I’m delighted to welcome D.B. John to Crimepieces today. You might remember that I reviewed his thriller Star of the North a few weeks ago. I’m delighted to take part in his publication tour and below is a fascinating insight into how the book came about.
Thanks for agreeing to chat about Star of the North. It was a pleasure to read a substantial thriller with a satisfyingly complex plot. Can you say a little about how the book came into being?
I had long wanted to make this dark, secretive country the setting for a thriller. It was the dramatic news from Pyongyang on 19 December 2011 that first got me thinking about a plot. At noon on that day state television announced that Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, who had ruled the country for seventeen years, had died. I watched the footage of those vast crowds crying and grieving, and behind the tears I saw fear. Everyone there, even the children, knew what awaited anyone whose eyes were dry. I became utterly intrigued to know how ordinary North Koreans coped under pervasive surveillance and extreme political control. How did they carve out any sort of private life? Did they ever risk confiding doubts, even to those closest to them? How did they live?
It was fascinating to read about North Korea, a country only known to the majority of us though what we see and read in the media. How easy was it for you to delve deeper into reality of living under the closed, secretive regime?
My visit to the country in April 2012 was a strange kind of research trip. I was careful about asking questions, because people there can’t answer them freely. An ‘incorrect’ response could have terrible repercussions if overheard by a minder or an informer. From long habit, North Koreans keep their thoughts and feelings well hidden. And on my tour I was shown only those sights the regime wanted me to see – the monuments and achievements of outmoded socialism. Pyongyang is a bit like a gigantic film set, with the population behaving as extras. But of course, now and then it was possible to peek behind the scenery, and see the reality: vagrant children, empty factories, women washing clothes in dirty river. Raw poverty.
I got a much clearer picture about daily live in North Korea from the defectors I met in Seoul. One was a young soldier who’d been arrested for distributing free CDs of Christian music at a market. He didn’t want to talk about his punishment but I could see he was missing fingers. Another was a bright young woman who’d been caught helping people cross the river border into China. After her prison sentence she was shunned in her own village and realised no one would ever marry her. From them I learned the details that help bring characters to live. However I learned the most by far from Hyeonseo Lee, whose memoir, The Girl With Seven NamesI co-authored in 2015. Many aspects of this novel were inspired by her bravery, intelligence, and sheer tenacity.
One of your principal characters is Jenna, an expert on Asia, who is recruited by the CIA when they discover her twin sister might have been kidnapped by North Korean agents. You expertly explore of what it means to be a twin and also an American of mixed-race. How did you manage to avoid clichés around both these subjects?
I wanted to make Jenna a twin after reading about the kind of bereavement suffered by a surviving identical twin, and for much of her life Jenna believes her sister is dead. With many people, the pain of grief eases a little with the years, and they can start to honour and cherish the memory of the one they’ve lost. I’m not sure this process is the same for an inseparable, identical twin. The survivor may be traumatised in ways others can’t imagine, and would simply never be the same person again. They might forever be living with a ghost. And aside from that, of course, an identical twin premise generates no end of plot possibilities…
As to Jenna being mixed race, I know from my research interviews that Korean-Americans are seldom entirely accepted by Korean Koreans. Mixed-race Korean Americans are even less accepted. And in ultranationalist North Korea the attitude towards Jenna and her twin would be downright racist. Like many people who have had to manage multiple identities, Jenna has grown up as something of an outsider. Cho and Mrs Moon are also outsiders in their way. Such people often have an inner strength and resilience they don’t realise they have, a quality I find attractive. I’m drawn to writing about outsiders and misfits, maybe from my experience of growing up gay in a very unaccepting time and place.
I particularly liked the very human experience of Mrs Moon who finds a propaganda balloon from South Korea filled with treats. How did that character come about?
The ‘ajumma’ is a familiar figure in North and South Korea. These tough, hardworking no-nonsense matrons, found in every marketplace, are treated with a curious mix of respect and derision in Korean society. They do not suffer fools, and have no difficulty making men look weak and incapable. I wanted Mrs Moon to be smarter and tougher than any of the men in her environment. I imagine there must be many real-life Mrs Moons in the North, women who were strong enough to keep their families alive through the great famine in 1990s, and are now making their own good fortune by hustling and trading. These women are rebels in a way, resisting the entrenched patriarchy of Korean society. They are the class of people least likely to be taken in by nonsense Party ideology. Goatshit, as Mrs Moon would call it.
Your book is timely as, of course, North Korea is prominently in the news at the moment. I’m sure you’ve been watching events – do you think that the there is likely to be some kind of resolution for families whose relatives have been abducted by the North Korean state?
Sadly I don’t think so, not in the foreseeable future at any rate. I suspect Kim Jong-il’s (very cagey) apology about the abductions in 2002 was a blunder for the regime and won’t be repeated, given the international outrage it provoked. The most famous of the victims, Megumi Yokota, who was a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl when she was snatched in 1977, remains a great cause célèbre in Japan, and is widely believed still to be alive, despite the regime’s repeated insistence that she died. Under huge pressure, North Korea did release a handful of the victims in 2004, but on their return to Japan they behaved oddly, refusing ever to talk about their lives in North Korea, even to their own families. Clearly the regime still retained some terrible hold over them. A far more likely development would be for Kim Jong-un to allow reunions for the families separated by the Korean War – still a poignant issue in the South, even after all these years. That’s a gesture he may easily make, if relations with the South continue to improve.
What’s next in terms of your writing? Will you continue in the same vein or do you have a surprise for us?
I haven’t entirely closed the door on this novel. I’ve left it open a crack at the end. It took me so long – five years – to get to know these characters well. I suppose I’m reluctant to let them go altogether. There may be a sequel. And of course, as a CIA agent, Jenna’s missions could take her anywhere. I’m don’t know where yet, although I’m extremely interested by what’s happening inside Russia at the moment. I think the West has been slow to realise the dangers of that country’s emergence as a hostile police state.