When author Wondra Chang recently celebrated her 75th birthday, it wasn’t just to observe another turn around the sun. Her debut novel, Sonju, made its first appearance on the market and she has been busy ever since doing book signings, giving talks and sharing her experiences as a young girl growing up in South Korea. We’re honored indeed that she made time to also do a feature interview with You Read It Here First.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Was the story of Sonju in your head for all of those decades or was there a more recent inspiration to put it down on paper?
A: When I retired in 2003, I thought about writing a novel about a Korean woman who breaks social norms in a Confucian society where women had very few rights. Five years later, I was going through a divorce and I had to direct my anger into a more constructive activity. So, the story of Sonju began.
Q: Tell us briefly what Sonju is about.
A: Sonju is a tale of conviction, resilience, and redemption of a woman who comes of age in Japanese-occupied Korea. Her 20-year struggle to seek a place of her own in a male-dominated post-WWII South Korea parallels the struggles of her country on its way to becoming a force in the world.
Q: English is your second language. When you write, do you think in English or in Korean?
A: I do both. At this point, English is easier for me, but there are times I feel I could express whatever I am trying to convey in Korean better. Writing requires that you are precise with word and sentence usage. I probably will always struggle with that.
Q: What was it like to be an immigrant from South Korea?
A: I came to the States in 1971 at age 25, and it was a shock to me that everything was so large. The cacti were two-stories tall, grocery stores vast, and hardly anyone on the streets. I worried a great deal about making a fool of myself because of my lack of competency in the English language and not knowing the customs well. Things that come naturally to the Americans, I had to learn word by word, rule by rule, even the smallest things like having to memorize nursery rhymes. In Korean, there’s no distinction between eat and it. I couldn’t understand why my American friend was laughing so hard when I said sheet. She was rolling on the carpet laughing.
Q: What were your first impressions of America when you came here in 1970?
A: America is a Christian country. Listen to how many times people mention God and look how many churches there are. They can cuss the president. They mention love a lot. Americans in general are poor in math. They wear underarm deodorant but yet wear shoes indoors. They boil vegetables to death. They are very kind, helpful, and curious.
Q: At 10 years old, you were encouraged by a tutor to write five short stories a day. Has that sense of discipline and commitment stayed with you in your writing life as an adult?
A: What writing five stories a day did for me was to muster my creativity to the fullest extent and maintain it. Even after a decades-long hiatus, I found I could still imagine and create a story. I like work that demands intensity and clear focus in which I lose myself. Writing provides that. It gives me a deep, satisfying joy.
Q: What personally motivates you as a wordsmith?
A: I come from a large farming clan who settled in a village centuries ago. I grew up hearing stories that had been passed down for generations and became keenly interested in the way people lived their lives. I read a lot even before coming to America, but as I was learning English, I marveled at how the words are put together to form breathtakingly beautiful, well-crafted sentences. With that appreciation for words comes my desire to write a novel that says something about us. I am not there, yet.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I lived a pretty ordinary life so there’s no memoir in me. I had my share of challenges, which taught me that I have to take things as they happen. I don‘t wake up every morning wondering if the day will be a good one. It just is. I am not a religious person but have read the entire Bible and have gone to Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Catholic churches. I finally had to accept that I don’t have a religion gene in me. I’m ever hopeful that enough human beings will do the right thing in the end.
Q: What is a typical writing day like for you?
A: I don’t write every day. When I do, I spend hours in front of my laptop forgetting to eat or drink. I think about writing all my waking hours. Most of my writing happens in my head.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work-in-progress or do you make everyone wait until you have typed “The End”?
A: I wait until the draft form of the novel is completed.
Q: What books or authors have had the greatest influence on your writing style?
A: I like a lot of authors. I am most moved by Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, and more recently, A Pale View Of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro and Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: I just finished Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and started A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul.
Q: Tell us about your publishing experience and how you found Sonju the best home.
A: I met the director of Madville Publishing, Kimberly Davis, at the San Antonio Writers Conference and told her about the novel I was working on. When my manuscript was ready, I sent it to her without an agent. She replied a few days later with an offer of a contract. Kim Davis had me involved with the book cover and font selection, copy-editing, and procuring a few reviewers. She kept my book title and agreed to remove all the italicized inner thoughts that she had edited in. She is a pleasure to work with.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: My second novel is about three characters whose lives change overnight after one of them comes to the small, insular farming village on a night train. It’s deeply character-driven, very different from my debut novel Sonju. I sent out my first draft to two readers and am waiting for the feedback from the second beta reader. I have a third novel I started some years ago, which I plan to work on soon, another very different novel from what I have written. I am 76, so there’s no sequel.
Q: What’s the best way to get in touch with you? Where can readers find your book?
A: Contact me on Facebook or through Madville Publishing. Sonju is available in paperback, e-Book, and audio formats. They are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Bookshop, and Kobo, also at libraries.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reach a wide range of readers and share my story.