I read HEART in hardcover last year and found it to be gorgeously written, cinematic, and completely absorbing. Samuel graciously agreed to share his thoughts on the book's controversial heroine, Soo Ja, whose unhappy marriage in 1960s South Korea forms the basis of the story. I also asked him to discuss his research methods, since his descriptions and style immersed me in the time period.
Without further ado, take it away, Sam...
Hi Sarah! Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I’m thrilled to be here.
You asked me to write about a character making tough, compelling choices that may be difficult for readers.
I suspect you asked me that question because the heroine of my book, Soo-Ja, makes a seriously bad choice at the beginning of the book. At that point, the reader either throws the book away in frustration, or plunges deep into the narrative, to see how it all turns out. As the author of the book, of course I always hope it’s the latter.
But I like that you asked that because it’s something that often comes up in discussions of the book. A lot of readers, to be honest, disagree with a lot of her choices, and find her maddening. Still, I think that’s what makes her seem human and three-dimensional—we’ve all made terrible choices, and wondered how to make them work. And that’s sort of the theme of the book: the permanence of choice. Are we stuck with the consequences of our choices, or can we find a way to undo them?
To make that work, I think you have to lay the groundwork to make her choice seem plausible. The choice can’t be a clearly bad one. The character has to lack some vital information that the reader has. It has to make it seem like she’s doing the right thing in the situation.
Then, you have to make it clear why she makes the choice, and you have to make it seem practically inevitable. I think this is when human psychology comes in. So often, we do things that are self-defeating, and against our own interests. How many of us have chosen the wrong person to date, or said/did something that sank our prospects at work? I think Soo-Ja is a version of that, but in a grand scale. I think part of the reason Soo-Ja’s story resonates with people is that it’s about a universal theme—disillusionment in marriage. No matter how great the partner you pick is, no matter how terrific your relationship is, the dirty little secret of marriage is that a lot of people find it a bit disappointing. In other words, no matter who you choose, you feel slightly letdown. Soo-Ja’s is just an extreme version of that.
Your second question was about my research methods and integrating real life into a story. I think that balancing the demands of fiction with fidelity to real life can be very tricky. Basically, I took some elements of my mother’s life and fictionalized it. I would create composite characters, or tie together events that actually happened months, or even years apart. I made up a tremendous amount, and the book is certainly a work of the imagination. However, the part where I borrowed the most from real life was in terms of the motivation and the psychology of the characters, as well as the dynamics between different characters.
Also, I think when you borrow from real life, you borrow not just a certain truthfulness that can’t be faked, but also a certain investment in the material that otherwise might not be there. In other words, I ended up investing these characters with some of the same love, curiosity, and interest that I feel for the real life people who inspired them.
Finally, when people talk about research, they usually mean the books and articles they read. But what about the emotional research? The feelings, fears, and anxieties associated with that society, that period, or that country? I tried to really pay attention to how I felt emotionally about the locations and situations I was writing about, as ultimately the emotional truth gives the reader a much more fulfilling experience than when you just focus on getting facts right.
Thanks again for hosting me on your blog, Sarah! It’s been a pleasure! And I wish the best to everyone who is entering the giveaway!
Intrigued? Enter my giveaway to win a copy of this terrific book. Simply comment below, stating you'd like to enter the contest, and -- if you're so inclined -- please tell me the title and author of your favorite historical novel.
I'll pick a winner out of a virtual hat next Thursday and mail him or her a copy of THIS BURNS MY HEART (international shipping is fine, too).