Janice Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher (2009), became a New York Times bestseller and is published in 24 languages. Set in WWII Hong Kong, it is the story of two women, Claire and Trudy, in love with the same man at different times in his life.
Janice Lee was born in Hong Kong to Korean parents and lived there until attending boarding school in New Hampshire. After graduating with a degree in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard she moved to New York to work for Elle and Mirabella. She left magazine editorial work to complete the Hunter College MFA Program and served a residency at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the idea of The Piano Teacher started to form. The novel was sold to a publisher five years after she started it.
Why I write
I write because I cannot imagine not writing. It is a natural reaction to many things: seeing something beautiful, wanting to analyze something that I’ve experienced. Writing is a way for me to explore all of that. Mostly though, when I finish reading a great book, I’m filled with the desire to do something similar, or to at least attempt it.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I write most days. It may not be part of a novel or a short story but I write on the computer, sitting at my desk, doing emails, Q&A’s, essays, etc, so even if it’s not writing that’s something I’m working on, I write every day in a way where I consider my words and how they sound (as opposed to lists that are dashed off).
Worst source of distraction?
My kids and the Internet, but I love them both and cannot imagine life without them.
Best source of inspiration?
Getting outside for a walk, doing something other than sitting at my desk. I also read a lot when I’m having trouble working. It’s great to lose yourself in a wonderful book. At one point, when I was really stuck on my novel, I spent a week watching a season of 24. For some reason, that was the best thing I thought I could do. Maybe it has something to do with stress hormones.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I get writers’ block frequently which is why I write slowly. I average around five finished pages a month. Facing the blank page is the worst part of my day which is why I frequently do many other things in an effort to avoid this confrontation. I do a thousand housekeeping things before I turn to my Word document.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Lorrie Moore, because she is brilliant and funny and never compromises on either. Her novels and her short stories are long and short miracles of prose.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Ha Jin, I suppose, although I immediately then think of Yiyun Li as well.
Best book about China?
In recent memory, The Vagrants. As a child, I read The Good Earth and it’s startling how often I think of phrases from that book, still, as an adult. There was something mythic about it that really caught my imagination.
I don’t have a favorite book but some of them are: Middlesex, A Home at the End of the World, Birds of America.
Hmm… Jane Austen is a perennial and never, ever grows old. Also, Oscar Wilde
The book you should have read but haven’t?
War and Peace.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“I can’t believe what just happened.”
Does writing change anything?
I really hope so, or else we’re doing this for nothing.