Anne Sibley O'Brien is the author of In the Shadow of the Sun, a new novel for kids that focuses on North Korea. She has written and illustrated many children's books, including The Legend of Hong Kil Dong and I'm New Here. She lives in Maine.
Q: You've noted that you spent 10 years working on In the Shadow of the Sun. Can you describe the process?
A: In 2007 I was being interviewed on Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. (about my 2006 graphic novel retelling of a Korean hero tale, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea), when the interviewer mentioned that the broadcast reached into North Korea and did I have a message for the North Korean people?
Within the month I had an image of two kids on the run, one of whom could pass and one of whom couldn't. But my first response was that I couldn't possibly write a book set in North Korea, because how could I possibly get enough information about what life is like there?
That fall I stumbled on a rare opportunity to view clandestine footage of the modern North Korean countryside and was amazed to realize that I recognized it. It looked just like rural South Korea in the 1960s when I was growing up there.
(Of course it did; the peninsula was all one country the size of Minnesota just over 60 years ago.) I realized that, with enough research, I might be able to find my way.
I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2008, then spent the next 8 years rewriting — I was also learning how to write a novel, not just crafting this particular story — all the way to draft #13 (my lucky number) which Cheryl Klein bought.
Tons of research and assistance from so many people along the way, including crucial contributions from the seven cultural experts/sensitivity readers who critiqued the close-to-final draft.
Q: As you noted, you grew up in South Korea. How did that affect the writing of this novel?
A: I can't imagine how I could have managed without that experience. One of the issues of writing across cultures is understanding your own lens as an insider or outsider.
Growing up in Korea I was both, a foreign, high-status American child, while living in the Korean community, absorbing Korean life and language through my young eyes and ears, skin and bones.
It's given me the gift of lifelong relationships with close friends and extended and immediate family who are Korean — including our daughter — and so many connections within the Korean American community. All of this informed everything in the book and the process of writing it.
Q: You've written and illustrated many picture books. Do you have a preference when it comes to the type of book you like to write?
A: I like to follow the impulse wherever it takes me, into whatever form. I'm not grounded in any particular genre or age group. Right now my grandson, born in 2014, is exerting a powerful influence that's inspiring young picture books, while at the same time I'm getting ideas for older, longer-form work.
Q: Given that North Korea is very much in the news these days, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the dynamic between the U.S. and North Korea?
A: I hope that we come to our senses and start listening again to highly informed experts — especially Korean voices — who understand the complexity and delicacy of the situation and why the DPRK leadership behaves as it does.
Based on the history of U.S. carpet bombing of the northern half of the peninsula, when the DPRK was a brand-new country, from a North Korean perspective it's quite sensible to view the U.S. as a dangerous threat.
So often we view North Korean leaders as cartoonish caricatures, to be ridiculed, but if you look at their decisions and actions from their point of view, they are actually quite rational, focused on the survival of the Kim dynasty, in many ways a continuation of the tradition of Korean monarchies.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: This summer I'm completing illustrations for a companion to my picture book I'm New Here, about three immigrant children and how they learn to adjust to a new country, language and culture.
This one, called Someone New, is like a mirror book: it features the same cast of characters, but tells the story from the perspective of the new kids' classmates and the process they go through to figure out how to be welcoming.
I've got a handful of other picture books at various stages of development.
And I'm musing over seven or eight beginnings — everything from just a concept to casts of characters to 8,000 words in — for possible novels and waiting to see if one catches fire. I don't know yet if I'm a picture book writer who wrote one novel or a novelist in the making.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'd like to recommend that readers seek out Korean voices on North Korea, especially those who were born and raised in the DPRK before escaping.
Here are some of the books that helped me most as I was researching my novel, including a number of memoirs. There's also the new collection The Accusation: ForbiddenStories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi, a North Korean writer still living in the DPRK.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb