I’ve long understood “writerly obsessions” as these things that haunt us as artists, that find us around every corner and submerge us into an almost filtered state of being. These obsessions, like ghosts with unfinished business, won’t leave us alone, sometimes for years at a time. Some of my own current obsessions over the years have come to include the disillusionment of matrescence, rural life, and the idea of home.
In her debut novel Upcountry (Unnamed Press, 2023), Chin-Sun Lee— former fashion designer— seems to focus on all of these themes, but in a way that I’d never framed them before myself. The novel takes place in a small, rural town in the Catskills of New York (close to where I happen to live) and tells these layered stories, both small and large, about the complexities of socio-economic coexistence that is rural life. We closely follow three main darlings: April, a cash-strapped single mother of three who needs to sell the house that’s been in her family for generations; Claire, a former city dweller who purchases and renovates April’s former home while the walls of her own life cave in; and Anna, a member of a local religious cult, The Eternals, who is starving to belong.
Anna’s treatment within this religious cult, especially while pregnant, seems disgustingly unethical at times, and while you’d never pinpoint her experiences as similar to April’s, a very similar type of ostracization is happening to April among her peers – she isn’t trusted for her word. Claire embodies the reserve, keeping herself removed from the community and all they have to say about the known occurrences in her life without trying to set things straight. As disparate as these three realities are, the way they share so much and so little is rather eerie. Their internal skepticisms are externally perceived as overreactions; their shortcomings become a bedrock to their representation in this small town community. Some of this is merely the explicit battle of womanhood, but what Lee illustrates so well is how every event in their lives has a ripple effect on the lives they touch, intimately or not. She manages to highlight the strange sense of unity that comes with suffering, and in small town living, you can’t escape that confrontation, for better or for worse.
I can confidently say that Lee’s work, driven by her own observant “obsessions” is going to captivate you and convert you into a devout fan and reader, as it has for me. I had the pleasure of chatting with Lee about her professional journey from designing clothes to writing novels, the fulfilling pursuit of artistic work, and how the world we live in finds a way to infiltrate itself onto the page.
Ashley Rubell: I noticed in your bio that you pivoted from fashion with full dedication to your writing career back in 2014. What exactly did that transition look like for you?
Chin-Sun Lee: The transition was insane, but kind of great. I’d been juggling both writing and fashion for a little bit. I had a full-fledged career in fashion design. And then I think in 2005-2006, I started taking continuing ed writing classes. And then I did my MFA at The New School. Once I had the MFA, it was sort of like, okay, now what? It was impossible to juggle it all, you know? My schedule with my fashion career was pretty intense, and I was traveling a lot and got pretty burned out.
I had meanwhile applied to my very first residency at Playa Summer Lake. And at the time I was employed, and I remember thinking, oh, I can’t actually go, if I still have this job. So part of me must have known I was setting up [for the transition]. An escape hatch, perhaps. After I came back from this one particular horrible work trip, I found out I got in. So I took it as a sign.
AR: Tell me more about your experience with that first residency.
CL: It was fantastic. It was about five weeks, which is a long time. And it was a small cohort, only about five of us. I had never really, prior to that time, lived outside of urban, crowded cities. And this was just so remote, in the smack center of Oregon. [It was] a desert topography plus mountains in the back— just gorgeous. I loved it. And I knew within a week, I’m never going back to fashion. I’m gonna have to figure it out. And more importantly, that was the beginning of me meeting other artists, not just writers, but visual artists and other creative people. Not to say that there aren’t really creative people in fashion, but in the end, that field of creativity was for a certain product, clothing. And there’s plenty of clothing. There’s landfills filled with clothing.
The kind of people that I was meeting in these residencies and in my post-fashion life were really my tribe. They’re artists and artists only. I think artists can understand the incredible struggle and the difficulty of trying to pursue what you’re doing because there’s absolutely no financial security for most of us. So that kind of started this whole transition, with a couple of years of being really peripatetic, constantly traveling, living out of a suitcase, going from artist residencies to the homes of my family in California and certain friends.
AR: So you stayed out west after that residency? Did you ever live in the Catskills, where your novel takes place?
CL: Yes. I went from Oregon to Arizona for about four or five months and then I ended up that first summer staying in the Catskills in this little area called Oak Hill, near Durham. It’s maybe half an hour away from Hudson, surrounded by Cornwallville, Rensselaerville.
AR: Okay, yes. I’m making some connections to the book now.
CL: Some of the towns in the book are fictional, but enough of them are also real so that there’s a sense of where it is located geographically. I had a good friend, my friend Christopher, who I knew from design, living in Oak Hill, and his parents had this extra house. I mean, it’s gorgeous. It’s an 1861 brick colonial house that they renovated without losing the original architectural details. I’m so lucky. I just got to live in this extra house.
I had started the first chapter of The Eternals when I was in Arizona. But then it became a lot more fully fleshed out. Initially I was thinking it would be a short story. But then a friend of mine read it and was like, no, I think this could be a novel. And I’d never written a novel before—
AR: It just takes that one person, right? To be like, “I think you’re working on a book…”
CL: I kind of curse him and thank him at the same time. It was a crazy two years of free floating, traveling, and writing. It was such a gift because that’s all I did. I was really so cognizant of how fortunate and precious this free time was. I wrote every day. I don’t know how I had that concentration.
AR: What kinds of things were you writing about at your residencies, prior to starting your first novel?
CL: I’d written mostly short stories. I had some stories published, but not a lot, really. And one thing I’ll say that Playa did for me—and actually all of my experiences in rural cities that I went to afterwards— was the exposure to rural life. It was so fascinating to me not only because it was just a slower pace, but also because I was able to see nature in a way that I never had before. I was too distracted in the city. But within a smaller community, you have very disparate socio-economic classes and types of people, depending where you are, and it’s a new type of cultural experience. I found it eye-opening, how they were all able to coexist rather peacefully. Because in big cities, you don’t need to interact with people who are not your tribe, you know, or of your political beliefs.
AR: Yeah, you end up sticking with the people that look and dress similar to you or reflect some aspect of yourself…
CL: And in small towns there’s a lot of different people, with different backgrounds and they coexist. Human nature, being what it is, you still have little grievances that were sort of discussed behind the scenes. It was interesting just to see that kind of dynamic play out. Yet there was this veneer of civility– genuine civility– that I saw.. It made me more aware of looking outside of my own head. I tended to write with a great deal of interiority– that’s never been an issue for me– but I don’t think I was necessarily as observant about my physical surroundings and having the space and the quiet and the time to actually observe that and then incorporate it into my writing. It helped to enrich my writing, for sure.
AR: So much of what you’re describing is, to me, the essence of this novel. While I was reading it I kept wondering about which component came to you first? Was it character, was it setting, was it imagery? You said you had an initial short story about the religious cult in your book, The Eternals?
CL: Well, I wrote [that short story] during a time in my life when I was wandering around a lot, often finding myself in rural parts of the U.S. I’d never been to before, so I used each new place as a prompt to write a story that evoked its setting. In the small Catskills town that inspired The Eternals, there actually was and still is a religious group that practices an archaic form of Christianity, which was the basis for the cult in my novel. I don’t want to name the group because my portrayal of them is so much darker than the reality, and they should not be maligned.
Then, I saw this house on one of my afternoon walks– it had the dilapidated pool, just like in the novel. It sparked the idea of a home in foreclosure, and then naturally, the transfer of a house involves a seller and a buyer—but under those circumstances, some antagonism or resentment is likely. So that was the initial set-up. Someone else in another interview last week asked, did I start out thinking of this as a sort of haunted house story? This house [I’d seen] looked inhabited and it made me wonder, what happened to these people’s lives? Are these the original owners? Clearly it indicated some sense of financial downfall, and this was all happening shortly after the 2008 recession. A lot of my friends in the fashion industry lost their jobs, so it had been on my mind. I wasn’t homeless; I had this opportunity, but I didn’t have a permanent home either, so the idea of a home and financial precarity played into it. And I always knew I wanted to write about women, and about the intermingling of different economic classes, which was another aspect I observed in that town. The idea of compression and insularity, this small town containing such varied characters, was rife for conflict.
But I do usually start with character. And I think that was the case here, too. Once I started really writing, I had the character of Claire in mind. And to be honest, she was based off of someone in the Catskills that I found really annoying. Of course, once you really decide to adopt a character, to spend time and years writing them, I kind of grew to love the character of Claire, a lot, even though I tortured her quite a bit in the book. I think initially it started with character, but the setting was such a close second influence for me.
AR: Speaking of characters, if you could sum up each of the main characters — April, Anna, and Claire — into one word, what would it be?
CL: Resilient, unworldly, and prickly, in that order.
AR: There’s a lot of strong imagery in the book– with the house, the shadows on the wall… and a lot of loss. The amount of loss felt more haunting to me than the house. Was that intentional?
CL: The house initially wasn’t as creepy. It was a little unsettling, you know, more for the dynamic of how awkward it is when you know someone who bought your house and they bought it based on your own misfortune. But after the initial draft or so, my better readers were all kind of like, you could really amp up the creepiness. And I had written that scene in Claire’s section where she starts imagining the rat becoming a shadow–that was already there– but I didn’t think to necessarily amplify that whole sort of haunted-ness until a few more drafts in.
I think my sensibility probably always leans more dark. But I wasn’t cognizant until, honestly now, getting people’s reactions to the tally. It wasn’t something I was conscious of. I mean, I kind of knew that, not super early on, but maybe like halfway, that [one of my characters] would have to go. Loss is one of those things. It’s a seminal event in people’s lives. Obviously it creates drama and conflict. But it wasn’t something I was conscious of while writing.
AR: It’s interesting too, to even make the connection, listening to you now, that you were writing this at a time when so many people around you were losing their jobs and losing their homes… there’s that exterior but also interior influence at play.
CL: Yeah. Or maybe I just need to come up with another type of conflicting event in the future, haha.
AR: The loss was everywhere, and it was so layered. It went beyond the main characters and touched even the bystanders of the storyline. Missing a father, a friend, losing a partner, a job, a house… the way every life intersected — or rather, grazed one another — made it feel all the more real.
CL: Grazing is a good way to put it. And grazing lives is sort of how my experience of living in the Catskills was.It was like you were constantly surrounded by people and you can’t help but be aware of at least the surface details of their lives. People gossip and you see each other, but I don’t think anyone can really know a person. Even those that you’re intimate with, ultimately.
People have losses. Constantly. But of course, you also have wonderful things, gifts that appear in your life, too. Human nature being what it is, the losses I think resonate more deeply. I mean, heartbreak resonates more deeply, unfortunately, than moments of buoyancy and joy. Pain is very powerful.
AR: I had this growing curiosity around the structure in some of these chapters, when you would switch POVs. Was this an effort to sort of hand the reader this thematic parallel between two of the three women, or what was the intent there?
CL: Well, I think initially it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I had been writing stories up until this point. And in fact, the first chapter,“The Eternals,” was intended just as a standalone. Because there was, to me, this idea of having a community in a cast of characters, it felt natural to go into different POVs to get this town hall-like feeling, you know? Like, I’m raising my hand now and I get to speak. There are certain movies and other books too that play around with roaming POVs that ultimately then kind of integrate. And I don’t know, there’s something about that form. It’s not new at all, that structure. It’s been done over and over again. And I’ve always enjoyed it. However, I know that it’s not for everybody. When the book was on submission, some editor’s feedbacks were that they didn’t actually like that they were constantly being pulled in and out of the voices on the page.
AR: Oh, I loved it.
CL: I was hoping it would have a propulsive effect. But every reader is different. Technically, it creates some problems, or challenges rather. I wrote many drafts of this novel and in an early version, I had the novel stretch out for much longer, for almost three years. But again, some of the feedback I got from editors was that it just felt too long. So then I had to compress it. So many of the chapters were oriented around the seasons. And you can only imagine that, oh, God, now this 4th of July thing becomes the New Year’s Eve thing, so many times over. It’s like problem-solving when you compress something that much.
AR: Could you tell me about the lifespan of this book? You started writing it so long ago, and I’m guessing from what you’ve just said— maybe I’m misinterpreting— that there were multiple rounds? How many times did you pitch to editors and how long did everything take?
CL: It took a while. I started writing it in 2015 and I finished it in 2018. The writing took about three and a half years, and then I queried agents, and that took about eight months. Once I found my agent, we went out on submission, I think in late summer of 2019. Most agents do submissions in rounds, so let’s say 10 editors at a time. And sometimes, you get feedback and often there’s not much to do from there. My editor’s very respectful of what I want to do as a writer. So she would ask, is there anything here that propels you to want to do a revision? And I’d say, no, not yet.
Maybe the second round is when I started to see, oh, okay, certain people are feeling like it’s too stretched out. That was one thing where I said to her, let’s pause. Let me revise this. I took six weeks or so, then we went out again. But then the pandemic happened and that just slowed down everything and everybody, not just me. Ultimately, my agent did her job. She got the book into the eyes of several editors, I think around 40, which is a lot. Sometimes it seemed like we were close, but it’s just really, really, hard to publish something, especially as a debut author, with a big five press.
One of the things that I’m so glad I did, and I recommend this to anybody who’s going through the submission process, because it is hell —there’s nothing worse than that feeling of just waiting— is to go do something else. I started my other novel. You cannot have your focus be on this one thing that is out of your control. As much as I would like to have a readership and an audience and a viable career, you have to do this ’cause you just want to write, like any other artistic impulse. You might not make much money,so you’ve gotta go into it for those other reasons.
I had a career that was successful. It didn’t fulfill me. So clearly, even though I am not nearly making the money I used to, things are always sort of precarious and your ego gets stomped on… Despite that, I must be insane because I’m far happier still pursuing this. There’s just something about writing. It’s not entirely pure because you do have input from other people, but it’s pretty pure, at least in the time that you are working on it. That’s your time with this world, with these characters. It’s the only thing that I feel completely satisfied with when it goes well.
Anyway, I digress. It took a long time for the book to sell. I remember early in 2022, I emailed my agent and I said, I think I’m going to start submitting on my own to small presses. And she was like, cool, and you know, with small presses that could be several years’ process, because they’re so short-staffed and it takes them much longer. So I was prepared for that. I remember thinking, well, maybe I’ll get a book deal once I finish the second book, and maybe I’ll do a two book deal. And then surprisingly, in June of last year I had one editor express interest, and seriously, that’s all it takes. Same thing with querying. It just takes the one, and then people pay attention. In the end, I had I think five offers. It was such a shock. I’m very grateful.
AR: Can you tell me anything about the novel you’re working on next?
CL: Yes, it’s completely different. It takes place in Los Angeles about 10 years in the future. It’s about a Korean American journalist who undergoes extreme plastic surgery and documents her experience for a media conglomerate. It’s a Los Angeles, mind you, that is suddenly very much filled with transplanted Korean Americans from Seoul because the whole plastic surgery industry has just exploded in this city that is now a media and beauty and entertainment capital. She encounters a group of militant Korean feminists who are also terrorists and who are completely anti the whole beauty industry. And it ends with reproductive cloning.
AR: Wow. I am from Los Angeles. I’ve had an entire career in beauty… I am so intrigued!!!
CL: Yeah, it’s a crazy one. It’s told from her perspective, so there’s no roaming POV, but it got really dark–it was scary. So that’s it! She was very much out of my comfort zone because it’s a little bit speculative, definitely dystopian. There’s climate disaster awareness and, I mean, I think all of us writing post pandemic, whether you’re writing directly around that experience or not —what’s happening in this world— it’s going to infiltrate. As I was writing, so many wild, unexpected worldwide things happened. I haven’t yet perfected my elevator pitch, but that’s the gist of it.
Chin-Sun Lee is the author of the debut novel Upcountry (Unnamed Press 2023), and a contributor to the New York Times bestselling anthology Women in Clothes (Blue Rider Press/Penguin 2014). Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Joyland, and The Believer Logger, among other publications. She lives in New Orleans.