By Seija Rankin
September 16, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Michelle Branca Lee

Chang-rae Lee has written the novel that Americans, stationary as we are while marooned within the country, will be clamoring for. His next book, My Year Abroad, follows a young American who takes up with a Chinese American businessmen in a mentorship made for these times. Tiller, a college student, joins Pong Lou on a seemingly never-ending trip across Asia. One year later, he meets an older woman and her son in an airport and plunges himself into their lives. The novel alternates between the two story lines, with a humorous and thought-provoking exploration of global culture. My Year Abroad will hit shelves Feb. 2, but before that, EW is exclusively revealing the book's cover:

Riverhead Books

"I love how the piling of the colorful graphic blocks subtly captures a precarious balance," Lee says. "Something the young hero of the novel must figure out as he's launched into his new life."

The author, whose resumé includes the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction (1995's Native Speaker) and a spot among the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize (2011's The Surrendered), also answered a few of our burning book questions (below) to give insight into his writing process and what we need to know about My Year Abroad.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?

CHANGE-RAE LEE: To be honest, I can't remember. Perhaps because I learned English only when I first started elementary school, I can only recall reading, and then reading almost desperately, as if I was starving for the language.

What is the last book that made you cry?

Probably The Island of the Blue Dolphins, when I was 7 or 8 years old. The story of that abandoned girl surviving through her own pluck, cleverness, and courage seemed quite sad and beautiful to me even then.

Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?

Susan Choi's Trust Exercise. Susan is a brilliantly incisive writer, her sentences laser-cut. I've been riveted by all her novels, and am just now getting to this latest one.

Where do you write?

I have a home office where I do most of my writing, though when I'm traveling I don't have any problem working in an unfamiliar room. All I really need is a decent chair and complete privacy. I've never been one of those people who can write in a coffee shop.

Which book made you a forever reader?

Probably Hemingway's collection In Our Time. I wasn't mature enough at the time to appreciate all of the bleak things going on in those stories, but even so as I was reading them I could feel my insides being twisted up, my breath stopping, my mind aflame. After that, you can't help but search for that feeling again and again.

What is a snack you couldn't write without?

I can't eat when I work, because I love eating and when I eat I can't do or think about anything else. Maybe I'll have an espresso, if anything, but mostly just water. Writing can be strenuous, whether it's going well or badly.

If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?

Sometimes I wish all my books were shorter, for my own sake, as the poor soul tapping them out. I've been wanting to write a more humorous book, which I suppose this new one is.

What is your favorite part of My Year Abroad?

There's a karaoke scene that surprises the players, and especially the protagonist, who is just beginning to realize he has untapped capabilities. Not sure if it's my "favorite" part of the book, but I certainly enjoyed writing it and "hearing" the classic songs that get sung.

What was the hardest plot point or character to write?

There are some antagonists in the story who are the clear "heavies," but of course you want them to be complicated enough that in the end they're simply other possibilities of human expression, form.

Write a movie poster tagline for My Year Abroad:

Careful getting too smitten with the glories of the world; they can smite you back.

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