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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee, a 2018-2019 Radcliffe fellow, is the author of the novels “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko” — the latter of which will become a series on Apple.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
I am always thinking and dreaming about my writing projects. When I work on something specific — a novel, story, essay, or review — I write brief outlines, which are almost like doodles.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received?
I’m very grateful for people’s time. The older I get, the more I realize that time is far more valuable than anything.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
Again, it is time. When I love people, I feel happy to share my time and attention.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Parenting is very challenging, even when you are fortunate enough to have a healthy and wonderful child. Ideally, you are nurturing another human being from infancy to adulthood and independence. However, letting go is tough for me.

The older I get, the more I realize that time is far more valuable than anything.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
I’d love to be a carpenter or furniture maker. I admire people who can make things with their hands. I also love folks who can fix things — cars, plumbing, air conditioning, tears in clothing. 

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made?
I learned how to write fiction by writing some bad drafts. Those rotten drafts were useful and necessary. That’s not to say I wasn’t nearly destroyed by them; I wasn’t happy about the fact that my work wasn’t very good.

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
I was asked to give a TED talk in Tokyo, and I passed on it, because I wanted to do it the following year. Alas, I moved that following year.

How do you relax?
I’m not good at relaxing. No use in pretending. When I have free time, I walk around the city or cook. I read a lot for work lately, so when I can read for fun, I am joyful. 

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
I love walking in London, and I find it a calming place for me. I would like to go to India, New Zealand, Singapore, Russia, Argentina, and Brazil — I have never been to any of these countries.

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
I remember leaving South Korea when I was seven years old to immigrate to America. I recall the flight from Seoul to New York vividly. It was my first flight, and I was so excited about moving to New York City. Everyone on the flight was so nice. I remember how kind they were.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school?
I speculate that I would have learned a lot of subjects even if I had never gone to high school or college or law school. So I think what is useful about school is learning about other people — students, teachers, roommates. People mystify and fascinate me, and schools can provide a large sample of people who are very different from you and in some ways eerily similar.

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck?
When I’m stuck, I talk with my husband or son. They are very patient with my stuck-ness.

What is your proudest moment?
I won a college writing prize, which was unexpectedly announced during graduation. No one knew I wrote any fiction, because I majored in history, and when I got the prize, I was surprised and proud to share this with my family. 

What would you like to experience before you die?
I would like to have, know, and love my (as of yet unborn) grandchild(ren) well. My son is only 21; I want to see him marry someone good and kind, for them to have healthy and happy children, and for me to be able to babysit once a week so they can go to the movies or go on a date.

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Photograph by Elena Seibert

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