The Nami Mun Interview

Want to know what the AV Clubbers and I listen to when we work out? Go here. Mom and Dad, you might want to not read mine. In terms of writings that do not involve filth, I covered Project Runway and SNL Weekend Update Thursday last night as well.

Speaking of Dad, mine emailed me an article a while ago about today's interviewee with the suggestion that I should interview her. It stayed in the back of my mind until I recognized her at a reading and we got to chatting and I sent her some questions. The paperback version of her lauded debut novel Miles from Nowhere just came out, which was short-listed for the Orange Award for New Writers and selected for Booklist's Top Ten First Novels, Amazon's Best Fiction of 2009 So Far, and Indie Next List. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, Mun was named Best New Novelist of 2009 by Chicago magazine. The book follows Joon, a Korean 13-year-old who runs away from home, living in shelters, on the street, and in various apartments and lofts, a story not totally unlike her own life. Now she lives in Chicago and teaches fiction at Columbia College.

From your experience and the research you did on homeless youth for Miles from Nowhere, how did you decide what to use and what not?
In general, when I write, I try to think of moments filled with personal discomfort--moments I might not share, even with a good friend. An inherent conflict arises when I attempt to put these moments into words, simply because I don't want to. This is how "Club Orchid" began, the third chapter in Miles from Nowhere and the first story I wrote for the book.

About halfway into the first draft, Joon's voice hijacked the story. And the story stopped being about me and my discomfort but about Joon's tenuous connection to life and love. From that moment on, I became interested in sentences, words, scenes that served Joon and her situation. Everything that happens in the book, and the way in which they happen, changes her little by little. If I wrote things that didn't achieve this, those pages were tossed.

When doing the research for MILES, I put on a different writer's hat--a hat that tried to forget things like language and plot. I watched numerous documentaries that dealt with submerged population groups and read essays and articles, not just about runaways and throwaways, but about other underground groups, such as squatters, sex workers, dance hostesses, girls and women in detention, and drug dealers, etc., as well as issues, such as child abuse, drug abuse, suicide rate amongst runaways, violence within male sex workers, and the criminal court system of New York City, etc.

What I looked for during research was guidance on tone--how life on the streets can contain both unbridled happiness as well as catatonic despair. I also looked for insider details--the kind I thought Joon would be exposed to.

What do you think happened to help guide you from the streets to a successful writer, as opposed to a less happy place?
For me, no action occurs in a vacuum. Every action is connected to a network of previous actions (as well as future ones), so answering this question is difficult. Many people helped me when I was young. I can definitely say that. Large buckets of luck also played a role. I've faced a few hairy situations during my runaway years but somehow I walked away from them virtually unscathed, at least physically. I sometimes think we are born with a certain amount of luck in life, which makes me worry that I've used up all of mine.

What was the hardest part about being an Avon lady?

There were many difficulties in selling Avon door-to-door: tailing people into apartment buildings is one. You have to look casual, and then suddenly bolt into action if you want to get into the building before the door closed, and then look casual again. Having people say no to you, 20 plus times a day also does a number on your self-esteem. The most painful part, however, was probably listening to people talk about their personal problems for hours and then walking out of their place penniless. I didn't mind talking to people, (that was my favorite part of the job, to be honest) but I did mind not making money.

What's the worst thing you ever saw as a criminal defense investigator?
You don't really witness horrible acts as a defense investigator because the crime has already been committed and the crime scene has been scrubbed clean of memory. And even though I have experienced some strange and combative situations, for some reason those events don't carry emotional resonance for me at this moment.

But I will tell you about a crime that affects me still--a knife fight between two white males, in the middle of the street, with onlookers. I didn't witness this fight but, as with all of my cases, I read the police and medical examiners reports.

One man stabs another with a "Rambo" knife in the stomach, pulls it sideways about an inch, and then out, shredding open the victim's abdomen just enough to have his entrails (small and large intestines mostly) spill out from his body and lie beside him on the pavement. According to witnesses, the man desperately tried to scoop his innards back into his body, until he fell unconscious and died.

I think about that final act. About the fact that that was this man's final act in life. How no one in the world, including him, could've predicted that to be his final act. And how all of his previous acts led him to this final gesture of trying to cull his insides.

Of the various jobs you've had, which came the most naturally to you?
Criminal defense investigations, hands down. I loved that job almost immediately. I can't say why exactly except that it scratched a certain itch inside my brain. On an average day, I got to interact with diverse groups of people: dealers, gang members, sheriffs, attorneys, heroin addicts, storeowners, inmates, barbers, etc. and I got to hear all of their voices. I loved tracking down witnesses and conducting interviews in unusual locations. I loved getting bits of information about people and trying to create portraits from them, or gathering fractured eyewitness accounts of an incident and attempting to envision a fuller picture. And I loved reading all the documents (police reports, medical examiner's report, witness statements, etc.), analyzing the evidence, and re-envisioning all that went down before, during, and after the criminal incident. What I loved about investigations isn't so different from what I love about writing, which is to close the eyes and clearly see scenes with dialogue, action, and setting that might reveal something much deeper about the people at stake.

Was there any discussion about whether to make Miles from Nowhere a Young Adult book? What do you think you would have had to change to make it one?
No, but I understand that librarians are recommending Miles from Nowhere also for mature young adults, so I don't think I would've had to change anything.

What are you working on now?

A multiple-perspective novel about one crime, though I don't think it would fall under the category of crime fiction.

Do you think the process of writing your next book will be any different than that for Miles from Nowhere?
God, I hope so. If not, that would mean I didn't learn anything.

How does it feel to be the 242nd person interviewed for
I have to say that it feels pretty awesome. From this point on, I'm going to start using "zulkey" as an adjective. As in, "That interview was so rad and zulkey, don't you think?"