“The Garden” begins with the one-two punch of Darlene’s relationships with her mother, and with Sook-Joo. This sets the immediate tone for the story. How important is establishing a vivid mood in your writing? Do you think it makes for a stronger story?
I recently read in the Atlantic that Stephen King spends months or years working on his opening lines, and if he isn’t an authority on writing strong fiction, I don’t know who is. There’s a particular pleasure to collecting and studying really good (and really bad) first lines. Some of the best can stand on their own as little stories. Like this one: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That line tells you just about everything you need to know about the novel to come.
You explore the stresses and fears of being a stranger in a strange land with a deft, fine touch. Have you ever lived for an extended period in a foreign country?
Well, I’m a Canadian who’s lived in the United States for at least a decade, so I guess I have. But that’s not really the same as moving from somewhere like Australia to somewhere like Korea, and being immersed in a totally foreign language and culture. I’m glad the story manages to bring off that effect believably.
Your use of color is vital to the narrative, whether it’s the yellowed skin around Darlene’s mother’s gray eyes, the black of Sook-Joo’s jacket, the gold filaments, or the dark stretch of the Wonhyo bridge. Why do you think such sensory impressions are important to a story, particularly in the horror genre?
I wrote this story partly out of love for Bong Joon-Ho’s wonderful movie The Host. (Not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer vehicle of the same name.) It’s a fantastic creature feature about a monster that comes out of the Han River and sewers, and about how it devastates one particular family. Bong Joon-Ho’s movies are wonderfully twisty and rich, not just with fully-fleshed characters but with visual motifs. I’m very glad that the story succeeds in drawing in some of that color and depth and mood. (And I highly recommend that movie!)
The co-dependent relationship between Darlene and Sook-joo is both familiar and very distinct, yet you manage to portray both sides with honesty and depth. What do you think makes Darlene and Sook-joo so identifiably “real”?
South Korea has a reputation for being a fairly conformist, law-abiding place, and I loved the idea of a very non-traditional Korean woman, popping pills and driving a renegade scooter through traffic. And then poor Darlene is at loose ends in a foreign place, and more or less just tagging along. They seemed like a pretty interesting pair to me, with good potential to get into trouble.
The best writers read anything they can get their hands on, from cereal boxes to novels. What writers do you turn to when you want to get your fiction on?
I’ve read some terrific novels this year, and I have some favorites that I re-read fairly often. This year, the top of my list includes Fourth of July Creek, a debut by fellow Oregonian Smith Henderson about a social worker in 1980s Montana struggling to help a radical, off-the-grid family. Also The Enchanted, by another Oregon author, Rene Denfeld, which is about a woman who works as a death penalty investigator, trying to decide whether to get a man off death row. And I also loved All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld, about an Australian woman working as a shepherd in Scotland, facing down some ugly truths from her past. For re-reads, you can’t beat Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. I re-read Night Watch this year, and was wonderfully traumatized all over again by some of those stories.
What can we expect from Karen Munro? What new treats lie in store for the eager reader?
I have a few stories slated to appear soon, including one that’s a craven homage to Shirley Jackson, titled “We Have Always Lived in the Subdivision.” I’m working on a novel. And I’m always collecting scary stories for my favorite new tradition, which happens in October. I started sending out free online scary stories to interested readers every day of the month, and it was so much fun I’m going to keep going with it. This year’s list included stories by authors like Karen Russell, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due, and Brian Evenson — as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and M.R. James. Anyone can read the stories here: munrovian.tumblr.com/scarystories and sign up to be included next year. And I should thank everyone at Nightmare, since several of those stories were published here.
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