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Free Food for Millionairesby Min Jin Lee
Author Q & A
Q: How did you choose Casey Han's name?
I began this novel shortly after September 11, 2001. I live in downtown New York, not ten blocks from the World Trade Center. As little as a week before the bombing, my then three year old son and I were at the Borders located on the ground floor of the World Trade Center buying Thomas the Tank Engine board books. This was our neighborhood shopping center, and Sam and I regularly went there to get chocolate rolls from Ecce Panis or to eat ramen at the food court.
After the bombing, The New York Times published a series of brief obituaries with photographs of all those who died. I could hardly read them, but now and then I tried. One day, I opened the section and saw a young Asian woman's face. Her first name was Casey. She was pretty with a beguiling expression — like someone you'd look forward to seeing at work. She had a Korean surname, and I'd never met a Korean with the given name Casey before. I don't know anything about her except for what was on that brief obituary, but I named my character after this woman who died so close to where I live.
As for Casey's surname, I have been told that there is only one Han family line whereas there may be many branches of Kim, Lee or Cho. For example, my father who is from the North tells me that our surname is not a Korean Lee, but rather a Chinese Lee — descending from a Manchurian warrior who settled in the northern part of Korea several hundred years back. So, I may in very small measure be ethnically Chinese but largely Korean. The word han can be loosely translated as a uniquely Korean sentiment of lament — an inexpressible anguish or suffering of a people from a nation that has been divided and whose national history bears humiliation and loss. The meaning of han is attributed by some to be a national cultural trait reflecting historical oppression and isolation. That a young woman growing up in America with such enormous freedom and advantages could somehow carry with her this unconscious sense of historical suffering was something I considered throughout the writing of this book.
Q: Is Free Food for Millionaires an immigrant story?
I suppose it is, because it features first and second generation characters, and I think it is essentially an American story because unlike any other country in this world, America has this generative quality due to its immigration policies and early colonial history.
I was a history major in college, and my senior essay was about the colonization of the 18th century American mind. Quite a mouthful. My argument then was that original American colonists from England and the generations which followed felt profoundly inferior intellectually and culturally to Europeans and those back home in their motherland. That idea has affected how I see my own challenges in America as an immigrant. I am not legally colonized — far from it — but an immigrant is like a early colonist (a word currently out of favor), that is, a person who has come from somewhere else, learns to adapt to her new land with all its attendant complexities with an overall wish to acquire new "territory". It is an interesting position to consider since I am venturing to make culture — my crayon drawings of what I see and notice in the form of fiction. I can be critical of how this country works, but I also respect its ideals of rugged individualism, the Protestant work-ethic, and the American entrepreneurial spirit. Also, I recognize how with every generation, America can transfer its set of insecurities and anxieties to the newcomer. I wanted to chronicle through fiction the personalities which abound in my village of New York, and to reveal them to myself and to my reader. In sum, I am an immigrant so that can't help but be a kind of filter for all of my work.
Q: Can you talk about your childhood immigrant story?
My parents, sisters and I came to Queens, New York in March of 1976. My family was sponsored by my Uncle John, a computer programmer at IBM. I came here when I was a little over seven years old — two years older than my main character Casey. Also, like her, I grew up in Elmhurst in a blue-collar neighborhood. We lived in a series of shabby rented apartments for the first five years then my parents bought a small three family house in Maspeth and rented out the other two floors while we lived on the second floor. I learned how to speak English, and to read and write in the public schools of Elmhurst and Maspeth, Queens. My sisters and I were latchkey kids. Our summers were spent working in our parents' wholesale jewelry store and hanging out at the Elmhurst Public Library. My childhood felt rich to me in many ways. I remember how exotic it was to eat potato salad with bacon bought from our neighborhood German delicatessen, and my sisters and I would pool money to buy tins of Chef Boyardee ravioli to eat with thick loaves of Italian bread that came in paper sleeves. We were foreigners who ate rice every night and store-bought food was special. Even tater tots and sporks from the school cafeteria were wonderful. I loved visiting the Optimo's down the street and wanting to buy all the notebooks and pencils there.
Q: Your book is titled Free Food for Millionaires. Why millionaires?
A millionaire is by definition a very rich person. Though, I guess we now live in an age where there are even lists of billionaires. I saw a television biography recently on Warren Buffet — an institutional investor and a billionaire. I learned in the program that part of his appeal is supposed to come from the fact that he is a regular guy who drives a regular car and lives in a regular house. I think that's funny. There are many volumes dedicated to his life, investment philosophy, etc. — as if his wealth can somehow be imitated through seven or ten easy steps and elbow grease. No doubt, we can all learn something from his life, but I find it highly unlikely that knowledge of his biography is a sure path to money. I have witnessed and experienced class changes in my life and in my family's life, and I've always wanted to figure out what wealth is, more so than how does a person get to be rich? Why are some people rich and others not? Why do people feel rich or poor, and how does money or lack of money motivate a person's desire and how she lives? I chose young characters from the starting gates with a fancy education. An education is a kind of wealth like strength, beauty, talent, connections or social intelligence. Through Casey, I was able to understand better her curious sense of entitlement and point of view that come with an elite education even for those with a very modest background. I wanted to see if Casey could figure out if she could be rich, what it was that she wanted from her future, and what she could do. I wanted to see if she could figure out what made her rich.
Q: How did you decide to write about Casey and Ella?
I quit being a lawyer in 1995 to write fiction. For about five years, there was no relief to the number of rejections I received. It was then I began a short story called "Bread and Butter." It became my first published story, and I was thirty two years old. The story was about two young women who become friends by accident and about how failure affects each one differently and their feelings for each other. They were both Korean-American and newly married — one was wealthy, beautiful and depressed and the central character was poor, unattractive but possessed enormous confidence and even larger dreams which she could not fulfill. It was really that story and how it was received that gave me the courage to write about friendship — permitting me to render Casey and Ella's dynamic. Over the years, I have met many women who appear to have the very things society says women should want and need: beauty, wealth, love, intelligence, talent, influence, etc. but who are deeply lonely and not always of their own doing. More often than not, the more a woman had, the more she seemed to be isolated from intimacy with women who in turn envied them. She may have had other reasons to be unhappy, but I was struck by how some of these women had to manage the inevitable envy they incurred just by being who they were.
I have also met the Ellas of this world who romanticize poverty and those who escape it. It felt true to me that Ella was drawn to Casey for her energy and desires in the same way she is drawn to Ted and his exuberant ambition. Everyone always talks about how the poor want to be rich, and there is that, of course, but I've also seen the opposite to be true.
Q: Do you have any favorite male characters?
There are the obvious good guys like Isaac Gottesman or Dr. Shim. I love them for their kindness and wisdom. I adore the rake Hugh Underhill because there is something sexy about his carelessness regarding his beauty and privilege. Nevertheless, I think my favorite male character might be Ted, because his desires were so strong. He may be repellant to some but I think we all know a variation of Ted in our lives, and whatever they are doing, we want to watch them compulsively. Ted's goals and achievements are aligned which is not an easy state to manage. Most people have ambition, but very little capacity or will to fulfill their desires. I wanted to see how the son of uneducated cannery workers goes to Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College then Harvard Business School, marries a beautiful doctor's daughter — an heiress, then becomes a member of prestigious private clubs in New York — and what it would be like to give him what he wanted and worked for. What would he want next? I found his behavior on the page interesting, because what I learned was that he craved to feel at ease — though it looked as though he was winning every battle smoothly. The person who made him feel this way was Delia — the office slut. How bizarre, but to me, very true. I believe that Ted could not and would not have chosen Delia unless he had actually lived and experienced the fulfillment of his primary wishes and goals.
I wanted to know if a person could sabotage his carefully created life if he realized that he was unsatisfied privately with himself. I always want to know how people behave under extreme conditions.
Q: You've chosen to write this book showing many points of view. Is there a reason why?
More than anything, I wanted to try to write novels in the style of the ones I loved. I have always loved 19th century literature from England and Europe, and early 20th century literature from America. The books I re-read for pleasure almost always employ an omniscient narrator — either a fictive person who knows everyone's thoughts and how the story will be told or the author himself who knows how the story ends and why. There is a godlike quality to omniscience, and it is that I am vainly approaching in story telling.
Also, I think I loved Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Thackeray, Flaubert, George Eliot, Balzac, Edith Wharton, Maughm, Dickens, the Brontes...because they reveal marginal characters as well as the central characters. I don't know if this is important to me, because of my own background where I have felt both marginal and central in different spaces. Obviously, none of those books featured anyone biographically like me. I wonder if George Eliot could have telescoped that someone of my background would be so inspired by her. Well, come to think of it, George Eliot could have probably anticipated anything — she was that intelligent, but in the cosmic joke of my life — among other things, that I am fortunate enough to write fiction and to write in a language that is not my first — I have learned that pretty much anything can happen. I always feel that sense of amusement in Balzac who I admire deeply for his social intelligence. He knew everything about human behavior. It's very difficult to share what you learn and speculate only through one point of view. The omniscient point of view lends itself to far greater flexibility and spaciousness.
I feel profoundly fortunate that I have been able to finish this book and to get it published. It took twelve years for my first novel's publication, but it could have been longer. It could easily have been never, and waiting and working can teach you a lot about chance — especially in a city where I am surrounded by many, many talented writers. I've been told that this book might have been finished faster if I wrote it from one or two characters' viewpoints. I don't know. Middlemarch, perhaps my favorite novel of all time, is about a village and its people. It has central characters, but the book would not work as a masterpiece unless it had so many strands to truly express the character of a community. I was also this affected by Sinclair Lewis' book Mainstreet when I was in high school — a beautiful and important American book which I think should be picked up again. On a minor note, I am tickled by the fanciful nature of a Russian novelist including a brief line from the point of view of a dog or a horse. Too much of this may not work, but sometimes, don't you want to know what your dog thinks about you? Just a scrap? When you write something for a long time, you have to humor yourself because there is really no other payment in sight. I think it was lucky that in my first twelve years as a fiction writer, I had the wish to learn a curious technique and to be nourished by the learning along the way.
Perhaps I am taking this space to explain the merits of an omniscient narration because though it is an unpopular way of storytelling for modern writers, it can reveal how everyone in the room is thinking about the issues and each other and themselves rather than what they are actually doing and saying. Even the people of the finest character don't speak truthfully or act honestly all the time. It is in fiction where all the dimensions of personality and behavior might possibly be witnessed. I wanted to have a go at taking it all down.
Q: What are you working on now?
I've been working on a novel called Pachinko. It is set in Tokyo and its central characters are ethnic Koreans, Japanese and expatriate Americans. I started this book in pieces long before Free Food for Millionaires, and a story excerpted from the manuscript was published in The Missouri Review a few years ago. The story "Motherland" features Etsuko Nagatomi, an important character from the book, but the novel's main character is the boy Solomon in the story who appears as a young man in the novel. Solomon Choi is an ethnic Korean whose father owns many lucrative pachinko parlors in Tokyo and Kyoto. He is sent to international schools in Tokyo, educated at universities abroad then finds work as a trader in an investment bank. Solomon is a romantic character and a highly seductive person.
I have been curious about the ethnic Korean population in Japan and their history since college. For me, fiction usually starts with a personal question or actual event then I try to see the people and how they behave under their circumstances. I am most interested in what people want and what they do in relation to their desires. I am moving to Tokyo in August with my family, so it should be a rich environment for my next work.
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