Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel, The Piano Teacher, follows the fortunes of a naïve British woman, a laconic and enigmatic British expat and a Hong Kong socialite in Hong Kong before and after its occupation by the Japanese in WWII.

Have you always been interested in the war's effect on Hong Kong?

I didn't know this would be the subject of my first book. I wrote a lot of fiction with 20-something narrators in New York, so I'm surprised that this was my first book. The story kind of found me. It was something I kept coming back to, something that kept staying in my head.

What did you know about the war growing up in Hong Kong? Was it something people talked about?

Not at all. I don't know why I became so fascinated. It started as a short story about Claire [the piano teacher] and Locket [Claire's pupil] in the '70s. I kept writing and I realized great things were at stake, because great things are at stake at a time of war. So I started writing about the war. I love the time period, the way people talked, so it became very natural to write about it.

What was your inspiration for the character of Trudy, Will's tempestuous prewar love interest?

She was born fully formed. I saw this woman who looked how I imagine Trudy to be, walking around in Hong Kong. I knew right away what she would say, how she would say it, what she would wear. She was just a gift to me.

Before you wrote the war chapters, did you know who would be brave in the face of all this horror and who wouldn't?

I had no plot when I started the book, so I just wrote about the characters. I started writing about Will and Trudy, and realized something was going to happen to them, but I didn't know what. I was two-thirds of the way through the book, and I still didn't know what would happen to them. The book came together in the last quarter for me.

It seems like Hong Kong itself is a character in the novel.

People came here, and the living was easy in a way it was not necessarily elsewhere in the world. People still wash up on shore, take a job and become something else. You can become an entrepreneur or a society lady. Like a lot of big cities, Hong Kong allows you to reinvent yourself. It's been true since the first European landed here.