Never a Single Crossing: Paul Yoon Interviewed by Katy Simpson Smith

On writing multiple timelines, teaching with love, and creating an epic in a minimalist way.

Topographic blue and green book cover with an off-white outline of three individuals set on a mint background

When I filled out my faculty preference form the first semester of my MFA program, I put Paul Yoon as my fourth choice. Because fate writes good fiction, we were of course paired, and after our first workshop together, I wrote home: “I love Paul.” His bounty of generosity and warmth made him the perfect mentor, but those qualities also explain the humanity of his writing. His stories and novels are small and perfect worlds, self-contained and reaching out toward infinity. He moves across geography and modes of human experience like a bee, gently probing for emotional truth. Run Me to Earth (Simon and Schuster, 2020), his fourth book and second novel, follows the lives of Prany, Alisak, and Noi, three orphans in Laos who are spun out from their refuge by war, violence, and tragic errors. It’s stunning and multilayered, built like a spiral, and, true of all his writing, makes me both envious and deeply grateful. Paul Yoon is now my first choice on any form. 

—Katy Simpson Smith

Katy Simpson Smith I’m curious about your youngest writer self. Run Me to Earth is such a mature work, so knowing and patient, and while you are a young man writing here about youth, the sentences themselves are timeless. This makes me wonder: what in this story, and its style, would your boyhood self most recognize? What were you into back then?

Paul  Yoon It was in high school that I realized fiction writing is an active, vibrant art form that people can spend their lives doing. I was making a lot of music back then, so it was like I had discovered this secret room in that storytelling house I had already been living in. I ended up leaving music for prose, though I think my work is still heavily influenced by musical elements: sounds, a beat, how to open, when it’s time for a chorus. My young self would have recognized this in Run Me to Earth for sure. My even younger self would’ve picked up on the transient state of all my characters in this novel. That was my life growing up. Always moving around. I couldn’t keep a single friend! I had my bicycle. I remember riding it all over and creating overly detailed worlds with toys. I see all that—the movement and solitude—in this book, in all my books. That and my family’s experience with wartime: the violence and trauma. Run focuses on the conflict in Laos, which has nothing to do with my family’s experience in Korea, of course, but I definitely knew the last three books I was working on would be speaking to each other, starting with Snow Hunters, then The Mountain. Fast forward eight years, and I feel this project is complete. I even called it The Migration Trilogy, though only my dog knew that at the time. KSS Are you saying in the next Paul Yoon novel, I might be stuck in one place? I love the expansiveness of your visions, and how borders melt beneath the universality of human need. We’re all lonely; we’re all searching for home. It totally makes sense that this is emerging from your very youngest self. When you begin one of these migration projects, do you know from the start where your characters will go? In Run Me to Earth, how important is the specificity of place (Laos/France/America/Spain) versus merely the placeness of place (Point A/Culture B/Landscape C)?

PY I didn’t know where my characters would end up, but I knew France and the US would play a part because, with the exception of Thailand, those countries were where many of the Lao and Hmong refugees escaped to. Spain was the biggest surprise to me—that second step—but looking back, it makes perfect sense: growing up, it was never as simple as, say, someone we knew coming to New York or Los Angeles and then settling there forever. My parents—their friends, their family— were immigrants who started the foundations of a new life somewhere but then ended up moving again, somewhere else, to settle. It was never a single crossing; it was always two, or more. That certainly formed how I thought of the trajectory of a life.

Diptych of a woman in a floral dress and red hair against a plain background, beside a bright red book cover featuring three marble sculptures that are colored blue, yellow, and green

Katy Simpson Smith and her upcoming novel, The Everlasting (Harper Collins).

PY Actually, one of the many things I admire about your work, most especially in the new novel coming out—The Everlasting—is that your narratives excavate a single place so deeply and relentlessly. The German writer, Jenny Erpenbeck, is also a master of this. I wish I could do that. Maybe one day, once I shed this itinerant self (if that is possible!). I think I attempted to excavate one place with my first book, Once the Shore, and maybe in some ways I succeeded, but I don’t really recognize that decade-old writer in me anymore. I think I wanted to create a lush world but only knew how to do that by writing lush prose. These days, I think a lot about whether it’s possible to create, in fiction, a lot of activity and layers and life but in the sparest way possible. Can I go wild and technicolor with restraint? There are basically only five shortish parts to Run, and of course this structure was of great interest to me: whether I could go epic but in a minimalist way. Poets and painters can do this, no?

KSS Structure and form are so fascinating, and I think novelists sometimes are shy to play around with them, as if there’s a traditionalism to the prose narrative that novel-readers require. In aiming to create a minimalist epic, how did you decide where to deploy that lushness, that wild grandeur, and where to streamline? I remember Snow Hunters began as a massive stack of pages that you whittled down to a perfect crescent moon, and there’s a similar effect here: by trusting the reader, you give us just the details we need to imagine all the rest.

PY In an interview Michael Ondaatje mentioned how it was odd to him that in North America, we’ve embraced a lot of inventive forms of filmmaking—a film could be structurally or formally really interesting and still be embraced by the majority of the public—but novels doing similar things, for the most part, have yet to be so widely embraced. (Another reason why I’m particularly excited to see yours out in the world is I absolutely loved the unusual architecture of it.)

I’m not sure if this answers your question, but the best way I can describe thinking about how I built Run is this: I’ve been running pretty seriously for the past few years, and the thing I love the most about it is that it gives me an opportunity to really look at a place. And by looking what I experience is a multitude of lives happening all at once. You have the people in office buildings going about their day, the passengers on a plane above, the patient in a medical helicopter landing on the Mass General helipad, the homeless, bicyclists, fellow runners, the dogs off leash and the geese. All following their daily story. Seeing this every day, this giant canvas of a city filled with all these timelines, made me want to write a novel this way. I knew my canvas would have Laos in it, (because I wanted to shed light on this bit of history) and I knew that it would have France in it (because concurrently I was writing a weird sequel to my long story, “Still a Fire,” which is set in France). So, then it was about spotlighting sections of this canvas—and being open of course to surprises—hoping the reader could see a really big story, or lots of smaller ones that fit together.

KSSNearly a hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf called cinema a “parasite” on literature, sucking out all its ideas, leaving nothing of its beauty, creating no beauty of its own. But she should’ve known that inherent in art is invention, reinvention, evolution! I love how the structure of your daily run became overlaid onto this unexpected chronology. We often think novels exist in some sort of isolation from the writer’s life, but you’ve already revealed these layers of autobiography. How else do the patterns of your personal world affect the language you put on the page? What does a day in the Yoon life look like?

PY Tsk tsk, Virginia Woolf. How could I ever forget experiencing films like Days of Heaven or Chungking Express for the first time, trying to stand afterward, knowing my world had been forever altered—not only in how I would begin to think about storytelling, but in how I yearned to see the world? I spent years wanting to be a character in a Wong Kar-Wai film—probably still do. My wife calls this the Pisces in me: I live in one river; everything blends together into one thing, and it’s impossible for me to compartmentalize. I think that’s why I don’t write every day; I have no daily writing ritual. It’s healthier that way.

But I think it’s also why I really enjoy the mundane, day-to-day things. My life is quite uneventful. I spend time with my wife. I also spend a lot of time alone. I clean our apartment, do the laundry, and wonder what we’ll have for dinner. I read books and watch films. I avoid reading my students’ stories and spend too much time at the grocery store. I take my dog out three times a day and try to stay out for as long as possible with him. I’m perpetually wondering if I’m giving him enough activity, wondering if he’s happy, and happy with me. I think constantly of his inner life. I see his form in all the animals in Cambridge and Boston. The curve of a goose’s neck reminds me of his; a rabbit bounding away makes me think of him running beside me. I stopped eating meat because of this. I became way more proactive about respecting our environment.

I don’t know if any of this has slipped into my work in any obvious way, but I know, without being able to articulate it, that thinking a lot more about one’s inner life, about all inner lives, has absolutely affected me. Lately I feel more attuned to, or aware of both the natural world and the urban world, the joys and heartbreaks of both, and, again the rhythm of things.

KSS Rhythm is the foundation of language, what we hang sentences on. It makes so much sense to me that we’ve got to be attuned not just to sound and image but to the rhythms of movement, of bodies, of fellow feelings. Yes: as goes our inner life, so goes our writing. But, of course, our inner life is every day invaded, which brings me to the question of teaching. How does that labor inform/enrich/vampirically feed on your writing? Now that I’m at the front of a classroom, I understand how much love it demands. Your generosity to me and my peers was near saintly.

PY I am no saint. I confess I remain skeptical of what exactly teaching fiction writing is, or what use it has. I think this is because I don’t have any formal training, never went to a graduate program. Fiction writing, for me, was always this thing that was magic, ineffable, almost like a thing that shouldn’t be talked about. I still feel that way, so it’s always weird for me to be in a classroom and have students. I feel grossly inadequate and think any minute now someone will pull a Scooby-Doo and reveal my true, I-don’t-really-know-anything self.

That said, we had some good fun, didn’t we? I think it’s because it was never about you. And never about me. It was about something greater than us. Our time together remains one of my favorite experiences—it felt like we were having a long dialogue on this wacky art form we both decided to devote our lives to. You challenged and inspired me. I can tell when what someone wants has everything to do with them and not the art. That’s when it becomes a drag and a drain. That takes a big toll on me. It should never be that way. I know very little about teaching, but I know this (and I hope I was like this back then!): you have to go into it with love. If you’re on board with that, then I promise it will be wonderful. It’s really no different than when I begin a project. You have to go into it with love. Love for what you’re about to build, the people you’re about to create. If love’s not there, you’ve already sunk.

KSS What you recognize is that the grandeur of love emerges from simple labor and humility. Is there any sweeter message for our historical moment?

Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men. Her writing has also appeared in The Oxford American, Granta, Literary Hub, Garden & Gun, Catapult, and Lenny. She lives in New Orleans, and currently serves as the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature at Millsaps College.

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