by Terry Hong
Jung Yun’s Twitter profile reads: “Fiction writer. Late bloomer. Better late than never.” Indeed, more than four decades passed before she earned that “fiction writer” mantle, but clearly the careful gestation paid off.
So wowed was Yun’s publisher, Picador, with her first novel that hundreds of extra galleys were printed. The word got out quickly, and early buzz began to build last year toward March release. As Shelter hits shelves this month, dozens of pre-publication lists have included Shelter as one of the books to get/read/appreciate/worship this month/season/year, from The Millions preview of Most Anticipated 2016 Books to Bustle.com’s 15 Best Books of March to BookRiot’s “The Best Books We Read in February” to Goodreads Best Books of the Month and 12 Women of Color Authors You Need to Know This Year to Kobo’s Indie Spring Picks, to Amazon’s Best Books of the Month in two categories, Literature/Fiction and Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense. Many more publications/lists/predictors continue to attest to Shelter’s remarkable debut. More will undoubtedly follow.
Spare, sensitive, devastating, Shelter is a multi-generational, intercultural story about a Korean American college professor, Kyung Cho, and his relationships with his immigrant Korean parents, Irish American wife Gillian, and Gillian’s family. With unblinking deftness, Yun examines the ties that bind and break our most intimate relationships—and what must happen to offer any hope for repairing such damaged bonds.
Faced with financial crisis, Kyung and Gillian must consider selling their overmortgaged home. During the initial realtor meeting, the couple discovers Kyung’s disoriented mother wandering naked behind their backyard. Kyung misunderstands his mother’s garbled explanation and concludes that she’s been battered by his father yet again. But when he enters his parents’ impeccable manse-on-the-hill seeking answers, he’s shattered to find that his parents and their housekeeper have been the victims of a heinous crime. As the extended Korean Irish American families attempt to reclaim their fractured lives, Kyung’s decades-long suppressed rage at his abusive father and submissive mother threatens to destroy any semblance of resolution and recovery. Amid ramshackle houses and pristine abodes, finding true shelter is an elusive challenge for all.
Terry Hong: The parent/child bond—or lack thereof—haunts Shelter. Kyung’s immigrant parents are definitely more the stereotypical Tiger parents. Were you raised in a similarly strict, overachievement-expectant household?
Jung Yun: My parents definitely encouraged certain things in life, like doing well in school, getting into a good college, and having a successful career. But they didn’t breathe down my neck about it like some parents do. I think I was a Tiger kid because I was so desperate to leave North Dakota and go to college somewhere out of state. I’m pretty certain that I pushed myself harder than anyone else ever could.
TH: Right. Fargo—not exactly a mecca for Asian Pacific Americans to congregate. I understand you arrived in the U.S. with your family at age three. I’m assuming you were one of a few APA families in North Dakota? How was it growing up in such cultural isolation? And the most important detail (!)—just how far did your parents have to go for a Korean grocery store or restaurant?
JY: There were lots of terrific things about Fargo, so I can understand why it was appealing for my parents to settle down in a place with low crime, good schools, and affordable real estate. But I think we all acknowledge there was a cost to it. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was really unusual to see racial or ethnic minorities in Fargo. We had no semblance of a community there, and we were often the only diversity for miles. As for the Korean grocery store, the closest one was four hours away in Minneapolis. We would do Korean food runs the way some people shop at Costco now.
TH: How did your parents initially decide on Fargo? Did you already have relatives/family friends there?
JY: My dad was a martial arts instructor, and he wanted to open a tae kwon do school somewhere in the Midwest because there was already a lot of competition on the East and West coasts. At first, he liked Chicago because it was a big city with a large Koreatown, but it was too expensive and crime-riddled. He just couldn’t imagine raising a family there. Then someone suggested Fargo, which had a population of about 60,000 at the time and felt like a big small town. When he visited, he thought it seemed like the right place to grow his business, which turned out to be true.
TH: How aware were you of yourself as an Asian Pacific American growing up? What were some of the key moments in coming into your APA identity?
JY: Keenly aware. It was hard not to be. While most people, adults and children alike, were generally kind, it was obvious that they regarded me and my family as different. I was just telling this story the other day—when my mother became a naturalized U.S. citizen, my sister and I automatically became citizens too. Since there was so much paperwork involved, my parents gave us the option of legally changing our names to something more “Americanized” as part of the naturalization process. I became obsessed with the idea of being a “Tiffani” (note the “i,” not a “y”), “Stephanie,” or “Heather”—names that I liked because they were common and didn’t draw too much attention, which says volumes about my 9-year old state of mind. I was so excited to tell my classmates about this, but when they heard the choices, they burst out laughing, telling me I “couldn’t be a Tiffani.” That still stands out because it was the first time I understood that I was perceived as someone different, someone on the outside of certain things.
TH: How much of that “Tiffani” story determined your choice to name your protagonist Kyung, rather than, say . . . Ken?
JY: I think it influenced me, but not entirely on a conscious level. Despite the appeal of Tiffani, I kept my given name, and it made sense for Kyung to have kept his given name, too. He’s Americanized, but still feels bound by many traditional Korean customs and obligations, particularly in terms of what he feels he owes his parents.
TH: You had numerous careers before publishing your first novel. What were some of the highlights that contributed to your finally becoming a “late-blooming” author?
JY: One of the biggest highlights was working at the New York Public Library in the late-‘90s. During my first year, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, which was essentially a writers-in-residence program, opened at the main library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Francine Prose was in the first cohort, and I basically stalked her that year because I loved her writing. Whenever I spotted Francine leaving the Center, I’d creep around and follow her around the building just to see what she was doing, what she was looking at. Until that point, it had never occurred to me that there were people like her who wrote for a living. Writing just seemed like a nice hobby and a good skill, not a career.
Another big event was meeting Walter Mosley, who sometimes came to the office to meet with my boss. He was a very kind man who would occasionally strike up conversations with me, and once, I told him that I wanted to write, so he asked me what I wrote. I then proceeded to make a lot of excuses about working really long hours and not having time to write, and he said—in the nicest way possible—that one of these days, I was going to realize that something had to give. It took a long time to realize what that “something” was, but Mr. Mosley was right. Writing didn’t become a priority in my life until I made it one.
TH: Dare I ask about how old you are? Because we Koreans are eternal so no one can tell our age, of course!
JY: Ha! I’m 44. And I don’t mind if you print that. I’m at peace with my age, although lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly time passes. I started my MFA program when I was 30, which feels like a couple of years ago, at most. If someone had told me how long it would take to publish my first book, I really wonder if I would have taken the leap.
TH: So when did being a writer go from “nice hobby and a good skill” to “I’m a writer?” What ‘gave’ as Mosley put it—what made you realize writing had to be that priority? And when/how did you realize you could actually write a novel?
JY: During my last year in New York, I signed up to take a three-hour writing workshop that met on Saturdays. At the time, I was working on the Lincoln Center redevelopment project, burning about 14 hours a day, at least six—often seven—days a week in the office. But even if I had to work on a Saturday, cut out to attend my writing class, and then go back to work right afterwards, I never skipped that workshop (and I skipped so many important things because of work during this time period—weddings, birthdays, showers—it was pretty awful). As far as pattern recognition goes, it was pretty telling that the workshop was always the best part of my week.
I am so loath to say this, but it’s probably worth mentioning that I think I’m one of those people who chose to leave New York after 9/11. It’s taken me a long time to come around to acknowledging that, but as long as we’re talking about pattern recognition, within nine months of 9/11, I had quit my job, applied for MFA programs, sold my apartment, and started to extricate from my first marriage. That’s a lot of life change in a relatively short period of time.
As for the question about when I knew I could write a novel, I think my first full draft of Shelter felt like an accomplishment, just taking a story from beginning to end, but that was 2012—a full decade after I left New York for Western Massachusetts.
TH: So where did the inspiration from Shelter originate? Besides hanging on to given Korean names, how much of your own experiences did you incorporate into the various characters here?
JY: Shelter really started with that early scene in the kitchen. I imagined a man standing at his kitchen window and seeing his elderly mother walking toward his house, naked. When I first started playing around with this idea, it didn’t really add up to much. I think I was just exploring the idea of adult children becoming caretakers for their aging parents, and feeling somewhat inconvenienced by it because they have their own kids to look after. I think I’ve heard this referred to as “the Panini generation” (or I’m just making that up because I’m hungry). My mom owned and operated a retirement home, which obviously left its mark on me, because I remember visiting as a child and noticing how some people seemed so desperate for company. Some of them didn’t get picked up on holidays or birthdays; it was as if their families had sort of forgotten about them. That was a really strange idea to wrap my head around because even though I came to the U.S. when I was very young, I could still remember my grandfather living with us, and it was unbelievable that there were adult children out there who didn’t let their elderly parents live with them. But of course, you have to ask yourself why—why don’t some children take their parents in?
TH: I read about your “obsession” with a real-life 2007 Connecticut home invasion that prompted some of the narrative of Shelter. Could you talk a bit more about that?
JY: Back in 2007, there was a home invasion in Connecticut, in a very affluent community about 90 minutes south of me. Two men took a family of four hostage and did terrible, terrible things, particularly to the females. When the police started closing in on the house, the men set the house on fire and fled, and the only person to survive the fire was the father. I read and watched everything I could about this case because I was strangely worried for this man even though he was a total stranger—I just didn’t understand how he’d ever recover from such a depraved, inhuman act of violence. Whenever he was on the news, what gave me hope was seeing him surrounded by what seemed like a very loving, supportive extended family. But that made me wonder—what if a similar kind of violence happened to a different kind of family? Discovering that question was what I needed to link that early scene in the kitchen to a much larger story.
TH: So your day job is at UMass Amherst at the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development—what does that mean? What do you do? How do you balance your writerly life with your current career?
JY: Good question. It’s a very long name! My colleagues and I help faculty develop their teaching skills. We also help with broader professional development skills, like scholarly productivity, time management, mentoring, leadership training, etc.
I get up between 4:30 AM and 5 AM every morning to write. I have a good three, maybe three-and-a-half hours of writing in me before heading to the office. That’s the schedule I’ve kept for the past seven or eight years, and it’s worked well for me, i.e., starting the day with the thing I have to do; otherwise, I just feel like a different person. When I finished grad school and started working full time again, I tried to write at the end of the day, but I was always too tired, too hungry, too amped up, too something. Name your excuse. What I love about mornings is that there aren’t any excuses for not writing.
TH: Your title is such a multi-layered, charged single word. Where do you find your personal “shelter?”
JY: The book is dedicated to my husband, Joel, who plays that role for me. In many ways, we’re such opposites and it seems like we shouldn’t get along at all, but it works somehow. I feel peaceful whenever we’re together, so the actual place doesn’t matter much. Sounds moony, I know! But it’s true.
TH: What do you hope will linger with readers once the book is finished?
JY: That’s such a good question. One of the book club questions I was most excited about was “What do you hope for these characters by the end of the novel?” I think it’s all about that word—hope. Even if it’s just the thinnest sliver, I’d really like it if readers still had a little bit of hope left for these characters.
TH: Inevitably, I must ask . . . what are you working on now?
JY: Research for the second book, of course. I guess the best way to describe it is that I’m writing about characters in North Dakota, waiting for some of them to grow on me, to convince me that I can live with them for the next X years of my life to figure out their story. I overwrite characters until they become interesting to me, until I know them well enough that they almost begin to write themselves. Right now, it’s hard to say much more about this project other than it’s dark, it’s set in the future in North Dakota, and bad things are going to happen in order for some good things to have a chance.
Click here to read Terry Hong’s previous features on Bloom
Homepage image: “Abstract House” by Howard Kolsin via fineartamerica