Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Interview with Samuel Park - Author of This Burns My Heart

One of our Book Passage Signed First Editions Club members, Jaime Boler of Laurel, Mississippi, shared with us an interview she conducted with author Samuel Park for his book This Burns My Heart. Jaime is a history instructor and she reviews books on her blog Book Magnet.

It Will Burn Your Heart, Too

By Jaime Boler

This Burns My Heart ($25.00)
Some of my favorite literary characters are Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Pi Patel (Life of Pi), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), and Annie Fang (The Family Fang).  Now, I can add another character to the list: Soo-Ja Choi, the heroine of Samuel Park's debut novel This Burns My Heart.  Employing such themes as tradition, love, and sacrifice, Park captivated and transported me to a different time and place.  I never wanted to return from the vivid world of his creation.
South Korea in the early 1960s is a country slowly recovering from the ravages of war.  Tradition is of utmost importance.  Soo-Ja, a young woman, yearns to become a diplomat, even though her father forbids it.  Marriage to a man she can bend to her will is the answer, Soo-Ja thinks.  If she marries Min, then she can fulfill her dream.  The two become engaged after a brief courtship.  Before their marriage, she meets a young, handsome medical student named Yul.  Sparks fly.  She must sense that she and Yul could experience a deeper love, a love that would overpower her ambition, and this scares Soo-Ja.  Even if she wanted to run away with Yul, she cannot do it; she has already given her word.
Out of obligation, then, Soo-Ja marries Min.  She soon learns that she does not really know the man she married.  Min was never captivated by her beauty or wit, he did not enjoy spending time with her, and he indulged her talk of going to Seoul.  He tricked her, seeking her out only at the urging of his own father.  Familial ties and tradition win out over Soo-Ja's dreams.  Her marriage is something she will have to endure.  Later, Soo-Ja stays with Min because of their daughter, Hana.  Over and over again, though, Yul turns up in her life.  He is always a looming shadow even when he is not present in her life.  The best parts of the novel are the soulful, yearning-filled scenes between Soo-Ja and Yul.  Will she ever leave Min for Yul?  That is a question you must find out yourself.

Park has a gift for language, and his use of beautiful prose will leave you breathless.  His rich and memorable characters lingered on in my mind long after I finished the novel.  In fact, I loved this novel so much that I sought out Park for an interview.  He accepted.  The following is used with his permission.

Jaime Boler: What was it like growing up Korean in Brazil?

Samuel Park: Hi Jaime, just wanted to start by saying what a delight it is to be featured in your blog. I hope I can do justice to the wonderful questions you came up with. So, to answer the first question, growing up Korean in Brazil was really fun–there were a lot of other Asian students in my middle school, so I never really felt that “different.” There’s a surprisingly large Asian population in South America!

JB: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

SP: When I was eight years old–as soon as I could read, I wanted to write. I’d watch American movies from the 50s every afternoon and then I’d write my “little novels” in my notebooks–which were just my kid versions of those fantasy and adventure stories.

JB: I see you are a Jane Austen fan. I read that after I finished the novel, and I suddenly saw Soo-Ja as a Korean Dashwood sister. How has Austen influenced your writing?

SP: Soo-Ja is very much like Elinor in that she’s too principled to try to steal Edward back from Lucy Steele. And just because she doesn’t say it out loud, doesn’t mean her heart isn’t in terrific pain. I suppose my intense love for Austen has influenced my writing in the sense that it very much shaped my awareness of the different and complex ways we can love–in Soo-Ja and Elinor’s case, silently, honorably, but not at all less passionately and intensely as Marianne. I also have a lot of admiration for Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She’s really strong and bold, but prone to making mistakes and has one particularly big flaw–her prejudice; Soo-Ja too is held back by an enormous blind spot early on in her love life.

JB: You say this is your mother’s story. How so?

SP: It is and it isn’t. It was inspired by her experience as a woman living in a Confucian-dominated society as that society moved from very traditional to more modern. But the novel is a work of fiction, with made up characters and situations.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the book? If so, who and why?

SP: You know, I actually *love* Eun-Mee, the villain. She was unbelievably fun to write, because she says all these outrageous things. To continue the Austen analogy, Eun-Mee is a mixture of Darcy’s haughty aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh and Lizzie’s frivolous sister Lydia. Villains are fun to write because often times, they drive the story, and can be very charming.

JB: Did you, like Hana, dream of coming to the United States?

SP: I did! I think the United States attracts dreamers, and Hana is definitely a dreamer.

JB: Is any character based on you? If so, which character? Did you find it difficult to write for that particular character?

None of the characters are directly based on me, but I’ve felt or am able to imagine feeling everything that the characters feel. Emotion-wise, the characters take after me–I went through an emotional journey with them, and tried to make their emotions as truthful as possible by thinking of times that I was in a similar situation, or feeling the same way about someone.

JB: I have to tell you that my favorite scene in the book is the drawing scene with Yul and Soo-Ja. It was so beautiful that I read and re-read it. Do you have a favorite part? If so, please do tell us about it!

SP: I’m so glad you liked that scene! It’s a pivotal scene in the book, and I rewrote it many, many times. The first time, they weren’t even drawing! But early on, I realized that these two people would never vocalize their feelings–they had to use their gestures to express their love. Neither Soo-Ja nor Yul are allowed to say what they feel, because it goes against their customs. But they’re in absolute sync–in spirit and mind–and their drawing together allows you to see that.

JB: Do you have a favorite line from the book? If so, will you share it with us?

SP: The first line is my favorite line: “You tricked me.” How do you make a life with someone who deceived you? And yet, so many of us do, or have to.

JB: Some themes that stood out for me while reading the book were family obligations versus true love and communal needs versus those of the individual. What do you want readers to take from This Burns My Heart?

SP: I guess I want people to consider what it means to live a life of duty, where you can’t just undo a mistake. That’s the way it was for women of that generation, women who could not get divorces–you were stuck, but you made the best of it. I hope I show in my novel what it’s actually like to be in that kind of situation. Maybe that’s the question I want readers to take away: “Would you turn away true love if it came knocking a second (and possibly last) time?”

JB: I noticed the importance of both saving “face” and losing “face” in your novel. Can you tell us more about that concept?

SP: Soo-Ja can’t really make her own choices because those choices deeply implicate her parents. For instance, she can’t get divorced. She just can’t. It’d bring enormous shame to her family. That’s a tremendous responsibility–to live not only for yourself, but also for those you love. They would lose “face,” and Soo-Ja cannot bear to cause pain to those she loves.

At the beginning of This Burns My Heart, I saw Min as a villain. Yet, at the end of the novel, I had ceased to think of him as such. In my eyes, he was just as much a victim as Soo-Ja. He redeems himself in the end. The true villain was Min’s father. But who do you see as the “bad” guy?

SP: I’m glad you think of Min that way, since I took pains to explain why he does the things he does. Min’s father definitely comes off as the “bad” guy, but I don’t really think of him as such. I’m very forgiving and understanding of all my characters, even when they’re acting up and causing havoc in the story!
JB: Do you think, in Soo-Ja’s heart and in Yul’s, that Hana is his daughter?

SP: Oh, that’s such an intriguing question! It certainly does feel like she could be theirs, doesn’t it?

JB: It’s interesting how Soo-Ja helps Jae-Hwa escape a bad marriage; yet, she is not ready to do this herself because she does not want Min to take Hana away from her. Is Hana the only thing that keeps Soo-Ja with Min? What else keeps Soo-Ja in her loveless marriage?

SP: I guess that’s one of the mysteries of the book… But it is really ironic, isn’t it? Soo-Ja is so completely firm and sure of herself when she goes free Jae-Hwa, yet she can’t figure out how to free herself. It’s strange the bonds that keep people together, and even stranger the bonds we use on our own selves! Personally, I think her sense of honor and duty are what keep her in the marriage. In her mind, if you pick X, you have to live with the consequences of picking X. You can’t just say the next day, You know what, I think I’d like Y better so I’m gonna go with Y.

JB: Father-daughter relationships seem stronger here than mother-daughter, mother-son, or even father-son. For example, Soo-Ja and Mr. Choi have an unbreakable bond. Min is also very close to Hana. Was that deliberate?

SP: Oh, that’s a great question. I actually thought of Soo-Ja and Hana a lot as I wrote the book, but you’re absolutely right that in spite of all her sacrifices for her, ultimately Hana may like her father better. Isn’t that odd, how that happens, sometimes? I think that’s often the case in real life. We like the people who are similar to us even more so than the ones who truly love us.

JB: If Soo-Ja had gone to Seoul to become a diplomat, as was her dream, what would have happened to her then?

My guess is that she probably would’ve lived for a long time in Europe or in the United States, and then returned to South Korea in her 30s. She probably loves her father too much to live apart from him out of her own volition. She also might’ve found a man who was a better match for her, in terms of her temperament and personality. Just like choosing Min had a domino effect, I feel that her being a diplomat would’ve led to very different choices and experiences.

JB: In the course of This Burns My Heart, the reader cannot fail to notice how much South Korea has grown. We first see a country recovering from a devastating war to a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower. What kind of future do you see for both North and South Korea?

The germs of democracy are spreading so quickly through the world–almost like a virus–it’ll have to reach North Korea eventually. As for South Korea, I see it becoming more and more socially progressive, especially in terms of opportunities for young women. I also see it as continuing to have strong ties with America, a country that has been a deep part of its history, having fought a war together.

JB: I want to congratulate you for writing some of the best prose I’ve read in years. How long did it take you to write this novel?

SP: Thank you! What’s the emoticom for cheeks blushing and writer taking a little bow? Actually, it’s very gratifying to hear that because I decided early on not to take any shortcuts. If I thought in the back of my head that a scene could be better, I would make it better. Sometimes it’s tempting to just write something and hope that it’s “good enough,” and I’m very proud that I did not take that bait. I have a lot of respect for the reader’s time and options–I absolutely do not take it for granted. But to answer your question, it took me about nine months to write it, and then I spent another three years or so revising it.

Are there any plans for a book tour? If so, which lucky cities will you be visiting?

SP: The cities I’ve been to or will be visiting during my tour include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where I live. I would love to eventually make my way to the Pacific Northwest and the South.

JB: What’s next for Samuel Park?

SP: I’m working on another novel, which is about a mother-daughter relationship, and that’s all I can say for now! Thank you again for this interview–I love all the questions you asked.
Park proves himself to be a master at storytelling.  This Burns My Heart will surely steal your heart, just as it did mine.


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