Interview: novelist Nami Mun
In Nami Mun’s debut novel Miles from Nowhere, the protagonist Joon is a Korean-American Justine, forever suffering pain and injuries at the hands of family, friends, lovers and strangers. Everything she touches turns to dust: when she feeds a starving mutt, she inadvertently kills it by feeding it fried chicken, the bones of which pierce its intestines. She survives — barely — a teen shelter, drug addiction, an abusive family, and faithless boyfriends, before finally cleaning up and moving on.
The book is set in New York and Mun now lives in Chicago. But she graduated from UC Berkeley and was a member of an East Bay writers group for some time, so that makes her a home girl here. She’s on a book tour and will appear Wednesday at 6:00 pm at Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building. After the jump, she answers some questions I put to her through her publicist.
Could you talk about the genesis and creation of MILES FROM NOWHERE? How did you come to write about a Korean-American teenager who leaves home, becomes a junkie and survives?
The initial surge to write Miles from Nowhere began with the voice of Joon, the narrator of my book. I found her voice to be both naïve and wise, as well as vulnerable and strong, and I suppose I liked the tension these dichotomies created on the page, especially when she tried to describe certain adult settings and situations. So I wrote several short stories about her, and perhaps a year or two later, I began to notice how all of the stories were about Joon trying to make money to survive. (For example, she works as a dance hostess in one story, sells Avon in another, sells newspaper on subways, etc.) That’s when I realized that these stories, while self-contained, could also be cogs working toward a larger narrative arc.
I also made a crucial decision right then — to keep the episodic structure, primarily because I felt it gave a truer, more visceral reflection of Joon’s fractured mindset.
I read on one blog that it took you over five years to write the book. What were the challenges you had to overcome during that time? How did you keep from quitting?
I am a painfully slow writer who edits while writing, even though many have told me not to. Hopefully this will explain why the book has taken me eight years (not five) to complete. And I don’t want to sound like a big dork but I pretty much enjoyed every single minute of those writing years. Even when doing 30 rounds of revisions on certain chapters or scrapping pages and pages of prose to salvage a few sentences. It’s such a cliché but, honestly, the most challenging part was to loosen my grip and hand over the manuscript.
Your main character, Joon, clearly doesn’t fit the American stereotype of the studious, well-behaved Asian-American teenager. How concerned were you, in writing the book, with challenging that stereotype?
When writing, I try my best not to think about what I’m doing as a writer, rather what my characters are doing as characters and as citizens of the fictional world in which they exist. In short, I wasn’t concerned with breaking stereotypes, though I understand how Joon might not be exactly what people assume Korean-Americans to be, including other Korean-Americans.
Your book reminded me a little bit of Janice Erlbaum‘s GIRLBOMB, which is about a teenager who lives in a shelter in New York. Erlbaum has written elsewhere that Laura Albert, the author behind the J.T. LeRoy hoax, was also a shelter teenager, and her (Albert’s) novels have in common with your themes of prostitution and drug use. Have you met other former shelter residents as a result of your research into this book? Do you hope your book speaks to them?
I hope my book speaks to anyone who has ever walked around with feelings of desolation and alienation. I think these feelings aren’t too selective about who to infiltrate and make hollow. That said, of course I hope that members of the submerged population, including “shelter residents,” runaways, throwaways, sex workers, and the homeless, find ways to connect with the book.
I wish I could comment on the books by Erlbaum and Albert but I specifically avoided reading memoirs or novels that dealt with troubled teens while working on my book. Now that I’m finished, I look forward to reading them, especially Erlbaums’ since I’m a fan of BUST magazine.
To disabuse readers who assume your life is exactly like that of your novel’s character, could you tell us a little about your life now?
Currently, I’m a writer and a professor of creative writing. When I’m not writing or teaching, I am probably eating. Most likely kimchi and rice. Or anything that’s in your refrigerator, if you’ll let me. I also like coming up with dance moves. The latest is called The Bus Stop, which I’m pretty proud of and will show to anyone who asks.
American publishing has been hit by several scandals having to do with the difference between memoirs and fiction. I’m thinking, of course, of James Frey and Margaret B. Jones, though we’ve just seen a more recent example with the fake holocaust memoir of Herman Rosenblat. Since at least some of your real-life experience (such as having once been an Avon saleslady) overlaps that of your novel’s character, can you talk about your decision to write a novel rather than a memoir based on your own experiences?
It never occurred to me, not once, to write a memoir. Fiction, to me, seems far more fun and liberating, and when it’s going well, I feel as if I have complete control over a beautiful long dream. Luckily, for me, fiction is my default mode. I love creating a narrative artifice to better explore, directly or indirectly, moments that seem difficult to unravel or articulate. For example, with Miles from Nowhere, I’d say maybe one percent of the book is autobiographical. Yes, I left home at a young age but I chose not to write about the actual events of my own life as a runaway. Instead I kept those actual events in a “reserve” of sorts and used my knowledge of them to strengthen the narrative artifice I was creating.
What’s living in Chicago like?
It’s like living in New York with lower rents. Or living in San Francisco with knee-high snow. It’s a city. It’s a playground. It’s a work zone. It’s Obama. It’s a beautiful all-night buffet of amazing cheap eats. And it’s where my skin gets tougher by the minute but from the brutal weather and not the people. I’ve been in Chicago for nearly six months and I have yet to meet a single grumpy person. Let’s hope the city doesn’t change whatever is in the water.
What are you working on now?
A novel about a family, and a linked collection about one crime.