When Adam Johnson arrived in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he wasn't prepared for the bizarre brand of "culture shock" that greeted him.
"For one thing, it was eerily quiet," he recalled.
There were no planes in the sky, and no bicycles and very few cars on the streets. No stoplights or billboard advertising. No cellphones or conversations among the thousands of similarly dressed pedestrians going about their business. Not a single citizen made eye contact with the 6-foot- 4-inch American visitor, who would be a curiosity in most foreign countries. He may as well have been invisible, Johnson said.
Johnson is an associate professor of English at Stanford University who teaches creative writing. He visited the DPRK in 2007 for a specific reason. At the time, he was 2 1/2 years into the seven-year research-writing project that would become "The Orphan Master's Son," set in North Korea, the world's most secretive country. He needed a firsthand look.
The book has appeared on the New York Times and other best-seller lists since its release in January, and is one of Random House's most critically acclaimed novels of the year. It's the Bee Book Club's choice for September.
The epic, darkly surrealistic tale takes place in territory previously uncharted in the literary canon. Readers follow "average citizen" Pak Jun Do throughout his life, first as a boy in a work camp for orphans, then as a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels underneath the demilitarized zone, next as a crew member aboard a spy boat.
Later, Jun Do is briefly hailed a hero, then damned to a gulag as a threat to the state. Freed in a bizarre case of state-engineered "mistaken identity," Jun Do's arc intersects with North Korea's sociopathic "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, and that of iconic movie star Sun Moon.
Along the way, readers meet the country's propaganda-saturated citizenry, murderous secret police and paranoid party leaders. Despite the bleak vision, the story interweaves hope with humor, dignity with courage.
"I didn't set out to write a book about North Korea," Johnson said by phone from his office on the Stanford campus. "I began reading about it in 2004 and became fascinated. I started toying with dialogue and sketching scenes in my mind for a story that would show the human side of North Korea."
In a rare scenario last year, Random House editor at large David Ebershoff stayed up all night reading the manuscript after receiving it from Johnson's agent. "I immersed myself in it," he said. "What I really should say is the book immersed me in it."
Ebershoff, who is Johnson's one-on-one editor and sees hundreds of manuscripts a year, said he had "never read anything like this before, which is what we editors look for.
"You root for the main character, even as he has to make horrible, morally complicated decisions to stay alive," he said. "Those decisions are made in the context of great adventure tales, in a place no one knows anything about. It's many stories in one a coming-of-age story, sea story, spy story, soldier story and love story."
The late Kim Jong Il plays a major role in the second half of the novel. He is portrayed as a gleefully manipulative madman with a perverse sense of humor.
"I thought I tried to find his good side," Johnson said with a laugh. "It's very difficult to find portraits of Kim Jong Il because not many people who knew him managed to make it out of North Korea alive. Most of them don't try because they're in the upper 1 percent of society and have all the benefits relatively speaking."
One notable exception is Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il's longtime sushi chef who fled the country in 2001 and wrote the memoir "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook."
Recently, Kim Jong Un North Korea's present leader and the son of Kim Jong Il invited Fujimoto back for a visit, the details of which are unknown.
During their North Korea visit, Johnson and his party were assigned English- speaking "minders" who functioned more as watchful companions than as guides.
"(The authorities) were quite nervous because we were Americans, so they gave us minders who were very urbane and sophisticated," he recalled. But even the minders were "ignorant of the essence of the world. Things we take for granted travel, literature, movies, history, sociology are inaccessible to North Koreans."
Johnson could socialize all he wished with his minders ("They had great senses of humor"), but was careful not to talk with any other North Koreans.
"It's illegal for the citizens to interact with foreigners," he said. "I knew going in that we would have no genuine interactions, because to speak with anyone on the street would cast them in a light of suspicion that could have grave consequences."
As for the mood of the people in Pyongyang, Johnson said they are "just as human as we are. You see lovers strolling by the river, families having picnics, old-timers playing (a version of chess) on the corners. It's a relatively happy place because everyone there knows they're not going to starve to death, as millions did in the rest of the nation during the great famines of the late 1990s."
Johnson added wryly, "And there is no crime there whatsoever the state has the absolute monopoly on that."
Johnson's mega-research made him an expert on North Korea and led him along multiple corridors of discovery. For instance, he was "embarrassed to realize I didn't know that a gulag system still existed in the world, that it has been there for five decades, that there are hundreds of thousands of people trapped in it."
The machinery of the DPRK depends on a system of slave labor camps, largely dedicated to mining, he said. "The life expectancy of people in the mining camps is six months. Mostly they mine tin, nickel and lead the most primitive metals. But China is voracious for them. Everyone profits from the trade, including South Korea and Japan. The North Koreans are directly converting human lives into hard currency."
As a teacher and writer, Johnson wanted to write a book that gave voice to the average citizen. Which was an especially challenging task, given that decades of foreign occupations and wars have cut off the North Koreans from their own culture.
"For 100 years, they've been divorced from (their) music and literature and art, so there is no tradition of expression," he said.
North Korea "is hermetically sealed. We don't know anything about it, aside from their propaganda that glorifies a despotic regime. Our resources are satellite maps and the narratives of the people who have escaped."
In June, Johnson learned that members of the U.S. State Department had read "The Orphan Master's Son" via a directive from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. They were fascinated by it and wanted to meet the author. "Hillary Clinton (and other officials) brought me into their 'book club' and wanted to talk about the book and North Korea," Johnson said. "At one point, I asked them directly, 'Do we have anyone in North Korea feeding us intelligence?' They just shook their heads and looked at their hands."
In the Western mind, at least, it can be puzzling why there are no protests or demonstrations by the North Korean populace, or a coup attempt by the military. "The only people who would foment some type of voice against (the government) choose to escape instead," Johnson said.
The main deterrent to any Arab Spring-type movement, though, is the threat of the gulags. Essentially, if a transgressor is sent to a gulag, everyone in his/her family is sent there, too.
"Camps 14 and 15, which (collectively) hold 100,000 people, are where whole families are (imprisoned)," Johnson said. "If you don't have any family, then your friends go to the gulag. This keeps everyone under control."
Most of the world knows that North Korea as a brutal oligarchy masquerading as a workers paradise and land of plenty. So why do its party leaders keep up the ruse? Because that facade has its origin in truth, Johnson said.
The DPRK's founder and first leader, Kim Il Sung, "was a resistance fighter during the Japanese occupation and was genuinely beloved by the people," Johnson said. "One of his main tenets to the people was they would never be occupied by a foreign power again, and he delivered that. From the people's perspective, they've kept themselves 'free.' That is still very much in their minds."
Kim Jong Il died in December 2011. Will North Korea change its global face under the rule of his son, Kim Jong Un?
"Change will come, but sudden change would be a catastrophe," Johnson said. "Its people have no idea of what the world is or how to empower themselves in any way.
"Because Kim Jong Un is young and is embracing a little bit of outside culture, he will slowly open the doors of North Korea to the rest of the world," Johnson said, with caution in his voice. "Change can't help but come, and for the better. Not 'the sooner, the better.' Instead, the more slowly, the better."