Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson

In Mark Sampson's Sad Peninsula (Dundurn), three characters come together across different backgrounds and generations. Michael, a troubled Canadian ESL teacher moves to Korea and is introduced to Seoul's dark underbelly. When he meets Jin, a Korean woman who refuses to conform to expectations, she brings together Michael and Eun-young, who suffered terrible abuse as a "comfort woman". Spanning oceans and decades, Sad Peninsula tells a story of love and sex, destruction and seduction, all in the stirring prose of a talented new writer.

We speak with Mark today about what drew him to Korea as a subject, the delicate process of writing about difficult and dark subject matter and early mornings spent writing in a literary household.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Sad Peninsula.

Mark Sampson:

Sad Peninsula is a literary novel with two distinct threads that slowly get braided together over the course of the story. One involves a young Canadian man named Michael who is teaching English as a Second Language in South Korea. Shortly after he arrives in Seoul, Michael gets wrapped up in city’s rather seedy expatriate underbelly, and ends up meeting and falling in love with a Korean girl named Jin. The second thread tells the story of an older Korean woman named Eun-young, who as a young girl during World War II is coerced away from her family to become a “comfort woman,” which is a euphemism for a sex slave for the Japanese military. Her section details what happened to her in the rape camps during the war and how she comes to deal with that legacy of sexual violence in the decades that follow. The two threads are connected because Eun-young is Jin’s great aunt.


What were some of the pleasures and challenges of writing characters from such a variety of times, backgrounds, genders and experiences?


The biggest challenge was creating the character of Eun-young, whose background and experiences are about as far from my own as one could imagine: she’s female, she’s Korean, she was born in 1928, and she spent two years enduring some pretty horrific sexual violence during the war. To me, the work of getting her character right involved weaving together my extensive research into Korea’s culture, customs and wartime experiences with elements of Eun-young’s personality as it emerged in my imagination. I spent about two years assembling the “facts” as to what she would have lived through and what her life would have been like after the war; but I had also spent a long time just developing her personality. Getting these things to work together was the hardest part of writing this novel, for sure.

There were some definite pleasures involved in this process as well. Jin was an especially fun character to create, because she’s so brassy and assertive and clearly indifferent to how her family, other Koreans, or the expat ESL teachers see her. She kind of goes against the grain — at least until the very end of the novel — of what we typically think of as a “stereotypical” Korean girl: someone who is shy and quiet and covers her mouth when she smiles.


What drew you to South Korea as setting and subject? How would you describe some of the unique aspects of Korean society that shaped your characters' experiences?


I had lived in Seoul for virtually the exact same time as my character, Michael — from January of 2003 until May of 2005 — so obviously my own experiences very much helped to feed the fiction. Korea is a place that is literally torn in two by the legacy of war, and this is one of those unique aspects to it that really helped to inform some of the larger metaphors going on in Sad Peninsula. Korea has been invaded/occupied by virtually all of its neighbours, multiple times, over the course of its 5,000 year history, so it seemed a fitting setting to write about rape, colonialism, and the grey areas between seduction and coercion.


How did you approach the difficult subject matter of Eun-young's experiences as a "comfort woman"?


Mostly by being in denial about wanting to write about her experiences for a long time. The various ideas and threads of the novel started coming to me in 2006 and 2007, after I had left Korea, and for the longest time I told myself that I wouldn’t write that story, that I wasn’t up for it, that I didn’t have the emotional range or the ability to face something so difficult, so brutal, and so (frankly) sad. But the more I thought about it, the more I began finding these parts of me that wanted to confront her experiences, that wanted to be immersed in her world and just face what had happened to her and who it turned her into, and to do it without flinching. The more I researched and the more I character-sketched, the more Eun-young came alive to me. By the time I had sat down to begin the first draft, her voice had become a constant presence in my mind.


Do you have any habits or rituals when you're sitting down to write? What does your work space look like?


I typically write fiction five days a week, from 4:30 to 7:30 am, before I leave for my day job. I do freelance book reviewing and blogging and so forth in the evenings and on the weekends, whenever I can squeeze them in. I have my own home office, as does my wife, acclaimed short story writer Rebecca Rosenblum. Ours is a home full of books and cats and manuscript pages. It’s pretty sweet, actually.


What have you been reading lately? If you could recommend one recent read to others, what would it be?


A few books for review, actually: Sweetland, by Michael Crummey (for CNQ), The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, by Martha Baillie (for Quill & Quire) and Leaving Tomorrow, by David Bergen (for The Winnipeg Review).


What are you working on now?


I have my first short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep, coming out next spring with Now or Never Publishing of Vancouver, so I’m working my way through the first proofs of that. I’m also happy to announce that I’ve had a poetry collection accepted for release in 2016. And, yes, I am also working on a brand new novel (who isn’t?). So, you know, I’m keeping busy.

Mark Sampson is the author of Off Book and several short stories and poems in published literary journals across Canada. He holds a master's degree in English from the University of Manitoba and a journalism degree from the University of King's College. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he currently lives in Toronto.

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