In honor of National Reading Group Month, we asked best-selling author Chris Bohjalian to share a story from his many book club visits. What we got was certainly unexpected—and a heartfelt tribute to the indomitable spirit of readers!
By Chris Bohjalian
It was 13 years ago this autumn that I vomited in front of a lovely reading group from Illinois. When I’m with a book club, I hold nothing back.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was on my third plane of the day, this one a Dash 8 turboprop from Denver to Steamboat Springs. The next day I was joining Jacquelyn Mitchard, Andre Dubus III and Sena Jeter Naslund for the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s annual Literary Sojourn, an all-day celebration of what words and reading and books can mean to the soul. It’s a terrific event and lots of book clubs make a pilgrimage there—including, that year, one from Illinois that was on the Dash 8 turboprop with me.
Now, I really don’t mind the Dash 8. But that day I had been traveling since about six in the morning in Vermont, where I live, and there was the usual Rocky Mountain clear air turbulence. I was on my third flight of the day. The book group on the airplane recognized me instantly as one of the authors they were coming to hear, despite the fact that soon after takeoff my skin was airsickness green. And so we chatted and I sipped a Diet Coke and set the air vent above me on “wind tunnel.” Surreptitiously I kept reaching into the seat pocket, trying to find an airsickness bag amidst the magazines and Sky Mall catalogues. Somehow I had two of each, but no airsickness bag.
The group was, like most groups, all women. We talked about books as we flew to Steamboat Springs, and the unforgettable brilliance of the first sentence of Sena’s new book, Ahab’s Wife: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” We discussed the heart that fills all of Jacquelyn’s work. And we shared the page-turning dread we had all experienced as we read Andre’s House of Sand and Fog.
At some point I reached into the pocket of the seat beside me for an airsickness bag. There wasn’t one there, either.
Looking back, I really thought I was going to make it to Steamboat Springs with my dignity intact. I fly a lot and it’s rare for me to feel like I’m going to lose my lunch. I was sure I could remain in this book group’s eyes an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete.
It was on our initial descent that we hit the bump that finally did me in. Now, I did feel it coming. And so without an airsickness bag handy, I showed an instinctive skill with origami I hadn’t known existed somewhere deep inside me: I ripped a few pages from one of the catalogs in my seat pocket, twirled them into a snow cone, and folded the bottom into a seal. Yup, somewhere around 15,000 feet in the air, I created a snow cone of vomit.
"I was sure I could remain an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete."
Now, here is why I am sharing this story with you. The woman in the book group beside me actually offered to hold my handmade Sky Mall biohazard so I could wipe my mouth and rinse with the last of my Diet Coke. So did the woman behind me. That’s support. That’s kindness. That’s the sort of heroism that is way above any reader’s pay grade.
But people in book groups are like that. I’ve been talking to book groups via speakerphone (and now Skype) since January 1999. I began because one of my events on The Law of Similars book tour was snowed out, and a reading group that was planning to attend contacted me with questions. (A lot of questions, actually.) And so we chatted via speakerphone. These days, I Skype with three to six groups a week. Some weeks I have done as many as 12.
I do it for a lot of reasons. I do it as a way of thanking these readers for their faith in my work. I do it because it helps me understand what makes my novels succeed aesthetically—and, yes, what makes them fail. (Most book group readers share with me exactly what they think of a story.) I do it because it is one small way I can help the novel—a largely solitary pleasure—remain relevant in an increasingly social age.
And, yes, I do it because once upon a time a book club member offered to hold my snow cone of vomit on a Dash 8.
Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, was published this summer. If you would like him to join your book group via Skype or speakerphone, simply visit his Reading Group Center.
author photo by Aaron Spagnolo
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
London writer Eleanor Moran's fourth novel, The Last Time I Saw You (Quercus), is a gripping psychological thriller that investigates the twisted roads a female friendship can travel. Inspired in part by the du Maurier classic, Rebecca, it is the story of two best friends from university, Olivia and Sally, whose relationship was destroyed by a shocking betrayal. When Sally dies in a car crash, Olivia is drawn back into the tangled history of their friendship—and into the arms of Sally's grieving husband.
In a guest blog post, Moran explains the universality of what she calls "Rebecca Syndrome"—the doubts that you can ever measure up to a past love.
I was a geeky, bookish 13-year-old when I first laid hands on a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the story of a nameless young girl who falls passionately in love with aloof widower Maxim De Winter, only to find that their marriage is haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, Rebecca. Even when I discovered Maxim was a murderer, who’d killed his first wife to protect his beloved Manderley, I still rooted for their relationship. It was partly because I identified with the second Mrs. De Winter’s dogged version of love: I’d grown up with a distant and unknowable father whose approval I fought an endless battle to win. But it was also because, even in my youthful naivety, I recognised the universality of her dilemma. Who amongst us has escaped the painful mental rat run of comparing herself to a partner’s previous love? In my head I call it “Rebecca Syndrome,” and it underpins my new novel, The Last Time I Saw You.
Who amongst us has escaped the painful mental rat run of comparing herself to a partner’s previous love?
In my early 30s, I found myself on the brink of marriage, a gnawing doubt permeating all the happy times. We’d been together three years, we loved each other, and I longed for the conventional setup I’d never had growing up. And yet . . . I knew it was wrong, that ultimately we wouldn’t make each other happy. The separation was messy and painful but ultimately loving. Now it was time to step into the unknown.
Having left single life behind as a twenty-something, I discovered that the thirty-something version was a foreign country that I wished I didn’t have a passport for. My ex sent his back immediately: he re-coupled within a few short weeks and, a few months later, announced he was expecting a child. Even though I’d initiated our split, I was cut to the quick, obsessing about this woman who had stepped so seamlessly into my onetime future. The crate of uncomfortable shoes I’d failed to take with me when I moved out of his apartment, the boxes of old magazines. Did those traces of our old life bother her, or did she simply dismiss them as no more than a practical inconvenience, a trip to the thrift store?
I soon got to experience the situation from the other side. I fell for a man who looked perfect on paper, but was consumed by court battles with an ex-wife he’d divorced years previously. He told me all about it on our first date, wanted it all out in the open, but over the coming months, I found myself wondering how thin a line it really was between love and hate. I would ask him what he’d loved about this complicated, mercurial woman, obsessively analysing his opaque replies. Words like “chemistry” could trigger a whole painful fantasy about chandelier-swinging sex. “The highs and lows” that he said characterised the relationship made me feel as exciting as day-old rice pudding. Were my anxieties paranoia, or warning bells? A gay friend, practical and optimistic, told me to pull myself together, pointing out that if you took my logic to extremes, I’d have to start seeking out 35-year-old virgins. I understood his logic, and yet the relationship couldn’t survive the haunting.
Livvy is left wondering if she can ever find happiness in the shadow of the complex and charismatic Sally.
In The Last Time I Saw You, Olivia, my heroine, experiences the most extreme version of Rebecca Syndrome. When she gets the call to tell her that her onetime best friend Sally has been killed in a car wreck, she’s forced to re-examine their turbulent college relationship. Her friendship with Sally was a heady roller-coaster, until Sally betrayed her in the worst possible way. Sally’s widower reaches out to Olivia, desperate to get to the bottom of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the accident. But as feelings gradually develop, Livvy’s left wondering if she can ever find happiness in the shadow of the complex and charismatic Sally.
I believe we have to grieve our “dead”—the relationships we’ve left behind—and then move on to the next with a heart that’s hopefully bruised but not broken. We just have to watch out for the partner who is still in the emergency room, claiming a clean bill of health.
Author photo by Ben Lister.
It's been a long, long wait for fans of Scott Sigler's science-fiction series that begin with Infected and Contagious, but the story finally concludes with Pandemic, out today.
Why, oh why, would an author make his readers wait this long to find out what happens in a series, especially when everyone's about to die?
Sigler offers a look into the years between the first two books and Pandemic—and why the conclusion kicks off in real time, five years after the events of Contagious.
If you read a series as the books come out, waiting for that last installment can be barbed-wire torture, you want your story, and you want it now. Waiting a year between books feels normal. But two years? That’s enough to make the die-hard fan rethink her devotion to an author. Three years? Oh, the insufferable agony.
The real jerks, however, straight-up tease their fans with that dreaded magic number: five years between books.
I’m one of those jerks. Allow me to explain why.
Five years . . . who does that to their fans? Well, lots of authors. If I can armor myself with two of the more famous examples, I give you Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. King averaged five years between books I-IV of his Dark Tower series (the first three books of which I personally count as the best trilogy of all time, of any kind). GRRM, of course, recently caught all kinds of Amazon-review hell for the five-year wait between A Feast for Crows, book four of his Song of Fire and Ice series, and book five, A Dance with Dragons.
Sometimes, delays happen.
Five years also turned out to be the wait between Contagious, book two of my Infected series, and book three, Pandemic, which is out today from Crown Publishing. The long pause in my series is a little different from those juggernaut properties listed above in one key way—that five year delay isn’t just in the publication dates, it’s also in the story itself. When Pandemic opens, the characters from Contagious (the few who survived that book, anyway) have been going about their lives for five years since Contagious ended.
I did this for two reasons.
First, the five-year fictional delay had to happen because of my storytelling style, in that all my horror/thrillers—not just the Infected series, but my stand-alone novels as well — happen in “real time.” The date of hardcover publication always coincides with the date the story in the book begins. If you open up Pandemic on January 21, you’ll see characters living in an eerily similar-but-fictitious January 21 of their own.
Second, Contagious doesn’t end like most thrillers do. The hero doesn’t snip the blue wire when the counter reads 0:01 and save the day with only a moment to spare. At the end of that book, shit goes wrong, way wrong, with world-impacting consequences. That big ending meant the story and the characters needed a little time to breathe. The world needed time to return to normal so that it was ready to face the next level of disaster in Pandemic.
Did this long delay affect my writing style? Absolutely.
For starters, I wrote Infected, the first book in the series, over the course of a decade while working at least one (and usually two) day jobs. The sequel, Contagious, was also penned while holding down a regular gig. After Contagious, I was able to leave those jobs behind. That gave me five years of hardcore growth as a full-time author between book two and book three. I am a changed writer, a stronger writer.
But like the characters in my book, I’m also five years longer on this Earth. I’m not just a different writer, I’m also a different person. Half a decade has done to me what it does to most of us: magnified my understanding of mortality. Everything ends, everyone dies. It’s also taught me that, sometimes, even the strongest of relationships don’t last. We are chaotic creatures: People grow and change, which can warp and shear bonds once thought unbreakable. This happens in Pandemic: The opening scenes show us how a love forged in fire has cooled and fractured, driving apart two people who clearly belong together.
Pandemic is dear to me because it catches me in creative flux: The story is stronger because I’m better at showing both the strength of love and the pain of loss. The span between books gave me the perfect way to illustrate the subtle shift of a good-to-going-bad relationship by not focusing on the slow process of dissolution, but rather giving the reader two jarringly mismatched bookends. Those who’ve been through such difficulties know that love doesn’t die in a spectacular supernova, but rather fizzles out in a slow, cooling fade.
Does that mean I turned Pandemic into a romance novel? Not in this lifetime, sister. I engineered the climax of this book with one thought in mind: tear the roof off this sucker. I’m still that slam-bang author who wrote the grizzly tale Infected. While five years of added wisdom let me tell a story with more complexity and depth, I remained true to my soul, to my roots and to my kick-ass fans.
And to those fans, to the people who have been blogging, emailing, Tweeting and Facebooking at me for the last five years, demanding the conclusion to their much-loved story? To you, I say two things: Sorry about the wait, and I hope the end result was worth it.
Thanks, Scott! Fans of the Infected series finally find out what happens to the human race on the brink of mass extinction, as Pandemic comes out today!
Author photo image credit Amy Davis-Roth, surlyramics.com.
Every author finds their calling—and their material—differently. Sarah Bruni, whose first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, was published just last month, shares her path to publication in a guest blog post. Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fresh and unusual story—which blends the Spider-Man mythology with the story of two unconventional loners—didn't present itself in a normal way!
I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. If I had I known from the start that’s what I was doing, I probably would have approached the task very differently. I began writing a collection of short stories set in Chicago in 2006. In one of them, a lonely young woman working in an Iowa gas station, eager for escape, allowed herself to be kidnapped by a gun-wielding taxi driver who called himself Peter Parker. Making a pact to rob her gas station and drive to Chicago in his stolen taxi, these two outcasts were my collection’s only characters who behaved so oddly: borrowing identities from comic books, acting out on the fringes of society. I didn’t know what to make of them; neither did my readers.
"Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience."
The thing that’s struck me most about the novelist’s task this first time through is the incredible sense of commitment that it requires to spend so much time in a single created world. Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience. It was sometimes a challenge to stay committed to these characters I had first encountered nearly seven years ago, to continue to find new ways to move with them through their experiences. But being a long and imperfect form, a novel allows opportunities for digression and experimentation that are different from those available in shorter fiction. I was surprised by how much my characters were able to change and develop with me as a writer, how their behaviors shifted along with my interests—that’s in some way what made me stick with them for so long.
guest post by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
It is somehow fitting that Harry Crews and Earl Scruggs died on the same day, March 28, 2012. While the pugnacious and audacious Southern novelist and the lightning-fast and inventive banjo player lived worlds apart, each had a deep affinity for looking at the world with all its blemishes, seeing through the masks behind which most people hide, and using humor, however sarcastic, to reveal the truth beneath the lies we tell ourselves. We'll miss each of these great artists, but Harry Crews' death brings almost to a standstill the Southern Gothic tradition that started gathering steam when the Dixie Limited, William Faulkner, started rolling down the tracks, picking up Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Larry Brown, James Dickey, Barry Hannah and Cormac McCarthy along the way. Crews was one of the last of a tradition. Thankfully, there has been some talk of reprinting his novels and publishing the memoir on which he was working before he died.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that when you have to assume your audience does not know what you’re talking about, “then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Crews, the pugilist whose many novels feature characters trying to make their way in a South much changed from O’Connor’s, follows O’Connor’s dictum. He depicts freakishly grotesque men and women caught in a world where old values have been replaced by new ones, country replaced by city, and where the struggle to know and to hold onto the truth is a violent one. Midgets, deformed individuals and scarred men and women stand at the center of Crews' novels not only because Crews himself bore the scars of an early bout with polio, burns over two-thirds of his body after being scalded from falling into a vat of boiling water at age six, and broken bones from his many bouts in the boxing ring, but also because, as he wrote in his novel Scar Lover, "a scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with."
Pick up any of Crews' novels, from his first, the widely acclaimed The Gospel Singer, to his later novels, such as his less widely praised Celebration, and you'll find a writer baring his soul and trying to get readers to search their own hearts. He once said that if he had done his job right when he was writing, he would "really get you turned back on yourself, and on your own code of ethics or morality or vision of the world or sense of self or whatever. If I get you turned back on yourself, then I done my job. I've done what I set out to do."
Crews always declared that no matter how hard writing was for him—writing 500 words a day was a successful day for him, he once wrote—it was a way of understanding himself. In his most famous piece of advice to writers, Crews delivered advice borne out of his own practice and declared, "If you're gonna write, for God in heaven's sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you've been told."
Crews wrote to understand himself and the world, and he had little patience for the business of publishing. In a remark that all book publishers should have framed on their doorposts, he once announced, "If the shoe business were handled like the publishing business, we'd all be barefoot."
Harry Crews' novels might sometimes be hard to read because they're filled with violence, blood sport and grotesque characters, but they shout out, "Pick me up and read me," for they drive us to confront our often grotesque sense of self, the lies we tell ourselves to protect ourselves from harsh truths and the destruction of our society and the world around us under the banner of illusory values. And, man, do we need Harry Crews and his novels more now than ever.
Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a regular reviewer for BookPage.
guest post by Jaden Terrell
Readers never tire of reading about their favorite characters. Sherlock Holmes' fans were so insatiable that his author killed him off and was forced to resurrect him through a series of prequels. When I started my first Jared McKean novel, I hoped to inspire the same passion in readers. I knew that most successful series characters have the following traits in common, so before I sent the book into the world, I tried to make sure Jared possessed them.
They are vulnerable. We love an underdog, and a character’s vulnerabilities give readers a reason to root for him. Jared is still in love with his ex-wife, who is married to another man. He has family ties that leave him emotionally vulnerable.
Just like real people, they are flawed. Jared is impulsive and quick to throw a punch. He’s a sucker for a woman with fluttering lashes and a hard luck story. But that’s okay. A character’s flaws can provide plot complications and add emotional depth as he struggles to overcome his weaknesses.
They are strong. Vulnerability must be balanced with competence and strength of character. Jared is an accomplished marksman, horseman, and martial artist. He does what he thinks is right, even at terrible costs.
They are complex, with backgrounds and connections that lead to complications. Working undercover in vice and later as a homicide detective, Jared cultivated skills and contacts that make him an effective PI but have left him with enemies. His connections with family and friends give him support but often lead to entanglements and even physical danger. He’s spent his life trying to live up to his father, a war hero turned patrol officer who was killed while intervening in an armed robbery. Jared is a former homicide detective—a man’s man—but his tough-guy demeanor is tempered by compassion. He nursed his mother through her losing battle with cancer, cares for a friend with a terminal disease, rescues horses, and is the loving father of a child with Down syndrome. These things give him added dimension and—I hope—make readers care about him.
Will readers love Jared as much as I do? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to spend the afternoon with my good friend Jared McKean.
Jaden Terrell is the author of Racing the Devil (Permanent Press), the first in a series featuring Nashville private detective Jared McKean, and is a contributor to Now Write Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for crime fiction writers. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Crime Literature Conference and the recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at on her website, jadenterrell.com.
Happy New Year! One of the lead stories in our January issue is an interview with novelist Adam Johnson, whose new book set in North Korea became even more topical after the sudden death of the "Dear Leader" whose regime it details. Johnson was one of the few Westerners to visit the country. He spoke about the trip extensively during his chat with our interviewer Alden Mudge; here, Alden shares a few extra details from their conversation.
An American novelist in Pyongyang
guest post by Alden Mudge
During the seven years Adam Johnson spent writing his spellbinding new novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, he became pretty knowledgeable about the country and its Dear Leader. Or as knowledgeable as an outsider can be about the place. As the news coverage of Kim Jong Il’s death shows, very little is known about what really goes on in North Korea. And what does leak out tends toward the crazy preposterous, as in this funny New York Times article about Kim Jong Il’s outlandish sporting achievements.
Ridiculous? Yes, but North Korea is no joke for its citizens. During our conversation about the new novel, Johnson told me that he worried about his safety before his trip to North Korea in 2007. But his sponsor assured him that North Korea was probably the most crime-free nation on Earth. Even the slightest infraction landed you in the Korean gulag, where life was at best nasty, brutish and short.
“Another thing that was terrifying to me,” Johnson said, “was this notion that no one has written a literary novel there in 60 years. You cannot write anything that doesn’t glorify the regime, so the novels are state-sponsored. They’re approved and distributed. And even of those, there are very few. People don’t have much reading time. It’s bizarre. There’s no other subject matter besides the glorification of the Kims. That means that not only has no one written a literary novel, but no one has read a novel whose goal is to enlighten the human condition in three generations.”
To explain the hierarchical mindset promoted in North Korea, Johnson told me about the national airline. “I discovered in my research that the reason North Korea’s Air Koryo is the most dangerous airline in the world is not because of its ancient planes—mine was from 1963 or 1964—or poor maintenance, but because the copilots weren’t allowed to correct the pilots. An FAA study I read concluded that in three big crashes North Korean copilots hadn’t felt able to point out a pilot’s mistake. They had inherited that dictatorial sense of top-down power that an obvious reality could not be contradicted.”
Johnson also noted that North Korea is slowly opening up the country to tourism (under very tightly controlled conditions) to attract hard currency. I’m very curious, but I think it will be a longish while before I apply to go there.
Don't miss the full interview with Adam Johnson.
Kristina McMorris' debut novel, Letters from Home (Kensington) is a World War II love story with a twist: It's based on McMorris' own grandfather's letters to his sweetheart—her grandmother. Here, the Portland author writes about the unique challenges this premise created for her work.
The challenges of writing historical fiction—when those who lived it are around to correct you!
guest post by Kristina McMorris
Finding inspiration to write my first novel, Letters from Home, was relatively simple. My grandmother had saved every one of the love letters my grandfather sent to her during World War II. Based on those beautiful pages, I imagined a Cyrano de Bergerac twist to their story, and voila! I had the premise of my book.
I brainstormed. I outlined. And then—oh, yes—I researched. A lot.
At first, my main motivation for accuracy stemmed from my fear of critics' feedback—namely from those ever-scary "anonymous" Amazon reviewers who supply their lengthy critiques in the form of bullet points. The deeper I delved into research, however, the more responsibility I felt to do justice to our humble veterans, whose sacrifices secured the freedoms we too often take for granted.
Writing historicals about any era poses a great number of challenges. In my case, I was featuring a period in which many of those who lived through it are still alive to call me a "nincompoop" over potential errors. (Not saying they'd use that word, precisely; but it's a great word, isn't it?)
On the upside, I eventually realized I had a wonderful opportunity that most historical authors don't: the possibility of hearing true accounts of the era firsthand. Before I knew it, my research process gained in-depth momentum. I had the pleasure of interviewing a wide variety of veterans, and even befriended a few members of the famed "Band of Brothers."
While I've gained an enormous amount of knowledge from textbooks, archivists, docents, and memoirs, no experience has compared to listening to tales from men who actually fought in the trenches. I'll never forget the Japanese-American vet who grew teary as he described the day that, unknowingly, he watched his own brother—an airman for the Japanese Empire—being shot down in a fighter plane overhead.
Sadly, two of the vets I met have passed away. Estimates claim we're losing a thousand of them daily, likely more. Hopefully, though, their amazing accounts and, perhaps more importantly, the lessons they've shared will live on through the written word. For that, I feel honored to contribute. And if, in the end, I still earn the label of a "nincompoop," it certainly won't be for lack of trying to get their stories right.
Kristina McMorris resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two sons, bundles of energy who take pride in transforming any cylindrical household object into a weapon. She is a former host of "Weddings Portland Style" and a winner of the Golden Heart. Find out more on her website.