LW: Your novel Snow Hunters is about Yohan, a North Korean taken captive in the Korean War. When the war is over, he elects to go to Brazil, where he takes an apprenticeship under Kiyoshi, a Japanese tailor in a small fishing town. He is nurtured by Kiyoshi, he befriends some street children, and over time makes a new life for himself. Where did these characters come from? What drew you to this particular story?
PY: I had finished my story collection and knew I wanted to do something different for my next project—and for me, usually, “different” has a lot do with place; so I was looking for a new place to set the new project but I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of Korea, either. Then, I stumbled upon a historical tidbit about North Korean POWs defecting to South America after the war.
That seed sort of rooted itself into me very quickly, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, imagining it. The rest, as they say, is history.
LW: What I found beautiful about your novel is the treatment of time. Much of Yohan’s time in Brazil passes without much fanfare. He has routines. He remembers the past. Years roll by. Then all of the sudden, a character returns to his life and Yohan’s present becomes dynamic and exciting and weighty and meaningful. Were you conscious of The Experience of Time (by Yohan’s and the reader) as you were crafting the story? Or was this shift a byproduct of the story? If the former, how did you go about get the effect you wanted?
PY: Well, first, thank you for very kind words. The quick answer is: Yes, I was very much aware of, and wrestled with, how I was going to treat, portray, manipulate time as I was shaping the book. The murky side to that is I’m not exactly sure why. I was reading a lot of novels, inspiring novels, that were dealing with time in what I found to be interesting ways—books like A Month in the Country by JL Carr or The Summer Book by Tove Jansson or To the Wedding by John Berger or even Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime—so on one basic level my book is simply my foolhardy attempt at being in conversation with the books I love; then again, I think I was drawn to those books because of my interests in the treatment of time, to use your words, so I suppose it’s always there and alive and burning. And you’re right: not much happens in Yohan’s present day life. It’s mostly mundane. But I think for him, coming from where he did, it’s what he wants, or at least what he needs for a while. It feels new to him. At least, that was what I tried to achieve.
LW: The blue umbrella. Kiyoshi’s coat. You are so sparing with the tangible elements you include in the novel, and you continually reach back for them, let them grow in their dynamism by taking on a new meaning, or carrying the story forward in a new way. I suppose the question is, what is one thing you always try to teach your writing students in terms of craft? What is one technical skill you hope they take away from their time with you, and the writer that you are?
PY: I do love the use of objects in storytelling. Objects as a way to bind a story together, move it forward, or to portray something that may be difficult to show in words. But I don’t really have one thing I try to teach my students, or at least I don’t think I do. You’ll have to ask them. It’s more a case-by-case situation for me. I find them all to be so different, in personality, prose style, interests, that I hesitate to push something that may not hold a drop of interest in them creatively. But I haven’t been teaching for very long so it could just be my lack of experience. I have no wise words for them; it’s just us conversing, bouncing ideas off of each other. I think they would say that I’m more concerned with the big picture of their work, the architecture of it, more than anything, but again, you’d have to ask them.
LW: I read that your first draft was 500 pages, and the book was published at 200 pages. Why did you choose to go so short? What did you take out? How did you manage such a drastic edit?
PY: I wanted to write the biggest story I could in the smallest way possible. That’s really it. I always knew it was going to be a short book. The early drafts were ridiculously long, yes, with multiple POVs, a shit ton of backstory for every character, and different story lines, but that’s just my writing process. Even the drafts for the stories in my first book were very long. That’s just me. I let loose a bit, give myself a long leash in those early stages. But it was always Yohan who stood out, so the later drafts were about making him the lighthouse and never straying far from him.
LW: Snow Hunters is your first published novel, but your second book. Your first book, Once the Shore, is a collection of short stories. What are your “forever” issues: the big ideas or themes or craft-related challenges that resonate through all your work? Given where you are in your writing journey, what is something new that you want to tackle next time around?
PY: My forever issues! I have no idea. A part of me wonders whether I should even be thinking of it. That feels like the reader’s role. Meaning, if they’re picking up on stuff in my work, and if it’s resonating with them in some way, then I think I’ve succeeded. And chances are it’s not the same for everyone. There are certainly stories that intrigue me. But I feel like the reason I am drawn to them is quite vague and general: I’m interested in stories that push a character to her limit, then seeing what happens. That feels true for any reader or writer. For Snow Hunters in particular, that idea was a little tweaked, because you can argue almost everything that pushes those limits happens offstage, so I’m really dealing with what remains. And I was very much interested in seeing how to bring life to that. As for my new project, I start with a new place, as I said. So right now I’m looking for that. I’m being a happy tourist.
LW: [This question is lifted from First Drafts on Aspen Public Radio, but it’s a good one]: What’s a passage from another person’s work that is really resonating with you right now? What is it about this passage that draws you to it?
PY: I’m in awe of Aminatta Forna’s new novel, The Hired Man. I love the opening: the narrator, Duro, is on a hill looking down at three roads that lead into a town called Gost in Croatia. A British woman named Laura appears, driving a car, and he sights her by chance with a rifle, which he is carrying because he had been hoping to shoot a deer. That’s how the novel begins, how we’re introduced to the new person in the town.
I’d chosen my spot and laid out my breakfast. On the branch of a tree a collared dove rested out of view of the falcon soaring above. I trailed the bird lazily through my rifle sights and that was when I noticed the car. A large, newish four-wheel drive, being driven very slowly down n entirely empty road as though the driver was searching for a concealed entrance. I lowered the gun so that I had the vehicle fully in my sights, but the angle and reflection of the sun made it impossible to see who was driving.
I love the way Forna is playing with the triptych here: three roads, three “animals”—Duro, Laura, the deer—three geographical areas: the roads, the woods from where the deer might appear, the hill. In some ways, to return to talking about time, it’s portraying Gost’s past, present, future. That it’s doing all this through a rifle, one that’s being used not for its intended purpose, brings so much tension into that first page that I can’t bear it, I have to read on. There’s so much intent and control in every sentence. In a single paragraph Forna establishes tone, setting, mystery, Duro’s inevitable dance between Laura and the town’s ghosts. This is about as fierce a novel as I have ever read. It’s so fucking good.