Speakeasy with Chang-rae Lee

Master storyteller Chang-rae Lee has been praised for his beautiful prose and heady novels that deal with deeply human issues: dual identity and alienation (Native Speaker), disaffection and belonging (Aloft) and the heroism of war and love (The Surrendered). His latest, On Such a Full Sea,  is set in a future dystopian America, where society is stratified by privilege and power. A young female fish-tank diver,  Fan, leaves her safe home of B-mor (formerly Baltimore) to find her missing love. Alone in the wild, she survives by enduring. We chat with Lee about his writing life, strong heroines, and whether or not we are already in post-apocalyptic America.

What book do you wish you’d written?
So many books. Yet one stands out, for the unparalleled beauty and haunting music of its prose: Dubliners by James Joyce.

What are your writing vices?
Nothing usually except some green tea. But when I’m in the last feverish stages of writing, when I need fortification, I might have some dark chocolate and Schimmelpennicks at hand.

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet?
We Others, a marvelous collection of stories by Steven Millhauser.

Write what you know or write what you imagine?
You can hardly imagine what you in fact know, so I guess a little of both.

On Such a Full Sea is set in the near future. America has dissolved into a stratified dystopia; the wealthy elite live in the walled-off Charters, a working class provides food and supplies in labor cities, and beyond are the wilds of the Counties. This seems like a structure that already exists in parts of the world (China, Southeast Asia, Russia). Is a global, capitalist society inevitably heading toward this future?
We’re already there! Perhaps they’re not readily apparent to us in the developed world, but the walls are going up. In our winner-take-all societies the concentration of wealth and the resulting calcification of class has become all too real. The scary thing is that we seem quite willing to accept this trend.

Clever, brave female protagonists are a staple of dystopian novels, particularly YA ones (The Hunger Games, Divergent). Our protagonist in On Such a Full Sea is a young woman of Chinese descent and an expert tank diver who embarks on a quest to find her boyfriend. How do you see Fan stacking up against her genre peers?
I think she could hold her own against those superheroines. Maybe not because of her physical gifts or leadership abilities, but because she’s endowed with the talent of persistence. It’s a quiet gift, nothing flashy; she simply endures.

There are some incredibly chilling scenes in the novel (the incident at the road house, the human dolls who become Fan’s “sisters”). Are these critiques on human nature or just wonderful, imaginative twists of horror to keep the reader on her toes?
The extremes of human possibility are always horrifying, because right up to the moment of such conduct or expression, we don’t want to believe it’s so; but when it comes to life we’re actually a little awed and unsettled, I think, with a shock of recognition.

Chang-rae Lee speaks with Lorrie Moore, author of Bark, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday, March 13 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15. More information available here. On Such a Full Sea is available now at your local independent bookstore or as an e-book. 

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