Back in the November 1, 2010, Prepub Alert, I predicted big things for Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, the story of a mother gone missing on a Seoul subway station and subsequent vivid re-creation of her life. My reviewer, Smithsonian BookDragon blogger Terry Hong, proclaimed that Mom “should be one of this year’s most-deserving best sellers” (LJ 12/10). We were right; Shin’s wrenchingly beautiful tale, a million-copy seller in her native Korea, is now starring on the New York Times extended best sellers, Amazon Top 100, and Indie Next lists and has been reviewed everywhere from the New York Times Book Review to O, the Oprah Magazine (“Titles To Pick Up Now”). I’ll be publishing an interview with the author, likely next week (she’s in demand!), but in the meantime I was lucky enough to chat with her editor, Knopf Vice President Robin Desser. Here’s what she has to say about a novel, reverberant for all of us, that should be book club gold.
Tell us how you discovered Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom.
When I first heard about a novel that had sold a record-breaking million-plus copies in Korea, I was excited about the opportunity to consider it for Knopf. But I had, too, the usual editorial skepticism: novels that are huge in one country don’t always translate to other cultures easily and with the same level of success. But the title, Please Look After Mom, was so beautiful‚ it pulled me in immediately and was filled with so much emotion‚ that I felt compelled to read whatever material was available as soon as possible. Luckily, I was able to receive the first chapter from Barbara Zitwer, Ms. Shin’s American agent, that very night.
What was your initial reaction when you started reading?
The partial manuscript moved me instantly, with its piercing second-person voice as well as the intriguing setup of the story: a mother’s mysterious absence (and in the subway!) becomes an occasion for her family to reconstruct her life. But what made me feel we absolutely had to publish this book was a moment just a third of the way into the first chapter (on pages 24‚ 25 of the finished book). Seeing her mother embracing her uncle (a man she realizes is not just your uncle but her mother’s own beloved brother), a young girl realizes for the first time that her mother is a person, separate from her and her brothers and sister and with a life of her own. She wasn’t born as Mom but was once a girl, too, and a sister, and a daughter herself. That the mother and daughter were eating tangerines at the time‚ well, that specific image and taste brilliantly adds to the intensity of a scene that felt to me indelible. By the time I finished reading that night, I was in tears, and I wanted to call my own mother (a former librarian, by the way…).
What convinced you that the novel would appeal to American readers?
Please Look After Mom is tender yet unsentimental, gorgeously written, and deeply moving. It is a novel that delivers on every level. In addition, although there are many wonderful Korean American authors, including Chang-rae Lee, whose work I so admire, Please Look After Mom opens a window into another culture that we haven’t heard from directly enough in terms of fiction. This was the first time I felt I was seeing a voice from Korea itself with the potential to reach a very wide audience; it should elicit the same response in American readers, and in fact readers of all nationalities, as it does in Korean readers. It’s especially good for book clubs as it gives readers an opportunity to talk about their own families; we all of us have or had mothers, and if you are a mother (or a father), this is a story that will speak to you.
What has the response been so far? I understand that the U.S. sale sparked real interest elsewhere.
Foreign sales quickly followed the sale of the book here, and this novel will be published in more than 23 countries, including Korea, where I understand that the U.S. reception has made this novel go to No. 1 on their best sellers list. We’ve already had a great deal of success with outreach to Korean American community. I’ve been telling people from the beginning that you will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book‚ and from what I’ve seen and heard from readers here, this has held absolutely true.