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The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

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theresamopax
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Hello! I am very excited to participate in my first discussion with an author. Especially one that wrote a book that I really enjoyed!

 

Since this is your first novel, what inspired you to write it?

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IBIS
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Hello Janice, I asked this question in your introduction; I guess this is really where it belongs.

 

You created an amazing reproduction of 1952 Hong Kong; it's so vivid that I actually felt the humidity; smelled the food at the stalls; and visualized the posh luxuries of the Chen's household.

 

Later in the book, we see 1941 Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation in 1941... the death smells, starvation in Camp Stanley, and the vicious fight to survive.

 

My question is: how does current-day Hong Kong compare to the two Hong Kongs in your book? And what circumstances brought you to live there today?

 

Thank you. 

IBIS

"I am a part of everything that I have read."
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Janice_Y_K_Lee
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Hi Theresamopax,
I'm so glad you enjoyed THE PIANO TEACHER. TPT was my first novel but I have been writing an awfully long time. I've wanted to be a writer since elementary school and have written in one form of another since them as a student, magazine editor and freelance writer, and short story writer. But yes, this is my first novel, and it was my first attempt at "something longer" as I used to call it.
It came from a short story I had written about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student. This was a complete short story and the characters were like Claire and Locket, but also quite different. Claire was much more unlikeable in the short story (and I know some of you will say that Claire is still unlikeable). This story was set in the 70s, when I had grown up in Hong Kong. But I started reading about the war in Hong Kong and was fascinated by what had happened and also the people that lived in that world, people like Trudy. So then I thought of Trudy and Will. And I knew that these people were all connected. But I didn't know how.
So I just kept on writing. I wrote about what they did, and where they went, and what they said to each other. I trusted that they would lead me to their story, and they did!
Hope this answers your question.
Janice


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Janice_Y_K_Lee
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


IBIS wrote:

Hello Janice, I asked this question in your introduction; I guess this is really where it belongs.

 

You created an amazing reproduction of 1952 Hong Kong; it's so vivid that I actually felt the humidity; smelled the food at the stalls; and visualized the posh luxuries of the Chen's household.

 

Later in the book, we see 1941 Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation in 1941... the death smells, starvation in Camp Stanley, and the vicious fight to survive.

 

My question is: how does current-day Hong Kong compare to the two Hong Kongs in your book? And what circumstances brought you to live there today?

 

Thank you. 


 

Hi Ibis,

Thanks for writing in! 

I really intended for Hong Kong to be vivid and present in most of the senses.  It is such a redolent, humid, sticky place! 

Hong Kong today is quite different from both 1952 and 1941 Hong Kong.  It is modern, international, convenient.  But you can catch glimpses of the old Hong Kong everywhere, from seeing old bullet casings in the mountains (which my friends have found) or just walking in Central and seeing an old building that has a colonial feel.  Many of those buildings were torn down for modern skyscrapers, but some still exist and you can feel the history around them.

What is really the same is the weather!  It is unbelievably hot and sticky in the summer and it really affects you.  You cannot be outdoors because you will be drenched within five minutes, so you spend the days darting from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned building. 

Also, in some ways, expatriate life is similar.  People come here from the US or Europe and lead a very different, sheltered and more privileged kind of life than they would back home.  I think the expatriate experience is probably less changed than one would imagine. 

I grew up here, spent twenty years in the US and moved back three and a half years ago because of my husband's job.  I never expected to come back to Hong Kong but am finding it a good experience!

Thanks, Ibis!
Janice


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IBIS
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Thank you, Janice, for explaining your background. Your familiarity with Hong Kong comes through very clearly in your book. I'm still trying to understand the underlying sense of whether it's a city that one can truly love. Either as a native, or as an expatriate.

 

The city is a character by itself ... in a couple of years, with my fickle memory, I will forget details about Claire and Will and Trudy. But thanks to your novel, Hong Kong will live with me for many years to come.

 

One question that always intrigues me is how authors feel about the final covers of their books. We've met many authors in these bookclubs who've ran the gamut of either loving their covers or absolutely hating them.

 

And, of course, there is the issue of different covers for different countries.

 

How do you feel about the cover for "The Piano Teacher"? Will there be translations of your book? And if so, will you have some say in their covers?

 

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. 

IBIS

"I am a part of everything that I have read."
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


IBIS wrote:

Thank you, Janice, for explaining your background. Your familiarity with Hong Kong comes through very clearly in your book. I'm still trying to understand the underlying sense of whether it's a city that one can truly love. Either as a native, or as an expatriate.

 

The city is a character by itself ... in a couple of years, with my fickle memory, I will forget details about Claire and Will and Trudy. But thanks to your novel, Hong Kong will live with me for many years to come.

 

One question that always intrigues me is how authors feel about the final covers of their books. We've met many authors in these bookclubs who've ran the gamut of either loving their covers or absolutely hating them.

 

And, of course, there is the issue of different covers for different countries.

 

How do you feel about the cover for "The Piano Teacher"? Will there be translations of your book? And if so, will you have some say in their covers?

 

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. 


 


IBIS wrote:

Thank you, Janice, for explaining your background. Your familiarity with Hong Kong comes through very clearly in your book. I'm still trying to understand the underlying sense of whether it's a city that one can truly love. Either as a native, or as an expatriate.

 

The city is a character by itself ... in a couple of years, with my fickle memory, I will forget details about Claire and Will and Trudy. But thanks to your novel, Hong Kong will live with me for many years to come.

 

One question that always intrigues me is how authors feel about the final covers of their books. We've met many authors in these bookclubs who've ran the gamut of either loving their covers or absolutely hating them.

 

And, of course, there is the issue of different covers for different countries.

 

How do you feel about the cover for "The Piano Teacher"? Will there be translations of your book? And if so, will you have some say in their covers?

 

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. 


Ibis,

I love the cover!  I think it is very difficult to design a cover that is evocative, and not too literal, and yet has a design element.  Many literary books have just the title in a beautiful font and while that works for a lot of books, I am so glad that my cover has some visuals.  I am able to say that I love it because I did not design it!  There is a visual department at Viking that does covers and I was shown this one and thought it was just great. 

Regarding translations, yes, the book will be translated into some 22 languages, which I am thrilled about.  I have seen only a few of those covers.  You can find the pdfs on my website, which is www.janiceyklee.com

Have there been covers that you thought were particularly outstanding or inappropriate?  What makes you pick up a book at the store?
Thanks so much for writing,

Janice


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Rachel-K
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Hi Janice,

 

I'd like to reiterate what Ibis has said about how smoothly the writing flows. The chapters feel incredibly compact--details, description, movement, dialog-- all feel very crisp and quick. I began to wonder if you cut out a lot while you write to get this effect.

 

Do you mind questions about your writing process? Would you mind describing how you work?

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IBIS
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Janice, I had a chance to visit your website. Thank you for the link. I hope your readers take the opportunity to visit it.

 

I saw the various cover designs for the translated versions of "The Piano Teacher." Some countries, like Canada, use the same blond woman and the Chinese pattern on the bottom. The woman is obviously a representation of Claire.

 

I think the English version of the cover is banal and uninspired... foggy beach scene with the lovers sitting on a bench... his pants rolled up. She looks very sappy. It didn't look at all like Hong Kong at all. 

 

However, the Dutch version uses a totally different model for its cover. And a totally different title. It's a beautiful Eurasian model, and the title is "The Scent of Jasmine."

 

Both Claire and Trudy use jasmine perfume. Didn't Will first really notice Claire because she wore the same perfume that Trudy did?

 

It made me wonder... who is the main female character? Is it Claire, the English piano teacher? Or is it Trudy, the beautiful Eurasian?

 

Different covers with different interpretations. What are your thoughts, Janice? 

 


Janice_Y_K_Lee wrote:

 

Ibis,

I love the cover!  I think it is very difficult to design a cover that is evocative, and not too literal, and yet has a design element.  Many literary books have just the title in a beautiful font and while that works for a lot of books, I am so glad that my cover has some visuals.  I am able to say that I love it because I did not design it!  There is a visual department at Viking that does covers and I was shown this one and thought it was just great. 

Regarding translations, yes, the book will be translated into some 22 languages, which I am thrilled about.  I have seen only a few of those covers.  You can find the pdfs on my website, which is www.janiceyklee.com

Have there been covers that you thought were particularly outstanding or inappropriate?  What makes you pick up a book at the store?
Thanks so much for writing,

Janice


 

 

IBIS

"I am a part of everything that I have read."
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Fozzie
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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


Janice_Y_K_Lee wrote:

Regarding translations, yes, the book will be translated into some 22 languages, which I am thrilled about.  I have seen only a few of those covers.  You can find the pdfs on my website, which is www.janiceyklee.com


Great website!  I liked the humor in the bio!  I will have to spend some time looking at the detailed historical diary --- great old pictures.

 

I did not like the Netherlands cover at all!  Looks trashy.  I do like the UK cover, although it does convey a different feeling about the book than the US cover.

Laura

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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


rkubie wrote:

Hi Janice,

 

I'd like to reiterate what Ibis has said about how smoothly the writing flows. The chapters feel incredibly compact--details, description, movement, dialog-- all feel very crisp and quick. I began to wonder if you cut out a lot while you write to get this effect.

 

Do you mind questions about your writing process? Would you mind describing how you work?


 

The writing process is hard to describe for me because when I get to writing, it's like putting my hands in the fire.  The amount of time I spend writing is small, compared to the amount of time I spend reading what I've written, printing it out, editing it, moving things around.  But yet, at the end of the month, I always have five or six more pages (I am a very slow writer).  But I have to say, it is a very unconscious, organic process.  It begins with the characters and slowly, slowly, a book starts to come out of what those characters say and do.  I did not begin this book with a plot, and yet I ended up with a book that is fairly plot-driven.  I really began and ended it with the characters and their development.

I hope this is a little bit enlightening.  Process is difficult to describe!


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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


IBIS wrote:

Janice, I had a chance to visit your website. Thank you for the link. I hope your readers take the opportunity to visit it.

 

I saw the various cover designs for the translated versions of "The Piano Teacher." Some countries, like Canada, use the same blond woman and the Chinese pattern on the bottom. The woman is obviously a representation of Claire.

 

I think the English version of the cover is banal and uninspired... foggy beach scene with the lovers sitting on a bench... his pants rolled up. She looks very sappy. It didn't look at all like Hong Kong at all. 

 

However, the Dutch version uses a totally different model for its cover. And a totally different title. It's a beautiful Eurasian model, and the title is "The Scent of Jasmine."

 

Both Claire and Trudy use jasmine perfume. Didn't Will first really notice Claire because she wore the same perfume that Trudy did?

 

It made me wonder... who is the main female character? Is it Claire, the English piano teacher? Or is it Trudy, the beautiful Eurasian?

 

Different covers with different interpretations. What are your thoughts, Janice? 

 


Janice_Y_K_Lee wrote:

 

Ibis,

I love the cover!  I think it is very difficult to design a cover that is evocative, and not too literal, and yet has a design element.  Many literary books have just the title in a beautiful font and while that works for a lot of books, I am so glad that my cover has some visuals.  I am able to say that I love it because I did not design it!  There is a visual department at Viking that does covers and I was shown this one and thought it was just great. 

Regarding translations, yes, the book will be translated into some 22 languages, which I am thrilled about.  I have seen only a few of those covers.  You can find the pdfs on my website, which is www.janiceyklee.com

Have there been covers that you thought were particularly outstanding or inappropriate?  What makes you pick up a book at the store?
Thanks so much for writing,

Janice


 

 


 

I have to say I like the US cover best of all.  I think it's because I'm American and because I was lucky enough to have a publisher here who understood that we did not need a very literal translation of the book, say piano keys against a Hong Kong skyline.  The other publishers know their market and so I don't know that I can speak to what works in their market, although I'm always very intrigued by what they come up with!  I've just seen the Serbian cover and it's piano keys, but I don't mind it at all, for some reason, although I would have resisted piano keys in the US edition. 

As for your other question, I think Claire is the "main" character, if you have to choose one.  The book is named after her; it begins and ends with her, and is the story of her evolution.  Trudy may be more diverting to read about, but I feel that Claire is the heart of the story. 
Thanks for your continued interest!
Janice


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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


Fozzie wrote:

Janice_Y_K_Lee wrote:

Regarding translations, yes, the book will be translated into some 22 languages, which I am thrilled about.  I have seen only a few of those covers.  You can find the pdfs on my website, which is www.janiceyklee.com


Great website!  I liked the humor in the bio!  I will have to spend some time looking at the detailed historical diary --- great old pictures.

 

I did not like the Netherlands cover at all!  Looks trashy.  I do like the UK cover, although it does convey a different feeling about the book than the US cover.


I was surprised by the Netherlands cover too, but I think they were going for a more exotic "Far East" type of feel.  The UK cover seems more romantic, and the US cover more evocative.  It is really lovely to see how people interpret the book visually as I don't have much talent myself in that arena. 

Thanks for writing in,

Janice


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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Janice, a question occurred to me when I posted on the Part I thread. We meet Claire, newly arrived in Hong Kong in 1951; and then we meet Will in 1941, also newly arrived from England.

 

I wondered how the business of travel had changed during that decade... I assume that Claire and Martin arrived by plane, and Will must have been on a boat... 

 

I find these these tiny details fascinating... checking and double-checking these minor and obscure details must be a major part of your research.  I've found that the best stories have incredibly minute details that ground the novel deeply in my mind.

 

Can you talk a bit about the details... where did the airplane land, or the boat dock, the food, the clothing, the furniture.... these tiny minutiae that anchors your story so clearly in the specific time and culture of Hong Kong?

 

And how did you start looking for them in the first place?

IBIS

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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Like IBIS, I relished the details in the book, especially the historical details during war time, like this one:

 

They stormed up to him and beat him bloody because nobody is to look down on the Japanese.  Only they are allowed to look down on others.  This, their enemies' peculiar preoccupation with placement and particularly with height, because of their generally smaller stature, becomes ingrained in all of the prisoners until many years after the war is over, when they automatically check who is standing where, on what step or from what position.   (pg. 138)

 

Janice, how did you research this detail, and the war details in general?

Laura

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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

[ Edited ]

Here's another fascinating detail I must ask about:

 

"No, just another example of the absurdities we are subjected to every day.  Do you see that piece about the houseflies, there?  Where if you catch two taels of houseflies, you are entitled to a catty of rice if you bring it to a district bureau.  And I've seen people carrying around these bundles of flies.  It's beyond.  The Japanese are even more bizarre than the English.  I've never imagined such a thing."     (pg. 184)

 

What in the world?!?  Is this true?  They say truth is stranger than fiction, and this could be such a case.  Why would the Japanese want flies gathered --- disease?  annoyance?

 

And how about the soldier made to carry a bag of ears?!?  (pgs. 191-2)

Message Edited by Fozzie on 04-08-2009 10:10 AM
Laura

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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

Sorry for my absence.  It's Spring break here in Hong Kong and the kids are all home.  Aaahhh....

I don't mind writing about my process at all but it's difficult to explain unless you have a couple hours to hear me go on about it.:smileywink:

I write very slowly, first of all.  I think I average around five pages a month.  And I find I write better in the mornings, so I try to carve out my work time then.  I sit at my desk and try to organize my day so I can work with a clear mind.  Then I start to work.  A lot of the time I will have written a few phrases down somewhere, on a post-it, on my Blackberry, phrases that came to me during the course of the day that I know will carry what I'm working on forward.  It's funny how the mind works.  These phrases frequently come to me when I'm about to drop off to sleep and I used to say that I would write it down in the morning, and in the morning, I could never remember it.  So now, I write it down without fail. 

I am at my desk a lot of the day.  I get up to do certain things: making coffee is a lovely, mind-calming ritual.  And there's a lot of busy work that I do: doing Q&A's for the book for various media, arranging schedules fo readings, etc.  The busy work is great because it helps to surround the work with other things, so it doesn't seem quite as stark when I sit down. 

And then I write.

I hope this is a little bit illuminating!

THanks,

Janice


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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee


rkubie wrote:

Hi Janice,

 

I'd like to reiterate what Ibis has said about how smoothly the writing flows. The chapters feel incredibly compact--details, description, movement, dialog-- all feel very crisp and quick. I began to wonder if you cut out a lot while you write to get this effect.

 

Do you mind questions about your writing process? Would you mind describing how you work?


 

Also, forgot to address the first part of your question.  When I write (after all that preamble I just talked about) it gets on the page very quickly.  I think I write very sparely to begin with, so what gets on the page, stays on the page.  I don't cut that much.  In fact, I have to add because it's too elliptical.

Thanks!
Janice


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Re: The Piano Teacher: Questions for Janice Y. K. Lee

I've just realized I've answered Rkubie's question two times.  My apologies!  I sincerely do not remember answering it the first time, must have been a midnight work session. 

More explanation than you counted on, I'm sure. 


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Fozzie wrote:

Here's another fascinating detail I must ask about:

 

"No, just another example of the absurdities we are subjected to every day.  Do you see that piece about the houseflies, there?  Where if you catch two taels of houseflies, you are entitled to a catty of rice if you bring it to a district bureau.  And I've seen people carrying around these bundles of flies.  It's beyond.  The Japanese are even more bizarre than the English.  I've never imagined such a thing."     (pg. 184)

 

What in the world?!?  Is this true?  They say truth is stranger than fiction, and this could be such a case.  Why would the Japanese want flies gathered --- disease?  annoyance?

 

And how about the soldier made to carry a bag of ears?!?  (pgs. 191-2)

Message Edited by Fozzie on 04-08-2009 10:10 AM

I'm going to (hopefully) answer all the questions about historical detail in this post.  Yes, the detail about standing in a place lower than the soldiers is true.  I read about that in a memoir by a person who was imprisoned and interned during the war and it struck me as perfectly insane, so I put it in.  The houseflies are something I read when I was looking through microfiche newspapers and is also true.  I don't know why they wanted the houseflies.  Also perfectly insane and gold to a novelist!  The soldier carrying a bag of ears, I made up.  That just came to me as an image and it was very strong. 

The travel details were just fascinating to me.  I had Claire coming over on the boat, and I realized I had no idea what the logistics were, so I read books of that time with an eye for that sort of trip.  I forget where I found it but some book told me that it took a month, with stops along the way for provisions, etc, which makes sense.  I was in a museum and I saw a menu card for a boat and that gave me insight into life on the boat.  In a way, writers are just master extrapolators.  If you give me a few details, I'll expand them into a life!  I also wanted to write about air travel.  I wanted to know how long it took, if people dressed up (remember when people used to dress up to go on the plane?), if there were stewardesses, if they served you food, but I couldn't find any detail about it in any of the books I read.  It was probably too early. 

Hope this answers all of your questions.  Keep them coming!

Janice


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