The characters of All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones (Algonquin) are far from his direct experience. Young girls Gi and Il-sun become friends growing up in a North Korean forced-labor camp. Eventually they escape and make it to the U.S., but human traffickers intercede on their journey. Over the course of the novel, which Algonquin compares to Memoirs of a Geisha, the author gets in close not just to the North Korean girls but to those who sell them.

Senior editor Andra Miller, who acquired the novel from Wendy Weil of the Wendy Weil Agency, says that when the novel first came in, the editorial board loved it, but had questions. “None of us could believe it was a first novel. We wanted to know how this guy could possibly know all this,” she says.

Jones, a metal sculptor who lives in Hawaii, became interested in writing about North Korea after President Bush’s speech about the “axis of evil.” The economy had put his metal business on hold, and it seemed time to finally write the novel he’d always wanted to. Jones read and watched whatever he could find about North Korea and related subjects. But he says empathy was the real key.

“I try to write from within the emotions of characters and feel what they’re feeling,” says Jones. “I had to put myself into some pretty dark frames of mind.”