Janice Lee
Exhumes Old Hong Kong

Her tri-cultural perspective gave novelist Janice Lee the detachment to dissect Hong Kong society during the dying days of colonialism.

by H Y Nahm



Janice Lee Exhumes Old Hong Kong

GS: Give us a picture of your own childhood, with some Kodak moments.
JL: I remember weekend boat trips with my father's college alumni association. The mothers would spend all morning making bulgogi and gimbap (traditional Korean foods) and we would haul them onto these enormous rental vessels (not glamorous at all) and boat over to a beach where we would swim, barbecue, and play and all the Chinese people would come over and trade their chicken wings for bulgogi because they, too, loved Korean food. All the children would fall asleep on their mothers' laps on the way home, sunburned and exhausted.

GS: Did you spend any time in England?
JL: I've been to England maybe twice. Perhaps, it was very audacious (foolish?) of me to think I could write about English people. I finished the book and was on pins and needles as to what an English person would think. Luckily, when the book was submitted in the UK, people liked it very much and did not say that it was inauthentic.

GS: What did you study at Harvard? Give us a picture of your years there.
JL: I studied English and American Literature and Language (quite a mouthful). I would say that I wanted to write in college, but I had nothing to write about. So I read a lot of books and tried to get a well-rounded education in the humanities. I must have been the only Korean to never take an economics class!

GS: Your novel portrays the multi-layered expatriate society of Hong Kong. What parts of that society are you personally familiar with?
JL: TPT was fun to write, partly because it was historical sight-seeing. I can't say that I'm personally familiar with any of the worlds that I write about in the book, both from a time perspective, or a sociological perspective.

GS: How much of your life do you spend in the U.S. these days?
JL: I want my kids to know America so we spend the summers there, where they go to camp, get dirty, eat popsicles.

GS: Tell us about the writing of The Piano Teacher. How did it come about? What was your routine?
JL: I try to write in the mornings, and I need a lot of time/prep to get in the right mood. I see my children off to school and then go up to my study and answer emails, drink coffee, look at the news online. Then, I open up what I'm working on and go back and forth on things. I never work on one thing for a long time. For example, this Q&A, I've been answering a question, maybe two, then making a call, buying books online, getting up to get water, etc. Somehow, stuff gets done.

GS: What are you working on now?
JL: I'm doing a lot of the post-publicity stuff for the book, of which there is a surprising amount — interview requests, festivals, etc. And I'm trying to start a new book, which sounds impossibly far-fetched to me! TPT took so long (five years) that I'm trying to get my head around starting from scratch again.

GS: Give us a picture of your personal life, your family, interests, daily routine, etc.
JL: I work in the mornings and then try to do stuff with my children in the afternoon, accompany them to classes, playdates, etc. I also try to get in some yoga several times a week. It is really hard to do justice to everything so I try to prioritize family, work, healthy living, friends, but so many things are calling for your attention. It's tough...

GS: Can you give us any clues as to the subject matter of your next book?
JL: I wish I could give myself a clue! So, no!

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(Photo by Gasper Tringale)
“I want my kids to know America so we spend the summers there, where they go to camp, get dirty, eat popsicles.”

(Photo by Gasper Tringale)

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