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Chin Sun-Lee: From Fashion Designer to Author

Within a week of being in the middle of Oregon with other writers, the breakthrough author knew she wasn’t going back to fashion

By Emily Wilson

For about two decades, debut novelist Chin-Sun Lee worked as a full-time fashion designer. Then in 2009, acting on her nearly lifelong desire to write, she got an MFA in writing from The New School. Although she had a degree, Lee wasn't quite sure how to make the leap from fashion designer to writer, and she stayed at her job, publishing some stories and reviews.

Headshot of an author. Next Avenue, Chin Sun-Lee
Chin-Sun Lee   |  Credit: Craig Mulcahy

She wanted to try a residency, but because of the intense nature of her job and the travel it required, that wasn't possible. She applied anyway, and when she got back from a particularly terrible work trip with an increasingly difficult boss in 2014, she received notice that she had gotten into the PLAYA Artist Residency. Within a week of being in the middle of Oregon, with other writers, she knew she wasn't going back to fashion.

"I would get up and have tea and start writing"

So, Lee, 59, changed her life radically and went from living in a busy city and traveling to other busy cities for her work in fashion to subletting her New York apartment, living out of her one suitcase, going to residencies, and staying with friends, completely focused on writing. For two summers, she was able to stay in a good friend's parents' place in the Catskills — a bucolic dream for a writer.

"I would get up and have tea and start writing," she said. "I would take a break around 3:00 and take a little walk around country roads and unknot plot tangles. Then I would make dinner and write into the night."

Writing 'Upcountry'

In the Catskills, Lee started working on "Upcountry," a wildly original, unsettling and absorbing novel set in a small town in upstate New York about three different women whose lives intersect. Lee had gotten an agent, and after years of sending out the book, it was published by Unnamed Press in 2023. It's gotten acclaim from different sources, including the Chicago Review of Books that called it "an enchanting, intertwining tale of three lonely women," and Kirkus Reviews, which described it as "an engrossing, quietly original take on what women must do to survive in 21st-century small-town America." 

A high school teacher told her she should be a writer, but her family wanted her to have a more practical career.

When she was four years old, Lee's family moved from Seoul, Korea (where her parents had fled to from North Korea) to Los Angeles. She thinks being tutored in English is where her fascination with language began. A high school teacher told her she should be a writer, but her family wanted her to have a more practical career, so, loving clothes and wanting to move to New York City, she went into fashion design. 

When she was 28, Lee signed up for an evening class in writing at New York University. It didn't go well. 

"The instructor didn't want to be an instructor," Lee said. "She was brutal and critical. I was not the only one with that experience — it was pretty much the whole class." 

Years later, something spurred Lee to try writing again. A good friend of hers had cancer, and Lee took time off from work to take care of her. The friend died in her mid-30s, right before Lee herself turned 40. This made Lee consider taking a chance on what she really wanted. 

"I thought, 'Now what do I do?' Lee said. "I had a very deep sense of understanding my own mortality and grief for her not being able to do the things she would have wanted to do. It was like, life is short." 


Finding a Community — and an Audience

Her experience at The New School was almost the opposite of the class at NYU. The teacher, John Aiello, is a wonderful writer, Lee says, as well as a supportive and encouraging instructor. In her MFA program, she met a group of people who are now her core readers. 

Lee had been writing short stories, and gave one, "The Eternals," to one of those readers who suggested she make it a novel. That became the first chapter of "Upcountry." 

Book cover of Upcountry. Next Avenue, Chin Sun-Lee
Credit: Unnamed Press

For the next several years, Lee worked on the novel. While trying to get it published, she started writing another book (something she says she highly recommends). One of the places her agent sent it was to Unnamed Press, and after some tense waiting, they were notified that Unnamed Press would publish "Upcountry." Lee says she was ecstatic. 

The press accepts about 15 books a year out of the hundreds and hundreds it receives. Lee's novel fit with what they're looking for, said the book's editor Chris Heiser, who calls the experience of working with Lee "fantastic." 

"We felt like 'Upcountry' was a really timely story addressing multiple issues around notions of home and safety and interpersonal relationships between women of different classes," Heiser said. "Then there's the notion of how we mediate our privacy in a world where there's so little privacy. It's so pressing and, and I love that Chin-Sun is doing that with three memorable characters." Poets & Writers magazine named Lee as one of its "Five over Fifty," and she and the others wrote essays for the magazine about their road to getting published. 

India Lena González, Poets & Writers' features editor, says it's never too late to be a writer and that the stories can inspire others. 

"Also being a debut author is not synonymous with being a young author, which people often think is the case, right?" González said. "There are so many lists out there for writers under 30 or 40 years of age, and that's celebrated widely. But there aren't a lot of lists celebrating writers who are older than that and celebrating the fact that they found a way to pursue their love of literature." 

"Being a debut author is not synonymous with being a young author."

Like Heiser, González says "Upcountry" stood out among the hundreds of manuscripts she gets. 

"The writing was so original and so edgy," González said. "I loved the way she dealt with those three very distinct women and how she gave them such deep nuance and such deep internal lives." 

Now Lee is working on her next novel and living in New Orleans — she wanted a smallish city where she wouldn't need a car. She thinks there are some good things about having achieved what she wanted later in life, such as being focused and patient. She's also grateful. 

"It's a tremendous luxury to do nothing but write," she said. "Whatever I sacrificed to have this time is totally worth it."

Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for a number of outlets including Smithsonian.comDaily Beast48 HillsHyperallergicLatino USAWomen’s Media CenterCalifornia Magazine, and San Francisco Classical Voice. For years she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco. Read More
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