The Divining Wand

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What and Why Krys Lee Writes

March 13, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Interviews

[A few weeks ago debut author Krys Lee (Drifting House) revealed:

Q. What is your greatest achievement?

A. Being responsible for getting a North Korean refugee to safety from the Chinese border area to South Korea will probably always remain the most important thing I’ve ever done. A distant second would be writing Drifting House, a story collection that got major publishers excited enough to begin a bidding auction between eight major publishers.

Krys indeed helped a man find freedom as the Los Angeles Times article, North Korea defector learns to trust the stranger who saved him, explains. Please take the time to read this for, by doing so, you’ll understand the amazing Krys Lee.

Those are the people — made up characters for her stories — that Krys writes about and excerpts taken from a Viking (Publisher) Q&A tell us why she writes.]

DRIFTING HOUSE is a beautiful collection of short stories that portray life in South Korea, North Korea, and as a Korean-American in the US. They depict a fractured world. Where did the stories come from: personal experience, observations, or something else? 



The stories arose from personal experiences as well as my observations and reactions toward the societies around me. Fractured is an interesting, important word for me; being animmigrant in the United States with parents who were afraid of America lends itself to a kind of fracturing. Our house was a Little Korea, and I was fascinated by the homes of American friends that I’d visit because their way of being was so culturally different. There were other, more violent and painful fractures that influenced my life and inevitably, my stories. But my sense of story is usually more Jamesian; the autobiographical impulse is buried in character and thematic obsessions rather than in the plot.

What do you think literature can reveal to us about a people or a society that reportage cannot? Do you think this is especially true in a closed society, such as North Korea? Do you think writers continue to play an important role in the political process by giving a voice to the unseen and underrepresented factions of a culture?


The best literature helps us care about the people facing the issues and problems that the news brings us. In the case of a country as secretive as North Korea, it is easy to forget that the country is made up of individuals, some who are funny, cruel, ambitious, or restless; some from divorced families, or long to travel; who, for the most part, are trying to live normal lives despite the difficulties in their society. But when literature merely tries to deliver information or push an issue, it becomes reportage rather than a vehicle. In these cases, often the characters become types, a standard issue South or North Korean rather than an individual who happens to be South or North Korean. 

It’s important for writers to give voices to those that are underrepresented in books, but what’s most important is that writers write from a need and respond to the material that feels urgent and personal. I’m suspicious of books that tackle themes or identities that don’t seem to be driven by anything more than sensationalism or timeliness, but books that give voice to the underrepresented and help us see them as individuals within the larger context of time and the historical moment that delineates our lives will always be important. 


DRIFTING HOUSE is a collection of stories. What do you like about this medium? Is there anything about it you find particularly limiting? Anything you find particularly liberating?


Stories force you to economize and think like a poet in terms of language and scene. This compression creates a challenge that I like, but for me, people carry their history with them, and that history is not just a family’s history but the history and culture of a nation; how they absorb or react to these histories interested me. Trying to get everything in without having the story’s momentum broken by back story and context was difficult. Each time I wrote a draft, well-intended students in my MFA program would say there’s seven interesting things happening in there; you need to get rid of six. Or I would be told this story would make a good novel. But there are story writers like William Trevor, Alice Munro, and John Cheever, who managed to maintain a novel’s sense of complexity and illumination without simplifying. The world is complex, and I wanted my stories to reflect that complexity or they wouldn’t feel true to me. My decision was to try and keep all seven things in each story.

Krys Lee is an important new voice in the world of fiction and the world in general. To stay updated on all her achievements be sure to follow her on Twitter, become a friend on Facebook and, by all means, read the short story collection of Drifting House.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of Drifting House by Krys Lee — in a random drawing — to anyone who leaves a comment on this post by 8:59 p.m. EDT tomorrow night! The winner will be announced here on Thursday.

The Revealing of Krys Lee

February 29, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Krys Lee grew up wanting to be an author and began her career writing poetry but, when the stories needed to be told no longer fit in a poem, she turned to short stories. Recently released, her debut collection, Drifting House, is described as:

An unflinching portrayal of the Korean immigrant experience from an extraordinary new talent in fiction.

Spanning Korea and the United States, from the postwar era to contemporary times, Krys Lee’s stunning fiction debut, Drifting House, illuminates a people torn between the traumas of their collective past and the indignities and sorrows of their present.

Beautiful, devastating, and a wake-up call for most of us, ALL critical reviewers give this book the ultimate praise as a “starred review.”

“Affecting stories about the conflicts between Korean and American culture. . . . Lee writes with a clarity and simplicity of style that discloses deep and conflicting emotions about cultural identity.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“…breathtaking debut…Readers in search of exquisite short fiction beyond their comfort zone—groupies of Jhumpa Lahiri … and Yoko Tawada …—will thrill to discover Drifting House.”
Library Journal (Starred Review)

“In this sublime debut collection spanning both Koreas and America, protagonists locked in by oppressive social forces struggle to break free in original ways, each unexpected denouement a minor miracle or a perfect tragedy. . . . The author’s imaginative metaphors and easy rhythmic variances are unerring, carrying the reader effortlessly. . . . The limpid, naturalistic prose and the flawless internal logic of these stories are reminiscent of the best of Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

The Divining Wand has scheduled another feature on Krys Lee for Tuesday, March 13, 2012 but, for today, let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United States and England. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices, received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Conde Nast Traveller, UK (forthcoming). She lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco.

And now it’s time to get to know Krys upclose and personal:

Q. How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A. Busy, bountiful, broad, impassioned, emotional, and oddly still.

Q. What is your motto or maxim?
A. I didn’t know it was my motto, but a line from my short story “A Small Sorrow” continues to resonate with me, so I’ve adopted and adapted it: The world is greater than my small sorrows.

Q. How would you describe perfect happiness?
A. It would be a tent full of books and a picnic basket beside a river.

Q. What’s your greatest fear?
A. Love.

Q. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A. Anywhere but on an airplane! I’d be most at home camping or in a dark bar somewhere with good friends.

Q. With whom in history do you most identify?
A. All the anonymous people of history who didn’t feel as if they belonged, especially if they appeared to belong but didn’t—these would be my people.

Q. Which living person do you most admire?
A. The Dalai Lama for obvious reasons. Aung San Suu Kyi is a very close second.

Q. What are your most overused words or phrases?
A. ‘Excellent’. When I lived in England, and for a few years afterwards, it was always ‘brilliant’. I’ve fallen back on ‘excellent’ in the same fashion and can’t stop using it!

Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A. I’m currently obsessed with the art of puppets these days. I can’t explain the source of this obsession, but generally it’s healthy to follow one’s obsessions.

Q. What is your greatest achievement?
A. Being responsible for getting a North Korean refugee to safety from the Chinese border area to South Korea will probably always remain the most important thing I’ve ever done. A distant second would be writing Drifting House, a story collection that got major publishers excited enough to begin a bidding auction between eight major publishers.

Q. What’s your greatest flaw?
A. I can be habitually self-deprecating and sometimes too critical of others, as well.

Q. What’s your best quality?
A. I’m pretty honest and humble. I’m very uncomfortable with self-importance in general. We all live with the bookends of life and death, and the filling between is the meaning that we make out of our lives.

Q. What do you regret most?
A. I regret not being a grown adult before my mother passed away. There are so many things I’m able to do for her now that I just wasn’t capable of at the time.

Q. If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A. I wouldn’t mind being a sea turtle in a protected cove off the Caribbean. They live for a long time and are beautiful, peaceful and often solitary creatures.

Q. What trait is most noticeable about you?
A. I’m awkward and shy as well as outgoing and social—at the same time!

Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A. There are many characters I love, but few I would consider my hero. I’m attracted to the flawed, solitary and sometimes charismatic outsiders that people fiction, but in life, my heroes are human rights activists and all-around enlightened human beings.

Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A. There are many, but today it would be Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Q. If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A. At the moment it would be Jeremy Lin. I’d like to tell him thank you for persevering despite the setbacks and all the people and institutions that overlooked your talent.

Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A. I am consistently dismayed and irritated by ambitious people who seek success for the sake of fame or gaining power. No one minds a bit of extra cash or respect by those whom you respect, but fame for the sake of fame is meaningless, and chasing after power for its own sake is simply dangerous. I start to suspect the wisdom of individuals who chase after such illusions.

Q. What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A. I’m not quite sure if I understand this, but an activity that means a great deal to me concerns human rights. The urgency of life and protecting life in small and large ways are important to me.

Q. What’s your fantasy profession?
A. I’d love to be a park ranger and spend my days in the wilderness and with the solitary, contemplative and kind people that people who work in this profession tend to be.

Q. What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A. I value honesty, loyalty, and a flair for telling stories.

Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A. Kimchi. If I don’t have anything spicy for a few days at a time, I start to behave rather strangely.

Q. What are your 5 favorite songs?
A. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, Florence + The Machine’s “Kiss with a Fist”, Sinead O’Connor’s “Three Babies” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”, and Chopin’s Nocturnes.

Q. What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A. This list is almost random, as I have so many favorite books that 50 favorite books would be a more accurate list. Here it goes: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Remains of the Day, Beloved, The Select Poems of John Ashberry, and Hamlet.

Passionate, empathetic, and committed to making a difference, Krys Lee has also been gifted with a natural talent for storytelling. Yet — by following her on Twitter, becoming a friend on Facebook, and reading her remarkable story collection in Drifting House — you’ll also appreciate how lovely, and down-to-earth this author is.

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