Adam Johnson interview

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This year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction winner Adam Johnson has just been in Hong Kong as part of City University's Pulitzer Writer Series. Anna Cummins speaks to The Orphan Master's Son author and Stanford University associate professor about the strangeness of North Korea and discovers a little something about Kim-Jong-Il's penchant for pube-shaving…

Hi Adam! Is this your first time in Hong Kong?
Yes, I'm here for eight days. I bought my wife and three kids; we're getting our yum cha!

So, for anyone who hasn't read it, could you please sum up The Orphan Master's Son?
[Puts on a dramatic voice] There's love… sex… adventure! [Laughs] Well, the book is about a young character who grows up in the most rural and most dangerous part of North Korea, in Chongjin. He's an obedient citizen of the state. But through the course of his duties, he comes to encounter Americans and he sees that there's a different narrative in the world – one in which people are at the centre of their own lives, instead of having Kim Jong-Il at the centre of their lives. And he attempts to live that kind of Western life in North Korea…

North Korea is so closed, what resources did you use to research the novel?
The stuff that comes out of the country is, of course, propaganda, but you can get quite attuned to the hidden narrative of their stories. I wrote [the book] almost exclusively using the internet. [A main resource was] North Korea itself; their YouTube channel has over 15,000 videos. I read their newspaper online. They try to project to the people trapped inside that, instead of being a pariah nation, they are an international friend to all. And so, a front page story will be 'well wishes were sent from Charles Taylor', or 'a general in Burma sent his well wishes'. The people in North Korea don't know that that these are very troubled places governed by equally troubling rulers. They want to be very cosmopolitan and urbane – and the people don't know any different.

Did you come across anything that was too ridiculous to include in the book?
The life of Kim Jong-Il is filled with excesses and absurdities that are difficult for us to imagine. I interviewed his personal chef [Kenji Fujimoto] who escaped; he was at Kim Jong-Il's side for 11 years. He told me stories of parties… Kim Jong-Il liked to get to make people drink, he liked to play pranks, he liked people to kiss him, he liked getting naked with people in the sauna. Kim Jong-Il made his chef get really drunk on the day of his wedding, and then when he was asleep, Kim Jong-Il had some guys take his clothes off and shave his pubic hair off. That is [Kim Jong-Il's] kind of humour. But I couldn't put that in the book, because my job as a writer is to humanise him, not to vilify him.

Your book has a very sharp sense of humour, which may surprise some people, considering the content. Did you make a conscious decision to use humour to lighten the book?
Humour and darkness are related, I think. One person told me while I was writing the book 'North Korea's not funny!' And it's not funny in a Team America: World Police talking puppet way. But [Koreans] are people and they have humour just like we do. A lot of defectors are funny and it's kind of gallows humour – it's how they deal with a lot of the sadness they've seen.

What about Dennis Rodman? He's been trying to get Kenneth Bae released… do you think he is the secret answer to US-North Korean relations?
Do you really think Dennis Rodman is a humanitarian? I thought he was dead! [Laughs]

Now that you've had this success, do you think you'll concentrate more on writing novels or more on your teaching at Stanford?
I'm gonna start importing caviar! [Laughs] No, I liked my life before my book won a prize. I love my students. I love teaching. I don't want anything to change. I just want to keep writing and teaching and being a husband and a teacher – I know that's lame!

The Orphan Master's Son, published by Random House, out now. Get it for $120 at shopinhk.com.

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