The Rumpus Interview with Adam Johnson


When I saw Stephen Elliott call The Orphan Master’s Son “the best novel I’ve read in forever,” in one of his Daily Rumpus emails I knew I had to interview Adam Johnson for the Rumpus.

Johnson’s fiction has appeared in publications as varied as Tin House, Esquire, The Paris Review, and Playboy, and his awards include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Stegner Fellowship. He’s published three books, the latest of which, a novel called The Orphan Master’s Son, follows the extraordinary life of a North Korean orphan.

He also teaches creative writing at Stanford. I would know, because I was a student of his. Along with Tom Kealey, he taught two of the best classes of my college career, one on new media writing and one on the graphic novel. In the latter, fourteen other students and I collaborated on a graphic novel called Shake Girl, which Johnson and Kealey edited.


The Rumpus: So what was the research process for The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea? How did you even begin to start synthesizing all this information?

Adam Johnson: If I were writing a nonfiction book, I would’ve kept note cards and my bibliography—all the crap they trained me to do in school. But as a fiction writer, I just poured it all into the mulch heap and let whatever weird thing emerges emerge. Actually, it’s interesting to think about what the research was like before my brain took it all and made it into this thing. It’s kind of like asking, “What was life like before the Big Bang?” All the elements are there, but it seems weirdly untraceable.

When I write fiction, I usually read nonfiction, and in 2004, I was working on a piece of fiction—I don’t even remember what it was—but I picked up The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan, which tells of Kang’s nine years in Yodok, or Camp 15, which is a family camp. I think it was his uncle who committed an infraction, and so the whole family went into the gulag….That a system like that was up and functioning in the world was unbelievable to me. Right now, it’s sunny here in America, which means it’s the middle of the night there, and 50,000 people are in Yodok right now trying to catch a few hours of sleep before they go to work in the morning in the labor camp. Auschwitz was up and running for three years; Camp 15 is deep into its fifth decade. It’s an institution.

It made me start reading other things. At some point, online, I started finding the narratives of defectors, and once I started reading real people who’d gotten out and talked about their lives there and the impossible choices they had to make—which I think is the stuff of novels—my fiction-writer’s mind just started churning all this stuff. I don’t think I even knew I was researching a book. I just became obsessed with reading everything I could. My mind just processes things by doing sketches and playing with voices. The more I read about North Korea, the more goofing I did. My brain wanted to do something with all this stuff, and suddenly I was writing a story in a propaganda voice.

Rumpus: When we were working on Shake Girl, we listened to Cambodian music, and I remember you talking about listening to North Korean music as part of the research for this novel. I was wondering how big a role that played, and what music you were listening to.

Johnson: That’s a great question. The North Koreans are really invested in projecting a view that they’re not a pariah hermit kingdom, but that they’re an international player on the world stage, that they have many friends around the world….They publish the works of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung in languages all around the world. They actually import a lot of translators on contract into Pyongyang, and on their websites, they actually have lots of information. They have like 13,000 YouTube videos on a channel we believe is theirs….So they do have a lot of videos and a lot of free music up there.

If you go to the KCNA central website, they have a lot of creepy militaristic march songs, like the March of Kim Il-Sung and the March of Kim Jong-Il, etc. They have a lot of opera propaganda songs, which are actually high-production and very beautiful. The Koreans have an improvisational form of music—it’s instrumental—called sanjo. They also have an improvisational form of music that’s vocal that I never quite got into, but the sanjo music is played with the gayageum and the taegum, and it’s very wandering and melodic and playful and mournful. I became kind of addicted to it—a form of jazz that was in conversation with other melodies of other sanjo masters, that was invented long before our sense of American jazz.

…Listening to sanjo music while I wrote helped me think about a nation in which its traditions had been taken. They still play the gayageum there, and they still play all sorts of music, but it’s all prescribed by the state. The artists can’t follow their own traditions and make their own expressive music. So I listened to a lot of sanjo music. It didn’t have lyrics, so that didn’t distract me while I was writing. Like I said, it’s just as playful and melancholy as jazz, and I found it really stimulating.

The second thing about Shake Girl:…I really wanted to get this voice of the interrogator into my book, and Division 39, which is where a lot of this nefarious activity takes place in North Korea, was a real void in my research. I couldn’t find out anything about how their national interrogation worked. But we had studied Cambodia [where Shake Girl takes place], another Asian country that’s relatively small that had committed a recent genocide against its own people. We had studied the torture museum, which was Tuol Sleng, and we watched a couple documentaries about that. Those people left very clear records of what they had done. You know that 17,000 people went into Tuol Sleng, and only five lived to tell the tale.

Mostly it’s the guards that gave us testimonials. They took those big photographs of every person, and what was left was file cabinets, because every person that went in, they would write their biography from their birth right up until they supposedly committed an infraction against the state. You would be held in there and tortured regularly until you finally signed your confession, and they actually called these things “biographies.”…I just took this system that we did know, and I appropriated it. I just put it into my book to replace a system that we had no idea about.

Rumpus: Speaking of these “biographies” that this interrogator gets, there’s so much in the book about the immense power of narratives, both political and personal. Do you feel like being a fiction writer gave you a greater insight into that?

Johnson: I would say that my research made me rethink or deepen my thinking on narrative. You’ve taken fiction workshops; you know that we have a sense of how a story should be shaped and what a character should do. I think that’s a reflection of a sense of how we should behave, even if we don’t. Every character should want something, need something, have desires. The character should act upon them to get the plot going, they should make discoveries and look inward, they should face conflict and overcome obstacles, and they should grow and change. We shape all of our stories in workshop according to this Western formula, and that formula comes from a notion that every character is the central character in his or her own story. We believe that if we were to shift the perspective to a minor character, the story would become completely different, because they would be at the center, and their needs and desires would drive a different story.

But when you study a totalitarian state, as I did by reading the stories of defectors, it becomes really clear from the propaganda, and from the way people live there, that there is one national narrative. It’s written exclusively by the Kim regime. It’s fine-tuned by propaganda censors, it’s promulgated through the state-owned media, and in that system, there’s only one central figure. It was Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, or now Kim Jong-Un, this almost-divine patriarch who had this benevolent need for the people. Everyone else in that country, the millions of other people, were secondary characters.

…Especially if you grow up in the rural areas, your aptitude for certain tasks is divined early, and you’re put on a path to become an ostrich farmer or a ballerina or a tunnel soldier. What you want doesn’t matter. Your needs and desires actually only get in the way. When you’re given a task, growing and changing are bad things. Gaining insight and wisdom only causes dissonance and hinders the performance of your job. It’s a country where even being perceived to be out of line is dangerous, so there’s no spontaneity. Everyone must follow a script. So people don’t communicate their inner desires. They don’t reveal themselves, which is the center of Western storytelling.

Rumpus: And the center of Western life in general.

Johnson: Right. We know those people are just as driven by the same set of human desires as we are. They’re just in a circumstance in which acting upon them, or even having them, is counter to survival. That really made me curious about what happens to your identity if you don’t exercise it. What happens to your inner faults and feelings—what we would call a personality—if you shield it, if you don’t give voice to it? How long can your soul remain hidden from the people you care about without it withering? And when would you take the chance to share these things?

Especially as a father of three, the question I thought about a lot would be: Would I share with my kids my sense that this was all a lie, and that we were in a despotic system and not in the best nation in the world? If I did share that, I would have a greater chance of retaining their humanity, but I would also run a greater chance of jeopardizing their survival if they started talking like that or criticizing or questioning openly.

Rumpus: Speaking of children, you were once talking about your short story “Hurricanes Anonymous” to a class I was in, and you said something about how in everything you write, you find some new way to write about a father leaving his children. That seems to be very present in this book, up to and including the title The Orphan Master’s Son. Is that something you were conscious of while you were writing it?

Johnson: That’s a good question. I think we have chronic aches that are just always going to find their way into our writing. That’s just part of your worldview, these shortcomings or flaws or loops that we get caught in. I wrote my story collection, called Emporium, and those were very autobiographical stories, even if they were a little bit fabulous on the surface sometimes. And then my first novel was the novel that you have to write that gets all of your life issues out. Then I thought afterward that I know people that kind of write the same book over and over, and I was a real candidate for that. (laughs) Because even after I wrote my essential book that dealt with all my life and family issues, those urges had not been exorcised. They never will be.

I kind of thought after I wrote Parasites Like Us, “Hey, maybe you should write fiction. (laughs) Maybe you should invent some characters who are different than you, who have much different life issues, and make the true empathetic leap to imagining other people’s lives instead of making vessels to reexamine yourself.” I think I was partly successful with that in this book. I went to a distant place around the world to another culture, so I didn’t bring lots of myself to those characters. And yet in the end, I did find that my own issues managed to work their way in.

Rumpus: There are some pieces of the book that seem like they’re partially commentary about American politics or life. I know you’ve talked in other interviews about how you sort of got interested in writing this book partially by contemplating Bush-era propaganda. Was it a goal of yours to at all comment on American politics, or did that just happen organically?

Johnson: Well, that was straight out of my research. When you read North Korean propaganda, it’s clear that they’re obsessed with the flaws in the American system. They’re constantly commenting on the hypocrisies of the West….It’s hard to use a lot of their actual obsession with our hypocrisy because they’re so hyperbolic and repetitive, but I tried to critique America. It was a platform to look at our own shortcomings, our own hunger issues—people in America go hungry every day. What better lens to examine that than through a nation like North Korea? In trying to capture their paranoid sense of our hypocrisy, I did feel like I wanted to constantly critique America that way. It felt true to North Korean propaganda.

…You know, North Korea is an easy target to make fun of, but there’s this famous image of North Korea at night from a satellite. You can see the modern nation of South Korea burning bright and China burning bright, and North Korea’s just a black void. They don’t have a single light bulb on. But after going to the DPRK and after studying how people survive with little means and how they have to conserve every single thing, including their feces to use as fertilizer, I look at that picture now, and I think, “Why is every light in South Korea burning all night? Why is it blazing? Why are we burning all that electricity?”

In North Korea, I saw that in a lot of the museums they have escalators, and when you walk up to them, you flip a switch at the bottom, and you turn it on. You ride to the top, you flip a switch, and you turn it off. Now when I see them in the airport or in the mall, just running and running and running with no one on them, huge moving sidewalks moving no one, it seems like a colossal waste we don’t even contemplate.

Rumpus: Have you gotten the chance to talk with anybody with ties to North Korea who has told you if you got something right or wrong, or that it affected them in a certain way?

Johnson: I gave the book while I was writing it to a couple Korean-American friends, but…being Korean-American is removed from being Korean, which is so far removed from being North Korean….I showed the book to one friend who was from North Korea, and he said, “This isn’t a true portrait of North Korea in my opinion,” but he really felt that I’d gotten some essence of something that he hadn’t seen before. He was a big fan of the book. I was always like, “What did I get wrong? Tell me, I’ll fix it.” And he was reluctant to. I think the book is its own weird thing in some way.

Rumpus: As someone who has done all this research, what was your first reaction on hearing Kim Jong-Il had died?

Johnson: Well, he’s a character in the book, and it was one of my fears while I was writing the book for many years that Kim Jong-Il would die before my book was finished, because he was in ill health. It was hard to tell exactly what was what, but it seemed as if he’d had a stroke. Teams of French doctors flew in to help him, he was fragile, etc.

It wasn’t until I’d worked on the book for a few years that I started to think about these notions of narrative, that the script of a nation was really written by one person, and it was him. It meant that if he had total control over everything, he was actually responsible for every action that happened under his watch. When we see the orphans fight over food, or when we see a character kidnap someone else, that’s directly accountable to Kim Jong-Il. As someone with complete authority, any place he casts his gaze, he can effect complete change. At some point I realized we had to look at this scriptwriter. We had to see this person up close. That meant that he couldn’t be a joke, that he had to be fully fleshed out, that he had to have weaknesses and vulnerabilities and desires, that I had to look at a character that most of the West has dismissed as either a buffoon or a madman in a serious way.

…My fear that he would die connected partly to this book by Thomas Keneally, who wrote Schindler’s List. He wrote a book called The Tyrant’s Novel, and while he doesn’t name his character Saddam Hussein the way I name mine Kim Jong-Il, it’s very clear that this is Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein wrote novels, as did [Muammar] Qaddafi. They’re Saladin-esque romances in which the West is vanquished and Saddam Hussein on horseback kisses a lot of chicks. But he had a ghostwriter, and that’s the premise of the novel. It’s really a great novel, but Saddam Hussein died, or was killed, just before that book came out, and I saw a really worthy book not find an audience….So I was at a Christmas party, singing carols, and I came home and there was my phone and 30 texts from all my friends. I was like, “Holy shit, Kim Jong-Il’s dead!” I went to the Times website, and there it was.

But a funny thing happened….When Qaddafi died, and when Saddam died, they were immediately demystified by the people they’d oppressed. The citizens opened up their palaces, they took pictures of everything, they wrote graffiti on everything, they tweeted as they lounged in golden tubs, they jumped up and down on the diamond-shaped beds. We saw those [dictators] drug into the light. We saw them on a human scale. All the secret files from bunkers were opened, and people learned the truth.

But with Kim Jong-Il, the opposite happened. He actually became more mysterious in his death, because we don’t know how he died. We don’t have an autopsy, we didn’t have a body, and we never will. The North Koreans say he died on the train [on the way] to give an inspection, but the South Koreans say they have satellite photos that the train never left the station….We never even got a close look at the body. I looked at some of that footage, and the camera’s never within 30 feet of that Kim Jong-Il–looking figure. And if there’s any place in the world where they could kill a bodyguard and put him up there, it’s North Korea. I don’t think Kim Jong-Il’s alive, but if there’s one place in the world where he could pretend to be dead, install his son, and watch from a bunker that everything went well, it’s that place.

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →