New York Times Bestselling Author Chang-rae Lee Reads Unpublished Work

When he was a teenager, famed author Chang-rae Lee wanted to attend Phillips Academy, but he was forced to attend Phillips Exeter after Andover rejected his application. Last Friday Mr. Lee returned to Andover to read an excerpt from his current work and answer questions from students. Mr. Lee has written three books: Native Speaker (1995), A Gesture Life (1999), and Aloft (2004), each receiving critical acclaim. The work Mr. Lee read to the Andover community was about the sexually charged relationship between an old man and his much younger nurse. Though Mr. Lee’s writing was spartan, his wry humor shone through, provoking chuckles from the crowd. During the question-and-answer session, Mr. Lee gave Emily Cokorinos ’08 advice on how to develop fictional characters. He said that to create a sympathetic persona, the author must make an argument for that person, not simply write a description. Mr. Lee also stressed his belief that the themes of a story must drive the characters, not the other way around. “You need to draw characters that could not exist in any other stories but yours,” said Mr. Lee. When asked how closely his characters reflect his own life, Mr. Lee said, “[The characters] are engineered so that I can speak about the things that are troubling me.” While the personalities of many of his characters are based on those of real people, Mr. Lee maintains that his characters are mostly fictional. Mr. Lee also told the audience why he chose to become a writer, saying that he had always enjoyed reading, but did not seriously consider writing professionally until later in life. Mr. Lee started to devote much of his free time to writing during his Junior and Lower years at Exeter. Though Mr. Lee did not write much in college, he credits his experience there for inspiring him to begin his literary career soon after. He thought that both the encouragement from his teachers and the freedom of the college experience worked together to stimulate his imagination. Another student asked Mr. Lee how his parents reacted to his decision to become a writer. Mr. Lee said that his parents had supported his interest while he was in school but worried when he quit his job to pursue a writing career. He added that his parents were still supportive after this decision, though they remained “deeply concerned.” My Khanh Ngo ’06 said, “It was really nice to see a successful Asian-American writer since Asian-American parents don’t usually support the writing profession.”