It was a dark and stormy night, but that did not keep people away from another Litquake event featuring Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), in conversation with Jack Boulware, author and co-founder of the San Francisco-based literary festival that produces a week-long series of events in the fall and smaller events throughout the year.
At Tosca—a legendary literary bar kitty-corner from City Lights Bookstore—Boulware got right to the heart of The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson’s third book, which is set in North Korea. “All we know is the freak show,” said Boulware, referring to the “access of evil” label thrown on the rogue regime by George W. Bush, former President Clinton’s going in to rescue jailed journalists, and Kim Jung-il as a character in the film Team America, created by the same team as South Park.
According to the Great Leader’s sushi chef who defected, Kim Jung-il really is a fan of South Park, said Johnson. "Everything in North Korea is a lie," he said. “It’s a story generating machine. I was fascinated with the voice of propaganda.” Johnson, who is a full-time writing professor at Stanford University, said it took him five and a half years to write the book.
“In North Korea there is only one narrative and it is supported by the government,” said Johnson. Boulware asked Johnson to read a section that included the daily announcements broadcasted everywhere throughout the country—from private homes to public spaces. “The truth about propaganda is that it is boring.” Although the state voice sections sound funny to western ears in Johnson’s storytelling hands.
Johnson travelled to North Korea on a tourist visa in 2007. “The rules change every year, so people who went in 2005 saw a very different North Korea than I did.” North Koreans are forbidden to interact with foreigners, except for the appointed minders. Visitors are housed on an island, for which citizens need a pass to get on. No one can leave the island without a minder.
Johnson was halfway through writing The Orphan Master’s Son when he went to North Korea, so he had a list of places he wanted to see. “Of course, if I suggested too much interest in something they withheld it from me. It is difficult to know what North Koreans know and do not know,” he said. For instance, his main minder was a smart woman who admitted she did not know what the Internet was, but had perfect knowledge of Johnson’s Canon 30D when she wanted him to delete certain photographs.
While he was there, Johnson said he could not get one person to say Kim Jung-il’s name. “It’s ‘The Dear Leader,’ even to the defectors years later,” he said.
“Your book is a love story, spy novel and an adventure tale, can you sum it up in three sentences?” asked Boulware.
“My main character is tough, born into the lowest position for a worker and he becomes a model citizen. Then, after a chance encounter with Americans at sea, he sees that life can be different and he takes the reigns of his own life."
Boulware noted that that character’s life takes him into prison camps and also the inner circle of Kim Jung-il. How did you humanize the “man in the jumpsuit” that we see in the media? Boulware asked.
“All the absurdities fascinated me,” said Johnson. From the “Joy Division,” a harem of 2000 women at Kim Jung-il’s whims, to his love of water slides and his ability to get people to perform sex acts in front of him, the many fascets of the Dear Leader intrigued the novelist. Also called the Supreme Leader, he once imprisoned a movie director and his wife so that he could make a Godzilla movie that Kim Jung Il wrote. “And he could change anyone’s life anyway he wanted,” said Johnson. “It was a challenge to find his strengths and weaknesses.”
At one point Johnson said he thought he would try to get a blurb from the Dear Leader himself. “But my wife reminded me I had three kids,” he added.
Johnson said he was terrified that Kim Jung-il would die before his book came out, and he did die in December a month before The Orphan Master’s Son hit bookstores. But unlike when Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi died and the people tore open their private worlds, demystifying them, no one knows any more about Kim Jung-il after he died. “It was 24 hours or more before we knew he was dead,” said Johnson. “There was no autopsy.”
What of his successor, Kim Jung-un? “He’s a clone of his grandfather,” Johnson pointed out, a leader still regarded by many in North Korea.
What’s next for Johnson? “I want to write a short, thin book,” he said. He is about a quarter of the way into it.