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Chang-rae Lee on the fun of writing about the future for ‘On Such a Full Sea’

March 11, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Author Chang-rae Lee had set out to write a contemporary novel about the lives of Chinese workers. Instead, for his new book “On Such a Full Sea,” he created a dystopian America of the future, divided into labor settlements, where a teenage girl named Fan searches for love. Jeffrey Brown talks to Lee about how he came to write his main character and his experience working on Wall Street for a year.
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GWEN IFILL: Now Jeffrey Brown talks to a fiction writer, as he imagines where the world is heading next.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re in the future after much of the globe has become an environmental wasteland and the U.S. is divided into labor settlements, where workers toil to produce food and much else, privileged few live in charter villages, and everyone else inhabits the wild, often violent colonies beyond. A teenage girl named Fan makes her way through this world searching for a lost love. The novel is entitled “On Such a Full Sea.” And it’s quite a departure for author Chang-rae Lee, whose previous books include “Native Speaker” and “The Surrendered.” And welcome to you. CHANG-RAE LEE, Author, “On Such a Full Sea”: Great to be here. JEFFREY BROWN: I read that the original idea — your original idea was to write a novel of social realism… CHANG-RAE LEE: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: … about Chinese labor. So how did that evolve into a — this futuristic story? CHANG-RAE LEE: Well, I had over gone to China to Shenzhen, to the villages there, where there are lots of factories, and visited a factory, and had this — you know, big idea to write this broad social novel about workers, owners, you know, all their struggles. But when I got back to my writing desk, I felt as if I didn’t have a special angle on the material, that it was going to be good journalism. But I think, for novels, you need the extra perspective or other layers of approach that make the story, you know, come alive in a different way. And so I dropped that novel. And, at the same time, you know, looking for something else, I came upon a premise about setting a novel in the future. And I had to set the novel in the future, because the premise involved bringing over en masse Chinese laborers to the United States, which I knew couldn’t happen now, but perhaps could in a very different future. JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so they come because of the environment, what happens in China. And they end up in the U.S. There is, of course, a great tradition of writers drawn to this kind of looking at the future, which is sort of like our own, but not quite. Right? CHANG-RAE LEE: Right. Right. JEFFREY BROWN: Was it exciting or difficult or what grabbed you about it? CHANG-RAE LEE: It was liberating — it was liberating in one sense, of course, because you have, you know, at your fingertips anything and everything to, you know, imagine and think about. The problem, of course, is that, sometimes, you’re trapped by your own premise, and that — and I think that’s the fun part about it, is to try to defy the premise that you have come up with and to take it into different directions. JEFFREY BROWN: And your past work is more observed of — in our time. Here, I guess it was wide-open, right? CHANG-RAE LEE: Yes. I mean, my previous novels, I would say, are psychologically realistic, very close in views of people who — immigrants sometimes, others who are sort of, you know, at a crossroads in terms of how they feel about themselves in their families or in their communities. In some sense, this novel is not that different. JEFFREY BROWN: Once you get into it. CHANG-RAE LEE: Once you get into it, the work itself is not actually all that radical. What is radical is that, once you change the context around these figures — and they’re still human beings, of course — once you change that context or circumstance radically, you realize that things inside change. Morality changes. Practices and beliefs change. And, suddenly, people are formed and deformed in very interesting ways. JEFFREY BROWN: And what also we begin to realize and, for me, because on this — we spend a lot of time on this program looking at social issues, obviously, and economic divisions in the society — and then here it’s notable that you have created this world of deep divisions of class, society, industrial, everything’s run down, right? The world is sort of ground down economically, in a sense. So did you have this world in mind as well? CHANG-RAE LEE: Well, one of the things that I was interested in that original novel about China set in contemporary times was Chinese ascendancy. But the flip side of that was a sense of American stagnation and perhaps decline. And that’s one of the things that I brought over from that original research, an idea that certain trends in this — in our society, both socio and political, were obviously things that I have anxiety about, that I was worried about. And I think all speculative fiction has as its origin point present concerns, and those concerns about class entrenchment, about income inequality, about environmental contamination, about health care being so precarious in our society, I think those are things that I have, you know, been mulling for the last 10, 15 years. JEFFREY BROWN: I read — I didn’t know this about you, but that before you became a writer, you actually worked on Wall Street for a year. CHANG-RAE LEE: I did. I had a job very… (LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: There’s something about this is — is all in the past, right, thinking about wealth and poverty and… CHANG-RAE LEE: Well, yes. You know, I took a job on Wall Street. I’m glad I did, because it was my only really — you know, my one true day job that I ever had. But that was a job as an immigrant kid from a family who had struggled to — and worked hard to put me through a good American education. It was a little payback for that. JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one more thing, because I’m curious about your choice of main characters. It’s a 16-year-old girl, Fan, or Fan. Why tell the story through — through her? CHANG-RAE LEE: I wanted someone who was an innocent, and a true innocent, and she’s probably not a lot like — a lot like 16-year-olds today. I think she’s purer than that, more innocent than that. I wanted someone who could almost be a vessel for the imagination of those who are telling her story, so that she’s this sort of elemental force going out into the world, into this adventure, and that we would be drawn by, not her psychology or her philosophy or her leadership even, but by her — this kind of pure and fierce persistence that she has. JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not going to give away what happens here, but do you in the end see this as kind of warning, or is it — did it just become a good story to tell for you? CHANG-RAE LEE: Well, in the process of it, I was just enjoying the storytelling. I think what begins to accrue and what began to accrue, and almost surprised me as I went along, was how much of my concerns came out in the book. I never intended to write a political novel. And I don’t think I will ever intend to write a political novel, but perhaps, out of all my books, this one is more pointedly looking at issues of our time. JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “On Such a Full Sea.” Chang-rae Lee, thank you so much. CHANG-RAE LEE: Great to be here.