Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Q & A with Dr. Samuel Park (This Burns My Heart, 2011)

Q & A:  Dr. Samuel Park – This Burns My Heart
1.      What motivated you to write this particular work of fiction?
To be really honest about it, I wanted to write something that lots of people would read. Up to this point, I’d been writing what I felt like writing, regardless of the marketplace or my audience. For instance, the book I wrote before it (which didn’t sell) was a college-set drama. Now, there is no market for a college drama, unless you’re Tom Wolfe. So I asked myself, what is the kind of book that is both something I’d like to write, and that others would like to read; where’s that intersection in the Venn Diagram? It turned out to be this book.
2.      How closely is Soo-Ja Choi based on your mother?

She’s very similar to my mother in two aspects: her courage (my mother is not afraid of anything) and her resilience (she always tries to make the best out of every situation she’s in). But although the character of Soo-Ja is based on her, she is not Soo-Ja. I had to embellish, fictionalize, and dramatize situations and dynamics to make the story entertaining. I would say that she’s very similar to Soo-Ja in terms of what she’s like; less so in terms of what happens to her.

3.      Which male character in the story do you most relate to and why?

I actually relate more to the female characters, Eun-Mee and Hana in particular. Hana’s eagerness to move to America was based on my own feelings as a teenager, and Eun-Mee’s campy sense of humor is very similar to mine—she kind of talks the way I talk in real life, when I’m trying to be funny. (Except Eun-Mee probably wouldn’t know that she’s being comical.) In terms of the male characters, I would say I relate to Yul on a really, really good day.

4.      How did you do your research on Korea and how familiar are you with the settings in the novel?

The novel is set in the neighborhood that my mother grew up in, and I visited it a couple of times as a teenager and have vivid memories from both trips. I read pretty much every book in the library I could get my hands on that described Korean customs, culture, and cities. I also watched a lot of Korean movies from the 50s and 60s, to get a feel for the “look” of the country at the time. A lot of what’s in the book, though, are patterns and habits I’ve observed in my parents—the way they use money to express their feelings, for instance. These are cultural details that you don’t find in books, but if you grow up in a Korean family, you know them by heart.

5.      Can you describe the unique culture of Korean immigrants in the United States?
Korean immigration in America began more than a century ago, with the arrival of the first immigrants in Hawaii, a state with a very large Korean population. Most Koreans, however, came to the United States in the 70s and 80s, in response to a period of great growth but also great political repression and economic frustration. Korean culture is probably too heterogeneous to generalize, but for most Koreans, I would say it is focused around the church and business; for the 1.5 and 2nd generation, around professional aspirations and a hybrid relationship to their ethnic background. I would say Korean culture is most commonly experienced, by both Koreans and non-Koreans, through food: sticky white rice, vegetable side dishes, seafood dumplings, kimchee; and through holidays such as Seollal, where you eat rice cake soup filled with egg strips and dumplings.
6.      How was the process of writing this novel different from your other work, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets."

I wrote Shakespeare’s Sonnets extremely fast, in about four to six weeks. It’s very short, about 50,000 words; I wrote it the way an aspiring screenwriter (which is what I was at the time) would write a novella. By the time I wrote THIS BURNS MY HEART, I was a lot more serious as a fiction writer, and way more committed to writing a novel. I took much more care to write it, and it took me significantly longer, about four years from starting the first draft to finishing all the revisions.

7.      What has been the reception of the novel and has social media played a role in its publicity?
That’s the $64,000 question—the role of social media. I make a point of connecting with anyone who’s read the novel and tweeted about it. I do it out of appreciation, because I feel genuinely grateful when someone has read it and bothered to tweet about it. But to my surprise, when you acknowledge someone’s tweet, you often start a relationship, one that may lead to guest posts on blogs like this (which is what I think happened to us, correct?). In terms of the reception to the novel, it’s been an absolute dream. I didn’t expect any of it. When I got Amazon Best of the Month, I literally thought it was a mistake at first. And when the Today Show did a piece on the book, I was floored. And then when People picked it as Great Read in Fiction, I was once again amazed. I’m always completely surprised and delighted by anything good that happens to the book.
8.      How do you balance the craft of writing with your other career as a college English professor?
I think it’s tricky, because even though on the surface those activities may seem related, they’re actually at odds. It’s like being a gymnast and then having to dance a waltz—what makes you great at one thing actually hurts the other. A good novel is the opposite of a good lecture—you have to unlearn your tendency toward analysis and focus on the feel, colors, and textures of things. They require completely different vocabularies and approaches. Most novels by academics are terrible. One exception, I think, is Andre Aciman, who is brilliant at both.
9.      What authors do you find inspiring and what books are you reading at this time?

I love the work of Curtis Sittenfeld and Sarah Waters; I greatly admire their ability to write gorgeous, literary language, and combine it with compelling, original plots and characters. Right now I’m reading a number of books, including Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I’m enjoying and admiring immensely. I’m an extremely slow reader, and it takes me forever to finish a book. I do, however, love savoring a book that has great language, and will end up going back to it again and again, as I’ve done with Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

10.  What are your current projects and future plans with regard to your writing?

I’m working on a new book, and I subscribe to the old adage that the less said about a work in progress the better, so I will have to plead the Fifth! All I can say is that it’s about a mother-daughter relationship. I’m excited also, for the upcoming paperback release of THIS BURNS MY HEART. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but the cover they came up with is amazing. I have a weak spot for paperbacks, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. And thank you so much for letting me be a part of your blog; I love D.C. and hope to visit it soon!

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest Gaines

  A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by acclaimed author, Ernest Gaines, is set in the rural South (Bayonne, Louisiana) in the late 1940’s amidst the still raw racial tensions of this era. This classic novel is narrated from the first person point of view by Grant Wiggins, a young teacher who has returned home from receiving his education to teach grades primer through high school in the local church.  Gaines introduces the conflict in the first chapters which occur in the courtroom where a young man named Jefferson has been unjustly convicted to death for the robbery and murder of a white store owner, Mr. Alsace Grope.  Jefferson was in the wrong company and is actually innocent of the crime. He is called a “hog” by his lawyer and is represented as someone who cannot distinguish right from wrong. The teacher, Mr. Wiggins, is instructed by his aunt, Tante Lou, and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to visit Jefferson in jail and help him to die with honor.  As the novel progresses, Grant is extremely conflicted with leading the life of an educated, nonreligious black man in a town which is still dictated by the codes of racially immoral white men. His education has brought him a different perspective and he experiences complex feelings in his role as a teacher to Jefferson and mentor to the people of the town. Themes running through the story include the role of religion in society, family dynamics, martyrdom, and prejudice. The story also includes the love story between Grant and Vivian Baptiste, “a lady of character,” who is still married but provides an avenue of deep love and escape for Grant. The title refers to the metamorphoses experienced by both of the main characters. Each reading of the novel has been unique for me and Gaines brilliant description and dialogue fuel the events of the plot. The prose is intricate and thought provoking, perhaps a reason this novel is read in many schools. Finally, there are interesting references to the French culture in the characters, food, and places that pervade the novel alluding to Louisiana being an original French territory in the United States.

In analysis of the book and the author’s background, readers may observe an autobiographical element to the novel. Mr. Gaines was raised in a pastoral town in Louisiana and left his home to become educated in San Francisco, CA where he was permitted as an African American to attend college. He was raised by strong women such as the ones depicted in the story. Also, during his studies Gaines became enamored with Russian novelists but noticed a void of such stories describing his own people.  From my personal readings and discussion of Gaines work, it seems that he is an important writer for noticing a niche that was not recognized in the literary world: the post slavery plight of African Americans in the South. There is an old saying, “everyone has a book in them or a story to tell.” With this novel, Ernest Gaines has illustrated this vital point and simultaneously recorded the stories of his people that will be remembered beyond his own life. Isn’t that the legacy that all serious writers strive for in their art?  Read and share this important book, you will be gain new insight into this time in American history.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Q & A with Jennifer Gardner Trulson

       Q & A:  Jennifer Gardner TrulsonWhere You Left Me

1.       Why did you decide to share your personal story at this time?

I never intended to write a book.   My children were four and two-years-old when Doug was killed.  I knew one day they would ask about their father, and I didn’t want Doug to be a ghost, his memory faded and diminished by time.  I wanted to give my children, to the best of my ability, real-time, detailed recollections of their father.   To that end, I frenetically recorded memories, anecdotes, conversations and observations in the weeks and months following 9/11.  I threw everything into a storage box and left it in my basement.  It was a mess, but at least it would be a personal archive for my kids one day.

Two years ago, I took a friend’s suggestion to organize my jumbled collection into a narrative so the kids would have a real history of their father’s life and the impact of his loss.  Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop.  One story turned into two and suddenly I’d written fifty pages.  I decided to go forward with turning our story into a book because I wanted to pay tribute to Doug and those who helped my children and me find our footing again.  With ten years, there is some perspective, and perhaps others will gain insight into the events that could not be gleaned from news accounts.  I also wanted to give back to the community that opened their hearts to the 9/11 families.  Accordingly, proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, which supports quality after-school programs for at-risk children in New York. 

2.       What is the meaning behind the title of the book?

The title WHERE YOU LEFT ME felt poignant because in many ways I am still standing where Doug left me after kissing me good-bye that last time.  I miss him as if it were ten days ago and not ten years.  I still feel Doug’s presence and will never be able to reconcile his loss.  However, the title is also a hopeful one.   I was a happily married mother of two children on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Now, ten years later, I am still, improbably, a happily married mother of two beautiful, resilient children. 

3.       How long did it take to complete your memoir, and how did you manage writing with your family obligations?

It took about a year and a half to write the book.   While my children were in school or away at summer camp, I’d devote as many days as possible to writing.  I always wrote in the mornings through the early afternoons so that I’d be available when the kids came home from school. 
4.       You mention in your memoir that you were an English major. Did you ever aspire to write before this book?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but never thought I had the “stuff” to write a book.  I was a lawyer, and the most ambitious thing I’d ever written was a decent legal memorandum.  One writes a book when she has something to say.  Tragically, my husband’s death gave me that something.  Though I’m proud of the memoir, I wish I never had to write it.

5.       Are there certain authors or books that you believe have influenced your writing?

For many years this story has churned inside me.  I have told and retold pieces of my family’s experience like some modern-day Ancient Mariner from the Coleridge poem.   I don’t really think that I was conscious of being influenced by any particular authors because my story was so personal.  However, I have always been attracted to authors who can paint a vivid picture with simple, straight-forward prose.   

6.       Do you plan to continue writing?  If so, will it be fiction or non-fiction?

Dorothy Parker once famously said, “I hate writing.  I love having written.”  After enduring the stark loneliness, frustration and undulating emotions associated with writing my first book, I appreciate the paradox.  Still, I would like to write again, but I’m not sure I have another book in me right now.  I certainly do not see myself writing fiction, but I think I’d like to explore writing essays, articles or commentary next. 

7.       Can you tell the blog readers about the mission of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation and your involvement?

My children and I established the Douglas B. Gardner foundation in 2004 to support quality after school programs for at-risk children.  Doug served on the boards of several children’s charities and talked of becoming an “angel” to a select group of motivated organizations that made a real difference in the lives of the kids they touched.  I wanted to ensure that Doug would always be that angel; that in his name at-risk children in New York would receive real support and opportunities to achieve success.
I work closely with the organizations we support to create programs that otherwise wouldn’t exist or foster those that continue to have a positive impact on the children who participate.

Over the years the DBG Foundation has created an instructional swim program now in its third year, sponsored several AAU boys’ and girls’ basketball teams through which the kids are mentored and tutored as well as coached, and funded arts and leadership development programs. 

8.       How has your life changed since the publication of the book, and what has been the reception from readers.

I am deeply touched by the thoughtful comments, posts and emails I’ve received from people across the country who have connected with my story.  It’s true that grieving is the great leveler.  It doesn’t matter what the circumstance, religion or background, the catastrophic loss of a loved one brings everyone to the same place.  I found it heartening to know that no matter what I was feeling – sadness, anger, dark humor, fear – others have felt the same. 

9.       What do you feel is the universal message of your memoir? 

I certainly do not have a monopoly on pain and loss, but I hope that a reader will find a kindred spirit within the pages.   Indeed, whether a loved one died on 9/11, on a battlefield or from a long illness, every loss shatters the foundation under those left behind.  I would like the book to connect even if the reader has not experienced a loss like mine.  Maybe my story will help restore someone’s faith in life’s possibilities, to remind one that, even as life can turn on a dime for the worst, it can also turn again in a positive direction.
Mostly, I would like a reader to know that one doesn’t have to shut the door on the past in order to move forward.   We hear all the time that we should find “closure” and “move on.”  I don’t think we move on; I think we simply continue to move through a loss like this and learn to live again. I’ve never looked for closure, not only because it doesn’t exist, but because I want Doug’s memory to sting, to remind me that he existed and mattered.  It’s the only way I can give him to my children and love my husband, Derek, with the full and open heart he deserves.   I have to believe that you can live a fully present life, carry your loss and somehow joy will find you.