The Story behind the Pick: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Today is the official release to of what I believe to be one of the best books of the year, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.  (Yes, I know it is January 10th!) To add to the excitement, Adam Johnson will be at Lemuria for a signing and reading on Friday, January 27th. The Orphan Master’s Son is also our January First Editions Club pick.

The Orphan Master’s Son takes place in one of the most isolated countries on Earth, North Korea. Adam Johnson began studying North Korea during the George W. Bush Iraq War era when he became interested in the art of political propaganda. The national narrative constructed by Kim Jong Il and his administration led to many questions for Johnson which he detailed in an interview with Richard Powers: “What did it mean when people became characters in the story of a corrupt state? What happened to their own identities and motivations? Under what circumstances would a person risk sharing a personal thought?”

When asked about what North Koreans think about all of the propaganda, Adam Johnson could only comment on his suspicion as he was not allowed to actually speak to any of the North Korean citizens: “My suspicion is that people in North Korea know that everything is a lie, but that they have no idea what the truth is.” (see full interview with Electric Literature)

All of these questions and research led to a published short story but with Johnson understanding the need to travel to North Korea if he were going to expand his story. The opportunity came and Johnson describes the situation:

“I toured four cities on my visit and was monitored by three minders, one of whom video-taped much of what was said, for the purposes of a ‘tourist DVD.’ There was also a director who appeared on occasion to mind the minders . . . Upon arriving I was struck by the quiet of Pyongyang–there were no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no cell phone conversations, almost no conversations at all, just thousands of people, all dressed similarly, walking briskly from one task to another. I saw no advertisements, no graffiti, no litter, no bicycles, no stoplights, no hint of leisure. This was a land without fashion, irony, magazines, music, pets, art, or spontaneity of any kind. The streets were empty, the buildings dark, the escalators eerily still.” (Interview with Richard Powers)

On top of a real world that we will find unbelievable, Johnson tells us the fictional story of Pak Jun Do, the son of an orphan master in Pyongyang. Since his mother, a beauty of voice and appearance, was stolen to Pyongyang, his father felt that being an orphan master would allow him to hold tight to his son. Jun Do finds himself to be just another orphan among orphans, often blamed when anything goes wrong. Finally, as the famine comes and progresses to an unimaginable point, Jun Do’s father stops a “crow”, a Soviet military truck, to take the remaining twelve boys from the orphanage.

At the age of fourteen Jun Do leaves his father to be trained as a tunnel soldier in the art of zero-light combat. Because of his skills for working in complete darkness, he is eventually recruited to pluck Japanese right off their coastline at night. As the reader learns more and more about Pak Jun Do, it is clear that he can do whatever he sets his mind to, even in the awful circumstances of North Korea. At what seems opportunity and necessity, Jun Do finds a way to assume the military and personal life of Commander Ga, a top general to Kim Jong Il. From here, the cast of characters expands and deepens from American diplomats to the recently departed Kim Jong Il.

Open up The Orphan Master’s Son and read. The loudspeakers are calling!

“Citizens! The time to be excited about Adam Johnson’s forthcoming novel is approaching. Remember to keep the beautiful spirit of unity in your heart and steel yourself for this day! Remember to remind your neighbor! Say to your neighbor, what are you supposed to remember to remind me about today? He should say to you: THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON!” (The Outlet, The Blog of Electric Literature)

Read more about The Orphan Master’s Son:

24 Million Secondary Characters: A Q&A with Adam Johnson by Publisher’s Weekly

‘Orphan': A New Novel Imagines Life in North Korea by NPR

An Interview with Adam Johnson by The Outlet, The Blog of Electric Literature, September 2010

The Orphan Master’s Son an audacious, believable tale by The Washington Post

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is published by Random House with a first printing of 40,000 copies.

Leave a Reply