Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Horror, heartache ... and hope

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist ADAM JOHNSON about the extraordinary life of an orphan in modern-day North Korea

Adam Johnson wins the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
for his second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son

ADAM JOHNSON isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill writer. For one thing, he doesn’t reply email interviews in the conventional way. Instead of written answers and long anecdotes, he submits a ten-minute video of himself, sitting in his bright, red kitchen in San Francisco, California.

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.

There’s a popular saying that goes, “those who do not do, teach” but if that is the rule, Johnson is clearly the exception. Other than showing bright young minds how best to shape words into worthy stories, Johnson also spends his time writing his own. He has won the Whiting Writers’ Award as well as the California Book Award for his first novel Parasites Like Us. He has also written a short-story collection called Emporium and his fiction has appeared in well-known publications such as Esquire, Harper’s, Paris Review, Tin House, Best American Short Stories and even Playboy.

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’s most recent novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, revolves around a North Korean boy who grows up and runs a brutal work camp for orphans during Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il’s horrific rule. The book is being hailed as a breakthrough novel that has provided the people of North Korea a much-needed voice.

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. Suntharajah lives in Kuala Lumpur.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

May 2013 Highlights

1. Americanah (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. Asunder (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Chloe Aridjis
3. Grace and Mary (Scepter, 2013) / Melvyn Bragg
4. The Aftermath (Viking, 2013) / Rhidian Brook
5. The Writing Master (White River Press, 2013) / Kitty Burns Florey
6. A Delicate Truth (Viking, 2013) / John le Carré
7. Awakening (Parthian Books, 2013) / Stevie Davies
8. A Thousand Pardons (Corsair, 2013) / Jonathan Dee
9. Pacific (Grove Press, 2013) / Tom Drury
10. Blood and Beauty (Virago, 2013) / Sarah Dunant

11. The Round House (Corsair, 2013) / Louise Erdrich
12. Fallen Land (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Patrick Flanery
13. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (A Marian Wood Book/Putnam, 2013) / Karen Joy Fowler
14. On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Ru Freeman
15. King of Cuba (Scribner, 2013) / Cristina García
16. Flora (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Gail Godwin
17. Clever Girl (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Tessa Hadley
18. The Humans (Canongate, 2013) / Matt Haig
19. Under the Radar (Faber & Faber, 2013) / James Hamilton-Paterson
20. The Asylum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / John Harwood

21. A Dual Inheritance (Ballantine Books, 2013) / Joanna Hershon
22. And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead, 2013) / Khaled Hosseini
23. The Hundred Hearts (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2013) / William Kowalski
24. Questions of Travel (Little, Brown, 2013) / Michelle de Kretser
25. Is This Tomorrow (Algonquin Books, 2013) / Caroline Leavitt
26. Unwritten (Center Street, 2013) / Charles Martin
27. TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury, 2013) / Colum McCann
28. Constance (Bloomsbury Circus, 2013) / Patrick McGrath
29. The Woman Upstairs (Virago. 2013) / Claire Messud
30. The Son (Grove, 2013) / Philipp Meyer

31. The Mountain (Vintage Australia/Random House Australia, 2013) / Drusilla Modjeska
32. The Dark (Doubleday Canada, 2013) / Claire Mulligan
33. From the Fatherland, With Love (trans. from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf & Ginny Tapley Takemori) (Pushkin Press, 2013) / Ryu Murakami
34. The Master’s Muse (Scribner, 2013) / Varley O’Connor
35. The Girl with the Golden Parasol (trans. from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum) (Yale University Press, 2013) / Uday Prakash
36. All is Silence (trans. from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Manuel Rivas
37. Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2013) / Lionel Shriver
38. Strange Bodies (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Marcel Theroux
39. Burnt Island (Salt Publishing, 2013) / Alice Thompson
40. Angelopolis (Viking, 2013) / Danielle Trussoni

41. Long Live the King (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Fay Weldon
42. The Hanging Garden (Picador USA, 2013) / Patrick White

First Novels
1. We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013) / NoViolet Bulawayo
2. Southern Cross the Dog (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) / Bill Cheng
3. Meeting the English (Picador, 2013) / Kate Clanchy
4. Every Contact Leaves a Trace (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Elanor Dymott
5. The Shock of the Fall (published in the US as Where The Moon Isn’t) (HarperCollins, 2013) / Nathan Filer
6. The Hive (Little, Brown, 2013) / Gill Hornby
7. You Are One of Them (Penguin Press, 2013) / Elliott Holt
8. Coming in from the Sea (Headline Review, 2013) / Johanna Lane
9. The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (Viking, 2013) / Charlie Lovett
10. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, 2013) / Anthony Marra

11. Good Kings, Bad Kings (Algonquib Books of Chapel Hill, 2013) / Susan Nussbaum
12. Apology (Milkweed, 2013) / Jon Pineda
13. River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013) / Virginia Pye
14. The Other Typist (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam/Fig Tree, 2013) / Suzanne Rindell
15. The Son (Tinder Press, 2013) / Michel Rostain
16. If I Close My Eyes Now (trans. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor) (Doubleday, 2013) / Edney Silvestre

1. A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead, 2013) / Ramona Ausubel
2. Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories (Counterpoint, 2013) / Janet Frame
3. The Pre-War House and Other Stories (Salt Publishing, 2013) / Alison Moore
4. Between Friends (trans. from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Amos Oz
5. The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013) / Ethan Rutherford
6. Collected Stories (Picador, 2013) / James Salter
7. Fools (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Joan Silber
8. Cosmic Latte (Parthian Books, 2013) / Rachel Tresize
9. Life Without Death and Other Stories (Cormorant Books, 2013) / Peter Unwin

1. Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / Damian Barr
2. She Inserts the Key (Seren, 2013) / Marianne Burton
3. The Taken-down God (Carcanet Press, 2013) / Jorie Graham
4. Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) / Tom Hennen
5. Alight (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) / Fady Joudah
6. The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013) / Adrian Matejka
7. Necessities (White Pine Press, 2013) / Christopher Merrill
8. Black Aperture (Louisiana State University, 2013) / Matt Rasmussen

1. Deer Island (Little Toller Books, 2013) / Neil Ansell
2. Travelling Light (House of Anansi Press, 2013) / Peter Behrens
3. Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now (Lyons Press, 2013) / C.B. Bernard
4. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Allen Lane, 2013) / Daniel C. Dennett
5. How to Read Literature (Yale University Press, 2013) / Terry Eagleton
6. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (Harper Perennial, 2013) / Peter Hessler
7. The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Little, Brown, 2013) / Steve Jones
8. Things I Don’t Want to Know (Notting Hill Editions, 2013) / Deborah Levy
9. Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Janet Malcolm
10. The Cooked Seed (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Anchee Min

11. Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002-2012 (Counterpoint, 2013) / Geoffrey O’Brien
12. A Fort of Nine Towers (Picador, 2013) / Qais Akbar Omar
13. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / George Packer
14. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford University Press, 2013) / Anthony Pagden
15. Holloway (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards
16. For the Republic: Political Essays (Pressed Wafer, 2013) / George Scialabba
17. A Place in the Country (trans. from the German by Jo Catling) (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / W.G. Sebald
18. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Jonathan Sperber
19. Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga (trans. from the French by Linda Coverdale) (Allen Lane, 2013) / Sylvain Tesson
20. The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Hamish Hamilton, 2013) / Paul Theroux