On December 19, 2011, one of the main characters in Adam Johnson’s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, died. His name was Kim Jong Il. Had Kim lived, he might have approved of the impish, devious, and dangerously mercurial simulacrum that Johnson summons in his epic about modern North Korea, published by Random House this month. He may have been less pleased that an ordinary citizen named Jun Do usurps him as the hero of the book—springing from a labor camp in a doomed quest for freedom.
Johnson, who teaches fiction at Stanford’s Stegner Program and grew up in South Dakota and Arizona, has written about characters caught in dystopian settings before (he is the author of a short-story collection, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us) but never on such a grand scale or in such unfamiliar territory. Earlier this month I caught up with him by phone to ask how he came to write about North Korea, and about the perils of researching a place about which so little is known. Read More