Paul Yoon Discusses Run Me To Earth

By on Monday, February 3rd, 2020 at 5:21 pm

Paul Yoon talks with Hernan Diaz about Run Me To Earth, his latest novel, at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene Brooklyn

Paul Yoon was at Greenlight Bookstore to discuss his latest novel, Run Me To Earth with Hernan DIaz, author of In the Distance. Set in Laos during the covert American war, Run Me To Earth follows the intertwined lives of three orphans who work as motorcycle couriers rescuing civilians before eventually being evacuated themselves.

Yoon sees this latest novel as related to his previous novel Snow Hunters and story collection The Mountain. All three books approach similar narratives of trauma from different angles, and all have a similar origin. Yoon had long been considering writing about his grandfather, a North Korean refugee who resettled in South Korea. His grandfather eventually founded an orphanage, and Yoon had long heard stories about this arrangement from his father. He had only met his grandfather twice, and having grown up in upstate New York was removed from the stories his father would tell him about this period. When he wrote Snow Hunters, he was explicitly engaging in these themes but from an indirect approach. But also he knew he wasn’t finished exploring these ideas.

The Mountain has similar commonalities of survival and crossing borders, although written as a series of linked stories. In his research for that collection, he came across details of the Laos and American conflict. Yoon describes how American history books focused on Vietnam, often ignoring the Laos conflict entirely. Yet American bombers were far more active in Laos leaving a significant impact on the country.

Yoon poses a rhetorical question: “As writers or artists, are we always working on the same thing, but tackling it from different angles?”

However, Yoon says he might finally be done with the themes he addresses in these books, joking that his next novel will be a “Ben Lerner knockoff.”

Then he backtracks. “I’m always writing in response to something — to the book I’ve written before.”

Diaz observes that Yoon has written about these traumas and horrors without romanticizing any of it, and describes Yoon’s writing as treating the subject with grace, honor and respect.

To create narratives, Yoon attempts to construct them from different, contrasting layers that counterbalance each other. If he is writing about violence, he considers the peace; if it’s ugly, he looks for beauty. His goal is juggling two elements in opposition to each other.

Writing is like a spectrum, Yoon says. There are statements and there are things that are evoked. He describes poetry as evocative, while at the other end of the spectrum, statements, something like a news story. He is always thinking about where his work will fall within that spectrum and that structure.

Yoon says his books have little to do with his day-to-day life in terms of setting and story. They vary widely from his actual life experience. He’s not writing characters that share very much on the surface with himself. “Every day I was filled with great anxiety,” he says, “about whether I’m getting it right and whether I’m doing justice to these characters.”

“My promise to myself every day is I would do it responsibly,” he says. This means doing a lot of research, and creating complex characters and story. Nuance and complexity allows for more honest depictions, while also linking his stories through commonality with others.

Complex layering is a persistent goal for his writing. In this regard, Yoon sees a relationship between writing and visual art. When he was younger, Yoon’s parents took him to an art museum, a rare experience for his childhood. He remembers being stunned by the complexities of Dutch Renaissance paintings. While working on Run Me To Earth, he was thinking about how these paintings often have many complex narratives painted into a single piece of art. He offers this as the goal he setting for himself with a novel.

“All my work, whether it’s a story or a book, is a painting,” Yoon says. He sees Run Me To Earth as a vast canvas, and shifting character point of view allowed him to complete that complex image.

Paul Yoon and Hernan Diaz
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Greenlight Fort Greene

Previously on English Kills Review, we wrote about Paul Yoon’s events at Greenlight Bookstore for Snow Hunters and The Mountain.

English Kills Review is an online magazine covering books, authors, and writing with an emphasis on New York City. Founded in 2012, English Kills Review engages the literary community while highlighting noteworthy books and authors