Yiyun Li’s latest work reveals the reader’s writer

Every day since Covid-19 forced Americans to stay home, writers Yiyun Li and Edmund White have turned on Skype at 5 p.m. to get involved in a two-person book club. White, whom Lee calls “a very good performance,” reads passages from the two books aloud, comparing the two marginally, often discovering that they have stressed the same passages. Good writers, after all, must first be great readers.

Lee, 49, is certainly a wonderful reader, having now led a number of literary-minded netizens through multiple group readings of peace of war and one of Moby Dick. Publisher and literary magazine readings hosted public space; Lee is a contributing editor to the magazine, and the group published the accompanying volume at peace of wartitled Tolstoy together, last year. (She reads me both of those books once a year on her own, she says, in an online book club or not.)

Her next book, September goose book (the ninth, and the first with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux after a decade and a half with Random House), I also found inspiration from reading it. This time the source was not a masterpiece of world literature, but a critique of an obscure topic: mid-century novels by French children.

“I read all kinds of old things,” she tells me via Zoom, sitting in front of a tile fireplace, a small white dog draped behind her, in her New Jersey living room, where she is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Among the antiques you read are the works of British-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who was devoured by Lee and White in a book club. In the process, I came across Bowen’s reviews of a handful of books by four French teenagers. (These books, for a while, became a trend in France after Françoise Sagan’s 1954 debut, Bonjour Tristeswhich was published when she was nineteen years old.)

The 14-year-old whose work Bowen reviewed, Berthe Grimaud, caught my eye in particular. There wasn’t much that Lee couldn’t find about Grimmault, apart from the fact that she hailed from the western countryside. In the end, I came across “one little tip about how she was sent to an English termination school after she published the book, where the headmistress found out that she could not write – and was illiterate.” It turns out that the freak was actually a charlatan.

But for me, she was something more than that: an inspiration. “We novelists, like those things you can’t understand,” she says. The story of this deceptive young writer brought from me the tale of Agnès Moreau, a poor girl who grew up in the countryside of western France after World War II. in goose book, adult Moreau tells the story of her youth, and how her mischievous childhood friend Fabien, taking advantage of her stifling proximity, pressures Agnes to play a series of imaginative childhood “games”, which might more properly be called Bustle. Agnès is soon prompted to put her name in the books that Fabian dreamed and dictated to her; When it is published, Agnes becomes, for a time, one of France’s most famous authors, and her life is turned upside down – though, in fact, she hasn’t quite written the books that have been highly praised.

Despite the stunt, Agnes can really write. It is, in fact, practically a saying machine. In an early chapter, after Agnes, an older, married, and resident of America, learned of Fabien’s recent death, she wrote, “No, it was not Fabian’s ghost that licked my pen clean, or opened the notebook on this page, but sometimes the death of Someone is someone else’s parole card. I may not have had complete freedom, but I am free enough.”

Lee’s special pen is so clever that the reader may be forgiven for ignoring how important it is to question the writing process goose book. The novel is not nearing its end He becomes, self-evidently, a Constellation, tracing the evolution of Agnes from an impressionable girl hoping to please a tyrannical friend to a writer. goose book Itself.

Li tells Agnes’ evolution into a true writer happened almost by accident, a product of Li’s authorship intuition. “When I was writing the first draft, I was pretty much in Agnes’ head — I was checking in while she was checking in,” he explains to me. And one early reader of the first draft said, ‘Oh, I really liked this, because that also tells us how a writer writes a book. And I thought, Oh, I forgot! It’s true. It has to do with the process. Even if she’s not a great writer, she still publishes those books.”

On the other hand, Lee is clearly a great writer. After immigrating from China to the United States in 1996, she earned an MA in Immunology from the University of Iowa, then quickly gave up art sciences, and went on to earn her MA in Creative Fiction and Nonfiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005. That same year , posted her debut story collection with Random House, A thousand years of good prayers, after signing a two-book contract worth $200,000; She will be named a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow and has won several PEN Awards, among others.

“I’ve known Yiyun for a very long time, and I remember she was about to do something extraordinary in those early short stories,” says Mitzi Angel, president and publisher of the FSG and editor of Lee. (Angel got my first UK book while working on the Fourth Estate Imprint in Harbor Collins, UK.) He seems to be borrowing something that one would hardly put one’s finger on from Chinese. This book is her breakthrough in some ways, because it’s set in France and England, and it’s a historical novel, you might say – though I’m hesitant to say that because it’s not a pastiche, which is a lot of historical fiction, and because this insight into the work doesn’t seem It’s like a historical novel.”

While the book is somewhat of a departure, it also reflects an ongoing transformation in Lee’s career. Her first four books, published between 2005 and 2014, focus on the lives of Chinese citizens and the turmoil they experienced in Communist China for Li’s youth. Her two most recent novels, 2019 Where the reasons end and 2020 I have to godon’t.

Between 2017 came My dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life, my only work of realism. In it, Lee examines her difficult relationship with her mother and struggles with mental health, even as she asks why a writer wrote an autobiography.

“I wouldn’t say I would never write about China again,” he tells me. “But I like to think of autobiography as some kind of serendipity: it just happens. I have this autobiography, but that doesn’t have to define what kind of topics I’m writing about—although as authors we feel pressured to write something that goes with our autobiographies. And it is. It’s boring to ask a writer.”

Instead, Lee demands of herself, if not perfection, at least something like that. She is her most rigorous reader, and therefore her most powerful editor: goose book About 350 pages, but the original draft, Lee says, was twice the length of the draft. “I probably cut 200 pages out of the first draft, then cut out more and rewrite 100 pages—there was a lot of stuff I wanted to put in. But in the end, you have to practice discipline. My first draft of each novel is always very long, and if it’s I can cut 200 pages out of it, I’m always very happy.”

These days, I don’t think about the craft of writing. In her words, “The characters never think about the craft” and “By aligning my feelings and my vision with theirs, I think I stopped thinking about it.” She objects when she is told how her splendid phrases, attributing the strength of prose to the characters, are transformed into their secret language – the language of the isolated country, childhood friends whose closeness limits obsession.

“They don’t read literature,” he tells me. But on the other hand, they are not affected by anything they read. It’s their language – they have to make up their own language to describe things: “Can I cultivate happiness in a bird’s nest?” “Can I grow happiness in water?” I don’t think educated people would think of such things.”

This trait is shared by Agnès and Fabienne, but it is clearly not a biography that comes from an annual reader of Melville and Tolstoy. Now that her novel had ended in France, Lee was still immersed in the country, or at least its people: she was reading a biography of Honoré de Balzac. (“It’s a strange bird,” she says.) For me, as a writer, the creative process always begins in other people’s books. “What are you reading next? This is a good question. Balzac? ”

A version of this article appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly Under the title: The Reader Writer

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