Mark Sampson is a Toronto writer. Originally from PEI, he and I met in 1997 at the University of King's College in Halifax. We were both enrolled in the journalism program. Later, we both taught English in South Korea, though my stint was in 1998-9 and his 2003-5.
When I was in South Korea, I often looked on with longing as my male co-workers began dating Korean women. They were often engaged within the year. What I envied was the access my co-workers had to Korean culture. They were often invited to family gatherings in the country, festivals, and holiday celebrations while my sister and I tried to scrounge up dinner in a strangely empty city. What's more, my colleagues had built-in translators and tour guides.
As such, Sampson's new novel Sad Peninsula is interesting not only for its spot-on depiction of Seoul's foreigner's district but also for exploring the contemporary male Western expat/Korean woman relationship and other aspects of Korean history from a distinctly female perspective.
What do you want people to know about Sad Peninsula?
Sad Peninsula is a novel with two main threads: one tells the story of a troubled young Canadian named Michael who is teaching ESL in Seoul in 2003-2005, and who gets roped up in the sleazy, hyper-sexualized underbelly of Korea’s expat teaching community. The second thread details the history of Korea’s “comfort women”—the young women and girls who were taken away by the occupying Japanese forces during the Second World War to be sex slaves on the battlefronts of China —as told through the perspective of a Korean woman named Eun-young. The two threads collide when Michael begins dating a young Korean woman named Jin, who is Eun-young’s grand-niece.
That’s the general summary of the book. But I guess what I want readers to know is that there is quite a bit of call and response between the two threads of Sad Peninsula, one that generates (I hope) a lot of thematic connections around the idea of “sexual conquest”—both on a micro-level between characters but also on a larger, colonial level between countries. I want readers to know that the book deals with a lot of difficult ideas around sex and the grey areas between seduction and coercion, and it sometimes deals with these ideas in a very graphic way. But people should know that Sad Peninsula is also a love story, and (again, I hope) a tenderly rendered one at that.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
I love doing readings, and I think it’s because the rest of the writerly life is so solitary. When I’m writing, I tend to read my work aloud as I go, and in many ways this feels like a rehearsal for sharing the work out loud with an audience. I’m very comfortable reading in front of a crowd—I would do it daily if someone would pay me
—and I tend to adopt the voices of the characters and really get into it. I know a lot of writers have anxiety about performing their work, but this is not something I go through myself. If anything, I feel anxious if I haven’t done a reading in a while.
Now that you’ve published two novels and have a book of short stories and a collection of poems coming out in 2015 and 2016 respectively, what have you learned about writing? What have you learned about your own process?
The experience of the last few years, when I’ve begun to publish a lot more than I ever have before, has just reinforced for me the importance of continuity in my writing process. To me, it’s really important to just take a workmanlike approach to the craft and not fetishize or romanticize the writing life too much—because lord knows other people will do that for you anyway once you start having a bit of success. I work a 9-to-5 day job, so my routine is to write from 4:30 to 7:30 am, five days a week. Some days I generate 50 words and other days I generate 1,000, but either way it’s important to maintain that daily discipline, that daily continuity, especially if I’m working on a novel. I’m very protective of this time, because I know I’m not the kind of person who can come at a project in fits and starts or have dedicated “writing days.” This is just anathema to how I’m wired as a writer.
Sad Peninsula alternates between the points of view of a Michael, a failed journalist teaching English in Seoul and Eun-young, an elderly Korean woman who was a comfort woman during WWII. Did you ever have moments of discomfort about writing across all those lines—race, age, sexual violence—and how did you overcome them?
There was always a certain amount of discomfort in whether I had the chops to fully inhabit Eun-young’s world and whether I would be able to accurately and honestly render her story on the page. I mean, she’s just about as different from me as one can get: she’s female, she’s Korean, she was born in 1928, and she spent two and a half years in a “comfort station,” being raped up to 35 times a day. So I knew that the task of creating her and telling her story would be enormous. But I was also lucky in the sense that her personality began to emerge in my mind at the same time as I was researching all of the horrific things that happened in those camps, and so I was able to develop her character in tandem with what I was learning. Sometimes I would come upon some bit of information and think, “You know, that would definitely resonate with someone like Eun-young” or “Yeah, no, she really wouldn’t relate to that bit of the history.” Over time, I was able to get a real symbiosis going between my research into Korean culture and history with the lengthy character sketches I was writing for Eun-young before beginning the first draft. So that helped immensely.
Another big part of it was giving myself permission to inhabit her world and tell her story, and that took a long time, too. You always doubt yourself: have I done enough research, have I sketched out this person enough, do I really understand all the different aspect of her psyche that are going to propel her through this narrative? But at some point you have to let go of those reservations and just let her voice rise to the surface and take over. And that’s what it did.
I taught English in South Korea immediately after the IMF Crisis and spent a lot of my time in Internet cafes writing poems. What were you writing while you were there?
I was writing my first novel while I was there. I had been thinking about and mapping out Off Book for about two or three years by that point, and I used my move to Seoul to hunker down and pound it out. That had been the plan all along. But as I was closing in on my last few months there, when the novel was finally done, I began to think about how I might use some of my Korean experiences in future writing. What emerged, obviously, was Sad Peninsula, but also two or three short stories and about a half dozen poems. For a period of my life that last just 27 months, it was actually very fruitful.
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
Oh yes, I lived in Winnipeg from 2000 to 2002, where I earned my MA in English at the University of Manitoba. In fact, I went to Korea the following year in part to pay off the student loans incurred during that and my previous degree. I loved Winnipeg, still do. I did quite a bit of research before moving there in 2000, and knew that its literary community definitely punched above its weight. The writers I fell in with and learned from were wonderful: David Arnason. Dennis Cooley, Alison Calder, George Amabile, Warren Cariou, to name a few. I was also there studying at the same time as a number of writers who have since emerged as the next generation of talented Prairie scribblers: Nathan Dueck, Cara Hedley, and Jonathan Ball.
To a certain degree, I think I washed up on the U of M campus in the fall of 2000 rather inexplicably: I had, for three years previous, been a relatively successful magazine writer and editor in Halifax, and I didn’t know a single soul in Winnipeg when I moved there. But that was sort of the point. I think I needed the jolt of starting my life from scratch—a much easier task when you’re still in your 20s, believe me—to really get my creative energy to the next level, and so Winnipeg served that purpose for me. I was very “regionalist” in my aesthetic at the time—needing to get away from the Maritimes in order to write about it, blah blah blah – and while the focus of my work has changed a lot since then, I still see those years as quite formative.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I’m in the middle of K.D. Miller’s delightful new short story collection, All Saints, published earlier this year by Biblioasis. I have a real soft spot for Biblioasis’s roster of talented short fiction writers— so much so, in fact, that I married one of them—and it’s wonderful to read a writer like Miller at the very top of her game.
As for my own stuff, I am (of course!) working on a new novel. It’s about a high-profile Canadian public intellectual who says something wildly inappropriate while on live national television shortly after getting into a row with his stay-at-home wife, and how the ensuing social media fallout exposes all the cracks and fissures in his marriage. Whereas Sad Peninsula is a complex novel with many heady and serious themes, this new book will be, I hope, shorter and much more comic.