2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group
Interview by Meehan Crist
Meehan Crist: When did you first start working on Nothing to Envy, and why? Did you know when you started that it would be such an expansive, long-term project?
Barbara Demick: I was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 2001 and assigned to cover Korea out of Seoul. I had a vague idea from the very beginning that I wanted to write something about everyday life in North Korea. I was focused on the question of what it was like to be North Korean. What were they thinking behind the blank stares of the video footage we saw of mass gymnastics or goose-stepping soldiers? Were these people anything like us? This interested me much more than how many fuel rods they’d reprocessed from their nuclear reactor and over time my interest grew. It was shortly before George W. Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech and it was virtually impossible for somebody like me, a U.S. citizen and journalist, to get a visa. Nothing like being told ‘you can’t’ to make a journalist really want to go. That’s how it was with me. I became obsessed. I felt if I couldn’t get inside their country, I’d get inside their heads. I interviewed as many North Korean defectors in South Korea as I possibly could. In 2004, I decided to focus on one city, figuring it would be much easier to corroborate what people told me. I picked Chongjin, a cold, closed and remote city where many people died of starvation in the 1990s. I collected maps and photographs dating back the early 20th century. Although few outsiders had been permitted to visit Chongjin, there were plenty of defectors. We published a two-part series in 2005 for the Los Angeles Times, which was the germ of the book that became Nothing to Envy.
MC: How did you choose your six subjects, the North Koreans whose lives the book follows for 15 years?
BD: I interviewed more than 30 people for the Los Angeles Times project and then narrowed it down for the book. It was a combination of factors—the most compelling stories, the best memories for detail, the most consistent accounts. I didn’t want exaggerators or embellishers. I wanted stories I could confirm. I liked using people who had at least one friend or relative out of North Korea, so I’d have a second source on everything. That way, I was able to reconstruct the dialogues with a reasonable degree of certainty. Frankly, I ended up picking people I liked and who liked me. The North Koreans in this book had to put up with me and the fact-checkers over a very long period of time.
MC: How did the changing political climate in North Korea over the years affect your ability to report on and write about the lives of the people featured in Nothing to Envy?
BD: It was fortunate that I moved to China in 2007. The towns along the Chinese-North Korean border are the best place to find out what’s going on in North Korea. I made several trips to the border late in the writing process and met with people from Chongjin, among others. It helped to keep my book up-to-date. In the course of my writing the book, the overall quality of life in North Korea improved, then in the last year it got worse again. A year ago, Kim Jong Il decided to shore up his power with a currency revaluation that was designed to close the private markets and confiscate the savings of the middle class. As a result, the standard of living in North Korea is almost as bad as it was in the 1990s, the period I described in the book.
MC: What questions drove you as worked on this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?
BD: What happens to people living in the most totalitarian of regimes? Do they lose their essential humanity?
MC: Your previous book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, focuses on one street in wartorn Sarajevo. How did your work on that book inform the way you approached Nothing to Envy?
BD: The books are similar in that I told a complicated history through the eyes of ordinary people. Both books were based on a microcosm—a street in Sarajevo, a city in North Korea. With Logavina Street, I was also was trying to answer a nagging question: how could a tolerant, secular, heterogeneous community dissolve into ethnic and religious warfare?
MC: In addition to writing nonfiction books, you are the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Do you think your work as a journalist has influenced the way you write your books, Nothing to Envy, in particular?
BD: Absolutely. I’ve spent my entire career as a foreign correspondent writing for daily newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer before the Los Angeles Times. We newspaper reporters disparage ourselves as hacks—“Oh I’m not a real writer,’’ I’ve said all along. But there is something to be said for a craft (yes, I’ll call it a craft) that requires the writer to be clear, direct, accessible. This is a discipline. A newspaper article has to be written with the assumption that the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject and all essential information is contained within. As I wrote Nothing to Envy, I imagined a reader who was intelligent and curious, but perhaps unable to locate North Korea on a world map or to tell the difference between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
The other thing I would say in defense of newspaper writing: we have strict rules about not making stuff up. When I started at the Philadelphia Inquirer, we went through a two-day indoctrination session where we were told in essence that we’d be damned to some special hell for journalists if we embellished our quotes or created composite characters.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing Nothing to Envy? How did this discovery help shape the book?
BD: The book didn’t start out as a love story. I was outlining a book about people’s lives in Chongjin that included a section about a young kindergarten teacher who had watched her pupils starve to death. In the course of interviewing this woman, Mi-ran in the book, she told me about how she’d defected without saying goodbye to the man she loved back in North Korea. She wondered if he would forgive her for betraying their love and their country, if she ever saw him again. A few weeks after we had this conversation, she telephoned my office, breathless. Her North Korean boyfriend was in Seoul. He’d defected too. She introduced us. His story, which so perfectly complemented her story, changed the book so that the romance became the bookends at the beginning and end. The romance was not just a powerful story; it allowed me to do what I’d set out to accomplish, to show the good along with the bad about North Korea.
MC: How did you decide on the structure for this book, and how do you feel this particular form serves the book’s content in a way other structures could not?
BD: I go with chronological order. It’s always worked for me. The challenge was flitting back and forth between the people, without making the switches feel contrived. Something I also did differently than in other journalists’ books: I kept myself largely out of the story. I wanted the reader to be completely immersed in North Korea in the 1990s and since I wasn’t there, I stayed out.
MC: Did you look to other books as models for Nothing to Envy?
BD: Yes. John Hersey’s Hiroshima. This is not exactly coincidence. I studied non-fiction writing with Hersey as an undergraduate at Yale, and he always taught us to look for models for our work. I reread Hiroshima several times while working on Nothing to Envy, looking at how he transitioned between people while carrying the story forward, his attention to detail, his respect for his subjects. I was a very disorganized student in college, subject to crippling bouts of writer’s block. I never finished my last paper for Hersey’s course and was graded down for having an incomplete. Hersey told me at the end of the semester to send him something later. If he were still alive, I’d send him the book.
MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Nothing to Envy, and why was it so hard?
BD: The hardest thing was to balance my desire to write a book that was rigorously non-fiction with the need to protect families still in North Korea. This book would have been much easier if it were fiction, as I could have used composite characters about whom I perhaps could have divulged more.
MC: What part of Nothing to Envy was the most thrilling to write, and why?
BD: The epiphanies. Each of the six people in the book is going through more or less the same journey. They all start out reciting the same propaganda, singing in this case “We have nothing to envy in the world.” At some point, they figure out that they’ve been lied to all along, indeed, that their whole lives have been lies. I loved writing these scenes. My favorite was the doctor. Starving, she crossed the river into China and stumbled still dripping wet into the courtyard of a farmhouse. She was confused to see on the ground a bowl a bowl of rice with some scraps of meat—she realized at that moment, just an hour out of North Korea, that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
MC: If you could choose one person to read your book, who would it be, and why would you want that person to read it?
BD: Kim Jong Eun, the twenty-something son of Kim Jong Il who was just tapped to be North Korea’s next dictator.
Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such as The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.