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Exotic Foreign Lands: Author Adam Johnson Went a Long Way to Research a Nation That Wouldn't Talk to Him

Last year, no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded, but that was 2012. This is 2013, "The Year of Adam Johnson," and the Pulitzer is just the most recent, prestigious accolade the Stanford professor's New York Times bestselling novel, The Orphan Master's Son, has amassed. Johnson, whose book led spellbound critics and readers into the depths of both totalitarian North Korea and our innermost human desires, spoke to us recently — and we're more than a little smitten with the incredibly gracious, convivial Cole Valley resident.

SF Weekly: You were on a self-imposed mission to channel the silenced voices in North Korea through literature. You've won the Pulitzer, but this book is enjoying more than just critical success. Do you feel like you fulfilled your goal?

Adam Johnson: I didn't set out to write a novel about North Korea. I did train as a journalist. I went down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and spent a lot of time talking to local people doing what they could there, like driving trucks with supplies in it. When you get the story from real humans, it makes you live up to them in some way.

I started reading about North Korea out of interest, and I wasn't fully prepared for how the stories were going to fill me, and then it became something else. I needed to write a story that captured that.

You went to North Korea in 2007. I'm assuming you didn't tell them your trip was to research a book. What did you tell them?

No, I didn't reveal why I was there. It was difficult to get there in 2007, but now it's much easier. Readers should know that anyone who is willing to pay them money, which goes straight to the evil regime, can now go there quite easily.

I had applied for a few exchanges, but didn't get any. I finally met a man who had an NGO in North Korea, and he could vouch for me. I was able to travel there as his companion, associated with his work — not mine.

I imagine that you had handlers, and your goals were somewhat at odds. You wanted one kind of truth, and they had another. How did you reconcile that without putting yourself, or them, in danger?

You can talk to North Koreans who have defected in California, Europe, Japan, but the one place you can't talk to a North Korean is North Korea.

On the one hand, I met people and spoke to them, but they had been trained. I wanted to talk to everyone I saw on the street and ask them everything about themselves. Are you afraid? Are you fulfilled? Who do you love? As a fiction writer, nothing stimulates your brain like not being able to talk about something. Oddly enough, the only way I could talk to them was through fiction.

Do you ever see a reality in which North Koreans can read your book?

There's two realities. There's the reality of the people who live in North Korea, who are starving and oppressed, and they defect in the thousands. And then there are the elites who live in Pyongyang. The elite rarely defect because it's a parasitic society. The elite can live very well off the rest, so they tend not to leave.

We know very little about the millions of people who live in Pyongyang, but we do know that the society's highest tier has Internet access.

So they could theoretically read The Orphan Master's Son?

Yes, they could definitely read it. In theory, they could read a lot of things.

You spent years thinking about North Korea. Do you think there's more there for you there, either another visit or book, or is that chapter closed?

I would love to go back to North Korea, but only after freedom comes. If I went back now, they would show me the exact same thing.

This is a nation without any voice at all. It's unthinkable. We have no evidence of a literary underground. No book or poem has made it out in 60 years. As I wrote the book, I thought, who am I to write this? But the truth is, they can't write, they can't express themselves, and until they can, we need to do this. We won't know if it's true until they can tell their own story.

I'm sure you're being asked the same questions over and over again — perhaps even by me — and so I can't help but wonder, are there questions you wish people were asking?

That's a good question. I wish I could keep talking about it forever, because it is one of the most fascinating places on earth, and also the most dire. North Korea is a place that has been overlooked. I think we haven't come to grips with the Korean War. When Kim Jong-il died, the American media took a serious look at the nation for the first time. Before, it was viewed as clownish, absurd, and that is somewhat true, but it is a place of possibility, where 20 million people have dreams and aspirations. America is finally taking the unfortunate situation seriously, instead of laughing at it. I hope it leads them to other books, like Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, or [the biography of Shin Dong-hyuk] Escape from Camp 14.

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