Author Travels Deep into North Korea for New Thriller

Posted by Cybil on May 17, 2018
In the new thriller Star of the North, three people find themselves embroiled in the North Korean regime. Jenna is a young Korean/African American academic in Washington, D.C., whose twin sister vanished from a beach in South Korea 12 years ago. Colonel Cho is a privileged, high-ranking diplomat in Pyongyang whose life is thrown into turmoil when the secret police start unearthing his family's background. And Mrs. Moon is a 60-year-old peasant living on North Korea's remote northern border with China. When she chances upon an aid balloon that has landed in a forest, she sells its contraband at a local market. Soon she is a thriving entrepreneur—and becomes the voice for a simmering local dissent.

Soon, all three lives connect in unexpected ways. Author D.B. John talked to Goodreads about researching North Korea, the allure of dictators, and why his writing routine involves pacing, tea, and possibly a beer.

Goodreads: Tell us a bit about yourself, and why were you drawn to write this book?

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D.B. John: I grew up in an industrial area of South Wales in the 1970s, attending a pretty rough school. Luckily I had entire universes—created by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—that I could defect into at any time. The experience of being bullied has always made me empathize with outsiders and misfits, and I'm drawn to writing about those types of characters.

Jenna, a Korean/African American, is both of these in the novel. She grew up managing multiple identities, and the trauma of her youth has disconnected her from the world. This otherness in people often gives them an inner strength they don't know they have, a quality I find attractive. My early experience has also given me a lifelong fascination with the way power is acquired and abused, so perhaps it's no coincidence that both novels I've written have featured dictators. After a brief career as a lawyer, I worked for many years at the publisher Dorling Kindersley in London, editing popular children's books on history and science. In 2009, I moved to Germany to write my first novel, Flight from Berlin.

Goodreads: What sparked the idea for Star of the North?

DBJ: I had long wanted to set a story in the world's last remaining totalitarian tyranny, but the event that started me writing occurred on December 19, 2011, when I witnessed the footage from Pyongyang of the mass public grieving that erupted just after the death of Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, was announced. People were crying and wailing and prostrating themselves on the snow. It was as if they were under a spell. There was something desperate about it, too, as if they knew that severe punishment awaited those who shed too few tears. This is a place, I thought, where the rules of human behavior are different.

Goodreads: You traveled to North Korea as part of your research for the book. What did you learn about this secretive country, and how did it inform your thriller?

DBJ: My visit to the North was in April 2012, by chance a momentous time for the country, as it was the centenary year of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's founder and self-styled Great Leader. I witnessed the regime's leader worship at its most excessive—daily military parades, mass oath-taking, and flower-laying. The entire nation was taking part. Even my small tour group was suborned into the cult of Kim, being asked to bow before his statue.

However, any hopes I'd had of interviewing ordinary North Koreans were disappointed. Only contrived, scripted encounters, under the gaze of minders, were permitted. But despite tight control over our tour, it was impossible for the regime to prevent us glimpsing the poverty and the shortages behind the facades. I was struck by how almost everyone we met, adults and children, seemed to wear a mask that never slipped. It reminded me of the expression of optimism it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreens in George Orwell's 1984.

In the old Soviet Union, there was always subversive graffiti or jokes about the leaders. There is nothing like that in North Korea. The regime's political control over all aspects of life, public and private, is almost total. It really made me want to know about the inner lives of North Koreans. Did they ever risk speaking their minds, or voicing doubts, even to those closest to them? What did they imagine the universe outside North Korea was really like?

Goodreads: You also interviewed North Korean defectors. What did you learn from them?

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DBJ: I met several defectors in Seoul through a church that offers them support (many defectors embrace Christianity in the South), and through the Bliss and Bless Café, a Seoul coffee shop that employs defectors. Sadly, most defectors are looked down upon by the rich, prosperous South, and many find it hard to get regular work.

One was a 27-year-old former soldier who'd been arrested and beaten many times for distributing Christian CDs at a marketplace in a northern town in North Korea. His army contacts tipped him off after his mother, father, and sister were all arrested for hosting an illegal house church and urged him to escape immediately. He did not want to talk about how he came to be missing several fingers on one hand. Another woman had no choice but to flee after she'd been caught trying to arrange the defection of an elderly man to his South Korean relatives in return for a fee. She suffered severe beatings and malnutrition in a secret police holding camp. Branded a criminal, she became shunned by her village and unmarriageable.

Almost no defectors have an easy journey to the South. Many spend months living as fugitives without papers in China, where they are in terrible danger of being picked up by the police and sent back to their fate, or they are at the mercy of criminal brokers charging exorbitant fees. Most of them travel through China to Laos or Thailand, entering those countries illegally and spending months in prison before finally being released to the South Korean embassies there. And once they reach the haven of the South, their ordeals often catch up with them. They suffer nightmares or they are plagued by guilt for family members they left behind. Few find the adjustment easy. The pressures of the free world can overwhelm them. It's not uncommon for them to start yearning for the North, where their lives were simpler and big decisions were taken for them by the state.

Goodreads: Tell us about your writing process for Star of the North.

DBJ: I don't find writing easy. Sitting at my laptop and tapping away is only about 10 percent of the process. Friends often ask why I don't give myself a change of scene—go and work in a café or at the British Library. This is because huge amounts of my time are spent pacing about with a cup of tea (or on bad days, a beer) and scratching my head, trying to figure out how to end a paragraph or begin a chapter.

There's a lot of self-doubt, changes of mind, and rewriting. I would never begin a novel without first knowing how it's going to end, otherwise the writing will drift. Plot is the easy part. I write the story as if it's a movie and try to visualize the scenes cinematically. The characters are much more difficult and evolve over time, after a lot of thought. It takes me a long time to get to know them well.

Goodreads: What other writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in Star of the North?

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DBJ: My favorite author is without a doubt Robert Harris. I'm in awe of the way he'll take the drama of real events—the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 in Pompeii or the 1938 Munich Crisis in Munich—and find a detail, a footnote, or shadow inside them in which to craft a compelling, researched thriller. It inspired me to spin my own story around real, documented events.

Likewise, I hugely admire David Mitchell, particularly his Cloud Atlas for the way he moves seamlessly between radically different epochs and cultures and makes them beautifully link up and connect. William Boyd, too, I've reread many times for the fact that most of his main characters are women. I heard Boyd speak once, saying that he felt able to do this because gender is secondary to character. This is what really inspired me to give Star of the North two strong female leads. I'm also hugely impressed by what Tom Rob Smith has achieved with the Child 44 trilogy, which has ordinary people forced to make terrible choices by the tyrannical system they are constrained by. Alan Furst, too, I love. He sets almost all of his fiction in the milieu he knows best: an interwar Europe inhabited by blond double agents, Red Army deserters, and Gestapo informers.

Goodreads: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

DBJ: I'm currently reading McMafia by Misha Glenny after I enjoyed the BBC TV series so much. And I've just finished Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. To my friends I'd recommend Sirens by Joseph Knox, an impressive modern update on the gumshoe crime detective, and Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. Set during the Indian Wars, it's a gay novel like no other I've ever read.

Goodreads: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

DBJ: I'm fascinated by what's happening in modern Russia right now and am toying with the idea of sending my main character there next. Reading Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin is providing fertile source material.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Carole (new)

Carole Alexander Now I understand why ‘Star of the North’ is so cinematic; that is how the author thought about it.

message 2: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey I'm so glad the grand tradition of passing over actual people for stories written by white boys runs strong to this day.

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