Putting Characters Under Pressure: A Conversation with Jung Yun

January 1, 2022   •   By Gracie Jordan

IN HER CAPTIVATING second novel, O Beautiful, Jung Yun shows what happens to women, especially those of color, in male-dominated settings. The story is set against the backdrop of rural Avery, North Dakota, during an oil boom that sees thousands of men looking for work flood into the streets. But, as Yun describes in this interview, the oil boom isn’t what causes the egregious male behavior O Beautiful chronicles: “You can take a walk down a street in lots of different places and be subjected to the catcalling, the lowering of the windows, and the quote-unquote ‘friendly’ hellos and greetings that you just don’t want because you’re just trying to walk your damn dog.” Yun is calling attention to the seemingly small yet significant humiliations women must endure every day — treatment that is casually dismissed by the men who perpetuate it. 

It is this sort of behavior that Yun’s protagonist, Elinor, fights against throughout the entire novel. A fortysomething freelance journalist and former model, Elinor is offered a chance — by Richard, her former grad-school professor — to write about the oil boom in North Dakota for a prestigious magazine. Accepting the commission, she returns to the area where she was raised by a domineering white father and emotionally distant Korean mother. As Elinor navigates the ins and outs of her research for the article, she finds a much larger local story about the mistreatment of women. Yun was born in Seoul, South Korea, but grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, so the story draws deeply on her own experiences.

O Beautiful has already received significant praise. Novelist Edward P. Jones calls it a “wondrous, compelling, and insightful picture of a North Dakota town,” while Anna North, a journalist who specializes in gender-related issues, says the book has “all the propulsiveness of a mystery.” An assistant professor of English at George Washington University, Yun currently lives in Baltimore.

 I spoke to Yun via Zoom about her creative process and the experiences that shaped O Beautiful.

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GRACIE JORDAN: I read that you grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. How did your childhood and personal connection to the state influence the way you portrayed Avery — a fictional North Dakota city — in O Beautiful?

JUNG YUN: Fargo is on the eastern side of the state and Avery — which is sort of loosely based on Williston and other smaller towns — are all on the western side of the state. The two areas really couldn’t be more different in their cultures, in their population densities. I think the parts of my own experience growing up in Fargo that carried forward into the book are related to what it was like there in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s very different now. I go back and it’s a much more diverse, welcoming, open sort of community. But back in the ’70s and ’80s, it just really wasn’t diverse at all. So, I grew up definitely feeling like there was a sense of not fitting into the town, the community, the landscape, and feeling that acutely. But I do think that was helpful to me as a writer and an artist; all of the issues and things that I care about as a writer are things that I grew up thinking about and observing because of the place where I lived.

Speaking of those things, the oil boom is really just the backdrop for much deeper problems going on in Avery. Why did you use the boom as a catalyst to enter into the larger concerns of the book — racial injustice and discrimination, harassment of women? Had you considered other scenarios to start with? This is another way of asking, Do you begin with a concept or a scene when approaching a writing project?

With my first novel [Shelter, published in 2016], it was very different; I started with a scene. With O Beautiful, I started with a concept. I always knew I wanted to write a novel that was set in my home state. I was just always looking for the entry point to write an entire novel. And the reason why I eventually landed on the oil boom is that it just seemed like such a natural entry because what I like to do in fiction, whether it’s short fiction or long-form fiction, is to create characters, get to know them intimately, and then just put the screws to them. I like putting pressure on them in really intense ways and seeing how they behave. I’m pretty fascinated with human nature and the difference between instinct and intellect, and what happens when people encounter unexpected circumstances, unexpected events, and just pressure in general. So, the oil boom was a perfect storm of pressure points for a Korean American female journalist who’s had the history that Elinor did. It takes a place that she has feelings about, has had experiences in — in terms of isolation and awareness and invisibility — and then sort of turns it upside-down and makes her completely visible in a place that is just overrun by tens of thousands of men who “don’t belong there,” quote-unquote, in the way that she never felt like she belonged there either. So, they’re all outsiders navigating this landscape, and I just thought that those were really interesting pressures to put on a fictional character.

I think that’s what makes such interesting fiction: that pressure on characters. What better thing to read about than the way they react when pressure is put on them?

Yeah. It’s a little sadistic [laughs], but I just find that it makes for the stories I am interested in telling.

I find myself trying to avoid conflict in my day-to-day life, but in fiction you need that conflict.

Absolutely. Actually, in my life I’m very conflict averse, so it’s sort of amusing that I just like to create it for my characters. I don’t know what that says about me. [Laughs.]

I wish I could read Elinor’s commentary on the oil boom — and the occurrences of much greater significance surrounding it. I think it makes sense not to include Elinor’s magazine writing, but I’m wondering if you ever considered including it. What do you think her writing style would be like?

I actually have a very, very early draft of her article, which I never intended to put into the novel, but I did think it was important to work out for myself what it would look like, what her voice sounds like on paper, and to get a sense of how she leads into the story that she’s about to tell. I’m a big believer in over-writing, particularly with novels, and just writing scenes and character descriptions that I know won’t have a place in the actual book. I feel the need to write them, just because it helps me feel more informed about the character and their circumstances. So, that article that you’ve talked about, I definitely drafted that, just because I wanted to see what her writing looked like on the page. And you know, she’s still starting out, so she’s not a polished journalist by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who reads the novel knows that, but she’s finding her bearings and she’s better than other people think she is; she’s even better than she thinks she is. So that was a fun and interesting exercise for me early on.

Did you find it difficult to make her voice separate from your own voice, or was it a mixture of your voice and her own?

It was a bit of a mixture. It was also easier to write in her voice, because hers is much more journalistic, and she’s trying in that early draft to cover the bases in terms of the who, what, when, where, why — that type of information. But she’s also a writer who’s searching for herself on the page, so you can see in that early draft those moments where she’s trying to put a little bit of her own topspin on the prose and still figuring it out, so to speak.

As I read the novel, I noticed that male behavior — specifically toward women and people of color — rises to the forefront. Did that theme emerge naturally, or had you intended that from the beginning?

I had intended to include that focus from the beginning. I think one of the interesting things about the real oil boom in North Dakota — which happened in the same time frame that the novel takes place in — is that so many people flocked to the area on the heels of a recession, and they were trying to remake their lives and trying to seek out this idea of the American Dream, which is so tantalizing to so many people. But there was a real clash that went on in terms of people from different parts of the world, different kinds of communities, and different cultural orientations all descending on this place that had been largely isolated for a while. And because there were so many men and because misogyny is a part of our culture, the women who either lived in the western part of the state for all their lives, or the small number of women who went there seeking work themselves, really became very noticeable and stood out in that community. The times I went back and forth to the state seeking out strangers, asking them about their stories, I learned that it was a pretty unpleasant experience for many women of all ages and all races, because you couldn’t hide. You couldn’t hide even if you wanted to, and many of them did want to hide.

It’s a heartbreaking reality for women in this country and the world.

Yeah, and obviously it doesn’t have to be an oil boom, right? You can take a walk down a street in lots of different places and be subjected to the catcalling, the lowering of the windows, and the quote-unquote “friendly” hellos and greetings that you don’t want because you’re just trying to walk your damn dog. So, it doesn’t have to be an oil boom.

We see that clearly within O Beautiful. Elinor is constantly noticed for her beauty. What do you think it is about female beauty that makes men feel they have the right to catcall, approach, compliment, or berate women?

That’s a great question and a big one. One of the things that I was thinking about when I decided to make Elinor a model was my 12-year-old self growing up in North Dakota. You know, trying to put on the blue eye shadow and the pink lipstick, and just wanting to be pretty and blonde like the rest of my classmates were. But I was too young and too undeveloped as a person to realize that those standards of beauty were created by someone, and that someone wasn’t me. I often think that those standards of beauty aren’t even crafted by women. We try to conform to these ideas and these ideals of a very European beauty, but they’re created at a much larger level.

So, you know, I don’t know what makes men think they have the right to comment upon anyone’s appearance; I just know that they’ve been doing it for a very, very long time, and that there’s power in that. For whoever is considered beautiful, there’s someone who falls outside of that definition for whatever reasons. I spent a lot of time as a kid not understanding that I wasn’t the person defining standards of beauty, so I was constantly trying to conform to a standard of beauty that didn’t belong to me. I look back now, and I think, “Wow, I made some really bad, naïve, immature decisions.” Those decisions were a product of my youth, and I’m sort of red-faced even talking about it right now.

And there’s two facets of this: there’s the part you’re talking about concerning who is creating these standards of beauty — which we see in Elinor’s reflections on her modeling years — and then there’s the way men still react to female beauty today.

Yeah, and I mean, let’s be real, women react to them as well. Smart, accomplished women are trying to reach those standards of beauty today. There are billions and billions of dollars across the world being spent on all sorts of things that are supposed to make us, what? I don’t know — shinier or prettier or glossier or whatever it is. We’re not completely innocent; we’re making some choices of our own.

In a later chapter of the book, you write, “The things they’re afraid of should be impossible to imagine, not the first thing they assume.” This deeply resonated with me as a woman. Why do you think this was important to highlight in this novel?

I mean, there’s a whole industry that is making a lot of money and getting a lot of click-throughs on the internet for stories about people suffering and, in particular, women suffering. There are all the missing-persons cases, all the wives who are being murdered by their husbands and their boyfriends, and, you know, we see enough of them unfortunately to know how many of them end. I researched a lot of stories involving violence against women, and, boy, there’s a narrative they often follow. I got so accustomed, and so sick of being accustomed, to the fact that it’s often a partner, it’s often a spouse. And a case of a missing woman often becomes a case of a murdered woman.

I don’t know, I just got so tired of seeing the same stories over and over again. And I also got really discouraged by how interested people are in them. If you look at People magazine online these days, it’s nothing but one story after another of human suffering and the worst kind of human betrayal and violence and evil. But I don’t think they’d be doing that if people weren’t clicking and reading. There are a number of lines I remember writing about this over the course of the novel — it just hurt, because I feel like it’s a reflection of our lived reality and our lived experiences as women, as people of color. And I know … I still just kind of get like wistful and extraordinarily sad thinking about how many of these stories just go down exactly the way that you think they did.

I know you comment on that in the novel, too, when Elinor proposes that spin on the article, and it’s rejected because it’s just another missing-woman article, and we don’t need another one of those. 

Yeah. “Dead girl story.” Which is just an awful term, but I feel like there’s some editor somewhere who’s probably using it, and not in the way that you and I are talking about it.

Were there any parts of this book that were particularly difficult to write?

You know, strangely, it’s not the parts that you would necessarily assume. I think the most difficult parts for me were the ones in which Elinor, as a woman in her 40s (and I’m also in my 40s), has these moments where she thinks about her own complicity in terms of making other people of color, particularly the Native American people in her state, invisible. And recognizing that the things that people have done to her, she has also passed on some of that suffering and that grief to other people and is only starting to realize now the ways in which she is also complicit and guilty of some of these behaviors that have harmed her. I think that in my 40s I’m doing that as a person in my real life. And that’s hard, you know, that’s hard thinking that there was a 14-year-old version of me who thought it was the greatest thing on earth to be whistled at and now I’m just like, “Oh my God, I was 14 years old. If I had a 14-year-old child, I would be enraged.” But that was me being a 14-year-old kid and not knowing any better and sort of leaning into that, and not realizing that behavior was not only harmful to me, but it could be harmful to other girls who were also getting whistled at. Because, you know, the people who were doing it probably thought, “Well, she liked it, this other kid must like it.” It’s a lot of rethinking how much has changed over the past couple of decades and recognizing the moments in which I have perhaps — no, not perhaps — I have added to the mix in ways that aren’t productive and aren’t healthy for myself or for others.

I think it is often the parts that you wouldn’t think are difficult that are so difficult.

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I don’t think Elinor would have been a real person if she was going back home to her home state and not thinking about these things. Particularly her treatment of Native Americans in the state, because she keeps saying these things over and over again: “These kinds of crimes didn’t happen here before the boom,” and that’s absolutely false. It was necessary for her to have this recognition of a false narrative that she has played a part in promoting as well.

This question will be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Close to the end of the novel, Elinor confronts a man who sexually assaulted her. This moment really brings all the issues the novel highlights full circle. What did writing this scene mean for Elinor, or for yourself? Why did you decide to open the novel with the assault, and then to include this encounter at the end?

I think that starting the novel with the assault was a way of characterizing Elinor as a kind of person who distrusts herself. There is a moment — there are several moments — in that opening scene where, because she has taken sleeping pills, because she has been drinking, she’s just not certain if what happened happened. But it did happen. And over the course of the novel, as she goes through different experiences with people, she starts learning how to trust herself a bit more to the point where, at the end of the novel when she runs into this man again, there isn’t any doubt what he did to her. And she says that to him, which I think is a moment where she’s finally claiming her own voice and willing to say this is more than enough, this is more than any human being should have to take. She doesn’t deal with it in a particularly healthy way; I mean, she is basically allowing men to take things into their own hands and use violence to punish this man for what he did to her. So, it’s an imperfect resolution, but it is a symbolic kind of coming around to being able to say with her own voice that I know what happened, and I know what you did, and you’re guilty. It was cathartic. It was not planned. You get to a point with writing a novel where it feels like you’re just sort of channeling a story and channeling the behavior of characters that you know really well, and that just seemed like the right moment. A moment that Elinor needed to have, and that the story needed to have.

Given all of the ways that O Beautiful touches on women’s responses to male behavior, it is important in the beginning that you talk about her not trusting herself because we’re — as women — basically told not to.

Exactly. As women, we’re told not to do X, Y, and Z because we’ll draw attention to ourselves or because it’s dangerous, as if we’re the source of the danger. And the way that women blame themselves for drinking, they blame themselves for going out when something bad happens, when it’s your right to drink, it’s your right to go out. These things shouldn’t happen to you just because you do these very normal matter-of-fact things like taking a sleeping pill and having a couple of drinks on a plane. But Elinor distrusts herself and she blames herself and she tries to make it go away by distracting herself and just sort of throwing everything that she has at her work, and then it comes back around again, and there’s just no ignoring it anymore.

Speaking of that, this novel showcases how much of American culture is still failing in so many ways. What do you want to see for future generations?

Oh boy. [Laughs.] You know what, I choose to go way smaller. With this novel, in terms of just thinking about my own behavior, I spent four years during the Trump administration — and even before that and even after that — feeling miserable, frustrated, powerless, impotent, and angry. And that’s a really, really hard way to live for any length of time. And I think part of writing this novel was an examination of what an individual person can do to sort of walk out of that darkness, because it is really dark. So here you have Elinor, who is a really flawed, imperfect person, but she’s doing something that I don’t think many of us do in our real lives, which is, by virtue of her profession, talking to people who aren’t like her; she’s making an effort to think about her own past and her own past behavior and who she has hurt and who she has benefited with her actions. She’s trying to do the right thing, and even though she tries to do the right thing badly occasionally, she is at least making an effort in a way that I personally would like to make more of an effort in my own life. That’s all I can hope for and all I can sort of project. Thinking about future generations just seems too grand for me. For me it’s just one person at a time, starting with myself and that’s it.

I think that’s probably the healthiest way to look at it, because when it’s on a large scale it feels like, “What can I do?” Like, well, I’m just one person, what can I do? 

Yeah, and I mean, if every single person who feels the way you and I do says, “It’s just one person; nothing’s going to change; what can I really do?” then you have a whole bunch of people who would like to be better, who would like to do right, and we’re not doing anything because we’ve been sort of beaten into this hopelessness, and then nothing ever changes. So, yeah. Big sigh.

I’m with you there. So, you are currently an assistant professor at George Washington University. Do you believe your position allows you to shift these ways of thinking in your students and open the conversation toward important topics like discrimination, racism, sexual assault?

I hope so. I hope it happens as part of what I choose to teach in terms of readings in the classroom and bringing a diverse array of writers. People of color, women, LGBTQ voices. People I want to expose my students to, because I think that their fiction and their stories help generate discussion and curiosity and empathy. So, I hope that I’m doing that in my work as a professor. But I also have to say that my students impress me every single day with their desire and their willingness and their openness to do that work themselves. I don’t feel like I’m leading them down a path that they don’t want to go and that they haven’t already been down on their own. That’s one of the most wonderful, most hopeful parts of my work.

Lastly, what are you currently working on? Are there any other novels in the works?

[Sighs.] There’s always another novel. [Laughs.] I was just talking to a friend who’s a writer today and it’s like, “Why do we do this? Why do we do this to ourselves?” But yeah, there is another novel that is in the works. I’m loath to say anything about it other than the fact that it takes place in New York City a couple of decades ago, and right now I’m in that really enjoyable stage of writing a novel that I know won’t last for long. I’m just, you know, chasing the idea around on paper and it feels big and expansive, and I haven’t written myself into any corners yet. That will of course change before I know it, and then I’ll just be ruing the day that I started this novel. [Laughs.] But there’s always one in the hopper it feels like, and yeah, I can’t fight it, even if I want to.

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Gracie Jordan currently studies dance and English at Towson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of Grub Street Literary Magazine for a recent issue. She is an intern with Mason Jar Press in Baltimore, MD. Her work is forthcoming in The Rumpus and elsewhere.