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January 21, 2010

Talking with Janice Y. K. Lee about THE PIANO TEACHER - Part 1

Posted by webmaster
I had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with author Janice Y.K. Lee while she was in Atlanta on tour to promote the trade paperback release of THE PIANO TEACHER. In today's post I thought I'd share Janice's comments on the story, the setting and her wonderful characters.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post where she talks about her experiences writing the book as well as sitting down with book clubs to discuss it.

RGG: The book takes place in Hong Kong where you actually grew up and live now. So, I understand why you wanted to write a story that takes place there, but what made you choose to write about the WWII era?

JYKL: Growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s and living there now even, I never heard anyone talk about the war. I happened upon a book or two about the war and I just loved the world I saw there. It was this world out of merchant ivory film. It was British expatriates living in Hong Kong, sort of in a bubble with lives of enormous privilege. They went from party to party drinking and I thought “What a wonderful world” and then juxtaposed that with the war and the fact that all this came crashing down so suddenly and these same people were interned in a matter of days or weeks was just so interesting. I had never heard anyone talking about it and I wanted to explore that world.

RGG: I want to talk about the title. The book takes place in two time periods and the piano teacher who is Claire is in the second time period, but Will is the character who is in both time periods, so why name the book after Claire?

JYKL: You meet Claire in the 1950s and you see Will during the war and a decade later, but he’s not the main character. Many people find that Trudy, who he as a love affair with during the war is the main character. But for me, this book was an exploration of Claire’s journey. It was about her development as a person. The book begins and ends with her. I just felt she underwent the most change. There was some talk about changing the title but I just felt THE PIANO TEACHER was the right title. I didn’t want something so obvious. I wanted something elusive.

RGG: All three of the main characters changed in some way throughout the course of the story. Do you think that each of the characters got to know themselves better?

JYKL: Will’s journey was more of a tragedy, I think. He couldn’t move on from what he had done in the past, so he was just stuck and couldn’t evolve. Trudy just is who she is and she is unapologetic about it. But Claire really is a very different person at the end of the book than the person you meet in the beginning.

RGG: You mention that Will’s journey was sort of tragic. Do you feel that Will’s story was the most tragic in the book?

JYKL: Trudy is sad for me. There was another ending there for her that could’ve happened but didn’t. I felt a lot of loss for her. Will’s fate is almost his own fault because he chooses not to change.

RGG: There are many smaller characters in the book who also have sad, tragic stories. Can you talk about some of them?

JYKL: I think in every war there are these stories. What I was interested in was the civilians’ war, not the military war. Not what happens militarily, but what happens to the people who are there and are not involved directly but who are impacted. There are so many repercussions on so many levels and I was interested in exploring that.

RGG: When you think about war you think about cowardice and bravery as it applies to soldiers but those terms very much apply to many of the civilian characters in THE PIANO TEACHER. What made you want to explore those traits?

JYKL: I was really interested in this idea that in times of great danger and great stress, people do things that may not be generally characteristic of them. For example, if you are a brave and noble person but in this moment of great stress you run for your life and don’t save anyone else…how does that action come to define you later on. This is the case for Will who defines himself by what he did before the war and cannot move on.

RGG: If Claire and Trudy had met what do you think that would have been like? Would they have liked each other?

JYKL: I think Trudy likes everyone. I think Trudy is kind to everyone she meets. And Claire I think would have been intimidated by Trudy and shy around her. I don’t think they would have had any great connection.

RGG: Many of the smaller characters in the book had the chance to make interesting choices from a literary standpoint. Many of them were just doing what they had to in order to survive, some however, were profiting, some were moral above all else and some were not. Of these moral and immoral characters, who was your favorite?

JYKL: Edwina was very fun to write. When I first conceived of her she was this lovely old lady who lived in Hong Kong and it took me a long time to realize she was not this lovely old lady that I had initially pictured in my head. She became malevolent quite suddenly to me and held the key to a lot of what happens with the novel which I was discovering as I wrote. So she was fun. Not my favorite, but fun.