Researching and Writing History

Best-selling author Min Jin Lee is finishing her trilogy at Radcliffe
Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff PhotographerPhoto by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Harvard Gazette
March 6, 2019
By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer

When she was young, long before she became a best-selling author, Min Jin Lee wanted to become an architect.

“I am very visual,” said Lee on a fall afternoon in her Harvard office, where she is completing the final book in her trilogy, which already includes “Free Food for Millionaires” (2007), and a sweeping tale of four generations of Koreans in Japan titled “Pachinko” (2017).

Today, instead of designing homes or office towers, Lee, a National Book Award finalist for “Pachinko” and the Catherine A. and Mary C. Gellert Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, builds narratives rooted in history and informed by years of research. The rigorous prep work helps her craft her novels from the ground up as the words take shape on the page. “Most of writing is like plumbing, and laying the floor, and digging the basement, and then layering it brick by brick by brick until you have the edifice,” Lee likes to tell her students.

Born in South Korea, Lee moved to Queens, N.Y., with her family in 1976 when she was 7 years old. She describes herself as a shy child who struggled to make friends and to focus in school. But the early signs of a writer were there, along with a deep desire to learn. In high school she published articles in a South Korean newspaper. A history major in college, she crammed her schedule with extra classes in logic, sculpture, philosophy, and more. For the courses she couldn’t take, Lee checked their syllabi and hit the bookstore. “I wanted to be this person who knew everything,” she said.

As an undergraduate in Yale’s English department she won top fiction and nonfiction prizes, but a writing career never crossed her mind. “It didn’t occur to me that a person of my background could be a writer,” said Lee. “I didn’t know anyone from my background who was one.” Tempted by the thought of a steady job and more learning, she attended Georgetown Law School and became a corporate lawyer in New York City. Eventually, the grinding pace wore her down. “One night, I thought my partner would tell me to go home because they knew exactly how many hours I had been working,” she recalled. “But they just gave me something else to do. That’s when I blurted out, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Lee, who was also struggling with a chronic liver disease, said she realized life was too short to do something she didn’t love. So she turned her focus to writing, honing her skills at inexpensive seminars and in community classes, and reading everything she could find about writing. Like many aspiring young authors, she aimed high, intending to “knock out that novel and make a lot of money, and replace some of my income as a lawyer.” She quit her job in 1995. Her first book didn’t appear until 2007.

Rejections from publishers played a role in the 12-year gap, as did Lee’s exacting methods. She approaches fiction writing like an investigative journalist might, gathering as much information about her topic as she can by traveling, interviewing, and researching, all while writing and rewriting her copy. She is quick to outline, and equally quick to throw those outlines away if something isn’t right. “Everything changes,” Lee said, “so then you have to kind of start again.”

The author knows her meticulous process is time-consuming, but she also knows it helps her distill her narrative — and that the trade-off is worth it. “I am constantly thinking about, after all this research, what is emotionally true,” Lee said, adding, “I just figure I am not going to write as many books as other people. If I write five before I die, I am psyched.”

For the final book in her diaspora trilogy, “American Hagwon” — hagwons are for-profit South Korean education centers where students receive supplemental instruction in a range of subjects and also cram for exams — her groundwork has been unfolding on trips to Los Angeles, London, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines in recent years, and is driven by her desire to understand what Koreans, both in Korea and beyond, value most. The author suspected she already knew the answer, and her research confirmed it. “Education means a lot and many things to different people but it’s always important,” said Lee. “I’ve never met a Korean who has neutral feelings about education, anywhere. And I’ve met Koreans everywhere.”

That singular focus, she suggests, is rooted in Confucianism and its embrace of a system that enables those from lower classes to rise by passing certain tests. “It’s not an accident that you have East Asian countries with such a focus on testing,” said Lee. “Because testing will take you out of your poverty, or middle class, or obscurity.”

Her research has involved interviews with students, parents, teachers, tutors, and admissions officers, and visits to colleges and hagwons. At times disconcerting, at times inspiring, Lee said her recent findings have reminded her how complex people are, and of the importance of considering other points of view.

“Doing this kind of work as I write and rewrite a work of fiction humbles me,” Lee told a Radcliffe crowd during a recent talk. “It teaches me to listen more. Reality corrects my preconceptions, and my eyes and my ears experience what my characters may ultimately feel.” 

In her office, Lee said her work always begins with an argument or hypothesis. The argument of “Pachinko” appears in the book’s searing first line: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

“I am arguing that history has failed almost everybody,” Lee told her listeners earlier this month, explaining that history typically belongs only to the privileged few who can afford to leave records or archives behind. That’s a “loss for everybody,” she said.

The author insisted her book’s opening argument makes the case for those too often forgotten. “I am saying that even though the important people don’t care about us, we still persist. We still try to fight for our lives and our lives matter intensely,” said Lee.

The underlying argument of “Pachinko” is also in keeping with Lee’s broader effort to dispel negative stereotypes, distortions, and misrepresentations of her “community of origin” and “diasporic community,” and to point people toward a broader, more inclusive idea of humanity.

“I sort of joke that my agenda in life is to make all of you Korean,” Lee told the Radcliffe crowd, “because I think if I could make all of you Korean, you would see that all of us are connected.”

Search Year: 
2019