Photo credit: Peter Yoon
When I was young, in the late 1980s, my parents took my brother and me on a trip down to Washington, DC. We traveled often, and often by car, in part because it was too expensive to fly, and because my parents are anxious about flying. We had a beige Buick station wagon and my brother and I had the back to ourselves, which mostly meant that we piled a lot of blankets on top of each other, lay down, looked out the window, and slept.
We were a family used to wandering and traveling. My parents immigrated to New York City in the 1970s, separately, met there, had me. Then my father grew tired of living in an urban environment and we spent the years gradually moving out of the city, my father finding work at various hospitals (he is a retired physician).
We moved every few years. I couldn’t keep a single friend. I have little memory of the schools I attended back then, or even the area beyond the apartments and houses we lived in. Did we ever go out to dinner? Take a walk together? Talk to our neighbors? I can’t remember any of this. I remember my bicycle, which was my most cherished possession. I remember, whenever my father could get some time off, climbing into that beige-colored station wagon and exploring the Northeast, following the highways, trips all the way up to Maine, the Mohawk Valley, the Finger Lakes. Even as I write this, nothing is more vivid to me during those years than the colors of those blankets my brother and I always lay on, the treetops and billboard signs out the window, the rhythm of the wheels.
So a road trip down to DC wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary, however, was the reason we went: my parents wanted to visit the museums. And they wanted especially to take us to the museums: The National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, and so on. All of them. We had never gone on a trip specifically for art before. In fact, I never thought of my parents as people who were very much interested in it — I confess here that they think what I do a bizarre, irresponsible vocation (sorry, folks) — though the exception is that my father grew up playing the piano. But art in the way I think of it now, engage with it now, was never an active part of our lives; it was never a voluntary part of our lives.
I understood only that there was a magnitude of stories happening on that one canvas.
In any case, to the DC museums we went, every single one, for days. And I am sure we were terrible, miserable children, my brother and I, throwing fits, demanding anything loaded with sugar, ice cream, sodas, probably feeling claustrophobic and tired and wanting my father to buy us things from the shops — probably wanting, I predict, not to be inside anymore.
But what has always stayed with me about that trip is this: on one of those days, I walked down the marbled corridor of a museum — I don’t remember which one — and stopped at a painting as large, I thought then, as the front of a house. I was, briefly, alone. And, briefly, the museum was silent. Standing there, I was confronted by one of those paintings where there is a lot happening all at once. A multitude of characters and timelines and story lines at every corner and foreground and background and sky.
Which painting was it? I can’t remember that, either. My guess now is that it was a work by Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I don’t even remember if I was disturbed by it — some of these paintings depict horrific things, fantastical things, things that would give the child I was then nightmares. I understood only that there was a magnitude of stories happening on that one canvas. And I was absolutely, profoundly, devoutly, seduced by this: someone leaving a thatched hut in one corner; in another, a horseback rider being chased by both men and women; an entire town in miniature on the horizon; animals. Hell. Heaven.
It was the longest I stayed still during that trip, before my father found me, told me in Korean that I shouldn’t wander, and took me to where my mother and brother were waiting on a bench in a courtyard outside, eating soft serve ice cream.
All this is a roundabout way of sharing with you how I begin a fiction project. I always think of paintings. I think of big, massive, epic paintings, packed with stories, characters, timelines, narratives. (Which is why I laugh to myself every time someone describes my work as spare.) I think of Bosch and Bruegel the Elder. I think of how I can achieve this with words. I do this with every work of fiction I write, whether that is a novel or a story collection, or even one single story.
For Run Me to Earth
, the canvas began with two things: I knew I wanted to write a sequel to my long story, “Still a Fire,” which is in The Mountain
, because I didn’t feel done with those characters and that world yet; and I knew, most of all, that I wanted to attempt to explore what happened in neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, when the United States — using the CIA — began a bombing campaign to assist the Royal Lao Government in fighting the Communist Pathet Lao. That campaign to stop the spread of communism in that area would last nine years; more bombs were dropped on that country, which is about the size of Utah, than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.
So on this canvas I had what happened in Laos on one side and I had the France of “Still a Fire” on the other. I had over a dozen characters I had been creating in my mind. I had an abandoned, ruined farmhouse, and another farmhouse, abandoned in other ways. I had borders to both Thailand and Spain. I had decades. And I had my own versions of hell and heaven.
The question then was how to bring all this together. How to paint it. And, just as important to me, how to let the reader in.
What did we do after that day all those years ago in Washington, DC? Probably we ate at a fast food restaurant and then went to another museum. Or walked the National Mall, drinking sodas. I have only one photo from that time. It is our final moment there before we climb back into the station wagon, and I am wearing a gift my father has just bought me: it is a baseball hat from the Air and Space Museum. Embroidered on it is an American F-16 fighter jet, and I am grinning ridiculously.
You see, at that age, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. So much so that I know it was the hat that preoccupied my imagination for the rest of our trip back. (Clever parents.) The painting I saw would only come back to me later, weeks later, maybe, or months. Years. For now, I have forgotten it. I am thinking only of that hat. And airplanes. I am lying down beside my brother in that beige-colored station wagon. Ignoring the way the label is scratching my skin. My parents conversing quietly in Korean. Shadows pass outside the window, high up, and I fight sleep, wanting, as I often did during those years of our travels, to see as much of the passing world as possible.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of two story collections, Once the Shore
, which was a New York Times Notable Book, and The Mountain
, which was a NPR Best Book of the Year. His novel Snow Hunters
won the Young Lions Fiction Award. A recipient of fellowships from the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars and the National Endowment for the Arts, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, the fiction writer Laura van den Berg, and their dog, Oscar. Run Me to Earth
is his latest book.