A CONVERSATION WITH SAMUEL PARK
This novel is based on your mother’s story. What inspired you to write it down?
Something really extraordinary happened to my mother the day before her wedding: another man tried to get her to choose him, instead. She was equally attracted to him, but what woman in her right mind goes off with a stranger the day before her wedding? So she said No, and once her own marriage turned into shambles, she began to wonder, “What if.” As a writer, I thought that was an irresistible hook for a novel, and couldn’t resist fictionalizing it. Who was that man? What was their relationship like? Did they ever see each other again? The question that kept coming back to me was, What are the consequences and reverberations of our choices? What does it mean to pick X, instead of Y? Do you still have the life you were supposed to have, or is it another life altogether?
Was your mother involved in the writing process? How much is true, and how much did you fictionalize?
My mother didn’t know I was writing a novel inspired by her life. If I had told her, I would’ve become too self-conscious to continue. She turned out to be ok with it, which was a relief. My mother did ask, however, not to tell people which parts were true, and I’ve really stayed true to my word. It’s been a balancing act—being honest about my inspirations, but also respecting her privacy. I would say that this is a book that is inspired by my mother’s life and her spirit, but at the end of the day, it’s a work of fiction. The characters were borne out of my imagination, and all the real life events were rearranged for dramatic effect.
Did you have to do research on Korean language and customs? How much of your history and culture is a part of your life today?
I read a lot of books, and spent about a year consuming only Korean-language films on DVD and VHS, and that was all I would watch. I especially loved discovering films from the period the book is set in, like Madame Freedom and School Trip. Because of their low budgets, many of these productions were shot on the streets, almost verite style, and you get to see what buildings and streets looked like in the 50s and 60s. I also came across a pretty great resource: the Korea Annual, an almanac published every year by the Hapdong News Agency. If you want to know what kind of fish were being sold in the stalls in 1964, you can find that information there. I’ve also been to Korea twice, when I was younger, and have vivid memories from both trips—the maze that Soo-Ja runs through in the opening scene, for instance, really exists and is only a block from my uncle’s old house.
You’ve written a novella, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, that was published in 2006. How have you changed or grown as a writer? Why did you decide to branch into historical fiction?
In those five years, I grew a lot as a writer. In the beginning, I measured my success by how quickly people turned the pages—I wanted my stories to be page turners. But while you do want the reader to keep turning the pages, and feel immersed by the story and the characters, at times you actually need the reader to stop turning the pages and be swept by their own feelings. When the reader is struck by a burst of emotion, or inspired to reflect upon a thought—those are the moments when the novel actually works. And getting people to respond that way, especially emotionally, is the hardest thing to do. I can describe someone kicking a dog and get cheap, easy emotion—but truly heartfelt emotion, where you feel genuine investment in the situation, is much harder to elicit, and requires more craft.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets was made into a short film that you also wrote and directed. How was creating a film different from writing the novel?
I wanted to direct films when I was younger, and I used to love making shorts. I remember one day we were shooting in a friend’s apartment, and it was non-stop drama: I had to herd my friend’s unruly cats into a bathroom, and deal with an angry building manager who wanted to kick us out. At one point, I didn’t know if we’d have a lead actor, since the person who went to pick him up called to say he wasn’t answering the door. I don’t know if this was good preparation for writing a novel, but a bookseller once told me that my writing is very cinematic. When I write, I want the reader to feel like she can picture the action unfolding in front of her, and see and hear all the characters. Ideally, the reader feels like she is right there in the room with them, and everything is happening at that exact moment.
Do you see yourself writing more contemporary fiction or historical fiction? How was the writing process different for each genre?
I see myself doing both, actually. Writing contemporary fiction is a lot easier, in the sense that you’re free to use any metaphor or reference you wish, and so the range of tools available to you are much larger. But writing historical fiction can be very satisfying, in that the limitations placed upon you free your imagination, like a haiku. I especially like writing historical fiction when the focus is not on “famous” figures, but on ordinary people whose lives illustrate historical shifts. When we discuss history, most people conjure up political events, economic policies, and important dates, but those don’t account for the subterranean feelings and desires circulating through the citizenry—and to me, those are just as important. In the book, Soo-Ja’s quickly changing life serves as a metaphor for her country’s own transformation. She stands in, in many ways, for South Korea. The changes in her gender roles, for instance, from traditional daughter to more independent businesswoman, end up mirroring South Korea’s own shift from a poor, rural country, into a rich, industrialized one.
You maintain an online blog at your website (www.samuelpark.com). How is blogging different (or similar) from writing a book? Do you try to write every day?
Blogging is a form of speech, and reading a blog is like listening to someone on the phone tell you about her day. Reading a novel, on the other hand, is more like putting on your earphones and listening to music. The words have to do more than just provide information; they need to fulfill some unarticulated desire for beauty, comfort, conflict. They engage with your unconscious. When you write a blog, you’re essentially transcribing conversation. But when you write a novel, you pour onto the page a much more complicated soup that’s in your head and in your heart—the combustion between your past experiences, your emotions, and your imagination.
Why did you choose the title This Burns My Heart? You use the Korean word “chamara” to describe the pain between Soo-Ja and Yul. How is this word significant?
I suppose the title and the concept of chamara are intertwined—one is the condition and the other is the response to it. When you’re in love and you can’t have the other person, the pain can be almost physical—your heart literally hurts; it feels like it’s burning. But there’s nothing you can do but stand the pain. Chamara is a concept that I’m not sure you can fully translate; it literally means “hang in there,” or “try to bear it,” but a closer definition might be “swallow your pain.” It implies that you really can’t do anything about your sorrows–all you can do is try to persevere, which is essentially what Soo-Ja does through the course of the novel. Also, even though the words “burns” and “heart” are the most evocative images in the title, I actually chose the title because of the demonstrative determiner “this.” What is the “this” that is burning her heart? Is “this” the longing that characterizes the life of someone who cannot have her true love? Is “this” the gap between the life we’d like to have and the one we actually do have? Or maybe “this” has to do with something even less specific, and just refers to the condition of being in the world, open and vulnerable to all the hurts and joys and pains that come with it.
You are an English professor at Columbia College Chicago. Does your teaching affect your writing? What inspired you to become a professor?
Teaching English lit to undergraduates can be old-fashioned at times, and you end up following the 1950s New Criticism model of isolating and analyzing important passages. For the instructor, this means reading and rereading the same passage hundreds of times, leading to different voices becoming ingrained in you. This can be useful in as heteroglossic a genre as the novel. For the character of Eun-Mee, for instance, I borrowed the voices of Lydia Bennet—Elizabeth’s vain and boy-crazy younger sister in Pride and Prejudice—and that same novel’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the haughty noblewoman whose speech drips with pretension and entitlement. My love for characters like them—and Lizzie, of course—inspired me to go on to graduate school and become an English professor.
Who are your favorite authors? What are you currently reading?
Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Curtis Sittenfeld, Sarah Waters, Ann Patchett, John Burnham Schwartz, Andre Aciman, Nami Mun, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, and Michael Cunningham. My favorite “classic” authors are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster. I’m currently reading a lot of books about a country that will remain unmentioned—it’s research for my next book.
Who are some of your literary influences and how did their work help to inspire you when writing This Burns My Heart?
I love all of Jane Austen’s novels, as you can already tell, but Pride and Prejudice in particular influenced me. I’ve read and reread it about ten times, and a few years ago I decided to break it down scene by scene, and that helped me see what made each section work so well. Part of what she does so brilliantly is to find external means to articulate inner turmoil. In the scene, for instance, at Pemberley, when Lizzie realizes that she made a mistake in turning down Darcy, Austen dramatizes her discovery by having her engage with the external signs of Darcy’s good character—the beautiful artwork in his estate mirror the harmony of his mind. I really love how Austen’s heroines are strong and spirited, but also prone to making self-defeating mistakes. Finally, she’s brilliant at depicting insular, constrictive customs. In many ways, This Burns My Heart isPride and Prejudice in Korea, imbued with a sense of sorrow that is uniquely Korean. Also, I enjoy reading 19th c. British novels, and This Burns My Heart has a Victorian triple-decker structure (though I cheated and added a part four)—and is really three novels in one, allowing you to follow a character over different stages of her life, much like Great Expectations, or Jane Eyre.
Give all you can, then give 10 times more. Write the best possible book for you to write, then add three great scenes. Don’t be satisfied with good enough, or with “publishable.” If you think you can make something in your book—a character, a scene—better, then take the time to make it better. Ask yourself, Is the book, in its current form, one that readers would tell others about, and that newspapers would review positively? Often enough, we stop too soon. Take the time to make it the absolute best book you can write, because you have to win the reader over line by line, page by page, scene by scene. You cannot take anyone’s interest for granted. At the end of the day, you’re asking someone to fork over 30 bucks, and hand you six to seven hours of their time. You better earn every dollar and every minute.