Interview with Mark Sampson, author of Sad Peninsula

Interview with Mark Sampson, author of Sad Peninsula  thumbnail

Interview with Mark Sampson, author of Sad Peninsula

Posted on September 12 by Mark Sampson
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Today Mark Sampson, author of the brand new book Sad Peninsula talks to use about his writing process, how he came up with the title for it, and what the hardest part about writing it was. 

How did you come up with the title?

Mark: The title for Sad Peninsula comes from American poet Tom Crawford’s wonderful poem “Stones”, published in his book about Korea called The Temple on Monday (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001). I bought a copy of Crawford’s collection in a used bookshop in Seoul in 2004, and was immediately moved by that poem’s extended metaphor about the burden that Korean women carry as being like stones in their pockets that grow increasingly heavier as the years go on. I also found a great deal of resonance in Crawford’s description of Korea as the “sad peninsula,” since one of the things you learn early on as an expat there is that Korea is a place that has been invaded and conquered by virtually all of its neighbours (China, Japan, Mongolia, etc.) several times over the course of its 5,000-year history. And this legacy of near-constant colonization has in fact played a role in the saddest aspect of the peninsula today – that it was divided into two very different and antagonistic countries at the behest of foreigners. It amazed me how Crawford was able to convey all that in just a few lines.

Years later, as I began facing the fact that Sad Peninsula was a novel that I was actually going to write (I had been in denial about that for a couple years), I knew from the start that Crawford’s phrase was going to be its title. It just spoke so much to the emotional landscape that I wanted the book to cover.       

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

Mark: I think, now that I’ve had some distance from it, Sad Peninsula really is a novel about sex and its relationship to power. I think this is true in both threads of the book – in Eun-young’s story about being a comfort woman during the Second World War, and in Michael’s story of being adrift in the sexualized underbelly of Seoul’s expat community in the 21st century. On one level, the book looks at the dynamic between sex and power on a kind of macro-level. That is, it looks at how the history of sexual violence against young Korean women during the war really holds a key to both Japan’s colonial aggression toward Korea and what has happened on the Korean peninsula in the decades since. But I think the novel also explores this on a more micro-level, between individual characters. I think sex becomes something that can be both redemptive and destructive for these characters. It can be something full of violence and shame, of mystery and torment, but also tenderness and connection.

Sad Peninsula also explores a set of long-standing preoccupations of mine, that of self-sabotage and self-exile. These are things I’ve written about in numerous works (my first novel included) and they’re something that both Eun-young and Michael deal with in their own ways. I’m very much interested in characters who find themselves lost in the thickets of their own destructive behaviour, whose internal images of themselves don’t always match up with how the external world sees or treats them, and the efforts those characters take to reconcile that schism and find some solace for themselves. I think readers will see these themes play out in spades in this novel.         

How did you research your book?

Mark: It took a long time and a lot of work researching Sad Peninsula so that I could write half the novel from Eun-young’s perspective. I read countless testimonials that have emerged since the first of the comfort women came forward in the early 1990s with their stories. I read widely among the fiction and nonfiction already published about comfort women, and I immersed myself for nearly two years in the history of Korea in the 20th century. I integrated all of this into a lengthy process of character sketching that went on before I even began the first draft in 2008.

I once had a friend ask me what was the single most compelling piece of research I found for this book. I told him that, to my surprise, it was actually the UN report on comfort women. You would think such a document would be written in a kind of dry, sanitized bureaucrat-ese, but far from it. The report contained some of the most gut-wrenching, moving and telling detail I could find about what these women actually endured inside those Japanese rape camps. They helped to put me inside the mind of these women and really see the world from their points of view.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Mark: I think just mapping out the emotional landscape of this novel and how it took me into very unfamiliar and difficult terrain as a fiction writer. Sad Peninsula was far more ambitious than anything I had ever written, but I think it was more than that. I had to dredge up quite a bit of unpleasantness in myself in order to pull it off; I had to confront certain emotions I felt that were very difficult to face. I think I left a huge part of myself, of my past, in the pages of Sad Peninsula; and while I came out of the process feeling like I had grown so much as a writer, I also felt like there was an intimate part of me, of my inner world, that was now gone and I would never get back. But perhaps that’s what is supposed to happen whenever you write a novel. If you’re the same person you were at the beginning as you are at the end, maybe you didn’t do it right.    

What was your first publication?

Mark: Ah yes, let’s close with something a bit more pleasant. I did win my first contest in something called the “Stay in School Writing Competition” when I was 16, and my story was subsequently printed in my hometown newspaper, the Charlottetown Guardian. But I published my first serious piece of literary fiction in the journal Pottersfield Portfolio (which, sadly, is no more) in the fall of 2002, when I was 27. The timing was perfect, since I had just completed a master’s degree in creative writing, and the story’s acceptance felt apropos to that accomplishment. I remember thinking, yes, 27 is a very good age to get a career in fiction finally underway.

Mark Sampson

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off Book, Sad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.