Interview: Nami Mun

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 8, 2009 6:00PM

2009_01_08_nami.JPG To say writer Nami Mun has led an interesting life would be a gross understatement. Mun was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to the states with her family when she was young, growing up in the Bronx. A teen runaway, her jobs have included being a bartender, a photojournalist, a street vendor, an Avon Lady, and a criminal investigator. After getting her bachelors from UC Berkeley, she got her MFA form the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award for fiction and the Farrar Prize for Drama (she's also won a Pushcart Prize and earned several fellowships). Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Tin House, and the Evergreen Review.

Now, having recently moved to Chicago to teach Fiction Writing at Columbia College, she has released her first novel, Miles From Nowhere. Set in 1980s New York - specifically the Bronx - Miles From Nowhere follows the exploits of Joon, a Korean teenager who runs away from home at the age of 13, living in shelters, on the street, and in various apartments and lofts. Mun takes us on a gritty yet poetic journey as Joon bounces between men, drugs, and various jobs. Told in an episodic style that jumps forward in time with each chapter, we see glimpses of Joon's life as she tries to find her way and come to terms with the harsh reality of the streets and is haunted by her fractured relationship with her parents. It's a dark novel but one that ultimately gives hope for redemption.

We caught up with her on the road promoting the book's release - a trip that includes a stop here in Chicago - and talked writing style, characters, The Wire, the weather, and why the El can be a fun ride.

Nami Mun, Friday, January 9, Borders (Lakeview), 2817 N Clark St., 7:00 p.m.

Chicagoist: One of the first things I noticed about the book is that it’s written in a snapshot style, for lack of a better term. Each chapter stands alone in time and there are gaps in time between them as we move forward in Joon’s life. How’d did you come about with the idea to write the novel this way?

Nami Mun: I should start off by telling you that originally I just wrote one story. The first story was “Club Orchid” which wound up as chapter three of the book. I wrote that story and the I wrote another and another one and I realized I was on to something in that each story was about my narrator, Joon, working a job and trying to make money and survive. I thought even those these stories were self-contained, they could be put together to work towards a larger narrative. That’s when I started to realize - fairly early on - that, okay, I actually have a book here, I can write a book about this character and her trials.

I also made an important decision then to maintain the episodic nature of the book because I felt it better portrayed and relayed to the reader her fractured mindset. I wanted the reader to have a visceral reaction and response to the work in the way her life is so fractured, the way her childhood is so fractured. I wanted there to be some semblance of that for the reader.

C: So it’s almost like a short-story collection about one character?

NM: You could see it that way. It’s been called so many things. It’s been called a short-story collection, it’s been called picaresque, an episodic novel, vignettes - to be honest, I really try not to think so much about the label. My editor saw it as a novel because there’s a larger narrative and the arc of the book. I was trying to think more - I don’t know - organically? And instead of saying, “This is a short story collection and every story has to be self-contained,” I was trying not to put on those unnecessary limitations because I felt like it was unfair to my narrator. It’s not always so neat and tidy.

C: It certainly has the cohesiveness of a novel.

NM: I hope so. I like hybrid forms anyway.

C: The press notes say the novel took eight years to write.

NM: That’s so embarassing, isn’t it? [Laughs]

C: I’ve known plenty of people who have taken longer.

NM: I just have to come clean and admit I am an extremely, painfully slow writer. I have this unfortunate - or fortunate, I’m not sure which is correct - habit of editing while I’m writing which everyone tells me that I shouldn’t do that. But that’s just the way I write and I think it’s important to stay true to your own writing style and momentum. But in all honesty, I do everything very slowly. I eat slowly, I walk slowly, so it doesn’t surprise me that I write slowly. I started the book on January 1, 2000 as a New Year’s resolution to take writing more seriously so that’s when I began writing “Club Orchid.”

C: When did you know it was done? Was it a specific moment, an epiphany? Or did you reach that point that happens with a lot of writers - where you got to the point that you just couldn’t do any more work on it?

NM: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that. [Pause] I don’t want to sound like a cliché writer, but I could keep working on it, to be honest with you. If they told me I had another year, I would have said, “Great!” and keep working on it, tidying it up. I’m really into revision. Some of the chapters, I’ve done 30-40 revisions. I really love the revision process. But interestingly enough, I think I kind of knew that I was done because- the final chapter you see in the book is not actually the final chapter I wrote for the book. I actually wrote another “final” chapter for the book which was about another 50 pages [laughs] of Joon - I won’t even go into it. But after I wrote the 50 pages, I thought the content was good and worthy of being in the book, but I realized it was actually a different book. And that realization was kind of important, it was important for me because it dawned on me that, “Oh, I think I’m actually ready to move on to something else.”

C: That brings up another question I had about Joon: will we see more of her? Is there another book about her to be written?

NM: No, no, [Miles From Nowhere] is not a prequel. [laughs]

C: So this is a one-time thing, nothing more from this character?

NM: No, that’s a good question and I do get that sometimes. But this is it. The only thing I might add to that is that I’m working on two new projects right now and I was writing this section on one of the projects and I realized this character that I had created was really an extension of Wink [a minor character in Miles From Nowhere] and I think I still have - I have a soft spot in my heart for all of my characters, obviously, but I think there’s something about Wink that I really liked. He seems to be much more vulnerable and even more innocent than Joon sometimes. So I thought it was interesting that Wink’s personality and his characteristics kind of stayed with me and revisited in this next project. Of course, his name won’t be Wink and who knows if this character will even remain in my book. But I thought it was interesting that I still had feelings for Wink [laughs].

C: With this snapshot/episodic style, did it affect the way you developed the minor characters? I’m a big, big fan of the show The Wire-

NM: I love that show!

C: I just finished the last season this week. And in your book, I was really drawn to the character Knowledge. I some similarities, it seemed like she could have stepped right out of that universe as well.

NM: [laughs] Oh, gosh, I never even considered that! That’s great.

C: I actually had the Wire character Snoop in my mind for some reason when I was picturing Knowledge. So did that episodic nature hinder your ability to develop these minor characters or was that something you weren’t really concerned about?

2009_01_08_miles.jpg NM: To be honest, I wasn’t really concerned about that. I didn’t - it wasn’t an issue, how about that? The episodic nature actually allowed me - it liberated me - to include characters that-[pause] If you’re working on a traditional novel, I think you have to have a certain cast of characters and they have to play a certain role and wherever they pop up within the book, they have to be very integral. You can’t just drop off a character like I could in my book. For instance, there are certain characters - Knowledge and Wink are revisited throughout the book; those two characters were the most meaningful to Joon. And of course Joon’s mother and father are revisited over and over again throughout the book. But those are my core, central characters, Wink being the most minor of them all. And the episodic nature allowed me to include other characters like Tahti and Benny and patients in the nursing home chapter. It allowed me to have a wider lens and to take a community portrait of this marginalized population. I don’t think I could have done that if I had kept the traditional novel structure. Maybe I could have, but there was no way I was going to write a more traditional novel for this book. It was really important to me that I kept it episodic and fractured.

C: Even though your personal experience of being a runaway is like that of Joon’s, you’ve said very little is based on actual, specific events. But like Joon, you immigrated to the United States from Korea in your youth. How much of Joon’s prospective as an immigrant was based on your own?

NM: Emotionally, there are some themes in the book that definitely mirror some of the feelings I’ve felt and that my family has felt. And really it’s just one of alienation: feeling out of place, feeling that confusion when the language is completely new and the rules are new - you don’t even know the rules. Those are feelings an immigrant might feel but I really can’t call the book an immigrant novel because those feelings of alienation anyone could feel no matter what country they’re from. Joon’s mother, who is definitely feeling the stress of the move to a new country, her feelings parallel Joon feelings as she enters into this submerged population group. And when Joon hits the street she has to deal with a new set of rules and a new language even, the way Knowledge and Wink talk to each other. Those two story lines have a subtle parallel. But again. Those feelings an immigrant might feel is something most people can relate to, feeling out of place.

C: How long have you been in Chicago?

NM: A whole six months!

C: So you’re a recent transplant.

NM: I moved to Chicago for a job at Columbia College in the fiction writing department.

C: So this is your first winter?

NM: Yes.

C: [laughs] I can sympathize. We have some new snow on the ground for when you get back in town.

NM: I told someone my skin is getting tougher and tougher from the weather and not the people.

C: You reach that point when 30 degrees seems warm.

NM: Oh, I know! Balmy!

C: Has Chicago influenced you in your new writing? Have you had much time for new writing?

NM: I haven’t started teaching yet, I start January 26. I haven’t started yet because Riverhead - the publisher - allowed the French to publish the book first, so I was in Europe doing readings and promotion and meeting the UK publisher. But I was able to write before then and I actually do think it’s beginning to influence my writing already, especially riding around on the El. I’m a public transportation girl. I grew up in the Bronx and when I was a runaway I definitely spent a lot of time on the subway. And so riding on the El has brought back some interesting memories while helping me form new ones.

C: It’s a great people-watching spot, too.

NM: It’s the best. It really, really is. The dialogue that I hear sometimes, I’m amazed. And how people act when they’re space is invaded. We all have different ideas about societal behaviors and then we all just pack into one car and one train and we have to try to get along and it makes for a good set of awkward moments.

Author photo by Brigitte Sire