Horror, heartache … and hope
Johnson’s video reply is as candid as it is unusual. His answers are clear and precise, and he hardly hesitates and never second-guesses himself—a useful trait for an associate professor who teaches creative writing at Stanford University in California.
People tend to imagine college professors as “serious” types and Johnson initially appears to fit this unsmiling, scholarly image. However, his quirky sense of humour and unusual train of thought emerge two minutes into his home-made video. In the midst of answering a question about his life, he suddenly smiles at the camera and says: “I live in California where people around me do dog acupuncture and do yoga with their dogs!”
Johnson’s personality is also refreshingly different. He is extremely modest and describes himself as a “pretty average guy”—completely sidestepping the fact that he’s an associate professor at a world-renowned university and that he’s a multiple award-winning author.
Despite his many accolades in the literary world, the South Dakota-born author doesn’t think writing ranks high on the list of pleasurable activities. “I don’t find it to be necessarily fun,” Johnson says with characteristic frankness. However, he is also the first to admit that writing is an extremely rewarding and satisfying pursuit and something he can’t live without. “If I don’t write for a while I get cranky,” he confides, with a wide grin.
Then, his expression turns serious as he reveals his personal philosophy about the art of putting pen to paper. “Writing allows you to be better than yourself. When someone takes the time to orchestrate a story all the way through, I think that, in some ways, it’s better than the person who created it.”
Johnson says the idea for the book first took hold when he was moved to read about North Korea due to an ongoing fascination with propaganda. The notion that there would be one narrative for an entire country instead of a world in which every citizen would be the central character in his or her own life, shocked his sensibilities as much as it captivated his intellectual curiosity. “In North Korea, the state writes the national story, you’re told your role in it and if you don’t fulfil that role, it comes at your peril.”
Johnson says he conducted research for his book by reading stories of defectors who had barely escaped with their lives from North Korea’s soul-crushing regime. “Those stories were very moving and powerful. I read about people who had survived the gulags, had survived the famine, had survived the purges and brutality. Just the boring banality of factory or peasant labour, day in and day out ... without hope of anything different.”
Johnson believes that what’s happening in North Korea is the most cruel and absorbing psychological “experiment” on the planet and feels that literary fiction—a combination of imagination and research—would be the best way to frame a story that is set in a place about which very little is known.
Other less-dedicated writers might have been content to plug in their own version of events in places where they were unable to unveil the truth through pure research, but Johnson actually visited the country he was writing about. This undoubtedly required great courage as he intimately knows the dangers, horrors and the heartache of a land that has long been held in the grip of incredibly cruel, merciless leaders.
While there were many strange and haunting experiences about North Korea that remain embedded in his mind, Johnson says his “invisibility” was the strangest and possibly the saddest experience of all. “I’m a big American guy and I look different than the Korean people both in behaviour and appearance, but I noticed that they seemed not to notice me at all. I had the experience of feeling transparent, really,” he says with a shadow of sorrow clouding his expression.
The always-vigilant writer in him noticed that people were curious but no one had the courage to catch his eye. “They didn’t even dare look at me and look away. They ‘censored’ themselves before they even saw me.”
Johnson hopes Pak Jun Do, the fascinating and multi-faceted protagonist in The Orphan Master’s Son, will prove to be a beacon for the real people of North Korea. “Jun Do is a person who is longing for love, who wants to live his life his own way.” Jun Do starts out as a model citizen but eventually decides to carve out his own destiny. The author hopes his readers will come to understand that this innate desire to shape one’s own life—something the rest of the world takes for granted—is unimaginably difficult in North Korea.
Johnson says he took more than half a decade to write The Orphan Master’s Son. “I thought I was going crazy, being the only person writing a literary novel about North Korea. My friends thought I was embarking on a truly bananas project!” Writing the book was a long and often lonely journey but he persevered. “I felt a duty and a calling from the beginning. Hopefully, the book will cast a light on the true, cruel fates of all the people there,” he says.
Johnson’s book can at times be quite difficult to read. The broken limbs, forced lobotomies and torture scenes—as one reviewer put it—are enough to make a reader feel nauseous. Shockingly, Johnson says he actually downplayed the horrors of the gulag in his novel. “Some people think there’s a dark streak in there but I left the true dark streak out and had to approach it through metaphors instead.”
One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is that they should write about what they know. It is indeed a testament to Johnson’s talent and skill as a wordsmith that he is able to handle topics that couldn’t be further removed from his peaceful, sunny, happy life in San Francisco, California. “I have a happy marriage, I have three kids, I try to write and I try to read. I think it’s pretty uninteresting other than that but those are all of the things I love in life so I wouldn’t want anything more.”
SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is a great Enid Blyton fan. She was inspired to become a writer after reading her mother’s early edition of The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island when she was nine. Life, however, had other plans for her, and she ended up an engineer, but the call of the written word proved too strong. Through circuitous and unexpected circumstances, she eventually became a journalist and then a freelance writer. She loves nothing more than to spend hours seeking out words that will perfectly convey what she wants to say. Shantini lives in Kuala Lumpur.