Chang-rae Lee discusses latest book at BAM

Brooklyn BookBeat

April 10, 2014 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Hundreds of Brooklynites packed the majestic BAMCafe at the Peter Jay Sharp Building on Wednesday night for the latest installment of Eat, Drink & Be Literary, where the award-winning Korean American author Chang-rae Lee gave a reading and shared his thoughts on his latest novel, “On Such a Full Sea.” The book takes place in a dystopian future version of Baltimore, Maryland called B-Mor.

“I wanted to write a fairly straightforward novel about workers in China and all sorts of interesting things that are going on there right now, but I felt that maybe it was a little too straightforward,” Lee told the crowd. “I didn’t want it to be too formal; I wanted a certain type of feeling. And then I got this idea to bring it over to America, to bring laborers over to abandoned or urban areas of the United States.

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“So I thought it should be set in the future, in a radically changed circumstance. It had to be set that way; I didn’t really want it to be.”

In his discussion with moderator Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of the New Yorker, Lee explained that he quickly began to like the new direction that his book was taking, and eventually grew to feel comfortable writing about the future.

“Once you set something in the future, you have to describe that future even if you don’t want to. I actually found that I was quite enjoying describing my future, thinking about the contours of society and how it changes.

“Some writers, when they’re writing about the future […] come up with a manual as to how that future works. I wasn’t interested in doing that. I was more concerned with the human factor, their situations and how it works. That was the fun part for me.”

Lee related that his book imagines a dystopian future in which the main character, Fan, a Chinese-American laborer, is a diver in a fish farm. After his brief synopsis of the plot, Lee read from the book. “I’m only going to read the first six or seven pages because I absolutely loathe reading,” Lee joked.

Lee’s reading was followed by additional conversation with Treisman, and a Q&A session with the audience.

“Chang-rae Lee is an author that I’ve liked for a really long time and I’m really glad that he came to speak at BAM. The dialogue and the questions were all fantastic,” audience member Kevin Longrie said after the event. “I’ve been to these events before and they always put on a really great night. You have the wine, the food, and then you have a great author giving a reading.”

After the reading, Treisman asked Lee about why he left Wall Street, where he was a financial analyst, and how he got into writing.

“I thought to myself that I can always come back and make money doing this, but I wanted to give myself five  years, like John Updike did, and I just ended up quitting,” Lee recalled. “That’s why I didn’t get rich.”

Lee was the fifth author to be featured in this year’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series, which is celebrating its tenth year.  Three more authors — Daniel Alarcón, Alison Bechdel and Meg Wolitzer — are scheduled to give readings over the next two months.

At each Eat, Drink event, audience members are treated to dinner, which on Wednesday included flank steak with Korean barbeque sauce or miso glazed salmon with baby bok choy. Wine is provided by the Pine Ridge Vineyards. On Wednesday, cellist Meta Weiss and violinist Maria Semes played beautiful classical music to set the mood.

The next Eat, Drink & Be Literary event will take place on April 23, featuring writer Daniel Alarcón. Alarcón, a resident of San Francisco, is the author of “War by Candlelight,” “Lost City Radio” and “At Night We Walk in Circles.”

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