Q&A: Novelist Adam Johnson

In some ways, the timing couldn't have been better for the release of Adam Johnson's novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master's Son, in January. The country's longtime dictator, Kim Jong-il, had just died a month before, and international news was abuzz as to whether his youngest son and successor, Kim Jong-un, would improve the country's notoriously abysmal international relations. Not only did the book get rave reviews in major publications across the country, but Johnson also had a publicity tour of the kind authors dream about—PBS Newshour, NPR's Weekend Edition, even Foreign Policy.

Johnson is a professor at Stanford whose previous works—the short-story collection Emporium and the 2003 novel Parasites Like Us—have tended toward the fantastic. The Orphan Master's Son is no less fantastic, all the more so for its grounding in the surreal closed-off culture of North Korea. The novel tells the story of Pak Jun Do, who rises from a lowly orphanage to become a expert kidnapper and then a translator and something of a spy. Following a stint in a prison camp, Jun Do pursues the love of a beautiful actress even as his actions bring him into conflict with Kim Jong-il himself. Lest you think this sounds like a historical saga, you should know that parts of the tale are told from the perspective of the interrogator on the torture squad questioning Jun Do and from satirical propaganda broadcasts—nothing about The Orphan Master's Son is what you expect.

Johnson will be reading at the University of Tennessee next week. He spoke on the phone from his home in San Francisco.

It's ambitious, I think, to set a novel pretty much entirely in North Korea, because really, we know so little about what goes on there.

That's absolutely the case. I won't say journalism and non-fiction have entirely failed North Korea, but so much written about the country is non-verifiable—there are all these legends, myths, rumors. … You know, I'm not Korean, I'm Caucasian. It's a leap anyway. But how to balance those things is something I contemplate a great deal. And you know, we don't have any evidence of a novel being written in North Korea by a North Korean—that's 60 years.

I was surprised at how funny the book is. I mean, you describe all these awful things, like kidnapping and prison camps, but there's so much humor, even when it's horrifying.

I feel like I toned the horrors down somewhat. But there's a humor in my writing no matter what. I can't help that.

You traveled to North Korea during the course of writing this book. How much did your visit there change what you had written before you went, or did it just reinforce the research you had done?

I went in 2007, and I'd been working on the book for about two years at that point. … People wouldn't even look at me. That's how paranoid they are, and rightfully so—it's forbidden for North Koreans to talk to foreigners.

Wow, that is just insane.

Yeah, I didn't get to talk to a single North Korean except, you know, my minders. And they would be pointing out things for me to look at, and I'd notice a sewer lid and ask them what was written on the sewer lid. It made them very angry. But I wanted to get that palpable feel of the country. I couldn't have gotten that from pictures and videos.

Do you think that now that Kim Jong-un has replaced his father that the country might become more open?

The thing about North Korea is that we know so little about what is happening there. We don't even know who's really in charge, if Kim Jong-un is running things or if he's just a figurehead. But the leadership needs the Kims—that is the one thing that can't change. … I don't see honestly how any change could come. South Korea can't handle the 2,000 people a year that are coming over now—how could they handle 24 million people who haven't had any exposure to modern life? I'm not very hopeful, unfortunately.

So have you started working on a new novel yet, or are you still taking a break from finishing the last one?

I'm done writing about North Korea, although intellectually I'm still fascinated by it. I still read the North Korean newspaper every day. It's online, the Japanese translate it into English at kcna.co.jp. But right now I'm just writing short stories. And it's fun. You can write a happy short story.