Saturday, February 21, 2015
Interview with Paul Fischer, author of A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power
In this debut piece of long-form nonfiction, reviewed by me earlier in this blog, Fischer gives us details about the film-crazy but otherwise undistinguished "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, son of "Great Leader" Kim Il-Song. Jong-Il had a specialty—an interest in foreign film--and he and his father used that interest with the fervor of preachers: to shape thought. As film producer himself, Fischer may have been perfectly suited to diagram the heart of the Kim enigma.
Fischer generously agreed to answer my questions about his writing process, and his thinking on other matters below:
1. The writing in A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION was so involving at the same time it was informative. Did the structure sort itself out while you were writing or did you begin with a narrative structure and fill in the pieces with research?
I did a lot of research to start with, and then when I felt I had enough to get started I started writing, even though I was still researching at the same time. I researched all the way through, really: I was always on the lookout for more details, for something extra that was sharp and revealing and could save me three paragraphs with one great detail or sentence. I had a rough structure to start with, and that didn’t really change, except for the first reel of the book, which leads up to the kidnappings themselves. In the first several drafts of the book it was very, very long and very, very detailed, and absolutely didn’t have that balance you’re talking about, between being gripping and being informative. We even played around with using flashbacks and all that but it just felt forced. It took a lot of work to sculpt that down to what felt like the right balance. After the kidnappings themselves the narrative has this very clear, very organic forward momentum, and I knew as long as I went with that, stuck with the story, and didn’t digress, I would be ok.
2. You landed a behemoth publisher for your first book. How was your proposal pitched? That is, did you have just a concept, only one chapter, or was most of the work done?
I had a very, very detailed proposal. My agent was very clear and very rational about this: I’d never written anything before, this was a larger-than-life story that would only work if written with some kind of rigour, and the only way we’d get the best publisher for it would be if we proved I could be trusted to write a book like this and see it through to the end. I didn’t want to “waste” time on such a long proposal, when I could be writing the book itself, but I understood the logic and my agent was very good at nudging me into agreeing. We spent months on this proposal that ended up being forty thousand words — the book itself is about a hundred and eight thousand or something — and included an outline, a breakdown of methodology, a marketing pitch, everything.
I don’t really know of any other agents who would have done that. Everyone else I met talked to me about working on a twelve-page proposal, something like that, and I'm dead certain I never would have been with the publishers I have now if that’s all we’d done. And, to be honest, because having written something that was forty thousand words long, writing something that was a hundred didn’t feel that daunting anymore.
3. What did your writing day look like? You did a lot of traveling for this book. Did you need to keep a writing schedule to keep the work going and was that difficult?
I wrote first thing in the morning, I didn’t stop until I had two thousand words, and I always stopped at a point where I knew what I was looking to write next, so that I would start up again easily the next morning, instead of picking up again first thing in the morning somewhere I was stuck and frustrated. Those were the only three rules. Early on two thousand words was daunting and took me the whole day; but later on I got two thousand words cracked out by lunchtime and carried on and could get three, four times that in a day. I tried not to worry about whether it was two thousand great words until I had a whole first draft written — I worried about that once it was out of my head and on the page. For a first draft it just mattered that it was at least two thousand words, every day, six days a week.
4. Did you learn anything from visiting North Korea that you didn’t already know from your interviews?
I did, tons. I found photos and books and maps that are very hard, or expensive, to find outside of North Korea. Mostly it was the mindset that was really informative. For ten days I personally, 24/7, underwent the way the state micro-manages your experience of itself, and tries to control your perception of reality. I kind of understood that from the research, but I didn’t feel it in my gut until I was there, with guides who were lying to me, and they knew they were lying to me, and they knew that I knew that they were lying to me, but you still all continue this charade. It’s a very surreal, unsettling, upsetting feeling, when you know how much people there are truly suffering — a suffering no one mentions. A writer friend of mine who read the book told me this lovely thing that the North Korean sequences felt to him like “something happening three or four rooms away in a parallel universe,” which is something sort of intangible that I wouldn’t have understood how to express just from books and interviews.
5. What led you to film production in the beginning of your career and do you think that is something you plan to continue?
I do, I’d love to write a book and then make a film and then write a book and then make a film…the best of both worlds. I still think of myself as a film producer first. As for the first part of the question, I’d always wanted to be a film director, and then I went to film school and quickly learned I wouldn’t be particularly great at it. But I produced a couple of classmates’ short films, and I found I really enjoyed that process: of making things happen, of enabling someone more unique and creative than myself to make something special, and protecting and supporting them as they did so. The logistical and business parts of film producing I enjoy. The creative aspects, where a writer or director has something different and fragile they’re trying to do and they need someone to help them make it real, is literally the best feeling I’ve ever had doing anything, ever.
6. Since you are familiar with the language of film, have you ever considered screenplays?
I’ve co-written a short, and I’ve also spent the last six or seven years trying to write a TV mini-series about Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, which I'm only just finishing now. That’s been a great school in researching real lives, in really trying to write things that are truthful and accurate but also dramatic and revealing, without sacrificing one to the other.
I love working with screenwriters so much — it’s such a great collaborative process, trying to figure it out together — that I hope I can do both: write some films myself when they’re really close to my heart, and defer to another writer when I know they can do a better job than I would.
7. What is the best novel you have read recently and the best recent nonfiction title?
Oh that’s hard. The Zone of Interest [by Martin Amis] is incredible writing. Karl Ove Knausgård — I usually find books like those self-indulgent, but every page he writes is so alive it engages all my senses and some of his sentences and paragraphs take my breath away and I need to stop and sit with them before I continue reading. I just read Independence Day, which is the first Richard Ford book I’ve read, and it did the same to me.
Non-fiction — Ghettoside [by Jill Leovy] moved me and made me really angry at the injustice described, in equal measure. I just finished The Disaster Artist [by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell] today and it made me cry with laughter.
8. What advice would you give to someone hoping to emulate your success?
I had confidence, curiosity, and an itch to scratch: I needed to write it. If no one read or published it, I’d have written it anyway, because I wanted to spend time in that world and make sense of it and tell that story. I guess I knew that one of my strengths as a producer is to cut through to what works in a piece of material, to have a decent bullshit detector as the saying goes, and that that would serve me well with something like this.
I can’t remember who said this, but you either do it for the process or you do it for the reward, and life’s a lot happier if you do it for the process, because you have no control over the reward. So that would be it: if you’re doing it for the reward, don’t do it.
You can buy this book here: Tweet