INTERVIEW: Adam Johnson

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:


Adam Johnson is the author of the story collection Emporium and the novel Parasites Like Us. His work is odd and evocative. It is full of satellites, snipers, classic cars, wild animals, and vaguely disconcerting visions of the future. But don’t be fooled: in any given story Adam Johnson will lure you in with his charming bomb-disposal robots and then sucker punch you with an astute emotional observation. You’ll find yourself reeling, choking up, saying, what did you go and make me feel that for? But when you’re through clutching your heart, you will say thank you.

Johnson’s forthcoming project, a novel tentatively titled The Orphan Master’s Son, marks a departure from the imagined odd into modern day North Korea, a place that is stranger than fiction.

I speak to Johnson by phone as he is leaving the medical library where he has spent the day writing. I ask him the most obvious question: Why North Korea? It started for Johnson in 2004, around the time of Bush’s reelection. “I started getting interested in propaganda and the voices of propaganda,” he says.

He began seeing parallels between the sort of propaganda he was reading about in North Korea and the things that were going on at home during the Mission Accomplished era of American politics.

The strangeness of North Korea so intrigued Johnson that he began writing about it and, eventually, visited.

What he discovered was a bizarre landscape where many of the cars and even triple-decker buses operate without headlights in order to prolong their use-at night the roads are full of careening vehicles in semidarkness. He learned that you should never step into an elevator unless you’re absolutely sure it has power. He said that propaganda is a continual presence: the walls are plastered with propaganda posters featuring dancing rabbits, but never advertisements. He even visited a place called the “International Friendship Museum” where all the gifts given to Kim Jong-il are on display.

At one point, Johnson launches into his own freestyle version of North Korean propaganda: “It is almost seaweed harvesting season, citizens! Go get your seaweed, full of iron, that can be stored for years if properly canned!” He continues: “Walnuts are good for male virility! The sorghum harvest is almost here!”

What do North Koreans make of the propaganda? Do they believe it?

Johnson is quiet for a moment. Then he says, “My suspicion is that people in North Korea know that everything is a lie, but that they have no idea what the truth is.”

He says that he was fascinated and amazed every minute of his trip, but that it didn’t really afford a single moment of pleasure. Because it is against the law to speak to foreigners, Johnson says that all of his interactions in North Korea occurred through the filter of an appointed tour guide. He says, “Nothing spontaneous can ever happen. I was there walking through throngs of people…I’m 6’4, a big guy, passing though these crowds…and people wouldn’t even look at me. To make the smallest mistake there can have the largest of consequences.”

Johnson says that the The Orphan Master’s Son is essentially a love story, “a sort of North Korean Casablanca.” The book is told in three different voices. The first, he says, is a fairly objective third person which tells the story of Sun Moon, whose husband, Commander Ga, has been “replaced” by the government.

“There’s a lot of direction of human relationships from the government,” Johnson says. “You may marry for love but if that person falls out of favor that person may be taken away and replaced by someone else by your housing block or the local party. And people just come and go. They appear and disappear.”

The second voice in the novel is the first person account of a midlevel bureaucrat interrogator who tries to learn from Sun Moon’s replacement husband exactly what has happened. The interrogator character lives in a crumbling housing block with perpetually out of service elevators. The block raises goats on their grass-covered roof as part of North Korea’s real-life“Grass In the Meat” program. “And of course the goats are always falling off,” Johnson says.

The third voice, the one represented in “For the Love of Juche,” is the praise voice of a propaganda loudspeaker. This voice that takes the facts of Sun Moon and Commander Ga’s relationship and twists them into a happy propaganda fable.

“Kim Il Sung, in 1973, had every factory and apartment wired with cable radio. It was done under the guise of being an air raid warning system, but what it actually does is involuntarily fill houses with propaganda messages and revolutionary operas and news. If you clip the wires, you’re sent to prison.”

Which leads us to Kim Jong-il. Johnson says that he originally imagined Kim Jong-il playing a much bigger role in the novel but what he found “turned out to be so weird that I couldn’t use it…most parts were absurd on a level that could only be handled in nonfiction.”

“Alright,” Johnson says, “Will you wiki this?” He spells the name of the movie and it’s eponymous monster for me: “PULGASARI.” Johnson tells me about when Kim Jong-il, an obsessive cinephile, had his favorite director, and the director’s actress wife, kidnapped and brought to him. He demanded they help him make a monster movie for which he had written a screenplay. The director and actress refused, and thusly languished in jail for years until they agreed to participate in the project. (Skip to 53 minutes to get right to the terrifying Pulgasari.) Johnson describes the movie: “It’s about a monster that rises up via forces of greed and terrorizes the countryside. He likes to stomp on those who are revolutionary of spirit and don’t have Juche in their hearts. They spared no expense. They even hired the Japanese guy who had worn the suits in the real Godzilla.” The story goes that Kim Jong-il got the movie screened at Cannes, but made the mistake of allowing the director and the actress to attend the premiere, where they promptly escaped.

Johnson speaks about North Korea’s present Dear Leader with all the appropriate gravitas. But Kim Jong-il the character? Johnson says, “He steals every scene he’s in. He’s a hoot! I really love that character. I wasn’t prepared for how funny he was. He always has a trick up his sleeve, is pulling a prank…and the thing is, he can make anything happen at any time. He can say, ‘guess what everyone, I have prepared a special treat!’” Johnson imagines Kim Jong-il opening a door to reveal said treat. “And because it’s him, there can be anything behind that door.”

“Like Deus Ex Machina?” I say, “But scarier, because it’s real?”

Johnson says, “The things he thinks are great are sometimes not so great for everyone else.”

* * *

Read the excerpt “For the Love of Juche” from The Orphan’s Son here.

–CJ Hauser is a spinner of yarns and writer of fiction who lives with the Trout Family of Writers in Brooklyn, New York. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Review, The Laurel Review and The Kenyon Review. She is currently at work on a novel about fishing towns, taxidermy, and love.

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Thank You!