When Chang-rae Lee begins a project, the writer always asks himself: “Why do I need this story?”
“My Year Abroad,” his comic novel, is about a young New Jerseyan named Tiller who’s “twelve and one-half % Asian.” Tiller, 20, drifts from his father’s home to a relationship with an older woman to a series of mentors, passively taking in their business, relationship, food and sexual tips.
Initially, Lee had another main character. He first dreamed up Pong, a shadowy, Chinese American businessman who meets Tiller on a golf course and ends up spiriting him to Hong Kong, where many of the picaresque’s outlandish events take place.
“Pong is not cowed by being a minority or immigrant in a culture. He’s someone with power and means, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I really like this character,’ ” said Lee by phone. “But I started to interrogate that story and think, ‘Why do I need it? Why do I find this figure so appealing?’ And that’s when I came up with Tiller.”
Because Tiller is not sure what he wants from life, he’s in a rut. That’s something Lee could relate to. After 14 years as a creative writing teacher at Princeton, he switched coasts and moved to Stanford University in 2016, around the time he started the book.
“I was feeling fairly established and comfortable, and I needed – as we all do – a new perspective,” said Lee, 55.
Shifting to the San Francisco Bay Area, a “ready doorway to Asian culture,” had a big impact on his sixth novel.
“What is emerging from Tiller is his Asianness and his interest in Asian things. That’s always been something that is in the background for me,” said Lee, whose “Aloft,” “Native Speaker” and “A Gesture Life” all grapple with cultural dislocation. “Some of my earlier books, the characters are much deeper in thinking about this, but Tiller is a young guy, and because of his smaller percentage … he’s just beginning a journey of curiosity.”
Lee, too, has been on a journey of curiosity about his identity.
His family moved from South Korea to New York’s suburban Westchester County when he was a toddler, and his earliest understanding of his new world came at the library.
“My first-grade teacher and mother had a little compact to help me try to learn English,” Lee said.
Instead of dictating what books to read, librarians made an effort to learn who he was. “I remember winning a library contest for reading the most books when I was in first grade,” he said. “I was one of those kids who was voracious.”
Since then, Lee has had plenty of instructors who are adept, as a character notes in “My Year Abroad,” at conning a student into believing he’s better than he thought he was.
“I would say the moments I have realized I was really learning something, not even necessarily from the subject at hand but about life, was when these teachers startled or challenged me,” Lee said. “It wasn’t about a transfer of knowledge but a kind of human moment when I felt something visceral. One thing I believe is that the body knows before the mind does.”
That belief will be painfully evident to readers of “My Year Abroad,” especially male readers. In one scene, an adventurous woman introduces Tiller to “sounding,” the practice of inserting a rod into the urethra.
“There’s going to be a lot of Google searches with that one,” said Lee with a hearty chuckle. He was researching esoteric sexual practices when he happened upon this one, which seemed like the perfect way to make his protagonist feel vulnerable.
“I thought, ‘Oh, what an interesting name for it.’ Like sonar? Or being sounded out about something? There’s so much sound in this book, with singing (karaoke plays a key role) and Tiller hearing his mother’s thrumming sound. It’s really about the extremes of human fascination. That, to me, is a part of what Tiller is finding in the book: going to the limits and maybe finding his own thing,” Lee said.
His job as a teacher, of course, is to help writers find their own things. “Any book should unsettle, whether it’s a humorous romp or a serious historical fiction. What’s the point otherwise?” he said.
Lee’s early jobs included dealing with the romantic fiction “slush pile” of novels submitted to Dell Publishing. He found Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume” in the pile and loved it, but another publisher already had snagged the eventual bestseller about a man whose obsession with scents leads him to murder.
“This is what I tell students: It’s not about comforting people. Uproot them and give them a new rooting,” Lee said. “Get readers out of their place and put them in fresh ground.”
Lee is tinkering with a few ideas for a new book, but the end of a project always makes him grateful for those who helped him become a writer in the first place.
“It’s kind of an occasion to think about the folks who have inspired me, or gave me great advice, or sometimes yelled at me,” Lee said.
Those inspiring yellers thought there was something special in Lee’s work before he did and – like the character in “My Year Abroad” – conned him into believing it.
“My best writing teachers would read something I wrote, and I would be glib and try to blow it off and be cool about it. But they’d say, ‘No, don’t do that. You wrote something real here. Take it seriously,’ ” Lee recalled.
“It made me think, ‘Holy crap. Yes. I should take it seriously. This is not just a posture, not just me being cool.’ ”
The novelist thinks those teachers looked past the Chang-rae Lee in front of them to the Chang-rae Lee he could become.
Now, he pays that forward in his teaching.
“I try to be honest, not harsh, and I try to see them not just as the writer of a particular piece of fiction or essay but as a whole person,” Lee said. “I think good teachers can present a version of you that you haven’t yet come to subscribe to.”
Throughout “My Year Abroad,” mentors do just that for Tiller. They help him discover skills he didn’t realize he had, just as mentors persuaded Lee to pursue a course that led to being a Pulitzer Prize finalist for 2010’s “The Surrendered” and a PEN/Hemingway winner for his 1994 debut, “Native Speaker.”
All of which is the reason Lee needed to tell the story in “My Year Abroad.”
It’s also the reason for its simple, profound dedication:
“For my teachers.”