Here Laura Furman series editor of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories talks to former Vintage Publicist and O. Henry Prize Winner Paul Yoon about winning the O.Henry Prize and his first published collection of stories Once The Shore.
Laura Furman: Your story “And We Will Be Here,” in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 is an interesting study in time. There’s the compressed time of the main character’s, Miya’s, life, her years at the institution, and the time over which the story takes place, among other pieces of time, if I might use that phrase. Was time on your mind in the process of writing the story?
Paul Yoon: Yes, absolutely. Time was very much on my mind while writing this story. I think it’s because I visualized the story as a small map––as I tend to do for all my stories––or a detail of a larger one, and so you have an orphanage on one side of the hills and a hospital on the other side, and I wanted to explore that particular area, that geography, as deeply and thoroughly as possible.
The wonderful thing about fiction (and film and even paintings) is that when you have a certain setting or a landscape your movements are not limited to the physical––meaning, it doesn’t have to be about a character literally crossing a hill; you can play with time and move your characters through the present, past, and the future. So that a footpath not only leads to a tree but leads to that tree many years ago; or a hospital window can be a window of what was once a school; and so on. I guess it’s kind of like visualizing time as not just moving horizontally––from left to right––but moving all over the place––backward, vertically, diagonally––within a specific location. I wanted to attempt that. It was how I saw the story, and the book, in my mind.
LF: In your comment on your story in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, you mention your grandfather and his experiences with orphans during and after the Korean War. What is your own experience of South Korea? The setting is so sure and vivid.
PY: I haven’t visited South Korea in over a decade. Approaching two decades, I think, if I’m remembering correctly. So my experience there is very limited. I do of course have vivid memories of spending time there––including its islands and my grandfather who by then was running a school––but to be honest I’m not sure if those memories were the initial foundation for starting my first collection, Once the Shore. Or, to be more accurate, I’m not sure if my specific memories of South Korea were more useful than any other memories I have of, say, another place or of another time. The seeds of the book were sort of an accumulation of a lot things.
Also, I was working day jobs to earn a living so I wasn’t able to afford the time to visit South Korea when I was writing the book. So I read a little about an island called Jeju (or Cheju) as a way to start––a little of its geography, its climate, what kinds of trees and flowers grew there, what kinds of horses they had, whether there was a strong Japanese or American presence during the occupations, etc.––and then I ignored almost all of it and imagined everything else. But I am of course very happy that you think it is so sure and vivid!
LF: I noticed through the process of putting together the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 that you’ve been moving around a bit in the past year. I know that you worked in publishing previously. Would you mind talking about your own experiences as a young writer? How to get the work done and still pay the rent?
PY: To be honest, I still don’t think I’ve figured this all out yet. I’m just kind of taking it a day at a time. I think there are so many ways to get the writing done and it just depends on what works best for the individual. For me, I wanted to work in publishing after college because it seemed like a good way to not only make a living but to be surrounded by books and people who love books. And it was wonderful. I adore my co-workers there and they are family to me. But I didn’t really do much else outside of the office, save for when my boss brought me to a party so that I could devour the free food. Most days I put in my hours there and then went home and wrote fiction. I think it was good for me to be alone in the evenings, to learn the discipline of writing and reading.
So to answer your question about how I got it done I can say that it was a very focused and intense period in my life, where I was holding down a job and then hiding from the world at night. And that way of living continued as I moved around to other jobs in NYC and then in Boston. I’m not saying this is the right way to go about writing. I’m just saying this was how I dealt with having a day job––I needed those nights to myself. The jobs started to burn me out, though––it was getting harder to find the mental energy to reenter those fictional worlds after coming home––so I recently decided to take some time off. I’ve been in North Carolina for the past two seasons, living very, very cheaply in a small, beautiful house. The funny thing, of course, is that my habits did not change. Now I have “all the days and nights,” to quote William Maxwell, to hide and write.
LF: For some people, the novel rather than the short story is a true test of a writer. Do you have any feelings about the sister-genres?
PY: Can I call them twins? I actually don’t really see a difference. Or I suppose the difference, for me, is something that is very banal: word count. I have read many short works that are just as moving and powerful as novels and I have read many novels that are just as moving and powerful as short stories; and I have read many fictions that are difficult to label. But regardless, they are all stories, no? And that is what is important to me––that we have stories to tell, no matter their length. How does one label John Berger’s Pig Earth? A collection of stories and poems? A novel-in-stories? Does it matter? It is just as masterful and heartbreaking as, say, Andrey Platonov’s Soul or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or a single story by Mavis Gallant or William Trevor.
LF: What are your plans for the next year or so?
PY: I’m slowly working on a new book, taking my time with it. And I’m moving again. My girlfriend, the fiction writer Laura van den Berg, will be teaching creative writing at Gettysburg College in the coming fall so we’re getting ready to head to Pennsylvania in August. But before that we’ll spend July in Cambridge, MA, which I am very much looking forward to. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole world.
LF: Your first book, Once the Shore, was published in May 2009. How’s the book going so far?
PY: I think it’s going well. Or as well as one can know these things. I try not to be too involved in that process. All that stuff seems to be in the hands of the gods; so I have let the book go. But I am happy. I’m thrilled that Once the Shore is out there in the world, and maybe someone somewhere will pick it up one day and be moved by it, feel some connection to that book, as I do to so many books, and that is what is exciting to me––it’s an amazing thing to think about, to know that perhaps you and some stranger a world away are connected because of a book.