Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Janice Y.K. Lee

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Ssshhh. This week we’re tiptoeing through the writerhead of Janice Y.K. Lee, author of the marvelous novel The Piano Teacher. It’s a little dark in here so turn on your headlamps. Here we go…

The Scoop About The Piano Teacher

In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese, with terrible consequences for both of them, and for members of their fragile community who will betray each other in the darkest days of the war.

Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the colony’s heady social life. She soon begins an affair, only to discover that her lover’s enigmatic demeanor hides a devastating past.

As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine and converge, a landscape of impossible choices emerges—between love and safety, courage and survival, the present and, above all, the past. [from www.janiceyklee.com]

The Buzz

“Laced with intrigue… Readers will be enthralled by Lee’s depiction of Will’s relationships with his two lovers…and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.” ~ New York Times, January 16, 2009

“Pride and Privilege: War, love, betrayal—an exquisite fugue of a first novel.” ~ O, January 2009

“Evocative, poignant and skillfully crafted, The Piano Teacher is more than an epic tale of war and a tangled, tortured love story. It is the kind of novel one consumes in great, greedy gulps, pausing (grudgingly) only when absolutely necessary.” ~ Chicago Tribune, January 3, 2009

First Sentence

“It started as an accident.”


And now, Janice’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Writerhead for me is when I actually start working. At some point, after all the sending off of children, fixing of coffee, answering of email, checking out of Facebook, there comes a time when I click onto the document and words start to come out. Like a dog circles its bed some seven times before settling down, I need to hover around the work before I can get down to the actual doing of it. The mental preparation is very important as, like many writers, I find it all too easy to avoid writing. Then, I will sit at my desk and work. Even while I’m in writerhead, I get up a lot, lie down on the couch in my office, get more water, all the while ruminating in my head what comes next. But then, I sit down, and all the characters are talking to each other, they’re moving around, they’re moving forward, and I get it all down. It’s magic when it happens.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

I’m an inveterate pleaser, which is unusual among writers I think, so if someone calls me while I’m in writerhead, I will usually answer the phone, listen politely, nodding, scanning what I have on the screen, saying uh huh occasionally, and then tell them after five minutes too long that I’m actually working. I shouldn’t answer the phone but I have this Pavlovian response to the ring and, honestly, I’m usually all too willing to be distracted from what is normally not a lot of writing going on. It is so unusual for me to be flowing that I should lock the doors, unplug the phones, put on headphones, do anything to stay in it, but it creeps up on me so quickly that I am jerked from it quite easily. Happily, when writerhead is going on, it’s pretty easy for me to get back into it. It is a state that is attainable again. It lasts for a day or two, and then it goes. The rest of the time, my fallow time, I like to think that I am working in my head, that invisible passages are in their nascent state, developing, just waiting to be born in my next episode of writerhead.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Writerhead is like holding your hands to the fire. The words are coming out, it’s exciting, but I have to stop a lot, to cool off. I write furiously, stop, go splash water on my face, write more, get up and walk around the room, write again. It’s as if I cannot be in writerhead for longer than 30 minutes at a stretch. It can last for hours, but needs intervals of non-writing.


Janice Y. K. Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim from the New York Times, People, and O magazine, among others. The Piano Teacher is a New York Times bestseller, a Richard and Judy Summer Read pick (UK), and is being published in 25 languages worldwide. Janice’s writing has appeared in ELLE, Mirabella, Glamour, and Travel and Leisure, among others. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and American Literature and Language and worked as an editor at ELLE and Mirabella magazines in New York. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and four children.

To learn more, visit Janice’s web site (www.janiceyklee.com) or say hello on Twitter (@janiceylee).


Q4U: Readers / Writers / Looky-Loos / Expats / Hong Kong-ites: Janice moves around a lot while in writerhead. She’s up. She’s down. She’s getting a drink of water. She’s at the desk again. She’s at the window. She’s…. How about you? Move during writerhead or stay put?


2 Responses to Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Janice Y.K. Lee

  1. I get super distracted when I’m writing – checking Facebook, checking Twitter, reading blogs, organizing my iTunes. I would have better Writerhead if I were more focused, for sure.

  2. Like Janice, I hover around work as much as I can, while I’m also thinking of what I want to write about. But somehow I dread the moment I have to sit down and write. So I need to do a lot of things to calm me down and gather up the patience I need. Even when I start writing, I do move a lot. Actually I come up with all sorts of ridiculous excuses that will allow me to stand up and walk away for a minute or two. I also answer emails, phone calls, or search online for something I’ve been meaning to buy my son for a long time. Anything goes as long as I can put off the writing for a little while longer. Eventually I settle down and start writing, at ease with myself and reconciled with the thought that I actually have to sit down and do this.

    The Piano teacher sounds right up my alley. Look forward to reading it! I loved the simile of writerhead to holding your hands to the fire.