Chang-rae Lee writes about the American suburbs he was raised in, yet to critics he's still a migrant, he tells Alister McMillan
AS THE PHONE rings in London's Rathbone Hotel, mental pictures form of Chang-rae Lee wiping his mouth of the fine food he is known to prefer or resting the putter after practising on the floor to refine his handicap of 10. Perhaps he's grading the work of his creative writing students from Princeton University, whose corridors he shares with Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. Or is he tweaking the film script for his third acclaimed novel, Aloft, the rights for which were bought by Scott Rudin, producer of The Hours and The Royal Tenenbaums?
It would be nice to see one of these urbane aspects of Lee - the worldly twists in his writing and his image that have made him, at 38, a literary luminary. Charles McGrath, at the time the editor of The New York Times Book Review, assigned himself the profile of Lee when Aloft, his third novel, was released in the US in March. The interview was conducted over one of the many golf rounds the pair has shared as friends for years. Lee won.
A phone interview in the middle of the tour to launch Aloft in the rest of the world has less class, a fear confirmed when Lee finally answers. His voice is throaty with flu and sleep. It grows more weary - though stays polite - when told that, as this is a Hong Kong newspaper, he should be prepared for questions about his Asian background.
Here's the problem in being so cosmopolitan. Lee is often cast in one of the stronger currents of post-war American literature - the lyrical precision of John Updike, John Cheever, Richard Ford and the more flamboyant Jonathan Franzen. All of them, like Lee, write about suburbia from within. But Lee is at the same time isolated from them by reviewers. He is the Asian-American, the migrant writer looking at America from the outside - even though he was raised in its suburbs. Denying that he wrote Aloft with an Italian-American central character to distance himself from ethnic writing, Lee says fighting comparisons to anyone takes too much effort.
'I feel very comfortable that I can write a character that is convincing enough,' he says. 'I've done my job as a novelist - not as an Asian-American novelist, but just as a novelist. Maybe readers in the future won't expect me or maybe some others to write about what they expect us to write about. I take it all with a grain of salt. I know it's a way of talking about it or marketing it. People need to do that. They do it naturally. I don't worry about it. It falls away. After people read the book it becomes itself.
'I didn't start out with the idea that the main character was a white guy. I started out with the idea of someone who is a certain age. It was looking at that person in terms of family life and his culture, too. He's trying to make sense of things when he's at a juncture that should be full of ease and wisdom.'
Aloft opens with Jerry Battle flying his two-seat plane: 'From up here, a half mile above the earth, everything looks perfect to me.'
The plane was bought to keep the retired landscaper occupied as his 60th birthday approaches. He uses it for short leisurely flights on cloudless days. Battle (boiled down from Battaglia by his immigrant forebears) keeps his emotions at a similar altitude, above memories of his Korean-American wife's possible suicide more than 20 years earlier and the recent split with Rita, the lover who helped raise his children without receiving a marriage proposal. Battle distances himself from his father's unhappiness in a nursing home, his son's ruinous excesses as head of the family business and his daughter's impending marriage and baby.
'I'm one to leap up from the mat to aid all manner of strangers and tourists and other wide-eyed foreigners,' Jerry says, 'but when it comes to loved ones and family I can hardly ungear myself from the La-Z-boy, and want only succour and happy sufferance in return.'
Forcing Battle to fly through his personal storms is a metaphor that would plummet from most writers. Lee keeps it gliding with long, lean sentences capturing the thoughts of a man too complacent to express himself to others.
'I didn't burn Jerry up with my observation of him,' Lee says. 'I certainly didn't just want to grind him down to nothing, which sometimes I feel happens in books these days. Even though I'm quite critical of Jerry, even though he's quite critical of everyone else and makes fun of them, he still allows people room to live on their own and respect them and leave them with some integrity.
'Some people have said, 'Well, he doesn't really sound or think like what I think of as a landscaper.' I did want to make sure that his dialogue was regular-guy talk. But I did want to articulate in his inner thoughts and his interior monologue an elevated, sometimes poetic, sometimes lyrical yearning.
'One tries to articulate and make concrete the flights of consciousness that people have. I think that's the job of writers and the job of literature, to articulate that inner life that's not spoken and maybe never is spoken. People don't think in the same way they speak. I absolutely believe that,' Lee says.
'Maybe an old idea about literature is that literature should, in some way, find what's glorious in us all, what's beautiful and poetic, even when you're looking at difficult themes and action. There's something ineffably wonderful about humanity. That's something that I wanted to see in Jerry.'
Battle is one of the creatures who created the middle-class suburbs. He is not shaped by his milieu. He thrives in a community that seldom communicates, even while worrying that mobile phones and e-mail somehow reduce contact.
'I've been wanting to write a family story,' says Lee. 'All my stories have something to do with family relations. But I wanted a story that focused on it. I have a young family, young girls. I'm embroiled in the little dramas of family life. I worry about it more ... as our civilisation becomes more technologically advanced and far-flung.'
Some of the characters are based on people in his orbit, most notably the Asian-American writer who is about to marry Battle's daughter. Lee's wife is Italian-American and Battle is superficially based on his father-in-law.
The character at first seems to be Lee's biggest departure from the immigrants of his first two novels, Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway/PEN Award for first fiction in 1995, and A Gesture Life, the awards for which led to Lee being named by the New Yorker as one of the best writers under the age of 40 in 1999.
But by the end of Aloft we see Battle as another outsider struggling to get in. Instead of physical barriers, he fights to find courage for tough decisions, much as Lee seems to have done when he stunned his parents by becoming a writer.
Lee entered the US as a three-year-old, following his father, Young-yong Lee, a psychiatrist, to the New York City suburb of Pleasantville. His father assimilated almost as quickly as Lee and his sister, Eunei, who now lives in Repulse Bay. His late mother, Inja Hong Lee, a former all-Asian basketball player, had a tougher time learning the language and befriending Americans.
The fact that Lee felt no need to take a western name says more about his comfort as a Korean-American in US suburbia than his affinity with South Korea, he says. His Asian roots were more apparent in his dedication to school.
Lee was the typically diligent child of an immigrant family, attending the exclusive Phillips Exeter School before majoring in English at Yale University and taking his first job with an investment bank. He walked away from the lucrative career after a year, to write.
'When people ask me when I knew I was going to be a writer, I say I knew, at least I knew I would try, when I was completely scared and did it. I wasn't raised to be a writer or an artist. It wasn't an easy decision,' he says.
'I guess I'd always been raised not to take chances. You know, always study as hard as you can so you get 100 on the test. Always practise your music so you do a perfect job. To be an artist or a writer you can't really do that. You can educate yourself but it doesn't really mean anything.
'When I quit the job, it wasn't because I disliked it or hated it or wanted to leave. I quit it for something else. I could have easily stayed in it.
'When I made the decision it was exhilarating but completely frightening. I knew that it was a real decision.'