Saturday, March 25, 2017

Q&A with Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, photo by Nina Subin
Yoojin Grace Wuertz is the author of the new novel Everything Belongs To Us. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, moved to the United States when she was 6, and lives in northern New Jersey.

Q: You've said that your inspiration to write this book came, at least in part, from your father's comments about his time at Seoul National University, and that the book became "the bridge between my parents and me." What do your parents think of the novel, and what do you feel you learned about their lives before they arrived in the United States?

A: My parents are thrilled with the book and the reception so far, which means the world to me. I overheard a family friend joke to my mom after my book launch event, “Now you’ll have to write a book about your daughter to tell your side of the story!” and my mom replied, “No, I’m happy with what she wrote. She already wrote my story.”

I should add that the book is fiction and the events pertaining to the characters are made up, but the historical and cultural details of this generation are deeply researched, largely with their help. Perhaps that’s what she meant when she said I told her story.

What I learned about my parents is that they’ve seen more in their lifetimes, and adapted to more changes culturally, economically, socially, politically, than I will likely ever be required to in mine.

Sometimes the transitions were less than smooth, which used to create a lot of conflict between us. Writing this book helped me see what I was missing about their cultural and historical context.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Jisun and Namin?

A: My mom’s story inspired Namin’s character. Like Namin, my mother grew up with financial challenges because her father died of illness when she was just an infant. This was 1954, only a year after the end of the Korean War. Because she was academically talented, my mother took refuge in books and education.

She used to tell me how she felt ashamed of being poor, but when I think of the huge obstacles she’s overcome in her life, I am incredibly proud of her and proud to be her daughter.

Jisun was inspired by a character from an immensely popular Korean television drama series (what we would now call K-drama) from the 1990s called The Sandglass (or sometimes translated The Hourglass). I was 15 years old when this drama aired, and Koreans were obsessed with it.

This was long before Netflix and Youtube, and so Korean-Americans would have to wait until the episode aired in Korea, then it would be taped and mailed to the States, where Korean video shops would make copies and lend them out. There used to be a lot of these immigrant video shops, which have now gone the way of Blockbuster.

At the time I was too busy with school and too snobby about Korean dramas (which I thought were melodramatic) to actually watch the show, but I knew about it since everyone was talking about it. I knew one of the main characters was an heiress who wanted to be a political activist.

When I started thinking about writing this novel, it was 10 or 12 years after the series had aired, and I remembered this character because my aunt loved the actress. I wanted to create my own version of someone who had been groomed for a life of extreme privilege and decided to forge an opposite path.

So I realized I should go back and watch the show. I watched all 24 hours of it in a couple of weeks. It was tremendous. Melodramatic? For sure.

But Korean history is melodramatic. A tiny peninsula divided by one of the most militarized borders in the world, with superpower allies on either side? There’s really no getting around the melodrama.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: About halfway through the novel, I realized how it would end. The writing went so much faster after that.  

Q: You've noted that you did a lot of research on South Korea in the 1970s. What surprised you most, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the U.S. about recent South Korean history?

A: There were two paradigm-changing realizations. One was that until the mid-1970s, North Korea was actually more prosperous than South Korea. 1974 was the first year that South Korea pulled a higher GDP than the North, and only just barely.

Can you imagine that? In our current reality, it seems like a foregone conclusion that North Korea was always going to suffer under communism, and that South Korea would prosper under capitalism.

But both Koreas were under dictatorships—South Korea didn’t have a true democracy until the late 1980s—and they were in active competition, economically as well as politically, through the postwar/Cold War decades. It was a competition that South Korea was actually losing for many years.

The second realization is related: the so-called “Miracle on the Han,” which describes the economic transformation of South Korea in the 1970s through 1990s is a bit of a misnomer because “miracle” connotes a magical, inexplicable happening.

In reality, the “miracle” was the result of an aggressively engineered push for development by President Park Chung Hee’s administration at the cost of democracy and human rights.

One fact that astounded me is that President Park agreed to send 320,000 troops to the Vietnam War in exchange for billions of dollars of U.S. aid. This was the second largest foreign troop count after the United States. The money earned by these soldiers, as well as the labor of factory workers, often in inhumane conditions, laid the foundation for South Korea’s modern prosperity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel set in contemporary NJ/NY about an interracial couple—a Korean-American woman and a Caucasian man—who come from very different cultures and have clashing class aspirations. Again, it’s about how intimate relationships fare when issues of class and politics come into play.

I’m hoping it will be funny. At least, I find it funny because I get to write about contemporary Korean-American family dynamics. It’s a totally different lane from the historical voice, and I’m enjoying being a little more casual.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing else I can think of! Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Schuman

Q: Why did Kafka become such a longtime passion for you, and how did it lead you to your fascination with all things German (given that, as you state in your new book, he wasn't German)? 

A: Wow, great question. My relationship with Kafka has changed so much, and my relationship to the German language--and, by extension, culture--is directly traceable back to him.

My original attraction to Kafka was what, I think, attracts a lot of brainy-but-misunderstood teens: He was SO good at depicting this primal, visceral, almost desperate alienation from everyone around him. He was sort of the first-ever goth kid who nobody understands, you know?

There's this really short story (one of many he wrote) called "Bachelor's Unhappiness," about coming home to an empty house and having only a forehead to smack with your hand, and that just pierced directly into my soul when I was a teenager, largely ignored by boys (except for one REALLY important one, as the book reveals).

When you feel like nobody understands you, the best thing in the world is to find someone else to be misunderstood with. For me, that person was Franz Kafka.

But as I began to study him seriously, I realized that that reading of him was only one of many, and that he actually had profoundly sophisticated, prescient and, honestly, brilliant things to say about the nature of language and communication.

When I stopped trying to figure out what his stories meant, and concentrated instead on how they did--or didn't!--my relationship with him became much more rewarding (and much less one-sided)! In order to gain the German fluency I needed to read him in the original, though, I had to major in German in college.

And though I had little patience back then for any non-Kafka-related German thing, as I got older, that language really came in handy when I got interested in Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt and other writers who, what do you know, wrote in German.

By the time I started my doctorate in German, I began to recognize the luminous genius of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kleist, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, and the philosophers, too: Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Wittgenstein--Kafka brought me to all of those people, and for that I will always be grateful.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The book's primary title, Schadenfreude, A Love Story, signifies the two polar (but ultimately intertwined) directions of the forces governing my relationship with both Germans and myself.

The Germans enjoyed watching me fail at assimilating into their culture, that's for sure--but there's also this perverse enjoyment I get from watching myself fail that has been hard for me to admit for most of my life. But now that I've published it in a book for God and everyone else to see, I guess that cat's out of that particular bag!

The extremely EXTREMELY long subtitle (or "reading line," as we call it in the biz) is a result of a two-week collaboration between me and my editor at Flatiron Books, Colin Dickerman.

 We wanted every single word of that subtitle to be perfectly indicative of what was to come in the book--and we also wanted it to be a direct play on one of the jokes I make in a chapter about academia, where I say that every professional academic article has the same title template, which is "MILDLY CLEVER THING: Three-Part List, 'Incomprehensible' Scare Quotes, And At Least One Made-Up Word."

Since I'm not an academic anymore, I didn't have to make up any words, but I wanted the MILDLY CLEVER THING, colon, Endless List structure to parallel the structure of the life story that lead up to my own struggle with German-adjacent academia.

Q: How did you decide on the book's organization, and on the different German words you use as chapter titles?

A: I have always been obsessed with interior symmetry (I think it comes from teaching a lot of Greek tragedy to freshmen when I was a professor), and one thing I always noticed about great literature--which I do NOT create myself, but simply try to acknowledge in my work--is that not a single word is wasted, and everything has a purpose.

I wanted the titles of my chapters to work like that, or at least to try; so, because the whole book is titled with an untranslatable German word (that I spend about 288 pages working to illustrate), each of the smaller chapters should also be untranslatable words that I work to illustrate, that also themselves work to illustrate the larger untranslatable trajectory of the book.

Even though the book is a memoir and I technically didn't make it up, I still plotted it (and omitted A LOT of details from my life--future books, I guess), and I plotted it really intricately, like a novel, so that it would have both interior and exterior symmetry.

(It is far from an afterthought that the book begins with me getting dumped, ends with me getting married, and is called "a love story," for example.)

Q: In an interview with Slate, you said, "One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal." Do you have more of a sense now of how German readers have reacted to the book?

A: So far they've all thought it was really funny. I think I just know a lot of really cool Germans. Several of the Germans who appear in the book have already read it and one said she "peed her pants," but she had literally just given birth when she said that, so I am pretty sure she still had a catheter in and it didn't have much to do with my book. She didn't want to sue me, though! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My column on The Awl, "Deutschland über US," which is a digressive weekly dive into what's happening in Germany, a.k.a. the last bastion of liberal democracy in the world. Some other long-term projects that are top-secret for now, but that I hope to be able to talk about in public soon.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 25

March 25, 1881: Mary Webb born.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Q&A with Margaux Bergen

Margaux Bergen, photo by David Hume Kennerly
Margaux Bergen is the author of Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me. She has worked at a variety of organizations focusing on international development and women's leadership, and is now with ORBMedia. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book for your daughter, and did it evolve slowly?

A: I made the decision overnight, when I stared up at the ceiling when she was 9 or 10—[various] miserable events were all happening at once, how do I teach her to survive?

I came up with the title at once, but it took 9 ½ years to write. I wrote it in real time. The complexity of the questions [changed].

Q: Do you think this book is geared toward young adults, or can middle-aged and older people also benefit from it?

A: What I’ve found in the U.S. and the U.K. is that it seems to be read by all generations—"Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me" could be the lament of an 80-year-old whose mother is long dead.

I found people reading it in diverse ways [such as] reading it on holiday with their children. One friend doesn’t like talking about things directly with her son so she underlines [parts of the book. Some young women] are reading it to each other. I was surprised by the breadth of it.

Q: Have your children read the book, and what do they think of it?

A: Charlotte [for whom it was written] has read it and lost it and asked for it again! I believe my second daughter read it, though she has her own book. My son…sometimes one questions one’s children’s interest in the things we do for them!

Q: So you’ve written books for all your kids?

A: What they get is three of the same chapters so there’s a unifying aspect, and seven chapters written to them specifically…

Q: Will those also be published as books?

A: I don’t know.

Q: The book covers a wide range of issues, and you noticed that the types of issues changed over the years. How did you decide what to include?

A: They really depended on my view of her emerging maturity. There’s a parallel conversation and a parallel journey. She was 9 ½, so it was about right from wrong, if you lie you will get in trouble. By 18, it was death, divorce and addiction. It was a natural evolution of a parental voice to a child.

The complexity of my life had to be presented in a careful manner because I had a fair amount of drama in my life and I wanted it to be written in a way she could understand as she moved through her own ages and stages of development.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The guide to navigating life. It’s based on 10 virtues that appear in the book. Your approach to things can change—I’m interested in vices. There are 10 vices and 10 virtues. Virtue is meaningless without the counterpoint of our vices.

I’m also about to inherit five more children—there will be eight millenials! I’m getting married in July and he’s a widower with five kids—eight millenials ranging from 25 to 11. He lives in the U.K., so I commute between D.C. and London, and I have a full-time job!

Q: Anything else we should know about your book?

A: I like to think it’s for all ages—chronological age and people’s age. I hope it’s useful 10 or 20 years from now. That’s why I decided to cover all the big topics that affect us everyday, but that we don’t often get the opportunity to raise with our children.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Margaux Bergen will be speaking at the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

Q&A with K. Riva Levinson

K. Riva Levinson is the author of the new book Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President. It focuses on Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Levinson is the president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a communications and government relations firm. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you end up working with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and at what point did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: The book opens in Mogadishu, Somalia. It’s 1989, I am on a mission to sign a contract with a murderous dictator as anti-government rebels are surrounding the city, and then my plane gets commandeered, leaving me stranded. And so my career began. 

I was 28, and already weary and jaded with my work as an international lobbyist, burdened with meaningless client assignments, taking unnecessary risks, and uncertain of my ability to make a difference. 

And then I met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was the summer of 1996, she was serving at the United Nations, in exile from her native Liberia, and considering returning home to help restore the peace. Liberia at the time was in a state of civil war, controlled by warlords, with half of the population refugees, or internally displaced.

I was blown away by Ellen’s presence and her chutzpah, her commitment to democracy, to human rights, to putting everything on the line for her war-torn country, regardless of the risks and the costs. And I made a determination, at that meeting, in her U.N. office that I would find a way to help her, and work with her. Six months later I did.

I went on to work with Ellen for 20 years, through three election campaigns, through the efforts to restore peace, and rebuild the country, and then, in 2014, to help the country battle the deadly Ebola virus disease. It was only after Ebola was defeated, in early 2015, that I felt I had earned the right to tell my story, Ellen’s story, and the story of the people of Liberia.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title was not chosen until I completed the book, which is not unusual, because when you write a memoir, and give into the process, you don’t know where you will end up.

Choosing the hero is about the struggle we all go through to find purpose, find something/someone to believe in, about the intersection of lives, the choices we make and the impact we have on others.

The significance of the tile is revealed in the afterword of the book and is explained as follows:

“Working with Ellen has taught me to follow my heart and not to fear being misunderstood. I have come to see that certainty is a luxury, and destiny a journey that reveals itself with time. It is easy to stray off course, to doubt and lose faith, to see compromise as surrender, to feel judged, isolated and even abandoned. But there is always something to hold on to, the belief in yourself. I have come to appreciate that we need people to guide us, those we admire and those we believe in the heroes that we choose.”

Q: What impact has Sirleaf had on Liberia—and what impact has she had on you?

A: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned her country of Liberia into the community of nations, from what was a failed state; a state that had destabilized an entire sub-region and gave the world the vernacular of “child soldiers and “blood diamonds.”

She has maintained the peace for 12 years, restored democratic institutions, created the conditions for a vibrant civil society and a free and dynamic press. She has restored civil services, re-built the education system and begun to re-build the country’s infrastructure.

All that being said, many challenges remain and economic growth has stagnated from the collapse of global commodity prices, and the linger effects of Ebola. Moreover, institutional and societal corruption remain, and must be rooted out. But all in all, she is the best president that Liberia has ever had.

Ellen’s impact on me, like her country, has been profound. By permitting me to be part of her personal struggle, and then the fight to bring peace, democracy and development to Liberia, she gave meaning to my professional life, and through the work, I found a mission worthy of the legacy of my maternal grandmother, a refugee of the Holocaust, my Oma.

Q: What do you see looking ahead, for Sirleaf and for Liberia?

A: Liberia holds its presidential elections in October of 2017, and for the first time since 1944, political power will be transferred from one elected leader to another. I am confident that the Liberian electorate will vote deliberately, and hold their leaders accountable, and that the next generation will build upon the foundation of peace that Ellen has laid down Liberia may have its ups and downs, but its path forward is irreversible.

Ellen will be the first retired president of Liberia to live peacefully in the country for half a century. That is something. She will likely spend time with her many grandchildren, work on her presidential library, and continue to raise her voice for women, girls, gender equality, democracy and human rights in Africa and around the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: KRL International LLC, my company, continues to work in the world’s emerging markets, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. We will be supporting Liberia’s democratic transition in October of 2017, and beyond Liberia, continue to look for the next generation of heroes to support and advocate for.

Most recently, KRL supported the campaign of Nana Akufo-Addo, the opposition candidate in the West African nation of Ghana, who was elected last year as the president of the Republic of Ghana.

He, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fought tirelessly for rule of law and democracy in Ghana for nearly three decades, and like Ellen, it took him three tries to become the leader of his nation. We are currently working with the government of Nana Akufo-Addo for which we are honored. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 24

March 24, 1834: William Morris born.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Q&A with Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She also has written A Thousand Darknesses. A former editor for The New Republic, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Harper's. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Shirley Jackson, and did your impression of her and her work change as you worked on this project?

A: I've always loved Jackson's writing, especially The Haunting of Hill House, her classic ghost story, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last and most mysterious novel. And of course no one forgets "The Lottery."

But it was actually Jackson's domestic work--her memoirs about her life as a mother--that made me decide to write her biography.

There's a story she tells in her first memoir, Life Among the Savages, about checking into the hospital to deliver her third child. The clerk asks her to state her occupation, and she says, "Writer." (This was only a few months after "The Lottery" was published to enormous sensation.) And the clerk replies, "I'll just put down housewife."

To me, this story perfectly encapsulates what it must have been like to be a writer like Jackson at a time when there was very little social support for that choice. It made me want to learn more about how she navigated that inherent tension.

I'd say my initial impressions of her and her work deepened rather than changed. Though she's best known for her horror stories, I became more and more aware of what a small proportion of her work they actually constitute.

For the most part, she was writing domestic realism, or a slightly more uncanny variant on it. Her main area of interest was the lives of women. 

Q: You write, “Some writers are particularly prone to mythmaking. Shirley Jackson was one of them.” Why was this?

A: Jackson was interested in witchcraft from an early age, and she played up that interest in creating her persona as an author.

She told great stories about using black magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (at the time he was involved in a contract dispute with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) or "hexing" the Yankees so that the Brooklyn Dodgers would win the World Series. In an oft-repeated quip, one interviewer said that she wrote "not with a pen, but a broomstick."

These stories were great for publicity, but in the long run they worked against Jackson's reputation, making her seem less serious than she actually was.

Q: In the book, you discuss Jackson’s more serious and lighter work. Do you see common themes running through them?

A: Whether she's writing fiction or chronicling her children's lives, Jackson has a great eye for detail and ear for perfectly tuned dialogue.

On a deeper level, her fundamental philosophy is that people are pretty much capable of anything—from her son making up an imaginary classmate to disguise his own misdeeds in kindergarten (in the story "Charles") to the villagers who turn against one of their own in "The Lottery."

Q: What do you see as Jackson’s legacy today?

A: An awareness that what we fear—whether we call it man's inhumanity to man, forces of evil, or the devil—is always just beneath the surface of daily life. We don't have to journey to a haunted house to experience horror; it's always with us. Dark, perhaps, but true.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm thinking about a few new subjects, but haven't decided on one yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ruth Franklin, please click here. Ruth Franklin will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.