Adam Johnson, Associate Professor of English, recently won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel “The Orphan Master’s Son.” The work focuses on a fictional character who initially works for and then falls victim to the North Korean state, and it was described as “an exquisitely crafted novel” by the Pulitzer committee. The Daily sat down with Johnson to discuss his work at Stanford, his novel and the experience of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was the inspiration for “The Orphan Master’s Son?”
Adam Johnson (AJ): I teach a class on novel-writing and we read novels and I usually try to throw in one memoir. So as we try to create fictional people in fake stories, we could look at one real person telling his or her real story just to help keep perspective.
One year I chose a memoir called “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” released [in] 2004…It was the story of Kang Chol-Hwan and his time in a North Korean gulag called Yodok, which is [formally named] Camp 15. I didn’t really understand [that] the gulag system was alive and well in the world, and I started reading more and more books about North Korea. Even though I thought I was informed and educated, I realized I didn’t know anything about that part of the world. I’m a writer and the more I read, the more I started writing little voices and dialogues and descriptions. And suddenly my story just started coming. I didn’t set out to do anything.
TSD: Could you describe your initial reactions when you found out that the novel was awarded a Pulitzer?
AJ: The committee that gives the prize doesn’t tell the finalists or the recipients. They just put it on a website. I was talking to someone and he said, “Hey I heard you won the Pulitzer Prize,” and I barked at him. He said “Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize” and I barked at him. I said, “Don’t say shit like that!” in an angry way. I don’t know why—it just came out. But then he googled it and showed it to me and said, “Actually you did.” That’s how I found out.
TSD: How challenging was the writing process for the book?
AJ: It was a really challenging book to write, though very rewarding. I had to go far outside my own experience [in] writing about another culture in a very different kind of society that sees the world much differently from me. So I had to leave my comfort zone. But it was very, very rewarding to try to capture lives of other people that are so much different than my own. That sounds like a pretty lame answer. It was really hard to write.
I would show my work to my Korean-American friends and they were like, “Dude, I don’t know anything about Korea.” I showed it to a friend from mine, she’s from South Korea and she’s a writer: “I don’t know anything about North Korea.” It was just hard to find people to help me get it right.
TSD: What did your research entail?
AJ: I read a lot of books. I read a lot of the testimonials of defectors online. I befriended one man who was from North Korea—he was very helpful. He read the book and helped me and I tried to immerse myself in Korean history, Korean culture and Korean music. If I had known when I first taught that book that I was going to spend six years writing about Korean culture, I would have learned Korean. That’s the first thing I would have done. The book just grew in a strange way.
TSD: Do you have any concerns about the current situation in North Korea?
AJ: Yes, there are many. I’m no expert on the political, military, nuclear or economic dimensions. My book was about normal people in North Korea, and I really feel for those people who are trapped by a regime that’s acting dangerously.
TSD: What are you working on right now?
AJ: I just finished a long article on North Korea and I’ve been working on a short story—not about North Korea.
TSD: Who are your favorite fiction writers?
AJ: Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Tallent.
TSD: To you, what’s most appealing about teaching Stanford students?
AJ: Where do I begin? Stanford students are awesome. They’re ravenous for narratives. They love short stories. They’re so insightful. They’re way better writers than I was as an undergraduate. I believe we’re going to hear from a lot of the writers here in the undergraduate program some day. They’re going to be famous writers, not famous as in, ‘Oh they’re stars,’ but as in writing books that matter.
TSD: If you could give any advice to aspiring student writers, what would it be?
AJ: I favor labor over talent. I think if you read a lot and you have your ear tuned to stories, and they speak to you and haunt you, those are the stories to write. If you do a lot of work, you’re going to do justice to them.