Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Interview with Linda Sue Park: Writing The Firekeeper’s Son

Firekeeper's SonHow do you begin the research for a sto­ry set long ago?

I go to the library. I live in New York state, which has a won­der­ful inter­li­brary loan sys­tem. My local library can get me books from any­where in the state. Many of my sources have come from the East Asian col­lec­tions of uni­ver­si­ty libraries.

The Firekeeper’s Son is set, accord­ing to the Library of Con­gress data on the copy­right page, in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. Did you choose that time because you could ver­i­fy the fires were in use as a sig­nal sys­tem (as men­tioned in your author’s note)? Because it was a time of peace, which was cru­cial to Sang-hee’s long­ing to see sol­diers?

Both. I read about the sig­nal sys­tem in a traveler’s account of 19th cen­tu­ry Korea, and I also chose that time frame because there was no war.

bk_Park_stripThis pic­ture book was pub­lished after you’d writ­ten four nov­els. How much par­ing down of the sto­ry and text did you have to do from the first draft?

Actu­al­ly, I start­ed my writ­ing life as a poet. I’ve writ­ten poet­ry since I was a child, and pub­lished poet­ry as an adult long before I became a fic­tion writer. Good pic­ture-book text is a kissin’ cousin of poet­ry. So when I wrote the book, it felt like ‘com­ing home’ to me.

I did end up cut­ting words from the orig­i­nal draft; I can’t recall the exact num­ber, but it wasn’t dras­tic. As I implied above, I approached the man­u­script wear­ing my ‘poet­ry’ hat, not my ‘nov­el’ one!

How did you decide on the crit­i­cal ele­ment of ten­sion with­in the book?

In every sto­ry I write, the char­ac­ter has to face a prob­lem, make a deci­sion, and act on that deci­sion. Pic­ture books that tell sto­ries aren’t exempt from this struc­ture. So I knew I want­ed to put Sang-hee in a posi­tion where he would have to make a dif­fi­cult deci­sion: one where he would have to choose between his own desires and what he knew was the right thing to do. Even quite young chil­dren face this kind of dilem­ma in their own lives—I know I’m not sup­posed to throw this valu­able break­able fig­urine but I real­ly real­ly want to—so I was con­fi­dent that it would work in a pic­ture book.

You have trav­eled to Korea sev­er­al times. Do you feel that Julie Down­ing, your illus­tra­tor, cap­tured the land that you know?

Korea has of course changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly in many ways since the 19th cen­tu­ry, espe­cial­ly in the cities. I haven’t been able to vis­it the coun­try­side as much as I would like. But the moun­tains and the sea are forever—at least I hope so—and I think Julie did a ter­rif­ic job there. I also love her depic­tion of Sang-hee’s vil­lage.

FirekeeperIllustrationThe toy fig­ures Sang-hee plays with are a cru­cial ele­ment in the nar­ra­tive, yet they’re not men­tioned in the text. When and how did they become part of the sto­ry?

I was absolute­ly delight­ed to see the toy fig­ures in the illus­tra­tions. They were entire­ly Julie’s idea, and a per­fect way to show Sang-hee’s keen inter­est in sol­diers. I love how she brought her own vision to the sto­ry. That sort of detail is what makes a pic­ture book a true col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Why was it impor­tant to you to tell this sto­ry?

I think many of us feel that his­to­ry is some­thing that hap­pens out­side of our own experiences—to famous peo­ple, as a result of momen­tous or tur­bu­lent events. But his­to­ry is hap­pen­ing all around us, all the time, and each one of us is par­tic­i­pat­ing, even if we don’t think we are! In all my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, includ­ing this book, I want to explore how ordi­nary peo­ple are part of shap­ing his­to­ry. And of course I’m always inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about Korea, where my fam­i­ly comes from. For me, writ­ing is a way of learn­ing.



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