The Writing Life: Adam Johnson envisions life in North Korea


The Dear Leader is dead — long live the Dear Leader!

That, of course, would be North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who transitioned into the afterlife last month, leaving behind his long-suffering nation in a mass state of camera-ready mourning.

But the Dear Leader — very alive and more or less well — looms as a menacing presence over “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a new novel by Adam Johnson set in a country that, along with Iran, is one of the planet’s foremost pariah states.

Like many Westerners, Johnson initially saw Kim Jong Il as a kind of comic-opera figure and Korea’s Cold War-vintage society as a potential wellspring of satiric material. “I must admit that at the beginning the absurdities and the ironies attracted me,” Johnson said last week at a coffeehouse in the fashionably bohemian Cole Valley neighborhood where he lives with his wife and three young children.


Several years ago, he started writing a short story inspired partly by Kim Jong Il’s extravagant eccentricity, “his jet skis and his sushi habit, and he has a whole division of girls to pleasure him.” But that Comedy Central scenario changed as the author began to grasp the Orwellian dimensions of the regime’s power and the hopelessness and fear that pervade its citizens’ lives.

“It’s not just the Kim Jong Il bouffant hairdo,” said Johnson, whose previous short stories and novels have evinced a taste for the bizarre and humorously tragic that reminds reviewers of Kurt Vonnegut andT. Coraghessan Boyle. “When I sit down and talk to people about what I discovered about that place … people are horrified about the gulags and the starvation and things like that.”

Johnson, 44, a Stanford University associate professor in creative writing and author of a well-reviewed previous novel, “Parasites Like Us,” spent years doing research on the notoriously insular Asian nation. He also took a trip there in 2007 to gain insight for his book, a tragicomic, “Manchurian Candidate” mutant of a thriller, romance, bildungsroman and Victorian social novel, spiked with DNA samples of “The Bourne Identity,” “Casablanca,” “David Copperfield” and “1984.”

Divided into two parts — “The Biography of Jun Do” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga” — the book traffics in themes of mistaken and stolen identity, loyalty, honor and the struggle of individuals to find personal meaning in a country where individualism is virtually illegal and the collective is all.

Its main characters are Jun Do (a play on “John Doe”), a smart, professional, vaguely cynical young man who was raised in an orphanage run by his father and earns his keep as a soldier, spy and kidnapper; and the beautiful, beloved film actress Sun Moon, a despondent domestic prisoner in the luxurious home where she lives with the fearsome national hero Commander Ga.

In a Washington Post rave review last week, novelist and critic David Ignatius said Johnson’s work makes “the reader feel as if he is in Chongjin, where starving people ate the bark off trees; or atop Mount Taesong with the elite of Pyongyang, whose existence is a mix of sadism and whimsy; or with the masses who are bombarded day and night with the propaganda ofNorth Korea’s alternate reality.”


Envisioning this parallel world was no easy literary task, Johnson said. Because reliable insider accounts seldom leak from behindNorth Korea’spropaganda fortress, the author turned for detailed information to the handful of books written by escaped dissidents (notably Kang Chol-Hwan), to Pierre Rigoulot’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” and to Western foreign correspondents.

The shelf of contemporary fiction works on North Korea is even shorter: Among the latest additions is “Drifting House,” a collection of tales about Korean immigrants by South Korean native Krys Lee, to be published next month.

Johnson also cites “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick as particularly helpful “because she was always focused on the human dimension.”

“The more dark realities started inhabiting me, and the more I started dreaming about these places, the more really frivolous a lot of my original interests seemed,” Johnson said. “I know it really sounds cheesy, but I did feel a duty to try to tell the stories of people who couldn’t speak for themselves.”

Possibly Johnson’s greatest challenge was trying to infiltrate the inner lives of characters in a country where self-censorship and blending in with the anonymous throng are essential for survival. The author soon realized that the master narratives of Western literature — that each of us is the central character in a unique private drama, overcoming obstacles as we strive toward self-realization — had little bearing on people who can’t be the authors of their own life stories, which are largely dictated by the state.

Reading online translations of North Korea’s government-run paper Rodong Sinmun, Johnson said he came to see that in North Korea there is only one central character, Kim Jong Il, and before that his father, Kim Il Sung, “and then there are 23 million secondary characters.”


In such a narrative, orphanhood emerges as a metaphor both for the abandoned North Korean nation and for the human condition.

Johnson can relate to that.

A gregarious, linebacker-sized guy of mixed Northern European and Native American extraction, dressed in a white guayabera shirt, jeans and electric-green running shoes, he describes himself as “probably the most un-Korean person in the world.”

He was born in South Dakota but grew up in the Arizona suburbs of Tempe and Scottsdale, an only child and latchkey kid, raised mostly by his clinical psychologist mother after his parents divorced.

“As a kid I just wandered the neighborhoods and alleys of Arizona on my bicycle. And I think I had a pretty big interior life, I had a big imaginary life. One of the things I loved to do was open trash dumpsters. I would go through the alleys and open the trash dumpsters and just look at what people threw away and find treasures and try to figure out who lived in those houses.”

His father, who ran a small construction company, was a natural story-spinner who instilled in his son a love for tall tales in which fact and fiction commingled. That proved problematic when Johnson began studying journalism at Arizona State University and frequently would make up quotes or details that he felt captured the essence or “emotional truth” of real events. “My journalism teachers always sniffed it out,” he said. “They always caught me.”

Johnson later found his true calling in fiction, earning an MFA in writing from McNeese State University in Louisiana and a Ph.D. in English from Florida State University.


Like Jun Do, a number of Johnson’s characters have been hyper-talented freaks and misfits, such as the hero of his short story “Teen Sniper,” about a 15-year-old elite marksman on the Palo Alto police force and his robot best friend. A main current running through his fiction has been what New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, reviewing his 2002 short-story collection “Emporium,” described as “a melancholy melody of longing and loss: a Salingeresqe sense of adolescent alienation and confusion, combined with an acute awareness of the randomness of life and the difficulty of making and sustaining connections.”

Johnson wouldn’t argue the point. But he doesn’t see his invented worlds as “surreal,” an adjective sometimes attached to them.

“The true absurdities to me are, like, that two people love each other and they break up,” he said. “Or that a kid needs both his parents and he doesn’t have them. Or that we reach out to someone and it’s repelled. Like, the most basic human things are thwarted in everyone’s experience in some way. And we take that for granted, like, ‘Oh, that’s life.’”