Poured Over: Juhea Kim on Beasts of a Little Land

“I went running in Fort Tryon Park in the northern reaches of Manhattan. And it was snowing. And during that run, I had this vision of a hunter lost in the snow…” Beasts of a Little Land is a remarkable debut novel about love and redemption, covering five tumultuous decades of Korean history. Juhea Kim joins us on the show to talk about writing and rewriting an epic novel with a large cast of characters, caring for her antagonists, Anna Karenina and more. Featured books: Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Produced/hosted by Miwa Messer and engineered by Harry Liang.

Poured Over is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays.

From this episode:

Juhea Kim: I knew right away that this was going to be a love story between three people…But one famous author said there are four types of stories: there’s a love story between two people, a love story between three people, a story of a journey, and the building of an empire. And of course, there can be a mixture of all of those things. But for me right away, I was like, I want to write a love story about three people and Jade is, you know, the main person in that love triangle. And her two lovers came to me very quickly. And a lot of these characters felt so natural to me, because they are based in some very distant way, based on people that I know in real life, or my ancestors, to be honest, on both sides of the family. So, you know, JungHo…is incredibly, incredibly loosely based on my maternal grandfather, because, you know, my maternal grandfather was not homeless, per se, but he, you know, was from a humble background, whereas my paternal grandfather, again, like SungSoo, the bougie publisher, his personalitie’s just based on some other things that I’ve observed. But I would say his social standing, and his education and maybe his thought process are based on my paternal grandfather….

B&N: You studied art at Princeton. So, writing came later, right?

Absolutely. I studied art history, the degree’s called Art and Archaeology department. But essentially, I was on an art history track, and is the number one writing influence that I have to this day. And I’m actually rather glad that I didn’t take Creative Writing. Although that school has such a strong Creative Writing program, the late Toni Morrison taught there. And with, I think creative writing courses, or an MFA, comes a certain type of writing that’s craft driven. And also, it asks writers often to think about different ways of describing something that no one else has done before. And with my art history, discipline, it was about just describe it as precisely as possible. So, you can lead the reader very easily through what you see in your mind. And I’m a visual thinker. When I write anything, I see it happen. And so from that education, I just learned how to describe everything very precisely, as opposed to trying to come up with 1,000 different new ways to describe snow, for example, and writing came to me late, pretty much because I didn’t think that I could make writing a profession. I come from a very modest background. And as do many immigrant children, I didn’t think of a life of an artist as an actual option. And it was actually very surprising to me when I became an editorial assistant in New York publishing and saw all these people who actually thought that that was a career route that was open to them. And then from there, I started slowly moving in that direction of creating my own work.

B&N: You’re also worked as a translator.

That was a one-off project. And that’s a really interesting story….I did a three month, self-funded sabbatical in France in 2019. Because I got so burned out of New York, and I said, I quit everything. And I just want to go to France and learn French. And before I went there, I had this idea again, like a lightning bolt. I’m like, wait a minute, what if I pass through London and said hello to my Granta editor, Luke, and I hadn’t talked to him in the past couple years. But I was like, you know, I feel like there might be something there. And I even had the idea that I would be pitching him if I can I translate this for you because I really liked this short story. And I even thought about bringing that book with me a book of short stories by this late, great Choi In-Ho who’s one of the 20th century’s greatest Korean authors, but he hadn’t been translated into English before. But I didn’t bring the book. I didn’t want to jinx it. And then so I meet Luke at  Granta’s office. And he and I were talking about Korean authors. And he was like, so who do you think I should be reading? And I was like, well, there’s this great guy named Choi In-Ho, but he’s never been translated. And he goes, so do you want to translate something and send it over. And so I get out at that meeting, and I’m like, texting my mom, I’m like, Mom, you must scan those pages for me and send it immediately. And so, I landed in France, like a couple days later, and I took off my coat in my Airbnb, after many days of going from Portland, Oregon, to Grenoble, France, and took off my coat and for 24 hours, I’m manically translating, didn’t come out– not even to get food. And I’m in France….

B&N: You and I share a love of Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. Who are some of the other writers you look to, and recommend and read again?

Junhea Kim: I was really late in reading The Master and Margarita–that was a relatively recent read–and I loved it. And before then I I loved Anna Karenina, and to me, Anna Karenina, not only being like kind of a prototype model for my novel, Beasts of a Little Nation. I always thought of that [Anna Karenina] as the perfect novel, but I realized the Master and Margarita might not be a better novel, but it might be a better work of art. I would love to discuss this with some like other Russian literature, lovers and see If I have any handle on that… another book that I recently read, and I’m like looking at my coffee table is Caroline Kim’s The Prince of Mournful Thoughts. It’s a short story collection. Have you heard of it? So it was a Drue Heinz winner and the Drue Hines prize is given by the University of Pittsburgh, and then they publish it and it came out in 2020. Long listed for The Story Prize, I think. And for a small press book, it got a lot of acclaim and attention, rightfully so because I found it really, really beautiful and very moving, also. So some of the recent highlights that other people might not know and it’s, it’s within the, past year or so, have you heard of Narayamabushiko? Narayamabushiko is by Shichiro Fukazawa,I’m probably butchering his name. But this is also a novella from a while back, and it’s a very Japanese story is steeped in Japanese culture and sensibility. And I found it really kind of mind blowing, you know, some books just blow your mind away. And I just thought that that was amazing.