I love seeing my friends succeed in their chosen professions. I have been lucky enough to have college classmates achieve fame in professional sports, acting, politics and now writing. My friend Samuel Park, currently an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College in Chicago, has just published his first full-length novel.
The book, This Burns my Heart, begins the day before the main character’s, marriage, as a mysterious and handsome doctor approaches her for a date. She declines the invitation, choosing instead a world that leaves her trapped with suffocating customs. In a post-war South Korea torn between past and present, Soo-Ja struggles to find happiness in a loveless marriage—and to carve out a successful future for her only daughter. But in a land where wives have no rights and mothers own little, her only hope for survival is to remember the lessons of the four tenets of Confucian tradition: perseverance, strength, loyalty and grace.
The book has been getting rave reviews from industry and mainstream press and was recently selected by The Today Show as a must read. Samuel, or as I call him “Sam” was kind enough to carve out some time to conduct a quick interview with me about the book, his approach to writing and how literature and design are bound…..
Congrats on your first book, This Burns My Heart. I really love how the story paints such a vivid picture through history using food, sights and landscape. When designers need to immerse themselves in a particular aesthetic, they create mood boards to help them evoke a certain “mood”. Do writers have a similar process? What do you do to help you get into the mindset of the place(s) you are writing about?
I like to read descriptions of places in history or travel books, and I love looking at period photographs of buildings, clothes, and food. In essence, I want to experience what a character sees and hears, so that I can create the character from the inside out. This Burns My Heart is set in Korea in the 60s, and so I tried to enjoy movies and pop songs of the time. I tried to have tunnel vision and eliminate anything that didn’t have anything to do with the place (Korea) or the
time (60s). Kinda like doing a google search for two items, and you live your life in that and avoid everything else for a year. I think that gives the work a more pure aesthetic.
Virginia Wolfe wrote a whole book about having space (A Room of One’s Own) but I am curious if you have a special place that you have created in your own home or elsewhere that you like to write in?
At the time that I wrote This Burns My Heart, I was subletting a friend’s condo–she had impeccable taste, and I wrote most of my novel sitting at a dining table that looked very much like this one.
I love writing on glass; I don’t know why, but it was a great workspace for me. I also prefer to write on a dining table instead of a desk–a desk feels like work, whereas the dining table feels like
play, like fun. I also love to spread myself out, and have all my
research, dictionaries, and notebooks open in front of me, which is
why a four-person dining table came in very handy!
The gorgeous environment that my friend created for her home was
incredibly inspiring to me. It made me feel really good and happy, and
when you feel good, you’re more likely to maintain the day-to-day
discipline necessary to create.
For my revisions, I did a lot of them while sitting on the fabulous
Troy sofa from Crate & Barrel.
I found it to be incredibly comfortable–ideal for a writer, because it has deep cushions, allowing you to easily spend many, many hours there. When I’m drafting my novels, I like having a hardback chair and a work surface to write
on. But when I’m revising, I love the comforts of a soft pillow behind
I have never met a designer who doesn’t look back at most of his/her projects and wish to tweak it in some way. Essentially, no designer ever sees a room as “done”. Is that the same with writers? Now that the book is done, do you ever revisit it and wish you could tweak a passage or flush out an idea?
Oh my gosh, constantly. Just the other day I was fantasizing of rewriting my book for the paperback, which comes out in March and we’re in the middle of finalizing. And actually, even for the hardcover, my editor had to pry the manuscript out of my hands before publication. I’ve learned, though, to take that energy and put it into my next project, my next book, and to accept that a book is never finished; you just stop working on it.
While I love reading a good book, I also love decorating with them. I love how books can provide an instant sense of who a person is when they are displayed. So if you could have any three books on display on your coffee table, what would they be and why?
I would have the following three books……
I love looking at picture stills of Merchant Ivory films, the way they capture the emotions and the feelings of their characters. Together, they were absolute masters of combining aesthetic beauty with psychology acuity.
I’m also a huge fan of Hitchcock, who was a brilliant storyteller. Not a day goes by in my writing that I don’t use an image or idea or concept taken from one of his films. He was brilliant at using physical metaphors to convey states of emotion, and writers sometimes have to rely on such descriptions in order to escape verbal clichés.
I find Vermeer’s world incredibly appealing, and if I could live in it, I would! I suppose what it says about me is that I’m fascinated by natural light–I love, for instance, to see sunlight streaming in through my windows, and how it catches certain objects during different times of the day.
As designers, we design for other people but as a writer do you write for yourself or with an audience in mind?
I write for a combination of both. If I only wrote for myself, my books would not get published. If I only wrote for my audience, my books would be dull and uninspired. If you’re not personally invested in your material, the reader notices and pulls away. And by the same token, if you don’t care about pleasing the reader, then the craft suffers, and the scaffolding of the book falls apart. Before I write a book, I ask myself, where do the two meet, where’s that intersection? What is the kind of book that I would personally enjoy writing that *also* happens to be the kind of book readers like to read?
Your book’s main character is based on your mother. What would you say, if anything, was the scariest aspect of writing a book with a protagonist that you knew?
It wasn’t scary because it wasn’t a straight-out memoir. If it had been, I probably would’ve worried more about my mother’s reaction. What I did was to turn her life into fiction, and that gave me a lot of freedom.
I always end all my interviews with a variation of the same question. Your book chronicled your Mom’s journey to live a fully realized life. So what lessons have you learned from your Mom on trying to live your life “out loud” or in an authentic way that will be true to yourself?
In writing about my mother’s journey, I learned to be *incredibly* appreciative of the freedoms that I have. As a woman in 1960s Korea, she had very few options in terms of how she spent her day.
In terms of living “out loud,” I learned, in promoting the book, that the best way to be is really to be yourself. The cliché is true! People absolutely crave authenticity, and I found that the more I acted like myself, the more appreciated I was and the more connected to me readers felt. I was trying too hard in the beginning to be distant, serious, and almost aloof, because I thought that’s what
readers expected from a writer. But we’re in an age of connection and friendship (real or virtual), and people want you to be likable–and I’m a naturally accessible, warm person. It turned out that I was hiding/repressing what would turn out to be my biggest selling points!
Thank you Sam for such a well-thought out and awesome interview! As I said, I loved the book, so much so, that I am giving away a copy to one lucky reader.
For your chance to win a copy of This Burns My Heart….
1) Leave a comment with the words “Book Me”.
For an extra chance to win, tweet a link of this give away and leave a second comment.
The give away will close November 22!