A Conversation with Katherine Min

Katherine Min's first novel, Secondhand World is being released by Knopf in the U.S. today. I cannot pretend to lack bias about this book -- I've known Katherine and her family for ten years now, we spend time together whenever we can, and the day she sold Secondhand World to Knopf I bounced around with joy and happiness for hours. It is a lovely book, beautifully written, sensitive and disturbing.

Katherine's short stories have been published in many of the major literary magazines in the U.S., and her story "Courting a Monk" won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories. Secondhand World has been chosen as the October pick of the Redbook Book Club, and Katherine is about to begin a book tour that will take her to various cities throughout the U.S. If you're immediately curious to hear her read and discuss her work, you can listen to a recent interview at New Hampshire Public Radio.

We could have done this interview when we went out for dinner last week, but somehow we felt that an interview by email would be more fun, or at least more writerly, and so I fired off a couple rounds of questions, and she graciously provided answers.

Eyes seem like a potent symbol for you and reoccur in your work. Do you have any particular reason for this?

The eyes are the most marked Asian feature. I remember when I was four or five years old, the first time another kid looked at me and pulled the skin up at the ends of his eyes to make them slanted. I went home and studied myself in the mirror. My eyes weren't slanted, but they were smaller and more narrow than Caucasian eyes. When I was in high school, my friends used to tease me; they'd ask what it was like to only be able to see 75 percent of what they could see. I started to wonder if they really could see more than I did. Later I heard about Asian people getting eye surgery to give their eyes a rounder, more Western look. I even knew a girl who did it, though I think she looked weird and not as pretty after. The funny thing is that if you look at Japanese anime, all the characters have big, round eyes, and sometimes they're even blue. (Go, Speed Racer!) So, yeah, I write about eyes a lot as a stigma for my Korean characters. Hey, I've got a stigmatism!

What is the attraction of fiction for you rather than another form?

I think I'm tempermentally suited to be a poet. I love words and sounds and cutting to elemental transcendence. But I'm too undisciplined to actually think too hard about meter and rhyme schemes. And I'm sort of attached to character. And to some sort of event or story. (I wouldn't venture as far as plot, because I don't that often in my work.) But my prose writing is lyrical (that kiss of death word), and I would say that short stories, with their possibility of perfection and handheld craftsmanship, are still more comfortable for me than novels.

You seem to be a formalist in your conception of poetry ... do you have an aesthetic credo for fiction?

I don't know if I'd call it an aesthetic credo, but I've always cottoned to the "beauty is truth, truth beauty" idea. And I do tend to trust the language. When a word sounds right, it's often "sense" right. I tend to dislike polemic and idea-driven fiction. What I crave most -- both in reading and writing -- is an intensity of vision and an authenticity of voice. And, yes, beauty above all. But not superficial beauty.

While writing it, did Secondhand World feel like a progression from previous things you had written?

Absolutely. I had been writing lots of stories about Korean American daughters and their severe immigrant Korean fathers, and I reached the apotheosis in Secondhand World. I have now said everything I have to say on the subject and hereby swear never to write (directly, in any case) about this sort of domestic relationship. And long-suffering Korean mothers, too.

Does it feel freeing to have Secondhand World as the apotheosis of a certain subject matter you've been exploring for some time now? How do you locate other things that obsess you enough you want to write about them?

Oh, the things find me. Yes, it feels good to think that I've said what I wanted about father-daughter relations, and now I'm into obsessing over Asian fetishism, and trying to really understand where it comes from. And obviously this comes from a lifetime of observation of a certain type of Caucasian or African-American man who finds Asian women (or men) blanketly beautiful. These guys are mostly scorned by Asian women, but what makes them any different from a woman who is attracted to blond surfer guys? There is a difference, of course, but what it is precisely is interesting to me. Also, the challenge of writing a character like this with sympathy and compassion.

The chapters in Secondhand World are all very short, and many read like self-contained vignettes, though they have a vivid cumulative effect. Why was this the best approach for this story?

As I've said, I'm not a novelist by nature. I had to trick myself into writing a novel, and the way I came up with was to write these very short, evocative chapters and then play around with them to find how they fit together. I got the idea from the novel Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. I love the way the vignettes in that novel accrue with such devastating power to create a portrait of this woman. And I thought, that's something to try. What's ironic is that in the course of writing Secondhand World this way, I kind of stumbled on a plot, and it actually became the most plottish (plotty?) thing I've ever written.

Were there other novels that you looked to as models or inspiration while writing your own?

At various times I had running through my head, or lying around on my desk: Lolita, because of its transcendent language and transgressive relationships; Revolutionary Road, because of its devastating truthfulness about marriage and the lies we live by; Madame Bovary, because of its clear-eyed take on the banalities of adultery and romance; and Dubliners, because of its heartbreaking portraits of people in isolation.

Has living in rural New Hampshire affected your writing?

Hmm... well, the winters are long and there isn't a lot to do... I'm the kind of writer who lives very much inside my head, so I'm not sure it matters as much to me where I live as it does to other writers. But I'm sure it does affect my work, as does every single thing a writer encounters. I have lived in New England most of my life, and I am drawn to a certain economy New Englanders possess, in money matters, in emotion, and in language. Nothing is wasted. Not that I myself am that way; Koreans tend to extravagance, excess, and indulgence, especially Mins. But I do admire and adopt a bit of that spareness in my writing style. And the MacDowell Colony is here -- my favorite place to write on the planet (I wrote most of Secondhand World there), so I am grateful for that lovely piece of rural New Hampshire.

What is it about spare writing that attracts you? Is this true for you as a reader as well?

No, I love fat 19th century novels with their sprawling, embroidered sentences. And one of my earliest big influences was John Fowles' The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. I'm not a huge fan of minimalism as it is represented by Hemingway on down. I think my sense of spare comes more from something like haiku or Taoism. There is immense power in saying a lot with as little as possible. Like in Tai Chi, which I am learning... Master Tung can practically fling a 200 pound man across the room with a flick of his wrist. It's all concentrated movement and focusing the "chi". That's what I want to achieve in my writing, that tremendous force coming from such a simple, focused energy.

Do you think of yourself as a Korean-American writer, and does this (acceptance or rejection of the label) affect how you write and market your work?

I think of myself as a writer, full stop. But I am aware of how most everyone else perceives me, and I know how the book will be/has been marketed. I accept being Korean-American because that is what I am, but only in the way that Roth is Jewish, or that Nabokov was a Russian emigre. It's the point from which I begin, part of the inescapable self that I inhabit, that informs my world view. But I do resent being pigeonholed as a Korean-American writer, meaning that I can only write for or about Korean-Americans. That's why only one of the three main characters in my next novel is Korean.

Do you listen to music while you write?

I usually need quiet to write, though I am experimenting -- since my next book is about string musicians -- with listening to sonatas while I draft. Not sure I'll stick with it, though. I find music distracting, because I hear my sentences so clearly as I write, and they have their own rhythms.

If you could be one character in a movie, what would the movie be?

Well, I used to fantasize I was Brooke Adams in Malick's Days of Heaven, so I could agonize between a young Sam Shepard and a young Richard Gere. But, embarrassingly, the one character I'd like most to be is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, because she was willful, clever, and strong, and got almost everything she wanted. (And I knew she'd get Rhett back; it was only a matter of time.)