JJ Lee

Interviewed by Janice Esguerra

jj lee imageJJ Lee is a Canadian writer who was raised in Montreal and studied Fine Arts at Concordia. He later got a Master of Architecture from UBC and wrote his memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General’s Award and the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize. He is also an art critic for the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight, an ELLE fashion columnist, and a CBC radio producer. He now resides in New Westminster, British Columbia.

To start off – why do you write?

When I’m able to take whatever accidental writing I have and begin to hone it and link together the ideas I didn’t know I had, I get excited. I really like the constructive nature and layering that occurs through writing. On a more practical level, it’s sort of accidental that I’m a writer – but it’s the only thing I’m known for and the only way I can make a buck. It’s not even a lot of money, but I do enjoy it a lot. And I like the culture – writing people are my favourite kind of people.

Why are writers your favourite kind of people?

I think they want to be thoughtful and they have a commitment to craft, and even if they don’t have a commitment to craft, they just love books and they want to be published. There’s a sort of fun about them that I really appreciate. Even if they’re the most mercenary writer in the world, they still work with words. There’s this incredible love of the work, and loving something so much that you want to do it is a great thing. It makes for a happy person.

You obviously have the same commitment to craft that you admire in other writers. What’s the first thing you remember ever writing?

Oh – I remember having this kindergarten panic with writing the alphabet. I only knew up to “E.” I didn’t know what the actual letters sounded like, so I didn’t really know how to read. I also remember writing this really ardent Valentine’s card to a girl. I think I was six or seven years old. The most attention I ever got for my writing as a child must have been for a class project in the fifth grade—probably about Samuel de Champlain—and I got asked to enter my schools’ Gold Book. By then, some sort of weird socialism kicked in for me and I refused. I didn’t want to participate in a competitive educational environment. I was so proud of myself for denying the opportunity. My parents were pretty upset with me for doing that.

That’s a really strong stance to take as a fifth grader. If you were to teach a writing workshop for fifth graders, what sort of things would you include in the class?

I would teach them how to write a ghost story. Like, a campfire story. Oh, and I have these cards that say things like “house,” “car,” “laugh”—stuff like that. I would let them pick five cards and they would have to build a scary story made up of whatever those five cards are. Or I would get them to write jokes, which would teach them how to write things in the right order. You don’t build stairs up to go down, that sort of thing. I would encourage them to take their time writing in an orderly way, trying to stay in the scene without over-explaining anything. When I’m teaching, I keep to form – it doesn’t matter if the people I’m teaching are children or adults.

What’s a genre of writing that you struggle with the most, or find the most foreign to you?

I have a long history of writing bad poetry. I feel bad for people who want my opinion on their poetry, because I’m so bad at it. I’m not cool enough. I just don’t have the intellectual rigor that poets have. I’m too prone to my own feelings and my own dull thoughts about things; it makes me a bad poet. I wish I could write lyrics well, too. It’s an ambition of mine to write a substantial song—ideally a ballad, like an old-timey country song.

I’m looking forward to hearing it once it’s on the radio. Now, I know you studied fine arts at Concordia and got a Master of Architecture degree from UBC. I’m really curious as to how your relationship with writing developed after your university education, and if your experiences within art and architecture inform your process as a writer?

I was first published at the age of twenty-three as a journalist. I joined my school’s newspaper as the Arts co-editor and did some media event for a museum show. The curator was giving everyone a tour of the exhibition, and I was asking questions and taking notes while surrounded by other real Arts journalists who were getting paid to do this sort of thing. A woman came up to me and told me she was the editor of Parachute magazine. She said, “I’m not going to write the review for this exhibition anymore. You are.”

That was how my career started in publishing. I created for ten years, all while I was going to school. I published about forty paid art reviews, and I wouldn’t have been a writer in that context if I hadn’t studied the things I studied. Writing as an art critic led me to journalism. While I was at UBC doing my Masters, my art critique and magazine work led to my interest in journalism, which led me to radio. I joined the CiTR team. The APEC protests happened at UBC and we covered it – we ended up winning a national award for journalism. That led me to CBC. My first gig was with them; I didn’t apply, I was drafted. I hung around either as an intern or as a freelancer from 1997 to 1999, and in 2000 I was an associate producer. That led to my research on tailoring, which led to my memoir. It’s all connected.

As a painter, I learned to muck about and not overthink as much. As for the architectural part, the idea of structure interests me a lot. Having the freeness of being able to put something on the page without thinking too much, and then having the structure to be able to organize what’s on the page after – these are the things I learned from art and architecture. They’re quite complimentary.

That’s amazing – I would have never guessed your memoir was the product of such a long chain of events. In talking about your book, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, you mentioned the idea of memoir as a sort of disruptive technology. How are you able to write on emotional topics with vulnerability and still retain clarity? Do you have any advice to emerging writers on how to do so?

When you’re young, you experience things in a really sharply distinct way. Everything is kind of new. Things can be a big fucking deal all the fucking time, you know? You can keep that in quotes. Anyway, my point is that I teach directly to this idea of emotional distance. I don’t mean you should let time create emotional distance. I would never tell someone to wait ten years before writing about something, because you would lose so much of what you can recall. Most people see a memory through the eyes of the person who experienced it. Let’s say you’re looking back on a memory from when you were ten years old. You’re probably going to remember it as a ten-year-old. Instead, I teach people to write as a fly. You take the fly and watch everyone in the scene, including the person that used to be you. In my class I tell people, “let’s not talk about the character in the story as you, because you’re not that person anymore. You’ve grown since experiencing that.” Taking faith in the idea that you don’t have to re-enact the past when you write—just simply watch the person experience it and have observations about them—creates this sort of emotional distance.

The other thing I teach when it comes to this sort of thing is “the hotter the scene gets, the colder the writer gets.” I think It’s a huge mistake when writers—especially young writers and emerging writers—try emotionally to convey what the character felt. It’s a huge mistake to go “I’m really sad, so I’m going to tell you how sad I am.” The reader has no interest in how sad you were. You need to make the reader feel sad, which isn’t the same thing. The classic Aristotlian principle of “character is action” comes to mind – allowing what people say, do, and see create the emotion itself. At no point do you have to betray how the main character feels about something – the reader just feels it, so further commentary isn’t necessary.

So—psychological distance created by not letting the writer see through the eyes of the character who experienced the event and instead constructing it from a third-person POV, and writing “hot” scenes with a more clinical voice and tone—those are just two ways of writing that will allow you to write distinctly about hard topics or memories. The second you try to amp it up, the reader won’t trust you. Any extra energy added to a story is seen as a melodramatic amplification of the truth. The idea is to say everything and explain everything without wrenching anything.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? What’s the most rewarding?

I’m a premise-driven writer. For me, it’s all about the setup—so if I write a bad one, it screws me up. For me to have enough steam to finish a first draft, I really have to set up my characters perfectly. If that doesn’t happen for me, it can be really frustrating—especially if I’m trying to reach a deadline for a draft. Once you’re able to break through it, it’s a great feeling. It feels like you’re going downhill from that point on—you really start to hit your stride.

Janice Esguerra is currently in her third year of the Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia. She likes to write about everyday conversations, diaspora, women, love, and people she sees on the bus. Janice works at a coffee shop but doesn’t drink coffee.

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