Paul Yoon’s debut novel, Snow Hunters, follows Korean War veteran Yohan from a POW camp to the Brazilian port town where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice.
Was there a specific mood or tone that you wanted to establish with this novel?
One interpretation of the protagonist is that he is a war veteran, suffering from PTSD. One of my main goals was to capture the essence of PTSD in some way, to capture a mind that is fractured. I was going for a book that touches lightly on things and leaps around a lot, not staying in one place for very long.
So the form echoes your protagonist’s mental state?
Exactly, it was a deep immersion issue, a very limiting POV grounded in place. Another way to answer the question is with Yasunari Kawabata’s book, Snow Country. It’s very restrained, enigmatic and oblique. One great achievement is that each line written is almost like haiku. I like creating tension in the prose through imagery, tone, emotion, conflict. As an example, the first line of Snow Hunters is “That winter during a rainfall he arrived in Brazil.” It was the idea of putting the words “winter” and “rainfall,” which contrast, in one sentence.
Snow Hunters almost feels more sculpted than written, like you’ve constantly pared away.
Absolutely. The novel was about 500 pages originally. My writing process is similar to sculpting because I vomit this giant thing, and it’s kind of like a piece of clay. It’s about finding some kind of form or shape within the block.
Does the umbrella, a recurring image in the novel, have any special significance?
I think that objects in fiction are really important and almost underrated. I was definitely conscious of wanting these buoys or metaphorical lighthouses throughout the narrative. I personally like the umbrella because it has a very basic function, but there’s also a sheltered quality to it; it’s an extra shield for someone like Yohan, a war veteran and a survivor of a POW camp, to cling to for protection.
When Yohan shows up at the tailor’s shop, the tailor makes an assumption that shows how deeply you can imagine a scene. Do you have to push yourself to imagine more deeply, or does it just happen for you?
I think for that scene it’s a two-part answer. The first part has to do with the original drafts that are hundreds of pages long. Part of the reason I write these wordy drafts is to get to know my characters. So by the time I have a later version of the story, I know them pretty well. But for that particular scene, I’ve been fortunate to travel to countries where I’m not familiar with the language, so I’ve experienced these slight miscommunications. I think I brought that into the scene.
The Korean War seems almost underappreciated in fiction.
The Korean War is personal to me because it was when my father grew up. My grandfather was actively participating in the war as a civilian fleeing toward the south, with my dad. While he was escaping he’d pick up abandoned children along the way. My grandfather ended up keeping these kids and opening an orphanage after the war. My dad’s family sort of quadrupled.