Adam Morgan

Imogen Hermes Gowar was once a gallery assistant in the British Museum in London. “It was a very gothic job,” she says, “with lots of standing around.” To pass the time, she made up stories about the artifacts on display—ancient Roman vases, medieval chess sets, Renaissance table settings.

“Who had these things belonged to?” Gowar would ask herself. “What rooms had they been in?”

It was also a difficult time in Gowar’s personal life. Right after Gowar graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in archaeology, anthropology and art history, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Gowar moved back home and took the museum job. In the evenings, she wrote short stories based on her favorite objects in the museum. Eventually, she became obsessed with one artifact in particular—an 18th-century “mermaid” from Japan, constructed from the mummified corpses of a monkey and a fish.

Over the next few years, Gowar slowly turned her mermaid story into a novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical fantasy in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

“I really had no life,” she says of her writing process at the time. “I couldn’t afford to leave the house, so I was writing a thousand words a day . . . sometimes to the exclusion of everything else—no sleeping, no dressing, no washing.”

Set in London during the height of the Georgian era in 1785, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is the story of a widowed shipping merchant, Jonah Hancock, and the city’s most fascinating courtesan, Angelica Neal. When Jonah procures an alleged mermaid corpse from overseas, he makes a small fortune exhibiting it all over town. Meanwhile, Angelica woos him at the behest of her former madam, who wants to display the curiosity at her brothel. The eventual romance between Jonah and Angelica gets complicated when one of Jonah’s ships catches a real mermaid off the coast of Scotland and brings it home.

Gowar says she set the book in the late 18th century because the era hasn’t been written about as much as the Regency and Victorian years that followed. And while she did rely on the biographies of courtesans to develop the voice of Angelica, most of her research for the novel was tactile. “My whole degree was [in] asking what you can learn about people from the objects that belonged to them,” Gowar says. “Historians look at written records first, but they seem to be learning from archaeologists that there is so much you can find out that’s not written.”

Gowar’s attention to physical details is deeply impressive. To ground her fiction in historical reality, she adopted a “method acting” approach and immersed herself in the objects of the era. “I cooked quite a few things from 18th-century cookbooks,” she says, “which was interesting because they don’t start with a list of ingredients, and nothing is in a specific weight.”

The characters of Jonah and Angelica were inspired by historical objects, as well. “With Jonah, it was buildings and houses,” she says. “I was interested in the history of [the London district of] Deptford, because the architecture is very tied to shipbuilding.” In fact, Jonah first appears in the novel in his Deptford dockyard-adjacent office, which Gowar describes as “coffered like a ship’s cabin.” Gowar recalls spending a lot of time walking the streets of South London to get a better understanding of Jonah’s world. “A lot of the houses were built with wood that was cut for ships by world-class woodcarvers,” she says. “People who were supposed to be making captain’s cabins were doing the moldings on what were otherwise very humble houses.”

“Historians look at written records first, but they seem to be learning from archaeologists that there is so much you can find out that’s not written.”

For the extravagant Angelica, Gowar got even more physical with her research. “It was mainly clothes,” Gowar says. “I sewed a dress called a chemise à la reine, a white poofy dress like Marie Antoinette would wear. It made me understand how radical it would feel to wear this flimsy muslin thing instead of a jacket with stays and pins holding everything together.”

Of course, there is a glaringly ahistorical element at the heart of the novel—a true mermaid. It seems an odd choice for a writer so devoted to capturing realistic details from the past, but according to Gowar, 18th-century mermaid folklore tells us a lot about British society and culture at the time.

“The stories of mermaids and mistresses run really close together,” she says. “They’re often portrayed in the same way—a sexually powerful woman who can be quite dangerous. She lures men to her, so in a way, it’s not the men’s fault. It’s a way of making it more palatable when your husband goes off and has a woman in another port. Making it supernatural puts the danger outside the realm of humanity rather than within it.”

After publishing this January in the U.K. to rave reviews, Gowar’s novel was optioned for film and television by the same production company that adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall for the BBC. Today, Gowar is already working on another historical novel, but she can’t reveal much about it. “It’s very different—still set in London, but during the 20th century.”

The success of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has allowed Gowar to start writing full-time from her new home in Bristol. “Nothing in my day-to-day life has really changed, but it means I can live with my partner,” Gowar says. “It’s a gift. It feels like I have a lot more options now—like I have a job that I love.”

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Ollie Grove.

Imogen Hermes Gowar was once a gallery assistant in the British Museum in London. “It was a very gothic job,” she says, “with lots of standing around.” To pass the time, she made up stories about the artifacts on display—ancient Roman vases, medieval chess sets, Renaissance table settings.

Reading Pachinko is like binge-watching every season of an HBO series. Instead of capturing a single time and place, Min Jin Lee’s heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations, three wars and two countries with a troubled past. A moving and powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan—it may be remembered as one of the best books of the year.

But here’s a secret: Lee almost abandoned Pachinko after the first draft.

Twenty years ago, she quit her job as a corporate lawyer to become a writer. It didn’t go well. “I wrote a dreadful manuscript with a pretentious title that was never inflicted upon innocent readers,” Lee says. Her second attempt didn’t go much better, but her third attempt at fiction, Free Food for Millionaires, was published to universal acclaim in 2007.

And yet, Lee couldn’t stop thinking about her abandoned second novel, the one that would eventually become Pachinko. While Free Food for Millionaires focused on Korean Americans in New York, she still wanted to write about the Korean diaspora in Japan. “The fascinating history of the Korean Japanese,” Lee says, “is one of the clearest manifestations of legal, social and cultural exclusion in a modern, well-educated and developed democratic nation.”

The first draft of Pachinko was set in Tokyo during the 1980s. But when Lee returned to the manuscript, she realized that she had to go back much further.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. With the stroke of a pen, every citizen of Korea became a subject of Imperial Japan, and would remain so until Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II. During those 35 years, thousands of Koreans immigrated across the sea to Japan, many of them farmers unable to prove they owned their land.

It is these Korean-Japanese immigrants and their descendants—the Zainichi—that Lee wanted to explore in the resurrected novel that became Pachinko.

The word Zainichi is Japanese for “staying in Japan temporarily,” which is misleading, since most Korean Japanese are permanent residents and naturalized Japanese citizens. Sadly, Zainichi have suffered decades of oppression in Japan. During World War II, Korean men were forced to fight for Japan while Korean women were kidnapped as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. After the war and throughout the 20th century, Koreans were disenfranchised, excluded from Japanese society and denied equal rights. In fact, Japan didn’t stop fingerprinting Koreans during alien registration procedures until 1993.

“The Zainichi are by definition considered foreign, transient and ‘other’ by many Japanese people,” Lee says. “Moreover, some Korean Japanese, especially children who are traumatically bullied, are seen as other to themselves. I was profoundly disturbed by this idea of being seen as permanently ‘other’ at key stages of one’s psychological development.”

In 2007, just after the release of Free Food for Millionaires, Lee and her husband moved from New York to Tokyo. 

“The move to Japan was a lucky coincidence for the book, but when I had to let go of the initial draft and start again—buddy, I was not a happy camper,” Lee says. “The field research forced me to throw out the initial manuscript and write a historical novel based primarily on one family.”

The result is Pachinko, a poignant, sprawling, multigenerational epic in the same vein as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, full of births, deaths, marriages and betrayals. Written in light, fluid prose, it begins in the 1880s on the coast of Korea, where a boy with a cleft palate is born into a small fishing village. Shortly after Japan colonizes his homeland, he marries the daughter of a farmer with the help of a matchmaker. Their own daughter, Sunja, almost brings the family to ruin as a young adult, but a Protestant minister whisks her away to Japan in 1933, where she becomes the matriarch of an extended family.

In Osaka, Sunja and her children are subject to bigotry because of their Korean heritage. Through World War II and the fall of the Empire of Japan, Sunja raises two boys with the help of her sister-in-law. The firstborn studies European literature in college until he learns a shocking family secret. Heartbroken, he moves to Nagano and pretends to be Japanese, eventually joining his brother in the pachinko business, though not in the same parlor, or even the same city. Eventually, Sunja becomes the grandmother of a Tokyo banker who carries the story into the 1980s, a full century after the story began.

The novel was initially called Motherland, but Lee changed the title when she came to a realization: “Nearly every Korean-Japanese person I interviewed or researched was somehow related (either intimately or distantly) to the pachinko business, one of the very few businesses Koreans were allowed to work in or have an ownership interest.”

If you’ve ever watched “The Price Is Right,” you’re already familiar with pachinko. It’s essentially a vertical pinball machine, though it was stylized as “plinko” for the game show.

“The pachinko business—a multibillion-dollar industry with double the export revenues of the Japanese automobile industry—is often viewed with great suspicion and contempt by middle-class Japanese,” Lee says. “However, one out of every 11 Japanese adults plays pachinko regularly, and there is at least one pachinko parlor in every train station and shopping street in Japan. Pachinko is a game of chance and manipulation, and I was interested in this gambling business as a metaphor.”

Like a pachinko ball, Sunja careens through the 20th century as a daughter, a wife, a mother and finally a grandmother. “It took so much of my life to write this novel, and even though the work and the waiting was its own trial, I have to acknowledge that it was helpful to age along with the book because I had the opportunity to encounter and learn as many different perspectives as possible,” Lee says.

And while Pachinko takes place on the other side of the globe, it should be required reading for Americans in 2017. 

“The recent presidential election has demonstrated a deeply divided nation, but what is even more troubling to me is how all the different groups cannot seem to comprehend the views of the others,” Lee says. “In an increasingly polarized world with great economic, educational and socio-cultural disparities, I want to believe that we can turn to narratives to empathize with all the parties who participate in both inclusion and exclusion.”

If you want a book that challenges and expands your perspective, turn to Pachinko. And don’t be intimidated by the page count or the grand scale of the story—in Lee’s deft hands, the pages pass as effortlessly as time.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Reading Pachinko is like binge-watching every season of an HBO series. Instead of capturing a single time and place, Min Jin Lee’s heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations, three wars and two countries with a troubled past. A moving and powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan—it may be remembered as one of the best books of the year.

Time and space are as fluid as water in Keith Lee Morris’ labyrinthine third novel, his first since 2008’s brutal The Dart League King. This time, a family road trip goes awry in the small town of Good Night, Idaho thanks to a hotel that rivals The Shining’s, a book with which Travelers Rest will inevitably be compared, though there are more definitive answers here.

The Addison family—mother, father, son and alcoholic uncle—are driving from Seattle to South Carolina when a snowstorm forces them to look for lodging in Good Night. The eponymous hotel, Travelers Rest, was once a palatial second home for the town’s high society, but fell into disrepair when the local mines dried up decades ago. After checking into the hotel, the Addisons quickly become separated in ways that are hard to describe, thanks to the shifting nature of time, space, memory, and dream in Good Night. The town is a lot like that grand staircase in Hogwarts, always rearranging itself depending on who enters and what they want.

Tonio, the father, wanders outside in the snow and follows a strange woman in silver shoes. Julia, the mother, finds an oddly familiar room on the third floor with an open roof, where she’s content to lie down and dream. Robbie, the uncle fresh out of rehab, bolts for the bar across the street, where he can’t tell if it’s the booze or the town that’s playing tricks on him. And Dewey, Julia and Tonio’s 10-year-old son, searches for his family, glimpsing them from a distance from time to time, but never quite able to reach them.

If you feel lost after the first 100 pages (and you will), don’t worry. The story is worth your confusion. In fact, it requires it. Proustian in theme but not in form, Travelers Rest is the definition of dreamlike prose. Morris’ writing is clean and cold as snow. The pages drift by just as effortlessly, lulling you into a quiet cocoon that you realize, too late, is actually something much more sinister.

Time and space are as fluid as water in Keith Lee Morris’ labyrinthine third novel, his first since 2008’s brutal The Dart League King. This time, a family road trip goes awry in the small town of Good Night, Idaho thanks to a hotel that rivals The Shining’s, a book with which Travelers Rest will inevitably be compared, though there are more definitive answers here.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel—sold for $2 million in a 10-publisher bidding war—has been the most anticipated, hyped and ballyhooed book of 2015. If the literary gods are fair, it’ll wind up on many shortlists. But unless you’re a connoisseur of literary criticism, you’ve probably never heard of the author.

Hallberg grew up in the small college town of Greenville, North Carolina, where he was the “resident beatnik.” Until now, he’s had a quiet career as an award-winning book critic for The Millions and a writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College. That’s about to change with the arrival of his first novel.

City on Fire is a postmodern epic in the vein of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Beginning with a mysterious shooting in Central Park and culminating in the real-life New York City blackout of 1977, Hallberg weaves a complex story with an ensemble cast. The book’s seven parts are divided by and interspersed with letters, news clippings and images, similar in form to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. City on Fire encapsulates the many cities that are somehow one New York City during its most dramatic moment in the 20th century.

We spoke with Hallberg about City on Fire, New York City and how the book was inspired by September 11.

Let’s start with the obvious: most debut novels aren’t 900 pages long. Did you set out to write something so sprawling in scope?
The scope of the book was very much a part of the initial conception. The whole idea came to me in a period of about 90 seconds in 2003, and one of the things I saw about the book was that it would have the scale and sweep of Bleak House. And that was almost scary for me, so after writing a single page of it, I shut the notebook and said, “Oh boy, I don’t have the chops to do something like that. I’ll come back to it in 10 years.” But I came back to it about four years later. It had been building in my subconscious until the world was fully formed, so when I sat down to write, it was like going through the wardrobe into Narnia.

You’ve already been compared to DeLillo, Franzen and David Foster Wallace. What does that feel like as a debut novelist?
It’s sort of like asking a fish how the water feels. You’re inside it, but not necessarily aware of what’s being said around you. If there’s one predominant feeling, it’s surprise.

I loved the book’s interludes with letters, news clippings and images. What made you decide to play around with those?
I had a dream in which I saw the finished book, and I was giving it to someone. And as I was flipping through it, I could see that some pages weren’t just pure type. So I woke up and thought, either that’s a crazy dream that I’ll just forget about, or there’s something to it, and I’ll figure it out down the road. But I had written this letter, and it started to revolve around a magazine article, and I knew I had to write it, and I knew where it went.

As a native of a small town, what drew you to New York?
I used to go up to New York with my friends as a teenager and just drive around, and it was completely intoxicating. New York was a place where everything that had been repressed or frowned upon or discouraged in the town I grew up in was given freedom of expression.

You’ve said New York seemed like a fantastical place when you were young. Why?
When I first started to read, New York was where all the books came from. Almost every book that I encountered as a kid was like a doorway to the wider world, and a world that I would return to the real world enriched by. Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in many of those books the world that you walk into is altered and exciting and transformed.

This might be a strange analogy, but your conception of the city reminds me of the “multiverse” in Marvel and DC Comics, with all these different continuities and realities that somehow coexist in the same city at the same time.
I think that’s a good analogy! In my experience, we actually live in a multiverse, but that’s so challenging to keep remembering. We’re constantly tempted to imagine that we live in a world that’s less complex, or that’s just about us.

Do you think the New York City of 2015 is a less magical place than it once was?
I’m hesitant to pontificate on what New York might be in general. After September 11, there was this extraordinary feeling that everyone was still grieving. And for that reason, people seemed vulnerable and more open to change, in the same way people do at a bar after a funeral, this feeling that it would be a tribute to the people we lost to change your life for the better. But that feeling didn’t last. You can’t live inside that feeling forever. In 2015, it’s hard for me to say what New York means to anyone besides me.

I’ve heard you say that September 11 partially motivated your writing. What do you mean by that?
September 11 was seeing something I cared deeply about suddenly put in risk of not existing. I was just out of college, so it was my first initiation into life as an adult in America. Between then and 2003, there was a lot of ideological work going on in the culture, trying to say what September 11 really meant, and increasingly what people were saying was not what I knew to be true. So I think, subconsciously, I was looking for a way to talk about that period from September 2001 up until 2003, about what it meant for me.

This might be way too early, but what’s next for you?
Another writer asked me that a few months ago, and when I said I couldn’t answer, he said, “Good, if you were able to talk about it now, I’d think you were crazy.” So I’m among the healthy minority who won’t answer that question yet!

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of City on Fire.
 

Adam Morgan is a writer and lecturer living in Chicago. His latest book is North Carolina's Wild Piedmont: A Natural History.


This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel—sold for $2 million in a 10-publisher bidding war—has been the most anticipated, hyped and ballyhooed book of 2015. If the literary gods are fair, it’ll wind up on many shortlists. But unless you’re a connoisseur of literary criticism, you’ve probably never heard of the author.

For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black. Set in San Francisco and Colorado, it’s a cross-country race to catch two serial killers that channels the atmosphere of Scandinavia’s celebrated TV noirs with female heroes like “The Killing” (Forbrydelsen) and “The Bridge” (Broen).

Rowena Cooper is baking Christmas cookies for her children when two men appear in her home in the mountains of Colorado, one holding a shotgun, the other a knife. Though they murder Rowena and her son, her 10-year-old daughter Nell manages to escape into the woods. Meanwhile in San Francisco, a team of investigators has been hunting these murderers for months, after they abducted, raped and murdered seven women in different cities before transporting their bodies to another state. The men leave objects inside their victims as a signature—a balloon, a fork, a museum flier. Lead investigator Valerie Hart isn’t sure if they’re meaningful or random, but she’s not sure of anything anymore. Once driven and naive, Valerie has become jaded, resigned and dependent on a drink ever since she “killed love” in her own heart. Though Valerie soon makes a long overdue break in the case, the only person alive who can help her identify the serial killers is young Nell, still missing in the Colorado mountains, who may have escaped one grisly fate only to meet another.

Violent but never gratuitous, Duncan’s first crack at a thriller is a master class in suspense. Phrases like “page-turner” and “it kept me up all night!” get thrown around a lot in the book business, but The Killing Lessons is hands-down the most compelling, addictive novel I’ve read this year.

For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek's fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.

In a heart-stopping opening scene, college sophomore Skyler Wakefield is babysitting a 5-year-old boy when she looks out the window to see “a star falling in bright daylight” hit the Golden Gate Bridge before a shockwave tears through the house. Skyler survives just long enough to carry the toddler to a hospital, but succumbs to radiation poisoning a few hours later after a tearful phone call with her parents.

Eight years later, we meet Skyler’s 12-year-old brother, Dorian, who’s been suspended from school for writing an obscenity on the wall of a mosque bathroom. In the wake of the attack, Dorian lives in a drastically different America. Nuclear fallout has quickened climate change, borders have been redrawn into provinces and territories, and the U.S. government has corralled thousands of Muslims onto old Native American reservations. However, Dorian’s mother and father have no memory of his older sister, Skyler. Dorian was only 4 when she died in the attack, but he has recurring, detailed, seemingly clairvoyant dreams about her. Meanwhile, an elderly veteran across the street, William Banfelder, adopts an orphaned Muslim boy named Karim from the Dakota Territory with a dangerous secret.

It’s a high-concept premise that could easily veer into cliché, but Hrbek delivers a captivating story filled with nuance. Every chapter brings a surprise, and Hrbek has real knack for stunning, unforgettable images and turns of phrase. Not on Fire, But Burning boldly questions America’s moral standing since 9/11, and brings to life the horrific consequences of ignorance, fear and hate. 

 

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek's fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.

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