By Stephan Lee
August 22, 2012 at 05:55 PM EDT

Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, now available in paperback, is one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the year so far. The riveting and heartbreaking novel, set in North Korea, follows a man named Pak Jun Do, who spends his early years in a harsh orphanage, then gets thrust into a series of wildly improbable adventures (kidnapping Japanese citizens, toiling in a prison mine, meeting North Korea’s most famous propaganda-film actress) that eventually lead to an unforgettable endgame involving canned peaches and Kim Jong Il. EW’s Rob Brunner wrote in a review, “[Johnson’s] book is a triumph of imagination. Johnson has created such a convincing universe that it doesn’t really matter if he’s accurately captured every detail. It feels real, often terrifyingly so.” Although no one can really know the ins and outs of daily life in North Korea, Johnson certainly did the research to create as truthful of an account as possible. As you’ll see below, North Korea is nothing short of an obsession for Johnson. Read on for Johnson’s fascinating views on the subject, tangents and all.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the opportunity to visit North Korea?

ADAM JOHNSON: It used to be really, really difficult to get there — impossible, actually. Now, before Kim Jong Il died in December, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] advertised a trip for American passport holders this summer, and they’ve had several trips since. Since I went five years ago, the need for hard currency has grown so much that they are allowing in the great enemy — Japanese and Americans. The only people they’re barring now are South Koreans, but they can hate no one on earth more than us and the Japanese, but they just need money.I was just at the cusp of that transition when they were entertaining allowing people in, but it was more about who they’d let in and how they’d go about it.

The first person I interviewed for the book was from the North. He was an older gentleman, and he was born before the Korean War. During the war, he was orphaned. He spoke to me about what it was like to lose his family in the war. He was adopted by an American tank crew who let him sleep on the back of the tank in exchange for helping them navigate the countryside. Even as a young boy of 10, he knew some English. When they got to an air force base, they put him on a cargo jet and he landed in Seattle. That was back when I guess you could take a child and just put him on a plane. [Laughs] All I knew when I was beginning the book was that my character was beginning to have such an origin. I was so moved by his story. Since then he went on to become one of the founders of Holt International. He had his own orphanage in South Korea dedicated to disabled children. In the North, he had an NGO planting apple orchards, and he and his friends had planted 14,000 apple trees in the North. He was friends with a man named Kim Myung-gil, who was the DPRK ambassador to the U.N. So my friend — I don’t want to say his name — was trusted in both the North and the South. He was professor of international relations. He knew that I was working on this book. I actually showed him most of the book before he died a year and a half ago. He just really believed in the project. He said there was nothing quite like this, and he said I think I can get you into North Korea. So he personally took me there.

Where did the seed of the story come from, and how did you research it?

I was writing what I thought was another novel, and when I write fiction I usually read nonfiction, just because I want to use the other side of my brain. I just picked up a book about North Korea in early 2004, and it was Chol-hwan Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang about going into a North Korean gulag called Yodok, Camp 15, which is the family camp. He went in with his family when he was nine, so he went in with his grandmother and his mother and his sister and his aunt and an uncle, and it was about their nine years in a camp and their unlikely escape from it. I just remember thinking, I’m kind of an educated, aware person of the West, and I didn’t even know really that this gulag system existed — let alone that it had existed for 50 years, that it was this extensive and that even right now they’re just going to bed after working in the gulags. They’re really there right now, and Yodok has 50,000 people in it. Camp 14 and 18 have another 50,000, those two alone. I read the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, I read David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag, and I just went down the wormhole of fascination. I honestly didn’t even know I was researching a book. When I have a lot of material in my head, I just kind of play with it. I write voices and dialogue and sketch scenes and I found myself working with the material and I didn’t take it seriously. I think I was writing a book for about a year before I realized, “Holy shit, I’m writing a novel!” Which is usually a bad discovery because it means the next several years of your life are screwed. I just backed into it via curiosity. I didn’t have any big initial intentions.

There’s a facility in South Korea called Hanawon — people from the North have such a difficult time transitioning to life in the South, socially, economically, just epistemologically. So they built this facility in the South. They are probably several thousand people coming per year now, and so Hanawon is partly a debriefing facility where the ROK [Republic of Korea] secret service interviews everyone to see who’s a spy. And they’ve found a couple. Then its workers take the oral history of everyone who comes through. But actually, the number one expense at Hanawon is dentistry. North Korean refugees get their health needs attended to. It’s like a medical facility slash university. Most people stay six weeks to four months, and they’re taught what rent is, why you have to pay for your food, how to have a checking account, how traffic works — there are still no stoplights in the North. They have defectors come in and speak who’ve made the transition and help people because unfortunately in the South, there’s a real stigma against Northerners. They’re seen as bumpkins, and the truth is, they haven’t had real education. They’ve been indoctrinated, and they’re naïve. But also the Northerners — and this is borne out by many people I’ve talked to — they’re from a dog-eat-dog world. They can be aggressive and demanding and they don’t live in a world of pleasantries. So if you ask someone who’s from the North, “Hey, hows it going, how’re you doing,” that’s a dangerous question to them based on their upbringing, to reveal personal feelings above notions of their role in the State. If someone were to communicate personal feelings, those could be used against them.

Every day interactions in the Western culture are very — I say Western as kind of a modern, hip culture — very confusing. Media is very difficult for them based on what they have to say. Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy is a really amazing book. She was the LA Times correspondent for North Korea and her testimonials were really useful to me while I was writing my book. And she’s fashioned a book that’s nonfiction based on interviews of six people about their interviews growing up their whole lives in the north and also in their transitions to the South. She followed them for years.

No matter how much research you do, North Korea is still a place that’s still very much a mystery. As a writer, did you sometimes feel like you were writing about a speculative, fictional realm?

It didn’t quite feel like I was writing about a place that was far away as much as it felt far ago. The heyday of North Korea — when it was really prosperous — was when the Soviet Union invested in them heavily and built many factories there, which are still running. There’s a Soviet refrigerator factory from 1963 working in North Korea, and they don’t have the technology to modernize these factories, but they can keep them going. So they’re in 2012 putting out brand new 1963 refrigerators. It’s kind of like Cuba in a certain way. Just South and a little east of Pyongyang, there’s a vehicle factory called Sungri where they’re putting out brand new pickups from 1958, and you see them driving down the road. It’s like time travel. It’s the last kind of Stalinist state. It’s filled with 1960s and 70s housing blocks. Like I said, it doesn’t even have stoplights — there are human beings with batons.

NEXT: How do North Korean’s experience pop culture?

All the thousands of people who defect defect from the countryside. If you live in the countryside, that’s where all the people died in the famine in the late 90s. Food scarcity is a real issue. Commodities like clothing, tools, fuel of all sorts, heating is a real issue. To survive, people in the countryside have to take risks the people in Pyongyang don’t have to take. They have to forage the countryside which means they’re leaving their living zones unauthorized. They have to cross the border back and forth to engage with the black markets. There’s a concept in the North called Songbun, which is your family’s loyalty rating. The people are very aware of these ratings—it’s maybe the most important thing about you. And they’re based on: Has anyone in your family since the revolution committed an infraction against the State? If that’s a good score, if everyone’s been loyal to the regime for the past 60 years, then your family can live in PyongYang. The lower your rating, the lower your station in society. It’s very stratified despite North Korea’s rhetoric of equality. So if you’re in the countryside and your family has a low Songbun rating, and you get caught listening to illegal South Korean radio broadcasts, you can go to the gulag with your family. Whereas if you live in Pyongyang, and you get caught doing something wrong, your rating is going to get lowered a little bit but at worst you’ll spend a week or two on a labor farm. I say this just because what happens is that to survive, people from the countryside risk their lives to escape — and the lives of everyone they know — whereas in Pyongyang you have it relatively good. You’re not going to starve, your kids are going to get really educated rather than spend years memorizing Kim Il Sung speeches. You might have a real job that’s meaningful. You’re going to go to movies. You’re going to have a decent life. People do not defect from the capital. It’s very, very rare. So they don’t bring their stories with them. For people in the countryside we have a really full portrait of how many calories they eat, how they spend their days, what they do for fun. What adversities they face. It’s really Pyongyang that is the utter mystery. And because everything we know about that society is based on oral testimony, everything is also unverifiable. It’s only through the accumulation of stories that we feel confident about things.

How do North Koreans experience pop culture?

This is a fascinating question. When I went there in 2007, I could see cell phone towers. I told my minders, “Hey, there are cell phone towers, how come no one’s using a cell phone?” And they’re like, “Oh those aren’t cell phone towers.” I say, “I’m from California — we dress our cell phone towers to look like trees too.” I recognize that. But I didn’t see a single person in the capital use a phone. So they were using them but only out of sight. Were they hiding them from their fellow citizens, or from us, from each other? We know that in January, the Egyptian company that built the North Korean cell phone network announced their one millionth user in the capital. So right now probably 50 percent of people in the capital have a cell phone. I talked to someone who went there in November and she said people were using them openly and using iPads openly. The regime can change a rule one month and change it back the next, so everything’s really arbitrary in that way.

When I went there, you could go out and take a nap on the street in Pyongyang, and this woman who I talked to got briefly caught in a traffic jam. There are so many new vehicles. So you hear reports that people are using a lot of thumb drives, watching South Korean soap operas. Barbara Demick said that when she was there in early 2011 — it was 2010 before the book came out, so she’s banned now — the hot book in Pyongyang was an American book and it was the only time she’d ever seen an American book there: It was Gone with the Wind. The regime had obviously given it their approval. If you think about it, it’s a book set in the Civil War and it’s a love story and it’s told from the perspective of people who are on the inhumane side of humanity. That supposedly really spoke to them. [Laughs] It had quite a commentary on Americans and their rapacious natures.

What has the reaction overseas — or specifically from Korea — been like?

This is a question that’s of interest to me too. The book is coming out in 15 languages soon, so internationally, we’ll have to see. It’s funny — while I was writing it and showed it to a Korean-American friend of mine and he’s like, “Dude, I’m from California, I don’t know anything about life on the peninsula and whether you got this stuff right, you know?” I showed it to a South Korean friend, and she was like, “Man, I don’t know anything about the North!” So it was very hard for me to verify what I was doing. Since then, I had a couple students of mine at Stanford who are from South Korea who’ve read it and said, “You know this really feels true to the Korean stoicism of this male character.” I’ve had positive responses and I had one woman who wrote me an e-mail and said she was Korean-American and she said, “You got a lot of the personal interactions wrong. No one would ever refer to a superior in this way.” And I kind of knew that going in that I could never get another culture completely right.

I know there’s some inherent trespass when you write about something other than your own experience, but as someone who teaches creative writing and encourages it, I think there’s no better way to get to know the experience of some other person than to write across gender, class, race, or time.

I find it really rewarding to contemplate what it would be to live in a world of propaganda. The Japanese translate the Rodong Sinmun, which is the Pyongyang Worker’s Party newspaper. Every morning for six years I read the North Korean communist newspaper daily and those propaganda broadcasts are so mind-numbing. There’s nothing like it in America. It’s so useless. It’s pointless. Your mind wanders after just a couple of sentences, but I felt I had to get that sense of oppressive propaganda in the book. Because people have it piped into their houses and they have no choice about it. So the only thing I could do was try to parse it into small doses and make it a little funny because I do find it funny. A lot of the craziest propaganda in the book, there are lines I took straight from North.

What are some recommendations for further reading?

Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, which is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person we know of who was born in a gulag in North Korea and made it out. It’s a quick and engrossing read — a rare, rare portrait of the gulag system. I can’t speak highly enough of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She went after what I went after, which is the human dimension. There are so many books about economics or nuclear issues, and things like that. And I would probably say the third one I’d recommend is the one I first started with: The Aquariums of Pyongyang, which is a moving story of a nine-year-old going into a gulag, and he brings his goldfish with him because he doesn’t understand what’s about to happen to him. Kang got out and is now a South Korean legislator. So he’s actually working hard to really improve things. My experience was that North Korea was the most fascinating thing I’d ever read about, and I became mildly obsessed to say the least.

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