book. And I look back at that young person now, and I get thousands of letters from people saying they want to be writers and I have great compassion for them because I remember being that innocent person.

Debbie Millman:

You said that when you quit being a lawyer, you thought, okay, I’m going to call myself a writer. But the world said, no, you’re not a writer unless you have a published book. So despite the fact that you were writing every day, you’d go to places and people would say, “You call yourself a writer? Where’s your book?” That must have been brutal. Were those your lawyer friends saying that?

Min Jin Lee:

I think my lawyer friends, I met people in finance, people I went to college with, high school with, people in my neighborhood, whenever I would go to a party. And I would just cry a lot privately in the bathroom. I was like, oh, I came to this thing and people are asking me what I’m doing. And I would tell them I’m working on a book. And they would say, “Well, can I buy your book? Is it sold anywhere?” And there was no answer to this. And at that point I didn’t have a contract. I didn’t have an agent. I had just really no idea how to even go about this. But I just knew that I had these books and I was going to write them. And with each additional year of delay, the more humiliated I became and I became more private. But I really work actually much harder.

Debbie Millman:

You stated that it took a lot of courage for you to even say you were a writer, but you had to inhabit that identity in your mind in order to accomplish your goals. And I was really fascinated by that. You had to inhabit this identity in order to accomplish what you needed to. How did you go about doing that?

Min Jin Lee:

I think I’ve always been a person who lives in her mind and in her imagination. And it’s something that I have always known about myself is that perhaps I didn’t have a lot of friends and perhaps I didn’t have a lot of money or status or power, but I always felt deeply rich in my mind. I did. I still do. I feel like I have a lot of inner resources. And in that sense I feel really strong. I feel like you really can’t knock me in certain parts of myself. You can tell me that I’m not beautiful or I’m not important. But I’m thinking, well yeah, you and everybody else might think that. That’s fine. But there’s a part of me that feels like but I could make something beautiful. I feel very confident about that. And I could find beauty in things. And I can also admire. I don’t know anybody who knows how to admire as much as me. And I think that’s a superpower too, because…

Debbie Millman:

That is, it absolutely is. You see beauty.

Min Jin Lee:

I could really find beauty in anything. So if you put me in a museum, a city, a mountain, a store, and tell me go find the most beautiful things in it, I feel like I could and I feel really confident that I’d be like, no, that’s it. And I don’t know where that confidence comes from, but I’ve always felt this about myself.

Debbie Millman:

It’s interesting because that confidence I think instills a sense of self-reliance, but I also think that that is the product of good parenting, feeling loved.

Min Jin Lee:

I do think that’s the case. I think my parents, they’re very hands off people, both my parents. My mother is an artist. She’s a musician. And my father, he’s somebody, as you know, is really scrappy and survivor and a problem solver. And he’s very good at building things, building ideas and execution. They’re both very good at those things. But in terms of parenting, they’ve always said out of the three girls of the three us, my parents, their attitude is, “Oh, you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure it out.” The upside is that it’s given me a great sense of resilience. But the downside is that I do live with this terror like oh, I have to figure this out. I have no one to ask.

So all along my life, I’ve always found thousands of people who either feel sorry for me or who have decided to help me and who kind of pat me on the head and go like, “You need help. You don’t know what you’re doing here. Do this.” And that’s one of the great things about New York is that you’ll find help in corners. Some 80 year old Lithuanian immigrant will find me and say, “Oh, you need help with this. Come on. Sit down.” And I will and I’ll take notes. I’m like, things like that have happened quite a lot actually.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, man. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about you. So your first published book was Free Food For Millionaires. But the first book you wrote was called Revival of the Senses which you didn’t publish. And you’ve said this about that book. “It was so boring, really competent prose, but so, so boring.” And you go on to state that even your husband said it’s really boring and he’s one of the nicest people on the planet. Did you ever try to have it published? And did you ever solicit any other opinions besides yours and your husband’s?

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, yeah. I finally got an agent who I don’t have anymore. This very nice young person who decided, “I’ll take a shot at you.” And she sent it out and it was rejected everywhere, absolutely everywhere. I have the letters. And no one said it was for them, I mean, not a single publisher. And she must have sent it out to at least 20 places. And I’m so glad it wasn’t published. Now I see what happens if you have a terrible first publication. I really understand what that means. So now I think, oh, I’m really glad that didn’t happen and it’s okay that I was not an early success. Although of course I have to tell you that between the years of 1995 and 2006, every year, I really felt more and more like I’ve made a very big mistake.

Debbie Millman:

After Revival of the Senses, you wrote the book Motherland, which was a precursor to Pachinko, but you stated that that was garbage.

Min Jin Lee:

It was garbage.

Debbie Millman:

That was the word you used. It was garbage. Really?

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah, it was garbage because it was really boring. Again, it was really boring. And I think that if I really think about the evolution of my writing, it’s really about my inability to understand what it means to be an artist.

Debbie Millman:

What do you mean?

Min Jin Lee:

And I take that quite seriously when I say that I don’t think I understood about vulnerability. I didn’t understand the risk that you need to take in order to really make a mark in the world of what you want to say and to stand in your position of what you believe. I thought I could lean on my competence, lean on my ability to do things in a very acceptable, admirable way. And I think being admirable and being competent, it’s very different than being an artist. It’s almost like the difference between being pretty and being beautiful. It’s a really different level of vulnerability and exposure. And I think by the time I published Free Food for Millionaires, I really decided that, you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m going to write things that could get me judged.

Debbie Millman:

Your opening line of the book is, “Competence can be a curse.” That makes sense. Now I see the little threads all coming together. What was the most irrational thing about writing Free Food for Millionaires?

Min Jin Lee:

That it took 12 years and I wrote it in omniscient point of view, which almost no one does anymore. It’s considered passe or it was something that it’s actually really difficult to do. And at certain points what the modernists said in terms of the literary artists, that you didn’t need to do it anymore because you need to be more psychological penetration of just one character and third person limited. It was also a rejection of the idea that since God is dead, you don’t have this all-knowing narrator anymore. And I said, you know what? I still really love Anna Karenina. I still love House of Worth. I still love Middle March and I want to write like that.

And I think that my decision to learn how to do that craft took such a long time, but I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to learn how to do this thing, but I didn’t realize that it would take this long. And I didn’t know that I would be so alone. And I don’t have a training in the classic way. I don’t have an English major. I didn’t major in English. I don’t have an MFA. I don’t have a PhD in literature. All of it, I had to figure it out by myself and I’m glad I did now. But back then I think I had a very DIY hard career.

Debbie Millman:

The interesting thing about this omniscient voice is I think when you write this way, you have to ask yourself about this fictional universe that you’re creating. I think a lot of your work is in its core very much about morals and choice. I think you are crafting a glacier through the choices that we face whether we’re adhering to a moral just God or an immoral God.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah. I am creating this world in which there’s meaning but I am arguing deeply against a post-modern world. I am arguing against the sense there is no meaning, that things can just take place in terms of a Darwinian cycle. I’m fighting deeply against that. And in order to share that philosophy, I create these worlds in which there’s a purpose and there’s a good purpose.

Debbie Millman:

Does your art have to reflect the moral justice that you believe in?

Min Jin Lee:

I think so, without it being propaganda. I don’t ever want it to be irrational. I don’t really believe in these Hollywood endings. I think that in a way when we get these Hollywood endings very often now we have two kinds of Hollywood endings. One is super happy and everything is saccharin. And the other one is the evil guy actually has to have sympathy. Lately we don’t seem to have anything in the middle and I guess I’m critical of both.

Debbie Millman:

I do think there’s a third category and that’s the story that leaves you utterly heartbroken. Something like Moonlight. I was thinking about the movie Moonlight.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Or there’s a new movie that’s just come out that I got to see called Women Talking.

Min Jin Lee:

I haven’t seen that yet.

Debbie Millman:

And you’re just left destroyed at the end without knowing whether anything good is going to happen or not. You kind of hope that it will. But given our knowledge of the world, it’s very hard to feel that way sometimes.

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah. I guess I have to rally against that kind of art in some ways because I guess because I really like Aristotle’s poetics. I think that my highest goal is to achieve catharsis in my viewer, my reader. And in order for me to do that, I need to have recognition and reversal and recognition and reversal requires a sense of hope. My work has to be shot through with some sense of hope. Perhaps it’s not the answer but it has to give the will to live, the will to persist. That’s very important to me. So I totally understand what you’re talking about with that kind of work and I admire it.

But very often, this is what I have to say as a writing teacher is that you can have a situation like when you have a tragedy. That’s a situation. Something very bad happened. Somebody died of cancer. Somebody was hit by a car. Somebody was beaten to death. These are terrible things. It’s not a story. A story requires recognition and reversal in order to achieve catharsis. So very often, I always feel like that’s an incomplete work of art. And I guess I would have to defend that and just say go look at Aristotle. I guess I agree with that old guy. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

You wrote Free Food for Millionaires which was really your third book, but your first to publish. And you said that the experience over the 12 years that it took for Free Food for Millionaires to be published was a good lesson. And that every single writer that you could name, all the greats, were a writer before they published their first book. And I really wanted to talk to you about that because I think that if anybody were to look back over my interviews over the 18 years that I’m doing this, that that knowledge, that all the great were writers before they published their first book, that all the artists were artists before they had their first show. All of the trying counts is something that I think is one of the most profound things I’ve ever been able to share with my listeners.

Min Jin Lee:

Well, I want to share it and I want for all of us to own it because waiting for the validation or the permission from some external source that we call the stamp is so deeply hard and unfair, especially for outsiders. So almost all women who are creators have been outside the gate waiting to be let in, every woman in the world pretty much in every field of creativity. So are we to say that women aren’t artists and creators and writers and thinkers and scientists? I mean, it’s absurd when you think about all the institutional barriers women have had to suffer through and had to fight and still are fighting to be validated. So I think that if you take this idea that if you are working really hard in your field, you are that person. And I think that self-accreditation is okay. As a matter of fact, it’s urgently necessary in order for you to get out of bed and go back to your desk or go back to your table.

Debbie Millman:

You spend a lot of time researching as you’re writing your books. And I understand you took a class at Harvard Business School when you were writing Free Food for Millionaires because your main character Casey was a millionaire. You took an entire semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology to learn how to make hats. How are your hat making skills by the way? I was just thinking about that like oh, I have to ask Min about that.

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, I took a semester at FIT in [inaudible 00:53:38] because I could afford it. I spent actually only one day at HBS applying.

Debbie Millman:

I know that you get asked how do you get to go to a class, and you’re like, “Apply.”

Min Jin Lee:

Yeah. So I applied to HBS. So in order to apply, you have to go for a full day and take a class. So I did that and it was absolutely mind-blowing compared to having interviewed HBS graduates who are not successful people in the world. So I interviewed all these famous HBS people who became CEOs and the like. And I just thought, they’re really different. Why are they so different? And they said to me, “Well, why don’t just go and apply and for that one day and you can sit in a class.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I did. And just within that day after I walked out, I thought, wow, these people just seem so deeply buoyant. I was like how are they so buoyant?

And it was weird. It was weird to me and I don’t know if they all believe it, but they have this air about them and I thought, oh, I bet you if I went there for even a year, I would be a different person than I am now. I don’t want to go for a year. But that one day was really helpful for me to understand the psychology of my character Ted Kim. And I needed to do those interviews plus do that actual spending the day the way Ted would’ve been. And for me, those characters are very real because they are composites of interviews that I’ve had. I think that, again, it goes back to confidence. I feel a sense of authority in what I write. But by the time I finish writing a book, I know so much about that field. I feel like what I say is true even though obviously the concede of fiction is that it’s not true.

Debbie Millman:

Well you said that doing as much research as you do gives you confidence. And I was wondering what is the confidence fueling? Is it fueling the narrative and your freedom to construct a narrative? Or is it fueling a sense of deeply knowing your characters?

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, I know it’s a very strange thing, but I’m telling my readers the truth.

Debbie Millman:

Okay.

Min Jin Lee:

So you could trust me. If you see something in my work about immigration and law, or a place, you can feel very confident that it happened to somebody. And it’s not that one person, it’s usually a bunch of people. So if I interview a software engineer or if I interview an investment banker or an architect or a dog walker, and if I tell you that this is a Bichon versus a Golden Doodle, I know. And you could trust me and that’s important because I write about things that a lot of people don’t normally know a lot about. So that makes me feel better.

Debbie Millman:

10 years passed between the publication of Free Food for Millionaires and the publication of your second novel, Pachinko. But you’ve said that if you could do it again, you wouldn’t have taken so long, and that failing and floundering is horrible and humiliating. It doesn’t really feel like you’re floundering and failing when you’re researching and immersed in the process of writing in the way that you do. Why do you perceive it as floundering?

Min Jin Lee:

In 2017 right after I became a finalist of the National Book Award, that year my husband had lost his job. He got a job later on, but it took almost a year. So he lost his job on the day of my publication of Pachinko, February 2017. And when I became a finalist of National Book Award, he still hadn’t gotten a new job. And at that point it had been, I guess nine months and we were financially really vulnerable. And my son had gotten to college and we couldn’t qualify for financial aid because we hadn’t applied in time. And really at that moment I remember thinking, oh, we don’t have health insurance because Cobra has run out and I need to get a job. And I tried to get a position somewhere that month. And I remember the person I interviewed with was so cruel to me. I was late forties, almost 50 at that point. And here I am applying for a job.

Debbie Millman:

And you’re a National Book Award finalist.

Min Jin Lee:

Right, but I don’t have a terminal degree. So I wasn’t an English major. I don’t have an MFA. I don’t have a PhD. And they looked at as if I really had no business being across the desk from them. And this person said to me, “And how did you get to my desk?”

Debbie Millman:

Oh God.

Min Jin Lee:

And I remember walking out of the job interview, it was like the first job interview that I really had in person to teach writing, only because I wanted health insurance. That was the primary thing at that moment. And I just broke down in tears. I was on the street just sobbing thinking, oh, I really, really blew it because I don’t earn enough money as a book writer to get by. I don’t have health insurance. I can’t care for my family. My husband has carried me for decades while I wasn’t earning, while I was on the quest to be a writer. And he was willing to put up with the financial, the fact that I wasn’t earning. But then I thought, it’s my turn. And I think it’s totally fair to say it’s my turn. It was just so, so humiliating.

So in that sense, reality at some point hits in terms of time and resources. And I remember that moment people thinking, oh my gosh, you must be so happy to be a finalist for the National Book Award. And obviously I was. But that job interview, I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget how humiliated I was thinking I put myself in this situation. It’s not like I don’t have a green card. It’s not like I don’t speak English. See? I go right back to immigrant thinking I have more rights than a refugee and an asylum seeker. So what is my problem? I chose this thing called writing.

Debbie Millman:

I’m sure that they are looking back on that experience regretting what they said, especially since you’re now at Amherst.

Min Jin Lee:

I think so. I don’t know. I’m sure they’re fine. There’s plenty of writers who need gigs.

Debbie Millman:

There’s very few people that I interview where I don’t hear a story about someone decimating their spirit. And back to what you were saying before about the kindness and generosity that should be there if we could be bigger, it just doesn’t feel necessary for us to have to do that to each other in order to feel good about ourselves or to feel better about ourselves.

But in any case, I want to talk about Pachinko. Like Free Food for Millionaires, you have a significant opening line in Pachinko. It is, “History has failed us, but no matter.” And you’ve stated that you believe history has failed almost everybody who is ordinary in the world, not just the Korean Japanese who are the subject of Pachinko. You also argue that the discipline of history has failed. And I was wondering if you meant the discipline of history has failed because history tends to be written by the victors.

Min Jin Lee:

Yes, that’s absolutely true. But I was trained in history in university, and one of the first things that you learn is as existence of primary documents which means that we can’t study that which wasn’t recorded or written or which in which we have primary documents or artifacts. That means that almost everybody who’s ordinary who wasn’t written about or who hasn’t kept journals or diaries which still exist, cannot be counted or surveyed or compared with. And that means that if you think about, let’s say the Great War, like World War I, ordinary boys who died in the trenches, their lives mattered, but only usually as a statistic rather than as a story. So it isn’t just about a oppressed minority. It’s really about anybody who is not important. So yes, it’s written about the victors or about the losers who actually have enough power to write about it, of history. But what really troubles me is that the mass of people who are having history affected upon them don’t get to be remembered or have their say. And I guess I’m upset about that.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, talk about the part of the phrase, “History has failed us, but no matter.” Talk about the, “But no matter.”

Min Jin Lee:

I think this is the coda of ordinary people, of the average person who wasn’t counted. Is that it doesn’t matter if people don’t know who we are, we’re still going to show up and do what we have to do, what we want to do anyway. And I think that for me, it’s always given me so much hope and courage to think about the way we circumvent the powers that don’t want us to matter. We’re going to survive. We’re going to have a subculture if we can’t have culture. And eventually our subculture will become even more important. So I see this happening throughout time, throughout history, of how the sense of defiance, and that gives me enormous hope. I love this idea of the defiant person who’s not supposed to count who counts an awful lot.

Debbie Millman:

How much autobiography is embedded in your work? I was struck by the father that dies of tuberculosis in Pachinko, and I know that your dad had tuberculosis. How much have you embedded of yourself in your work?

Min Jin Lee:

Well, I think that the literal biography probably wouldn’t track. But I think that in terms of emotional biography, I have put it in every one of my characters, especially after I decided somewhere before I published Free Food, that I would be judged. I would be exposed. I would be vulnerable which meant that every one of my characters has all of my embarrassing emotions. So all of my desires that I was ashamed to have, all of the sad feelings, all of my discouraged moments, my wishes for greatness, my wishes for death, all of it, it’s in there. And my wishes for revolution, my wishes for assimilation, all of the things that I’m not supposed to have I put into my character. So in that sense, I could identify it. And then because I have so much research, it’s really nice because I can do a through line between the feeling and the event and the interviews. So it’s all there. And it gives a kind of roundedness, I think, to what I was trying to do.

Debbie Millman:

I mean, I have two last questions for you today, just two more. You’ve said that when people ask your advice, you often state, “Choose the important over the urgent.” Why that particular piece of advice?

Min Jin Lee:

I think this advice is so important, and I say it every single time, and it always takes people aback because right now, especially in the 21st century, we are having people at us all the time. People are constantly grabbing you saying, “I want this. I want that. You want this. You want that.” And in the urgency, it’s really hard to take a moment and to pull back and remember what really, really is important to you? Because if you really remember what’s important to you, all that urgent stuff you just realize is a noise. And that’s something that especially for the next generation, I want to give them a sense of because they’re growing up with, I mean, in this attention economy, they’re being pulled at nonstop. And unlike my generation, like our generation where we’ve had the ability to grow up without endless distraction, which doesn’t not only bode well for us, they don’t intend good things.

Like we know that this technology that we have right now that’s pervasive is designed to be addictive by the smartest people in the world. So when I send out a five year old, 10 year old, an 18 year old out there against the technology that’s coming at them, we know that they’re defenseless. Whereas I feel like I’ve had a lot of training to know what doesn’t count. So I think this advice in particular, I really want them to just take a beat and say, does this really matter? Is this really important? Does this person wish me well? Am I going to get something that’s good for myself or the world from this thing that is feeling very urgent? And I’m hoping that that might be a solve for what ails you.

Debbie Millman:

And the last question I have for you is about quiches. You’ve said that 30 years ago when you wanted to learn how to make a quiche, you read lots and lots of recipes and made dozens and dozens of quiches until you really got it and you understood what you called the essence of a quiche. So my last question for you is this. What is the essence of quiche?

Min Jin Lee:

I think the custard. I think it’s the custard of the egg and the cheese and the binding of it. I really like a very, very thick quiche and that required to form a pastry shell that was durable enough to handle the quant quantity of custard that I wanted. Yes. Wow. I didn’t expect that one.

Debbie Millman:

That’s a wonderful answer. That’s wonderful. Min Jin Lee, thank you. Thank you so much for writing books that matter and thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.

Min Jin Lee:

Debbie, you are astonishing. The level of research is astonishing. From one researcher to another, I have to tell you, hats off. Hats off.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Thank you. That means everything to me, everything. And it was just a complete and utter pleasure to spend the last couple of weeks living in your life. It’s been astonishing and enchanting.

Min Jin Lee:

Oh, thank you, Debbie.

Debbie Millman:

Min Jin Lee’s two remarkable books are Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko. You can find out more about Min Jin Lee’s remarkable body of work on her website, minjinlee.com. This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.