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
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
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.