Beasts of a Little Land
Author: Juhea Kim
Written by Columnist Diane Slocum
The story begins on a snowy mountain in Korea where a starving hunter saves a Japanese officer from a tiger. Later, a young girl named Jade is sold by her poor mother to a famous madame with a courtesan school. Jade meets a street urchin named JungHo from an impoverished country family, now living with a gang of boys who exist by begging and stealing. Their friendship grows over the years but as Jade becomes a popular actress they drift apart. JungHo joins the fight to free Korea from Japanese domination. Fortunes change over the years as war and economic distress invade the country. JungHo’s life is impacted by that long ago encounter on the mountain. And Jade must find a way to live out her life when everything she once knew is gone.
AUTHORLINK: What came to you first that led to this story?
“… my writing process always begins from a point of obsession…”
KIM: At the risk of sounding a little bit out there, my writing process always begins from a point of obsession and a coup-de-foudre-like inspiration. It often takes the form of certain scenes, images, and music. For Beasts of a Little Land, the first thing that came to me was the scene of a lost hunter in the snowy mountains. When I first envisioned that scene, I knew that it had a life of its own.
AUTHORLINK: How did you develop it from there?
KIM: Very soon after that, I also saw another scene very late in the book, and how it would end. I often—though not always—figure out early on how I would like to end the story. Then the plot to fill in the middle came in, also very swiftly. The most difficult part of writing Beasts wasn’t the plot though—it was definitely finding the right pacing and structure that can support such a large-scale novel.
AUTHORLINK: Did your idea of what the central story was change much as you wrote? How would you describe it?
KIM: I once read that there are four archetypes of stories: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, a journey, and a rise. I knew right away that Beasts was going to be a love story between three people, and that remained the heart of the book from the beginning to the end.
AUTHORLINK: Most of the story revolves around Jade, but you have many other point-of-view characters. How was it helpful to be in the heads of all the others?
KIM: One of the great joys of literature for me, as a reader and as a writer, is to observe different characters and also to see the world from their points of view. And I deeply care for characters when they are neither purely good nor evil, but somewhere in the middle—when they are relatably human. Being in the heads of supporting characters helps to create this richly textured and nuanced world.
AUTHORLINK: What did you do for research? Did your early childhood in Korea provide any preparation for the book?
“…what people really want, fear, and hope for are the same…
KIM: My childhood in Korea absolutely informed large swaths of the book. My background knowledge of the culture and the atmosphere made it so natural to write, in a way—it felt like writing about home. I also read a lot of Korean literature and history to get a feel for what the people felt and cared about at the time. There was a great flourishing of culture during the colonial period, similar to the Harlem Renaissance in the US. What you sense from reading these materials is that although the surface issues have changed, what people really want, fear, and hope for are the same: love, family, friendship, desire to do good, prosperity, validation.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope readers get out of your novel besides enjoying a good story?
KIM: Beasts isn’t just a fun fictional way to learn about Korean history, but a story about choices people make when they are put to the test of their humanity. These characters yearn for and grapple with universal and timeless themes. War, injustice, colonialism, poverty—these issues haven’t gone away, and if anything, the world is even more imperiled now than ever. My hope is that the book is a mirror and a chance for us to reflect upon ourselves today.
AUTHORLINK: How did your earlier works help prepare you for writing a novel?
“…if there was one way the short stories helped, it was knowing how to trust my instincts…”
KIM: Honestly, there is nothing like writing a novel to prepare you for the writing of a novel. I had written some short stories before starting Beasts, but the two are very different “beasts”! Writing a short story is like driving a Formula One car—it’s fast, it’s dangerous, and you’ll either land somewhere glorious or crash and burn. But you’ll find out very quickly! Writing a novel, on the other hand, is like running a marathon; when you cross the finish line, though, someone will tell you, “okay that was great. Now do that again.” If you repeat that a few times, then you’ll have a novel in your hands. But if there was one way the short stories helped, it was knowing how to trust my instincts and the aforementioned obsessive creative process.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
KIM: I am working on a totally different kind of novel about ballet, set largely in St. Petersburg and Paris. While it’s possible to dabble in a topic for a short story, for novels I believe in picking something that I can stay obsessed with for years. This is one subject that I could possibly never get tired of.
About the Author: Juhea Kim was born in Incheon, Korea and moved to Portland, Oregon when she was nine. She has been published in Granta, Catapult, ZYZZYVA and more. She has a BA in art and archeology from Princeton University. She lived in New York for ten years but now is back in Portland with her two cats.