Amazon Exclusive: Janice Y.K. Lee Interviews Samuel Park
Janice Y.K. Lee is the New York Times best-selling author of The Piano Teacher, which was also a New York Times Editor's Choice, a Richard and Judy Summer Read pick in the UK, and published in 24 languages.
Janice Y.K. Lee: Samuel, it's a pleasure to be e-interviewing you. I only wish we could do it in person. I really enjoyed your book and found much to admire in it.
Samuel Park: Thank you, Janice. It's an honor to be doing this with the author of The Piano Teacher.
JL: Many elements of this book resonated with me; I think it speaks to a Korean experience common to both Koreans and Korean-Americans. This is your mother's story, you have said. Tell us about the process of novelizing it.
SP: I was inspired by a real life event that happened to my mother the day before her wedding: another man asked her to choose him instead of her fiance. My mother, of course, turned him down, but once her own marriage deteriorated, she often wondered, "What if." So the question that intrigued me was, 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? The book is about the consequences of the choices that we make.
JL: Korea as a country experienced incredibly rapid growth and transformation in the 20th century. How did you feel about having to write about such enormous changes in one book? Did you do research to find out what life was like in Korea in the mid-twentieth century?
SP: I did a lot of research. I wanted to capture the excitement and uncertainty of living through a sea change in a country's history. Soo-Ja's personal metamorphosis becomes a microcosm for the events happening around her. What happens to Soo-Ja, in essence, is what happens to South Korea: As Soo-Ja fights to escape poverty and become a successful businesswoman, her country too struggles to move from the devastation of the Korean War to its rise as one of the so-called "Asian tigers." She herself may be unaware of this, but her own experience is very much emblematic of the cataclysmic shifts.
JL: How do you think a non-Korean reader, tabula rasa in terms of Korean customs or family traditions, will react to the book?
SP: So far, the reaction I've got is that readers are intrigued by the cultural details of the book. Like hanbok, the traditional Korean gown that is often mistaken for kimono, but is quite different. Unlike kimono, which allows for little freedom of movement, hanbok is loose at the bottom, and you can practically run in it. This speaks to the paradoxical nature of gender norms in Korea, where mothers hold exalted, glorified positions, but until 1977 could easily lose custody of their children
JL: Family dysfunction is a common theme in novels. Can you talk a little bit about the inimitable Korean brand of family dysfunction? In particular, I'm thinking of the very illogical ways in which family members interact with each other, never telling each other facts that might solve problems, or brewing in martyrdom when everyone would benefit from a little honesty. You know what I mean!
SP: I know what you mean. In the novel, the father sacrifices much of his fortune to help his daughter. It's a very dramatic gesture, but it's also his only means to express love in a culture that isn't verbal or demonstrative of one's feelings. I'm generalizing here, but I think Koreans often use money as a means to express emotions otherwise kept repressed. I was interested, then, in exploring not only the way money corrupts family relations, but also how it creates powerful bonds between people. Koreans often measure the extent of their love by the amount of sacrifice they perform for the other person. It's beautiful and maddening at the same time.
JL: What did your mother think about the book?
SP: She hasn't read the whole book, but she liked the parts she read. At the end of the day, the book is a work of fiction, and my mother has a healthy separation between the character and her. She knows that she inspired Soo-Ja but is not Soo-Ja, if that makes sense.
“Atmospheric and exuberantly filmic . . . a simple but visceral romance in a refreshing Korean setting.” —Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald
“[A] harrowing, emotionally dense debut . . . set to the music of sensuous prose . . . like all good love stories, it lets go of the ambiguity it’s built when the time is right. The path is long and surprising, the drama is high, there’s pain involved, and the twists and turns are reliably, recognizably and realistically unpredictable.” —Patrick Somerville, TimeOut Chicago
“An unflappable heroine anchors Park's epic post–Korean War love story. . . . But this is no quiet tale of yearning: the plot kicks in with an unexpected fierceness, and the ensuing action—a kidnapping, fist fights, blackmail—make for a dramatic, suck-you-in chronicle of a thrilling love affair.” —Publishers Weekly
“Captivating . . . Park's novel can be read as a contemplation of loss and the angst of unrequited love, much like Dr. Zhivago . . . First-rate literary effort.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A vivid and involving novel . . . Park portrays, with penetrating compassion, individuals trapped in soul-crushing, sexist traditions . . . Smart, affecting, and unabashedly melodramatic, Park’s novel of adversity, moral clarity, and love is consuming and cathartic.” —Booklist
“This Burns My Heart is quietly stunning—a soft, fierce story that lingers in the mind. Samuel Park is a deft and elegant writer; this is a very exciting debut.” —Audrey Niffenegger, New York Times bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry
“This Burns My Heart is a delicate yet powerful story of love, loss, and endurance. The emotional world of the heroine, Soo-Ja, is beautifully realized; I found myself caught up in her dramas from start to finish, and was reluctant to part with her at the novel’s close. A lovely, romantic, haunting book.” —Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger, Fingersmith, and Tipping the Velvet
“This Burns My Heart never loses touch with the human passion at the core of its epic romance. Writing prose with the beauty of poetry, Samuel Park traces a young woman's journey to hard-won maturity, alongside the meteoric rise of post-war Korea, in a novel which shines with eloquence and wisdom.” —David Henry Hwang, Tony-Award winning author of M. Butterfly
"Samuel Park's astonishing novel, This Burns My Heart, provides mesmerizing perspective into the life of a Korean wife and lover—intricate and intimate as only a woman's secret life can be." —Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
"This Burns My Heart is at once a passionate and sensitive love story and a fascinating historical novel set against the cultural dislocations of a rising South Korea. In his heroine Soo-Ja, Samuel Park has created an emotionally resonant character that readers will root for and long remember." —John Burnham Schwartz, bestselling author of The Commoner and Reservation Road
"Both an epic love story and an intimate depiction of life in post-war Korea, This Burns My Heart introduces a singular heroine whose passions, struggles, and triumphs are mirrored in our own. Samuel Park is one of those rare writers whose talent transcends the limits of race and gender." —Wendy Lee, author of Happy Family
“This Burns My Heart captured me with a heroine who is both irresistible and flawed, and engrossed me with increasing twists in a triangle of love and sacrifice. The story explores how a fateful choice colors a decade of marriage, and challenges a young woman’s ambition already constrained by traditional Korean culture. Sam Park paints all the flavors of post-war Korea in this vivid debut, and his understanding and expression of the human heart is universal.” —Eugenia Kim, author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter
"The very talented Samuel Park weaves a compelling, vivid story of one family's evolution that deftly mirrors Korea's development from ancient country to modern society." —Janice Y.K. Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Piano Teacher