Hans M Hirschi writes a new novel and bridges cultural divides between East and West.
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is the eleventh novel by author Hans M Hirschi. In it, he explores the life of an 84-year-old African-American Korean War veteran who is reminded by new friends of a man he once loved back in Seoul. As he thinks more and more about that first love, he begins to contemplate his life and suddenly wonders if he’s still alive. From there, the thought of actually traveling to Seoul to find out isn’t far… We asked the author a few questions:
Hans, you live in Sweden yet write in English, about an African-American war veteran in upstate New York…
HMH: Is there a question? LOL Guilty as charged. I can’t really say why Martin is a black man, I can only hope to have done him justice. As for the Korean connection, I think the increasing tensions along the Korean border last year somehow pushed a button in my subconscious. I have been to Korea in the past, on business and on vacation, and developed a special connection. It’s a beautiful country, an impressive culture, and the people are very kind and welcoming. It was interesting and helpful to go back to Korea just before the Olympics and follow recent geopolitical developments on the peninsula firsthand.
Martin is an old man, an octogenarian. Not something you read about very often in books. Yet this is the fourth time you’ve written about mature men. Are you obsessed with age?
HMH: Touché!?! I might just be interested in ageing, yes. I’m one of those
“mature” (odd word, but oh well) men myself. I’ll be fifty-one this summer, and all around me, the generation above me is thinning out. My grandparents are long gone, my husband and I have lost half of our parents, and the ones left are ageing rapidly and are affected by various ailments. So yes, ageing is on my mind a lot. Obsessed? I hope not.
On the other hand, as you say, there aren’t that many great characters who are older out there, and I think Martin’s story is both beautiful and inspiring. I think stories like his deserve to be told.
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm tackles many different life aspects: culture clashes, racism, coming out, religious intolerance etc. Are you afraid you may have taken on too much?
HMH: I don’t think so. First of all, none of the topics you mention permeate the entire novel, but given that the story covers several decades, it’s inevitable for some topics to come up. Quite the contrary, I’d say it would be unrealistic to write about the gay world of the 1980s without mentioning the impact of HIV or to write about a black man in the U.S. without addressing racism and how it impacts the lives of the African-American communities. I think that the story simply reflects life, in all its glory as well as its darkness.
As for Korea, I think that most of us who do not live there or haven’t visited Korea know very little about it. I try to infuse a bit of knowledge about this beautiful country and show the reader a bit of its intricate culture. Once a teacher, always a teacher.
How did you do research for this book?
HMH: Most of my research, if not all, begins online, using the great resources available to us, from Wikipedia to niched blogs about trams in Seoul or sites dedicated to the Korean War. I use a lot of maps, images online, and I’ve been known to head to a library for books. Unfortunately, when it comes to non-fiction, libraries often carry old and sometimes obsolete books on certain topics. Ultimately, just as I had to last year for Last Winter’s Snow, I felt obliged to travel, and do research on-site. I visited many museums, looking for photographs of the war era, what the city looked like, but also how people lived back then, trying to get a sense of daily life in Seoul. I spent many hours poring over documents, talking to Koreans about life back then and now. I also had people read through the manuscript at various stages to make sure the story is a fair and realistic representation of the Korean people and their culture. While fiction, I find it important to reflect things accurately. I also spent a lot of time just walking through Seoul, taking in this metropolis, one of the biggest cities in the world, walking two marathons in four days. Interestingly, my days in Korea deeply impacted the story, not just the descriptions, but the plot and characters. For the better, I hope.
You call yourself a “feel-good writer.” Care to elaborate?
HMH: I have been looking for a genre to call mine ever since I began writing. My first published novel about a coming-out relationship was quickly adopted by romance readers. I never liked that label, simply because I never intended to nor actually did write romance. But in gay fiction, it’s impossible to avoid the romance genre, since it’s the dominant genre with over 90% of all published books belonging to that category. Most male writers of gay fiction who do not write romance struggle to be seen or to be
recognized for what they’re trying to achieve. Either because their stories are misunderstood, with readers only focusing on the romance aspect of the story, or dismissed because they don’t meet the expectations of what a real romance novel should be like.
That is true for my writing as well. I’m no romance writer. I explore relationships, not romances. I like to write stories that end well. Enough misery in the news. I like uplifting stories, but on the other hand, I try not to shy away from the darker aspects of contemporary (gay) life. Just because we can get married and start families legally (in some societies) doesn’t mean the struggle for true equality is over. It doesn’t mean that even those few of us fortunate enough to live openly and freely don’t have challenges to face. And for the vast majority of us, and the Korean example is indicative of that, marriage and openly lived relationships are still far from being a reality for most gay men.
To write feel-good, which is a widely used genre term in Sweden, despite the English term, simply means that you explore life but keep an optimistic outlook. You believe in the good of humanity and that things will get better. No light without darkness, and to see the light, you need to show people the shadows it casts. I may go darker than some, but my books always end on a positive, hopeful note. It’s why they call me the Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings. This is how I interpret feel-good, and I think it suits me well.
You mention Korea and the situation for the LGBT community in that country. Your book ends in a very particular way. Let’s not spoil it for your readers, but is there a reason why it ends the way it does?
HMH: Yes, and I don’t think I could’ve ended it differently and still remain true to Korea, which was important to me. I rewrote it at least three times and – unusual for being me – I wrote the ending early. It takes the current sociopolitical climate in South Korea into account, the developments in recent years, which are positive baby steps for the LGBT community, which include Pride parades etc. On the other hand, I also try to be mindful of the generational aspects, the fact that it is still a very conservative society, with a strong aspect of honor, particularly with regards to family. That’s about as much as I can say without spoiling anything…
One final question: your covers. They’re always so artful, so beautiful. Is there a message to them?
HMH: Thank you. I’ll make sure to pass your compliment on to my cover designer, Natasha Snow. I certainly like to think that we put a lot of thought into my covers, Natasha, my publisher and meI. Cover design is tricky. You want a cover that stands out among dozens of other thumbnails on Amazon, you want to make sure it’s not too
cluttered for the same reason, as most people first see a thumbnail, not the full-sized cover.
On top of that, I would like my covers to carry or convey at least aspects of the story. When I look at the final cover of pretty much all of my books, there are always details that will remind me of a particular scene. And that is my wish for my readers, to go back to the cover once they are finished with the book, and look at it again. This time, they’ll see that both the sunlight and, the scene in the foreground as well as the mountain in the background are significant with regards to some key scenes. I very much like this cover myself.
I’m an author. I write books. I write about things that are important to me: family, parenting, children, our environment, our world. Contemporary, fresh fiction with unconventional, hopeful or happy endings. It’s what I like to read myself. I write because I don’t have a choice. There are so many stories in my head, constantly forming, constantly trying to get out. Feel free to have a look on the other pages to learn more, listen to me narrate from those stories, and – if you like what you see or hear – you can follow the links to buy them on e.g. Amazon.
I’m an author. But I’m also a fifty-year-old father who clings to the illusion of still being twenty-seven (my pen age!), despite my body’s daily wake-up reminders to the contrary. I’m married to the most amazing man, Alex, and together we have a beautiful four-year-old son, Sascha. I consider myself a citizen of the world, having lived on two continents and traveled extensively (a hobby) through another three. I have friends all over the world. When I’m not writing, I like to do public speaking or training (where I have my professional background). Oh, right, I do have a Facebook profile, too. Say hi. If it is of interest to you, have a look at my LinkedIn profile or our company’s website.
Thanks for dropping in, enjoy your stay and welcome back!
Hans M Hirschi
PS: You’re more than welcome to contact me. I don’t bite and I try to be nice to people.