How I Came to Write This Book

Posted by on Jan 20, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process | Comments Off on How I Came to Write This Book

Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.

 

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I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.

Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.

Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.

 

More About Growing Up in Korea:

Of Longing and Belonging (Korean American Story)
Considering North Korea (Korean American Story)

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FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process, On Travel to Asia | 0 comments

No… and yes.

I’ve never officially visited the DPRK, but I have been in a speedboat cruising along the border with China — in North Korean waters!

I didn’t intend to do this.

In 2015, I was invited to speak at a school in Mongolia and a teachers conference in Malaysia. In between, I took myself to two Chinese cities, Beijing and Dandong. I wanted to see the Great Wall — the regular one, and the piece of it that’s in my novel: Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain Great Wall.

When I got to my hotel in Dandong and stepped to the window of my room, I discovered that I had a view straight across the river to North Korea, just half a mile away.

Two days later, I set off on my journey to see Hu Shan Great Wall, a 20-minute drive east from Dandong. Through a series of unexpected developments, I ended up in this speedboat with a pilot and two Chinese tourists, cruising west on the Amnok/Yalu River. To the right (north) in this photo is China. To the left (south) is North Korea.

When we got near the North Korean coast, our boat pilot told us to stop taking photos. This is the closest one I got.

To the north, Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain, from the river. You can barely make out the Wall, climbing the slope.

 

We got close to this island, to the north of us. I don’t speak Chinese, but I’d picked up the names of the two countries: “China?” I asked, pointing to the island. The pilot shook his head. “North Korea,” he said. So if it was North Korea to our right, and to our left… then we were technically in North Korea!

I waved to the woman on the shore tending goats, and called a greeting to her in Korean. She beamed and waved back.

On the way back to the boat dock, we pulled up to this sandbar where a couple of North Koreans had a boat with products for sale — cigarettes, preserved eggs. When the Chinese men didn’t buy anything, the entrepreneurs muttered curses about them in Korean.

A few hours later, I was sitting on Tiger Mountain Great Wall, looking out over the North Korean countryside (the straight line cutting diagonally through the middle of the photo is the border; beyond is the North Korean island, then the river where we cruised, and finally the North Korean mainland).

So that was it, my trip to North Korea.

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Listen to the Opening of the Audiobook

Posted by on Jun 26, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun | 0 comments

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A “nuanced portrayal of North Korea”

Posted by on May 28, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A “nuanced portrayal of North Korea”

From Publishers Weekly:

 In her first novel, picture book author O’Brien (I’m New Here) presents a nuanced portrayal of North Korea; the government is restrictive and the police force divided, but the citizens’ complex perspectives and attitudes are revealed in thoughtful, interspersed dispatches. Mia’s reflections about being Korean in Connecticut versus in Korea are powerful, as is her assertion that she is “growing into both her names.”

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A “fast-paced and tense survivalist thriller”

Posted by on May 28, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A “fast-paced and tense survivalist thriller”

From Booklist:

O’Brien weaves plenty of information about the country through the story, and interspersed sections describing the experiences of some of the North Koreans they meet on their trip add depth. Mia, who was adopted from South Korea by a white American family, offers some thought-provoking insight into the experience of interracial adoption. This fast-paced and tense survivalist thriller, made all the more compelling for its fascinating setting, should find broad appeal.

 

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“Cultural Accuracy and Historical Veracity”

Posted by on May 12, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on “Cultural Accuracy and Historical Veracity”

 

Thank you to Korean American Readings for this review of In The Shadow of the Sun.

“It’s been a while since I read a book, YA or adult, that captured me so thoroughly that I didn’t want to stop reading, and that I couldn’t stop thinking about until I finished reading it. IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN was such a book. It follows Korean adoptee Mia Andrews and her brother Simon on a tour gone terribly wrong that devolves into a frightening and thrilling journey in one of the most closed countries on earth, North Korea. The author, who grew up in South Korea, has done thorough homework—the story feels authentic and the details ring with the truth of cultural accuracy and historical veracity. The book has a unique structure that includes a smart introduction to North Korea via a “travel guide,” and short interludes of voices of certain North Korean characters whom the youth encounter, if only briefly, on their harrowing journey. This combination brings a wider perspective on Mia and Simon’s dilemma, and gives valuable glimpses of a varied and complex North Korean society and daily life. While the action is a page-turner, Mia’s inner journey of identity and courage, as well as Simon’s, and the shift in their brother-and-sister relationship is equally authentic and compelling. Mirroring today’s political dilemma with issues of trust with North Korea, Mia and Simon are constantly confronted with questions about who to trust, and their instincts and choices are a lesson for us all. A terrific book about how a girl’s daunting journey enriches her inner journey, and a story and setting that expands one’s understanding of this country that is often in the news, and about which little is known.”

—Eugenia Kim, Korean American Readings

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“A thrilling and immersive experience”

Posted by on Apr 4, 2017 in Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on “A thrilling and immersive experience”

Thank you to Kirkus!

A family holiday goes badly awry, leaving two siblings racing for freedom in a totalitarian nation armed with little more than an outdated guidebook and a few packets of airline peanuts.
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Adopted from South Korea as an infant by a white Connecticut family, 12-year-old Mia has grown up feeling conspicuously different from her family and peers. To help heal the rift from a serious fight with her older brother, Simon, and to encourage Mia to connect with her cultural roots, the teens travel with their father to North Korea, a country he knows well as a foreign aid worker. Mundane sightseeing gives way to danger following Mia’s discovery of a cellphone containing shocking photos from a prison camp and her father’s abduction by authorities. Simon and Mia embark on a daring cross-country journey in an effort to reach safety and alert authorities to their father’s plight. The action is punctuated by short profiles of individual (fictional) North Koreans, tantalizingly pulling back the veil of secrecy, but readers are soon plunged back into a thrilling and immersive experience reminiscent of the best spy and wilderness adventure stories. Character development is not sacrificed to action, as the siblings mature in their relationship, gaining insight into family and racial dynamics, culture, and identity. Opening information from the fictional tour agency gives readers enough background about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to fully understand the peril the family is in. An author’s note illuminates O’Brien’s strong personal ties to Korea and gives suggestions for further reading.
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A riveting work that will appeal to a wide range of readers. (Thriller. 9-13)

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Entertainment Weekly Runs Excerpt of Novel

Posted by on Apr 4, 2017 in Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on Entertainment Weekly Runs Excerpt of Novel

Honored to have Entertainment Weekly share a selection of In the Shadow of the Sun on their website!

Read the Excerpt!

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