The Intel: Hannah Michell

We recently reviewed Hannah Michell’s powerful debut novel The Defections, about a toxic romance in South Korea at the heart of the diplomatic core that threatens the very state itself. You can pop off to reacquaint yourself with that, by all means, but make sure you come right back.

Hannah was born in Yorkshire in 1983, but grew up in Seoul. She now lectures on Korean pop culture at the University of California. She’s right here, right now, to give us the intel on The Defections — out right now, published by Quercus — about Korea, Guerrilla Writing and getting straight to the story…

Photo:  Elisa Urbón

Photo: Elisa Urbón

What was the inspiration for The Defections?

I grew up in Seoul and being mixed race, I had very conflicted feelings about my place in Korea. I was often made to feel that I wasn’t Korean, but going to University in England, I realised that I wasn’t particularly English either. This made me think about people who inhabit spaces between countries and cultures and I began the novel with three displaced characters in mind – the diplomat, the mixed race character and the defector and then the plot unfolded from there.

What’s your own relationship to the country?

I have a deep emotional connection to Korea. The Korean language is, in many ways, more emotionally articulate than the English language, so when I am there I feel I am immersed in this whole other level of operating emotionally. Though I haven’t had a permanent residence in Seoul since I was eighteen, I still consider it home and go back as often as I can.

Korea, in which families and friends are divided between a barrier between North and South, is a fertile subject for a novel about secrets and suspicions – what’s your own experience of the way the people cope with the ongoing threat of war?

The Western media really dramaticize every conflict and politically tense moment between North and South. There was one particularly tense event in the 1990s and I remember concerned relatives from England ringing us when I was growing up in Seoul, asking us if we were ok and we had barely registered that the political situation was so serious as everyone was going about as normal and there was no sense of panic anywhere. I think that most people living in Korea are completely inured to it – the possibility of war is not something that is thought about or feared on a daily basis.

You’re a lecturer in Korean pop culture – are successful pop stars like Psi and movies like Oldboy and Snowpiercer an indication that South Korean is finding its voice, these days?

Korea has always had a very strong cultural voice, but the degree to which Korean cultural content is gaining an international audience is new. What we are seeing is the result of almost two decades of changes in political investment in the cultural industries. In the 60s and 70s the government was only interested in developing heavy industries and so you see today the emergence of big technology giants like Samsung and Hyundai coming out of Korea, but it was only in the late 90s that they realised that culture also had real value, and so the government dedicated resources to supporting the cultural industries which has helped the international distribution of Korean content.

The DefectionsTake us through a typical writing day for you?

My time is divided up between the days I teach and meet with students and the days I am writing.   On the days that I am writing, I like to start by reading to become submerged in the world of fiction. I always write for a much shorter time in the beginning of a project, because it’s hard mentally to be creating work from scratch. Once there’s a draft to work with, the work becomes easier and I will spend many more hours at my desk, though with a young family, it’s hard to get a lot done in one sitting. My recent strategy is to do what Lorrie Moore calls “Guerilla writing” which is writing here and there whenever you can, even if you’ve only got a few minutes.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

There are so many hard lessons to be learnt! But probably the hardest is that there is no economical or quick way to get it done, at least not for me. My process is chaotic and demands that I am not rushed. So I have to constantly remind myself to be patient with the writing process.

How do you deal with feedback?

I think the most valuable and potentially difficult feedback to deal with is that of those who you know well. I just try to understand their perspective as much as possible in seeing where they are coming from, but ultimately I try to remember that writing is a process that requires a lot of self belief and you have to tune into what your original intentions were and continue to be with the work and accept that it may not always be understood.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are so many and for so many different reasons. But to name a few…I really love the postcolonial work of Indian authors such as Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy and also the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as they are able to express the unique experiences of individuals and yet make them so universal.

Give me some advice about writing…

When setting out on a new writing project, focus on the story and the character, rather than the writing of the prose itself, which can be endlessly worked on later. I have had to part with descriptive passages I was very fond of because it didn’t work in the context of the novel that was emerging, so it’s probably to best to get the story straight first.

I really believe in taking a break from writing and then revisiting it and then rewriting it. There is so much you can be blind to in the thick of a project and it’s only by taking a short break that one can see it with fresh eyes.

What’s next for you?

I am working on my second novel and also working on writing an undergraduate text book about Korean pop culture.


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