There was a time when Adam Johnson didn’t know much about North Korea. Now he knows enough to fume a little about a 30 Rock joke mocking Kim Jong Il.
“No one would make a joke about Rwanda,” says the author of The Orphan Master’s Son (Random, $15 in paper), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction earlier this year. “We can joke about North Korea. The North Koreans are never going to hear that because they’re sealed off. They’re not able to respond to a free cheap shot from the world. We look at the regime as evil or clownish, but 23 million people are unfortunately born under this bizarre regime. ... It’s the most cruel psychological experiment ever cooked up by humans. There are bigger tragedies in the world — it’s nothing like the Cultural Revolution or Stalin’s gulag system. But nothing else has ever come close to what’s happening there.”
Johnson, who appears Monday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, has come to care deeply about the enigmatic, isolated dictatorship, which he calls “one of the more interesting places on earth, a mystery-generating machine.” Author of the novel Parasites Like Us and the story collection Emporium, he spent years researching and writing The Orphan Master’s Son, a breathtaking novel about Pak Jun Do, a motherless son in North Korea who works for the state in a variety of guises — including kidnapper of foreigners, whom he plucks right off the Japanese shore — before being sent to a prison camp and emerging with a new identity that turns his life in a shocking direction.
A literary masterpiece that often reads like a suspense novel, the book earned critical praise and delight from a publishing community still grumbling over the Pulitzer committee’s refusal to name a fiction winner in 2012.
“A lot of people have commented on the political irony of the book, and a lot of people have talked about what a revealing peek it is into North Korea,” says novelist Chris Bohjalian, author of The Light in the Ruins and The Sandcastle Girls. “I just loved the reinvention of most of the characters. I loved their bizarre survival strategies in the same way I love Mad Men. It’s all about dread. ... You’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I read the book a year and a half ago, and I can still talk about it. It’s a thriller in the same way The Great Gatsby can be. You’re just waiting for all kinds of disasters to unfold.”
Writing about North Korea, which Johnson was inspired to do after reading a memoir by a man who spent nine years in a North Korean labor camp, is difficult on many levels. You can research the country and its history — its YouTube channel has about 17,000 videos, and a news agency translates headlines into English every day — but Pyongyang is not Provence. You can’t live there for a year to immerse yourself in the politics or the culture to learn how the people truly think.
Johnson traveled to the country in 2007 and, not surprisingly, found his options limited.
“It was a very controlled visit,” he says. “ They tell you when to come and when to leave. You stay where they tell you to stay. It’s illegal for citizens to interact with a foreigner. You only interact with someone who has been trained to speak to you.”