Love, war, betrayal, glamour and the occasional lapse of kleptomania set against the backdrop of Hong Kong – The Piano Teacher is an epic first novel that isn’t easy to put down. Author Janice Y.K. Lee transports readers to the bustling streets and high society life of mid-century Hong Kong. Claire, a newlywed piano teacher, arrives in Hong Kong in 1952 and blossoms in the exotic, sweltering locale while becoming entangled in a complicated love affair with her student’s chauffeur, Will Truesdale, a handsome but damaged Briton. The novel alternates between their affair and Will’s earlier whirlwind romance with Trudy, a striking Eurasian socialite, during the Japanese invasion of World War II 11 years earlier.
The author, born to Korean parents and a former editor at Elle magazine, grew up in Hong Kong, studied at Harvard in the US and currently resides in Hong Kong. beijingkids spoke to Lee, the mother of four, while she was vacationing in Thailand after her whirlwind US book tour.
Readers glimpse Hong Kong from Claire’s point of view. As someone who grew up there, how did you capture the place through a foreigner’s eyes?
I grew up there, but in a way I was never a local. I’m not Chinese, and I’m not English. Hong Kong is such a melting pot – there are people there from all over the world, such as India, Pakistan and Europe. When I am in Hong Kong, I always view it as an outsider. Most writers inherently have to feel like an outsider to do their job – it’s not a bad thing.
Why did you want to revisit this period in Hong Kong’s history?
I had only written short stories, not any novels. I wrote one about an English piano teacher and a Chinese girl set in the 1970s, which is when I grew up in Hong Kong. But then I started reading about the war [WWII] in Hong Kong, and it was a time period that fascinated me. I read memoirs by expats that lived during that time who lead the life that Trudy, a character in the book, leads. I immersed myself in the period and did a lot of research.
You previously worked at Elle magazine. How did it feel to be profiled in the magazine after your book’s debut?
What people often don’t realize is that magazines like Elle and Vogue have great feature sections – the caliber is very high. I was so thrilled that they covered my book.
Claire comes into her own in this novel, partly by being in an exotic place. How did you find studying and working in the United States when you first arrived?
I was 15 when I began boarding school in America. I attended an American school in Hong Kong, so when I arrived in the US, people thought I was from California – I had the same references for pop culture and the accent. But I had never lived in the States, so it was a big culture shock. I had never experienced a cold winter until boarding school in New Hampshire, but I always loved America – I felt at home. I felt like I had found my country.
Trudy, the Chinese-Portuguese socialite in your novel, is a captivating character – is she based on anyone you’ve met in particular?
All of my characters are fictional, but of them all, Trudy is the only one who is based on someone. Emily Hahn, an American writer who worked for The New Yorker, wrote memoirs while living in China and Hong Kong. I loved her memoirs, and I feel like she lived the life Trudy would have led – although Emily Hahn is American, I think she and Trudy, in the outrageous things they do, are kindred sisters.
The Piano Teacher‘s details are very enchanting – the atmospheric language has a transporting effect that makes readers feel as if they are in Hong Kong. Which books and authors have had this effect on you?
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. She’s a beautiful writer who writes in English about Hong Kong. And Gerald Durrell writes about Greece perfectly.
Have you ever imagined The Piano Teacher was made into a film?
Hollywood is a whole different thing, but I’d want it to be made into a movie that I can recognize. I want it to be my book made into a movie, but it’s hard to control that. While reviewing the pages of the manuscript, I realized that it did feel cinematic. With conditions, I’d love to see it onscreen. I thought The English Patient was so brilliantly made into a movie – but I felt that Atonement might have stuck too closely to the novel, which can also be a problem.
Any actors or actresses that you envision for the roles?
I’ve thought about Kate Winslet as Claire. And Daniel Craig for Will. He just looks like Will.
As a mother, how did you find the time to write? Tell me a bit about your writing process for this book.
I started the book when I was pregnant with my first child, and I finished it when I was pregnant with twins. I wrote it in pieces, and I wrote when I could. When you’re working on a novel, you’re always thinking about your stories and characters, whether consciously or subconsciously. I’d have little revelations and write them down. I’d think, “Trudy is going to this party, and this is what someone is going to say.” I always knew when something was going to move my story forward.
You have four children now – how do you find the time to write?
At a slow pace! I’m always thinking about my characters. When they do things, I write them down. I have an erratic schedule due to my kids and itinerant lifestyle. Other writers might write from 9am-2pm everyday, but I don’t write like that. I work intermittently – when I get inspiration or know something is about to happen. I write when I can.
You were born to Korean parents, grew up in Hong Kong and then studied in the US. How you relate to each of these cultures? What cultures will your children be exposed to?
The world is so globalized now, and people have such diverse backgrounds. A lot of my friends have no answer to the question, “Where are you from?” except to say, “Well, my parents live ‘here.'” Those labels are becoming increasingly irrelevant. I most closely identify with Korean Americans. That’s what my kids will identify themselves with even though they are being raised in Hong Kong. People often ask me, “Why is a Korean girl who was brought up in Hong Kong writing about British people?” The real answer is: I was educated in an American way. Being American allows you to think you can be pretty much anything. No one there ever asks me, “Why are you writing this novel?” but in Asia we are more closely defined by being say, Korean or Japanese. But America is such a big country, and there are all sorts of people doing different things. I’ve lived in both places quite easily.
Look for The Piano Teacher at bookstores around town.