On the occasion of Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s new novel, The Evening Hero, being published, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
I read too much fiction to have a favorite!
Favorite character in life: my late best friend, Katherine. Before she died, she promised to haunt me, and she did and continues to. I welcome it.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
G. K. Chesterton: “All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary line that brings one thing sharply against another.” I’m fascinated by juxtaposition and borders, even though the partition of North and South Korea was the biggest trauma of my parents’ lives, and it has sifted down to my generation.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
Middlemarch. It was mind-boggling how something could be so serious, so accurate, and so funny and character driven, with Sinclair Lewis–type minutiae of small village life. I read it in college and scribbled all sorts of exclamation points on it. It’s the only book I have two copies of and for which I have a religious feeling. Also, now that I am an academic, that whole dissertation thing with pompous Casaubon and him making the much smarter Dorothea be his assistant?—OMG so perfect, how could she have gotten that so enduringly right?
4. What’s a writing day for you?
4:30 a.m.: Get up. (I don’t need an alarm! Deeply ingrained habit from when I worked as an investment banker and still wanted to write.) Bulletproof coffee (coffee, MCT oil, and ghee). Half-awake space is my best space.
6:30: son gets up.* Sometimes spouse gets him to school and I can keep writing. I stop to say goodbye to him. I usually write until midmorning. If I’m not teaching, I go for a jog, skip lunch, work more, emails in the afternoon, another (plain) coffee at 4 p.m., and sometimes I can eke out a little more. Son comes home.
I also teach and run a writers’ series and am core faculty in ethnic studies at Columbia, so during the year that’s a lot of meetings, one day a week teaching, office hours, going to job talks, etc. The 4:30 a.m. rise time means I get in at least an hour or two. For me saying “hi” to my work once a day is important for continuity.
When I’m lucky enough to get a residency somewhere, my schedule is basically:
WRITE WRITE WRITE COLLAPSE IN EXHAUSTION WRITE WRITE WRITE READ READ WRITE—it’s a real luxury for me not to be taking care of someone else, and especially when residencies not only feed me, but some of them even gift me with extra money for care for my son so I feel less guilty and can really concentrate.
*On some mornings, like today, I’ll wake up to find my son, who is cognitively disabled and twenty-two, has urinated in his bed, so I have just spent all morning getting him and his room cleaned up, getting laundry going, etc. And now at 6:25, a fire alarm is going off in a dorm near where we live (NYC), so this morning’s work is shot. I’ll try to jam in a few minutes, but I have work-work and then my son’s all-afternoon meeting with the team of social workers and state bureaucrats to determine his “level of care.” It is not a coincidence that it’s been eighteen years since my last novel was published—due to both the time commitment the work needs for research/writing/revision and the limits of being the parent of a child with severe and ongoing disabilities.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Reading poetry. Going outside. Korean dramas, especially zombie movies (try it!)—they weirdly put things in perspective, like realizing we’re living in a zombie-free NYC.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
On the page: However. Pivot. Said. Possibly. Thought. Misapprehension. Binary. But. Elided. In life: I say dude and bro way too much. My husband bought me a pile of Post-its that say DUDE! on them. I also say no way! a lot. I unfortunately curse a lot too.
7. What’s your current obsession?
My late best friend, the writer Katherine Min, gifted me with a ton of beautiful yarn before she passed. I made a bunch of scarves for friends but am not a big knitter. However, on TikTok I have been obsessed with mending clothes (I buy them secondhand, so often they are falling already apart)—there’s a trend of “visible” mending. I know it’s a little twee, but I get a kick out of saving an old cashmere sweater with some of her bright, bright yarn so that whenever I look at it, I am reminded of her. Also, it’s relaxing and productive in a way that writing, which isn’t quite so quick to give results, is not.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
That people can like me for me and not for my accomplishments or other external things.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I don’t want to get too heavy about generational trauma, but sometimes I’m not sure what love is! Add in the fact that in Korean culture parents show love by feeding you, etc., but in American culture people have to say they love you, which kind of didn’t exist for my parents, so as a kid I was confused (as per #9) what love was and is. I actually have a little note from my father on my bulletin board that says “I love you,” and I know it’s so totally not natural for him, so I have kept it since he wrote it in 1986—he really tried!
Finally, is there a passage from The Evening Hero that you’d like to share with our readers?
In late summer, the blackberries ripened and fell into the water, where they would float languorously downstream to where he, Yungsik, their mother, and their father were waiting to scoop them up: fat, juicy, river-washed berries, in such numbers that his mother would gather her skirt like a fishing net. They’d all eat together, the juice staining their lips, laughing at one another’s purple-streaked faces, saving the rest so Halaboji could later make his beloved lucky blackberry wine, bokbunja. Their father, always so strict, now allowed his eyes to twinkle on his two sons, the sun so warm, the breeze so soft in their hair. How could Yungman have known to mark that moment as one of the happiest of his life? On the other hand, perhaps that was best—his mind had been nowhere but deep within that golden moment.