Three Questions for Mirinae Lee about her Debut Novel

Mirinae Lee, author of  “Bring Down the House” from Volume 70.1, published her debut novel, 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster, on June 13th, 2023. Here, she responds to questions about the book and her writing process.


Can you tell me the story of your forthcoming book? When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it?


8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster was at first inspired by the true life of my great-aunt, one of the oldest women to escape alone from North Korea. But the Alzheimer’s disease she was battling took away the detailed memories of her life in North Korea. Thus, the novel ended up becoming a wild work of fiction: a mix of my own imagination and my research on relevant historical events. And yet some of the important characteristics of my great-aunt became those of my heroine, Trickster. My great-aunt was such a peculiar person, so far removed from other women of her generation. She was a woman on the move, who loved traveling and horse riding, while Korean women in her time were expected to be sedentary. She was also a proud woman, a self-taught intellect who loved showing off her knowledge of history and foreign languages, although women were taught to remain always quiet and modest. She was a flamboyant storyteller whose anecdotes about her time in China often verged on magical realism, or, depending on your perspective, bold-faced lies. Many of these details of her personality helped me build the character of Trickster, probably one of the strangest and most complex female characters you’ll ever meet.


How did you come up with the title? How did you find a publisher? What was your relationship with your editor like?


This book is a novel in stories, so I wanted to pick a wacky and catchy title that could bring together nicely all the eight different parts of one woman’s life. At the same time, I wanted the title to be peculiar enough to represent the idiosyncratic and kaleidoscopic personality of the protagonist. I also like the shape of the number ‘8’ and how it can form an endless loop where its beginning is linked with its ending, which resembles the unique narrative structure of the novel.

Five of the novel’s eight chapters were published as standalone short stories in literary magazines—one of them is the wonderful Shenandoah—and my literary agent Nicki contacted me after reading the opening chapter, “Virgin Ghost on the North Korean Border.” After I finished the novel, she organized an auction through which I met my current American publisher, Harper. Several months later I met my British publisher, Virago, through Jenny, the novel’s foreign rights agent. Working closely with my editor Anna from Virago was a great experience. She was such a kind, passionate, and open-minded editor with whom I could always communicate in a pleasant way. At Harper, there have been some changes in plans due to various situations including the pandemic and the company’s strike. Thus, I began to work with my current American editor, Millicent, quite recently, who is a seasoned editor of many great projects such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Now I work a lot with the novel’s American publicist, Kelly, who has been such an enthusiastic, hardworking soul.


Anything special you’re working on now or next?


Some time ago I already started writing my second novel, Empire of V, but I haven’t made a lot of progress. Recently I’ve been quite busy and distracted by the publication of my debut novel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. I hope I will get used to all the changes in my life and come up with a new routine with which I can work more efficiently. I can’t wait to return to working on Empire of V daily. Empire of V is inspired by true stories of rescued dogs in Korea and a dog behavior specialist who helps them. Like my first novel, it will delve into the dark side of humanity as well as its saving grace—and yet this time, through the perspectives of both animals and humans.


Mirinae Lee was born and grew up in Seoul. Her short fiction appears in the Antioch Review, Meridian, Black Warrior Review, and Pleiades. She received the 2018 Editors’ Prize in fiction from Meridian and the Esther MK Cheung Memorial Prize from the University of Hong Kong.