5 QUESTIONS

WITH PAUL FISCHER

Our bookseller Justin got the chance to ask one of his favorite authors five questions. Of course he couldn't stop at just five...
Paul Fischer is the author of A Kim Jong-Il Production, one of our Best Books of 2015.
 

1. Is Kim Jong-Un just as dangerous to the citizens of South Korea as his father was? Has Jong-Un tried to kidnap anyone?


He's certainly as dangerous - possibly even more with every passing week that his regime moves closer and closer to collapsing, which feels inevitable, although it could take months or it could take years. Information is the great threat to the Kims --the more their people know about how well the rest of the world is living and how much they're being lied to, the harder it is to keep a boot on their necks -- and with USB keys and DVDs and the Internet it's harder and harder for the regime to control the flow of information. The constant purges of rivals and dissidents that Kim Jong-Un enacts also demonstrate he has no problem with violence.
There's no evidence that Kim has tried to kidnap anyone (well, any foreigners) and that particular program seems to have been retired in the 1990s. Cyber crime and nuclear threats are more the order of the day. But the North Korean people, who aren't allowed to leave their own country and who in fact can't even leave their own home towns without official permission, are essentially hostages. It's a weird situation where every newborn, essentially, is born in a form of captivity, isolated from free movement and from the outside world. So in that sense...  

2. What has enabled North Korea to remain so isolated from the rest of the world?


It's a mix of factors: geography, the protection of China and the USSR during the Cold War, and the fact that the country's entire infrastructure, from day one, has been run and operated by the central government. The Kims created a hermetic bubble when they created the state itself, and by controlling who goes in and who goes out -- as well as what information goes in and out -- they've kept it that way for over 70 years now.
 

3. Why did you become interested in telling this particular story?


This is my first book and my "regular" job, as it were, is filmmaking. In the film world the broad strokes of this story (Kim Jong-Il the film buff once kidnapped a filmmaker to force him to work for him) are well-known, but none of the details. Because it was only known anecdotally and vaguely though, I'd always been under the impression that it was a brief abduction -- my common sense also assumed Kim couldn't have got away with it, and that surely after a few days the filmmaker was released (so much for common sense). I was fascinated by the story but at that early stage I thought it would make a great work of fiction, a small film or a play maybe: dictator and director in a room, the dictator pitching the director on a sort of Faustian pact, "work for me and have unlimited resources in exchange."
The idea sat in the back of my head for a few years, to be looked into later. When I finally did look into it I learned about Shin and Choi, the director and actress; their own turbulent and successful lives prior to the kidnapping; and the extent of the crime -- that they were kept in Pyongyang for years and that hundreds of other people had been abducted by Kim too. I also became fascinated by Kim himself and by the role cinema played in inventing North Korea as a legitimate state. It was all that information that made me realise a) that this story was too big for a play or a film, and b) that it needed to be non-fiction, because it was too unbelievable to be credible as fiction, ironically.
I got to work on a proposal, thinking it would take a while to convince anyone I could handle writing a book, but the story carried and I was lucky enough to get an agent and then publishers interested relatively quickly. And then I was off!
 

4. If you could broadcast one message to the people of North Korea what would it be?


Oh that's a tough one. I'd like to tell them the world cares, but as a statement without action that's sort of meaningless.
I'd show them the world, I think. A short film that basically says and shows, this is what life is elsewhere, this is what you should be entitled to and expect simply by being born: some measure of freedom to make your own happiness and prosperity. I think the Kims have made it so that that simple idea is not part of what "normal" is in North Korean society.  

5. In an alternate reality where Donald Trump is president does he take a page from Kim Jong-Il’s book and mandate his haircut for subjects?


I've followed his campaign and if he did it would be one of the less stupid ideas on his list... It'd be one of the more feasible ones, too. I don't know how he's planning to deport a million people or intimidate Russia and China. But his hair -- we can probably all walk into any cheap wig shop and come out law abiding citizens, and with change from a ten-dollar bill left over too.  

6. What does your twitter handle @tencents77 mean?


My film production company is called Ten Cent Adventures, after the nickname comic books had in the 1930s. I love the idea of comics then -- cheaply made, kind of looked down upon, but also unbelievably varied and innovative, as well as democratically priced. I thought that's how I'd like the movies I make to be, too: maybe they won't have the biggest budgets, but they'll be different and accessible and they'll try something unexpected and unusual and worth your money. 7 is my favourite number, and since tencents was taken -- everything simple was taken by someone on day one of the Internet, I think -- when I rolled up to Twitter three years after everyone else I went for tencents77.  

7. What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research for the book?


I think that, for me, it turned out to be a story about Madame Choi. Kim and Shin were both compelling and utterly fascinating, and I learned so much about North and South Korea and about film history in that part of the world. But I sort of expected that was the world I would be delving into. The more I wrote though the more it turned out that there was a compassionate idea driving the book - the idea of the cards life deals you and how you deal with them and how we treat each other as a result - and that Madame Choi embodied those questions. Everyone who'd written about the story before me treated her like an accessory, a stander-by, sometimes even as if she was the bait Kim kidnapped first to draw Shin in, and nothing more. The Choi I found was strong, famous, a groundbreaker, a multi-hyphenate, a survivor of a multitude of tragedies, and a truly singular spirit. Fate decided she'd be born a woman in a sexist society, her ambitions limited - and she refused to accept that. She refused to accept that being unable to bear children meant she couldn't be a mother, she refused to accept that marrying men who treated her poorly was something she would have to just accept and endure without protest, and she refused to let Kim Jong-Il and the crime he committed towards her determine what her life story would ultimately be. She became the heart of the book, and I didn't expect that.    
 
 
Wednesday, December 30, 2015 - 4:30pm