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.”
That, Johnson can tell you, is where the imagination must take over. Though he pulled many details from true accounts — Kim Jong Il really did have a South Korean movie star kidnapped; “she had to pretend to dote on him for years,” Johnson says — his greatest ally was his own ability to fill in the blanks.
“I don’t know that I would say that journalism has failed us, but in this world things must be verified and confirmed to be reported,” he says. “The only thing that gets out of North Korea are narratives. For a fiction writer like me, these human stories — dreams and nightmares and legends and myths and rumors — these things are invaluable. I’d think, ‘I’m a father. What would it be like to be a father there? I’m a husband. What would it be like to be a husband there?’ Fiction has the ability to speak to North Korea in a very unique way.”
The character of Sun Moon, the national actress with whom Pak Jun Do falls in love, is based on a real person. Most of the surface details are true, too, Johnson says. He pulled the propaganda report of doves fluttering around the Dear Leader to protect him directly from a North Korean news headline.
“That business about, ‘It’s time to go eat seaweed, citizens!’ — that’s real,” says Johnson, who lives in San Francisco with his family and teaches creative writing at Stanford University. “The way tattoos were cut off, the incursion tunnels, the loudspeakers [which blare propaganda constantly at the citizens] — those are all grounded in fact. What’s uncertain is whether they create a truthful portrait. We can’t get in there. We can’t talk to North Koreans. We won’t know until they write their own books.”
The Orphan Master’s Son is being translated into Korean, and perhaps when it is, Johnson can realize his dream of doing a reading in South Korea. He’s fascinated by the lives of defectors who made it out of the north.
“South Korea has kind of a twisted relationship with the North; the young people there often look upon defectors as second-class citizens and use a lot of pejorative terms. The poor North Koreans escape and think their problems are over, but they’re not. North Korea has yet to invent the stoplight and the phone book. To travel there is to travel back in time, like going to Cuba in the 1950s. They have no technology. They can barely keep the lights on. So when people make it to the South, they make it to one of the most modern cities on the planet.
“What’s undeniably good about the Pulitzer is maybe it will lead more people to the book, and there will be more interest in North Korea,” he says. “Durability is one of the attributes of this regime. It may be around for decades to come. I don’t see any will to change it on any part.”