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!