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.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Extraordinary . . . A page-turner of a book . . . South Korea provides not only the backdrop of Soo-Ja’s story, but also the context for Park’s novel, which spans the decades after the Korean War to the beginning of the country’s economic boom. In a sense, Soo-Ja’s story parallels South Korea’s development from a poor, struggling state to a gleaming Asian tiger.” —Chicago Tribune
“Memorable . . . Atmospheric and exuberantly filmic . . . a simple but visceral romance in a refreshing Korean setting.” —The Miami Herald
“Park does a good job of bringing the rapidly changing South Korea of the 1960s alive. As cities sprout from beanfields and rickshaws give way to Kias, the world around Soo-Ja and her family is changing at a frightening speed. . . . I especially recommend this novel to readers who were intrigued (as was I) by Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, set in postwar China. The contrast is fascinating.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“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, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
“Vivid…atmospheric . . . Park’s descriptions of antigovernment clashes and the martyrdom of a 12-year-old boy, in particular, provide eerily prescient reverberations of recent clashes in Syria.” —Boston Globe
“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
“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.” —Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger and Fingersmith
“An understatedly brilliant tale . . . Through Soo-Ja’s eyes, Park beautifully evokes 1960s war-torn South Korea.” —Audrey Magazine