An Interview with Holden Scholar and Rome Fellowship in Literature Recipient Krys Lee

Posted on Mar 10, 2014


Krys Lee talks with Ray Daniels about the Holden Scholarship, Warren Wilson, living in the U.S. and South Korea, and life after her debut short story collection, Drifting House


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Through fundraisers like the Spring Gala, which in 2014 benefits the Holden Fund for Diversity (tickets on sale now!) and the ongoing support of our alums and our faculty, Friends of Writers supports its community in a variety of ways, offering emergency funds, fellowship, and, most critically, scholarships for our student writers.

Krys Lee (Fiction, 2007) is a former student who received the Holden Scholarship. Her debut short story collection Drifting House was published in 2012 and received high praise: it was the winner of the Story Prize Spotlight Award, was placed on San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Books of 2012 list, and was shortlisted for the 2012 BBC International Story Prize. Lee is a professor of creative writing at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College in Seoul, Korea.  She recently received a Rome Fellowship in Literature for the 2014-15 academic year.

In the following interview, Krys tells fellow alum, Ray Daniels, about how the scholarship and her time at Warren Wilson have influenced her life, and how her success as a published author has affected her writing.

Can you tell me a bit about what the Holden Scholarship meant for you?

Krys: Without the Holden Scholarship, I would never have attempted an MFA program, which was essential to my development, and especially my confidence, as a writer. It gave me permission to pursue a path that is seen as ridiculous and unfeasible in much of my cultural community for its lack of financial security or rewards, so the scholarship gave me permission to dream.


What did you learn at Warren Wilson that you find you continue to carry around with you (as a writer) or share with others (as a teacher)?

I talked about the intention of the work all the time when I taught a fiction writing workshop this semester, and much more. Everything I learned from my teachers and peers at Warren Wilson was invaluable to me, and I find myself still thinking about phrases such as “dialogue is rhythm” (a Charles D’Ambrosio book talk) to Debra Spark’s lecture about happiness in fiction. I’ll carry those lessons with me for a long time, and hope I can pass all that I’ve learned onto my students.


 Do you still feel connected to the writing community from Warren Wilson? (Despite living so far away?)

I feel somewhat connected in that whenever I return to the U.S., I have reunions with other Warren Wilson MFA alumni. Occasionally, they’ve even ended up visiting or passing through Seoul, which has been a delightful surprise! Unfortunately, though, I’m not nearly as connected as those living within the United States are with each other, and I’ve always envied that more than a little.


 You were born in South Korea, grew up in California and Washington, went to school in the U.S. and England, and returned to Seoul, where you’ve lived now for over half your life. Does the U.S. seem more and more distant or strange the longer you’re away? Or, do you visit enough that it feels like another home?

Definitely. I’ve lived over half my life overseas, if I count my childhood. The U.S. feels like it should be my home, as I did most of my formal schooling there, but when I return, sometimes I’m distraught to find that it isn’t. It feels like a place both familiar and strange, as often does its people. Korea is so culturally distinct from the U.S. that it requires a different way of thinking, being, and speaking than the U.S., so there’s a major adjustment that happens when I return. So it may not feel like home anymore, but it feels like a home that I long for. A place I wish I belonged. I suppose that’s my entire life, though, which is probably which my first collection was titled Drifting House.  


How did your personal and professional life change after you published Drifting House?

Luckily, I had a draft of a novel completed before my first book came out, so the pressure of writing after publication was very different than what it is for some debut writers. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to some of the best literary festivals around the world, and that in turn allowed me to meet some of the most established and exciting writers working around the globe today. That was one of the greatest unanticipated privileges of becoming a published writer. In terms of personal life, not that much changed outside of the great luck of meeting some amazing readers and writers from all over.


What kind of writing routine are you able to keep up with? How has your writing schedule changed since Warren Wilson?

I wish I was writing more than I was then, but that isn’t the case. I’m learning that you have to fight for your writing time—everything in life conspires to take that time away because urban life is busy (and tempting). Your job matters, people matter, and the endless vortex of mindless daily tasks destroys all those beautiful hours where your characters might revolt and surprise you. So this year, I’m planning on spending as many chunks of time in solitude away from the city. I’m also trying to simplify my life as much as I can, but I’ve a ways to go.


What's harder now? What's easier?

Harder? Always the writing. I always want to be a better writer, and to be better means constant dissatisfaction with what you’re capable of on the sentence/character/story level. What’s easier is that I have more faith in myself as a writer and don’t feel like I need permission to write anymore.


What do you know now that you wished you'd known before you published your first book?

Actually, I’m glad I knew nothing before Penguin published Drifting House. I was discovered by my agent Susan Golomb at a conference, so I never even had to walk through the grueling agent hunting process, and I think that protected me. I walked into publishing very naïve, but that gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted and needed to write. It’s still my advice to writers working on their first books today: pay very little attention to the writing, noise, book reviews, and so on. Write to delight, scare, intrigue, and move yourself. Then think about your readers.  


I read that your newest project is a novel. At Warren Wilson, were you writing more in the short story form and then something shifted, or have you always been writing in both forms? What are the new challenges you're facing with the novel form?

I was always more of a novelist. With each story I bought into workshop, someone said, “This should be a novel.” But the idea of writing so long was terrifying to me at the time, and I wanted to concentrate on the project I had begun. I’ve now been revising my novel for well over two years and now know that short story collections and novels are equally thrilling and difficult to write.


By the way, how is the teaching going? What are you learning from your students?

Teaching is great, though demanding and a bit draining sometimes. My students are a colorful lot from around the world (nine nationalities in one class, many who have lived all around the world, and all fluent in English) so there’s much to learn from them both about the world and about the universe inside each one of them. They’re quirky and full of ideas, so it’s inspiring, in a way. Teaching is also helping me clarify my own ideas about fiction, and showing me how much more I have to learn.