In Eugenia Kim's elegant debut, The Calligrapher's Daughter, a young woman comes of age in tumultuous early 20th-century Korea as the country is ravaged by Japan.

The last hundred years of Korean history—including those covered in your book—seem tragic in light of the 500-year “morning calm” of the Joseon dynasty. How do you account for this?

Korea is an amazing nation, homogeneous and very strong in its own identity, wedged as it is between China and Japan. There is a constancy in the culture—when your genealogy goes back that far, your identity is inescapable. Also, for 20 years after the Korean War, the military dictator President Park Chung-hee brought about unprecedented industrialization through the tyranny of economic development.

Your protagonist, Najin; her father, Han; and her mother, Haejung, are all strong characters. How did you come up with them?

I was mostly interested in telling the story of how my mother might have grown up. I never met my grandfather, but he was indeed a calligrapher and a viscount, yet his family lived in poverty. How did they live through the Japanese occupation? I thought of these things in light of Confucian doctrine, Confucian thinking that the family is a microcosm of the nation. The father is the patriarch and everyone else has their place, including of course, the women, though they had no voice. A model family is a reflection of how a model nation should be.

Your characters are Christians. Korea is the only nation where Christianity first took root without the influence of foreign missionaries.

I love that little historical detail. That's about the power of writing, how it can change a nation. Sometime in the late 1600s, Korean emissaries making their regular trek to China for exchange of ideas and goods brought back Christian books and tracts. And, yes, my mother was very religious, but also very spiritual. Dreams were reality; she had a deep psychic reaction to things.

Do you speak Korean?

My mother tried to teach me, but in the 1950s, my father was one of the founding ministers of the largest Korean-American church in D.C., and they were very busy. They had six kids! And there were no Korean language classes at the time, so my Korean is like a four-year-old's.

You're not the hat designer, also named Eugenia Kim, are you?

No, she's younger and richer than I am. We have the same haircut, so we look a little alike, but I had mine first.