Min Jin Lee is the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Lee has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and son where she is working on her second novel Pachinko.
"A marvelous page-turner. . . . It's a wonderful book."
"Free Food for Millionaires stakes out new ground for 21st century American literature, territory both profoundly enlightening and utterly enjoyable."
"Min Jin Lee's keen eye for class concerns and her confident, muscular writing . . . make Free Food for Millionaires a pleasure."
"The best novel I've read in a long time. I'm sad to be finished and I desperately miss Casey Han. . . . "
Steve Williams: Free Food for Millionaires is one of the catchiest titles I’ve ever heard. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided on this as a title for your novel?
Min Jin Lee: Years before I started the book, a friend who worked on Wall Street told me a story about how at his bank, after a deal ends, there is usually a free buffet lunch for the deal team as well as others on the trading floor. Usually, the food was thematic to the deal — e.g., Indian food after raising capital for an Indian power plant.
My friend described that at these free lunches, there was one very wealthy managing director who would routinely rush to the head of the line to fill his plate before the more junior, and obviously, lesser paid employees. I thought this was hilarious that a really rich guy, i.e., a millionaire, would lunge for free food and push out the others. It seemed so tacky and ridiculous to me. I grew up in a fairly blue collar neighborhood, and I just remember that it was not cool to be so grubby even when you didn’t have much, and this anecdote made me think more about how poor(er) people and middle class people are often made to feel ashamed of their desires while very wealthy people often feel entitled to get what they want when they want it. I wanted to call the book Free Food for Millionaires because I wanted to write about socially thwarted desires as well as this contrasting idea that grace (unmerited favor) is available to all people.
SW: Free Food for Millionaires takes the form of the 19th century social novel. What appeals to you about this narrative style, and what did you feel made it suitable for your novel?
MJL: The 19th century social novel is my favorite genre so although it was enormously challenging for me, it made sense to try to write one. (“Heck, why not?” she thought.) When I was growing up, I found comfort in the very long European works. I think when the story is good, readers don’t want the books to end; however, today’s reader, assaulted by the immense volume of books to choose from and short on time, is suspicious of the long work, especially when the work’s quality or appeal can’t be verified. That said, I guess, I was faithful that someone else besides my family members may want to read a long book about people I found interesting. I am fascinated by communities, small and large, and individuals in them. I am curious about how we individuals work within communities and without them so it felt very natural to me to pursue this old-school style of writing which allowed for questions, observations and experiments. As a writer, I remain more interested in all the characters rather than one character. I confess that I don’t believe in “a man is an island” or that one man’s fate can be determined in a vacuum so I seek a well populated fiction. As much as I admire the first person voice (see Jane Eyre), I think my work would not have made sense unless it was done in a third person omniscient point of view.
SW: I would imagine one of the greatest challenges of writing about a community is trying to imagine and realize such a diverse cast of characters. Was there a certain character (or characters) that was particularly challenging to bring to life?
MJL: You are generous to say that envisioning and realizing a community is challenging. In fact, for me, it was freaking daunting. I’ve heard some of my favorite artists talk about the image they have in their heads about what their work is supposed to look like. In my image, my story had a lot of strong people and lot of conflicting desire. This picture was helpful for me to overcome the hurdle of the big cast challenges, because I knew I had a book length work. Having a large cast also gave me enormous encouragement and comfort when certain characters would not cooperate. There were characters who lit up the page or tickled me with humor, no different than when I see certain people in my life. This was exciting and lifesaving, because writing requires an unnatural solitude, and I was enduring the absence of society (when writing) through replicating my own society (my characters). As in life, there are people I don’t look forward to seeing, and in my work, there were characters I felt frightened by, or knew there would be danger or injury when they showed up. I had to ask myself why I was afraid or why I dreaded them. When I wanted to write their stories, I had to grant these characters some aspect of myself to relate to them differently. I gave a character my height, or an illness I had once had, my hair color, or an odd interest I used to have in baking muffins. When I did this, it helped me to see my characters differently. The person with whom I had significant problems was Charles, my choir director; so I gave him my sense of failure, my sense of feeling lost in a world that didn’t need my work, my feeling left out in a glittering and imagined New York art world where all the Greats know each other. I was going through a profound and protracted period of sadness during my years of writing my first book, and Charles, a very troubled character who is also gifted, embodied some of that emotion. As I write my current manuscript, I think I may always feel this shadow of melancholy; it feels permanent to me and not necessarily unfortunate. The people in my pages, good and bad, help me with this.
SW: I love the idea that certain characters frightened even you; it’s a testament to how alive the society you create feels. But I want to talk a little bit more about how you give some characters some of your own qualities and quirks. So when you give a character a certain trait of yours, it’s a way for you to begin making them identifiable for yourself? It’s a step towards understanding them?
MJL: Yes, I think when I gave the characters certain biographical traits, it made them identifiable and more understandable to me. If a person tells me that he is from the Bronx, for example, I tend to feel a sense of kinship with him (perhaps irrationally), because I spent four wonderful years in the Bronx attending the Bronx High School of Science. It’s possible that this Bronx native may in fact dislike nerds like me who went to Bronx Science but lived in Queens, but because I associate the Bronx with a place of growth and intellectual safety (really), I identify with him and transfer my positive feelings to him in some measure. I suppose this is why when we attend social events, we ask strangers, “Where are you from?” — it’s a wish to connect through a superficial question, because we want to transfer a personal association (good or bad) to a new person. I suppose it is also a method to infer alleged knowledge from one’s hometown.
SW: You bring up hometowns and kinship. Is the desire to create that bond with your characters a reason you chose to set your novel in New York City?
MJL: I wrote three other (failed) novel manuscripts before this Free Food for Millionaires, and FFfM was the first one set in the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan. I was inspired by A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul, the English writer of Indian descent who was born and raised in Trinidad. Naipaul set his novel Mr. Biswas in “Arwacas” based on the town of Chaguanas (an hour south of the capital Port-of-Spain, Trinidad) where he grew up, and reading that work in particular gave me courage to write about Elmhurst, Queens where I grew up. Naipaul is a controversial figure, and I do not agree with much of his political sentiments, however, I am always amazed by the depth and honesty of his struggle as a writer. I wanted very much to write about this world that meant so much to me, and I think by the time I approached this manuscript, I was much less worried about judgment.
SW: How important do you think NYC is to your work? Or, to put it another way, do you think of yourself as a New York writer?
MJL: I feel most myself in New York City. I grew up in Queens, went to high school in the Bronx, and my parents had a wholesale business in Manhattan’s Koreatown on 30th Street and Broadway. I live in Manhattan now. I feel comfortable around the many different kinds of people in New York, and when I am in a monolithic culture, or a place that elevates homogeneity over heterogeneity, I feel stifled and upset. I think of myself as a New York writer even when I am not in New York, and by that I mean, I think the values and themes of New York — uniqueness, ambition, outsiders/insiders, failure, grandiosity and humiliation — are deeply ingrained in my point of view.
SW: Can you describe some of your habits and practices as a writer?
MJL: Before I write, I read the Bible and I pray. I read a long time ago that Willa Cather did this, and I tried it.
This ritual started out as a kind of curious exercise, and now, I can’t imagine not doing it anymore. It feels very private and quiet to me, and I think I need this before I write.
SW: You come from a law background, attending Georgetown Law and practicing as a lawyer for several years. In what ways do you feel that experience has benefited your writing? Conversely, do you feel there have been certain advantages to never going for an MFA?
MJL: I think I have a great deal of discipline about work and effort. Many of my friends have MFAs, and they are wonderful writers. I have always wanted an MFA but didn’t have the time or the willingness to change my family life to pursue this. I love classes and studying so I think I would have enjoyed getting an MFA. That said, I don’t think I have any disadvantages from it. I can’t be sure, of course. I don’t know many fiction writers so perhaps this is what happened because I have a very layperson life. I live in a very ordinary way, and I prefer this.
SW: It’s clear that you’ve been influenced by George Eliot and other 19th century authors, but are there contemporary writers who influence your writing or are important to you as a reader?
MJL: I adore Junot Dîaz‘s work. His work gave me a kind of permission to be honest about the world I loved. Junot Dîaz is a genius.
When I was in college, I read a lot of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde; all three influenced me a great deal when I was starting to put words together.
SW: I’ve heard you and Junot Dîaz talk about writing with a specific audience in mind. From what I understand, the idea there isn’t to exclude anyone, but to give your work a purpose and a goal. To paraphrase something Dîaz said, ‘A comment directed towards someone specific is more interesting to overhear than a comment directed towards nobody.’ When your work reaches that target audience, what would you like him or her to get out of reading your work?
MJL: I think I would like him or her to feel seen, because I feel like I want to really see everyone. I have felt unseen, and this is a kind of specific condition I have lived with. I think many people feel unseen or in contrast exposed, but few people feel seen for who they are. I think it takes time to see people, to really consider who they are. I hope to do this for my reader through my work.