On this particular evening the woman told the waiter about her husband’s hair: parted always to his right and combed finely so that each strand shone like amber from the shower he took prior to meeting her for their evening walks. “There was a time,” the woman said, “when he bathed for me and me alone.” She knew his hair—its length, smell, and color—long before she knew the rest of him. Before he left for the Pacific. Before his return and their marriage and their years together. When she opened the door it was what she noticed first. And in the heat of the remaining sun, she swore you could see a curtain of mist rising from the peak of his thin head.

At this, she laughed quietly and almost at once grew silent and looked out towards the distant hills and the coast where, long after sunset, the East China Sea lay undulant, its surface of silver reflections folding over each other like the linking of fingers.

She was in her sixties, an American from upstate New York, who was a guest at the Shilla Resort on the southern side of Cheju Island. She had arrived several days ago and no one was sure how long her visit would last. She was a generous tipper. And preferred loose linen outfits that hid the shape of her body. In her possession was a single piece of luggage, the perfect size, the hotel staff joked, for a head.

Paul Yoon

Paul Yoon was born in New York City. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Wesleyan University. He currently lives in Boston and is completing a novel. “Once the Shore” is his first published story.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
PY: The story took time to form and came from several sources. In February 2001, a few miles south of the island of Oahu in Hawaii, the Ehime Maru—a Japanese training boat for fishermen, operated by a high school—was struck by the USS Greenville, an American nuclear-powered submarine as it surfaced during a training exercise. Hearing about it, I was baffled by the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s negligence. It was an incident that was, for me, extremely visual and specific in terms of these two “sea-machines” colliding and the consequences of that. There was a story there but I couldn’t find it, not immediately, so I put it away. Three years after the incident I was thinking one night about how my father would come visit my mother, before they were married, with his hair wet and gleaming and how my mother found that funny. (He was doing his residency at a hospital in New York City and would shower after work, before coming to see her.) I wanted to write about that so I ended up beginning with what would turn out to be the first sentence of this story. I kept going and somewhere along the way I thought about the Ehime Maru and that is how it started. Also, I had been reading a lot of Howard Norman so his wonderful obsessions with hotels and boarding houses were most certainly an influence. I am indebted to him for many of the themes in this story as well.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
PY: One of the difficulties of writing this story was keeping two narratives going with enough tension, enough dynamics, and enough sense for the reader to not only be interested in both Jim and the widow but also to be able to jump back and forth between their perspectives without getting lost and giving up out of sheer boredom. Writing the two narratives was kind of like trying to fly two kites, I think. I hope it was successful. It was, as well, a challenge to write about a place I had not visited in a very long time, and the courage to just make things up—it is fiction, after all, but I always get the sense that I am cheating on an exam when I start to move actual geography and plant some trees and create a beach over there, etc. But that is also the fun in storytelling. The resort actually exists, though, and the long outdoor patio is something I remember from when I visited as a child.
HT: What can you tell us about Cheju island? Why did you choose to set the story there?
PY: Cheju Island, over the past few decades, has transformed into a mecca for tourists, hosting golf clubs, casinos, and resorts. The waver of visas has allowed visitors from, say, Japan to fly directly to Cheju Island and bypass customs in order to gamble and play golf. So, there is that side to it. But there is also the side that is rooted in the preservation of the environment, tradition, and culture. One example would be the “Sea Women” who, to this day, dive in the ocean for mussels and clams, and then sell them at the market or on the shore. I find that beautiful. It seems, to me, timeless. I wanted the story to be set on an island because I wanted water to be a major presence throughout the story, forming a ring around both the physical location and the narrative as well. I chose Cheju Island specifically because of the dichotomy of tourists and natives, the friction between them, and, perhaps, how they compliment each other. It also gave me the freedom to have citizens of various countries interact and cross paths. I thought about staying true to the Ehime Maru tragedy and to have the story set in Oahu, but I was more at home in that corner of the Pacific.
HT: Can you talk about the challenges you faced working a real-life event (i.e. the sinking of the Ehime Maru) into this story?
PY: The sinking of the fishing boat that occurs in “Once the Shore” is loosely based on the facts surrounding the Ehime Maru and USS Greenville. Meaning, the event provided a basic frame and the rest I made up so it wasn’t too difficult to write about something that really happened. It also helped that I had moved the location to the Korean peninsula so I could pretend I was writing about another incident. While writing the story, I actually didn’t read anything having to do with the sinking because I felt the facts might lure me to go a certain direction with the story and the writing of it. That would have been, for me, disastrous. I write without knowing what comes next—the surprises are what makes writing worth it—and in order to do that I want as little distraction as possible. If writing a story is like the furnishing of a home, I prefer not to have too many restrictions on where to position the bed or the couch. Just little hints from time to time when I’m stuck. That said, I wanted the incident to be believable—regardless of whether it was based on a real event—and so the challenge was to write about it in a way so that a reader would comment, “I believe it” rather than “That’s implausible.”
HT: There are images of drowning throughout “Once the Shore.” Was this a conscious choice while you were writing? And how do you think it expands the themes of the story?
PY: For me, there is something terrifying about drowning, especially in the sea. It is, I imagine, a moment when you truly see this world as far more vast and mysterious than you ever thought it was. I wanted the widow and Jim to think that. It is an interesting word because, I believe, your first thought would be to think of the body consuming water. But in truth it is the other way around: it is water consuming the body. It is the natural world as an active being, and in this case, a cruel one. In “Once the Shore” it is not the actual submarine collision but rather the fishermen being swallowed by the sea that affects Jim—the fact that his brother’s body has not been recovered; it is less the Korean War and aircraft carriers but rather a cave that the widow thinks of. All of these things are, of course, linked (causes and effects) but I tried to emphasize the importance of the natural world in which these characters are dealing with their losses and regrets. In addition, when I think of drowning, the image is a lonely and sad one. It is isolation, the act of being wrapped by something, suffocating, and I certainly wanted to convey this in light of the character of the American widow and her past. A similar feeling occurs within Jim as well; he becomes unmoored when hearing about his brother’s death, although he tries as hard as possible to stay adrift.
HT: What ties these two characters, Jim and the American widow, together?
PY: One way Jim and the widow are tied together is that they both share a sense of helplessness. For the widow, it is her awful marriage in the past and her inability to either break away from it or change it for the better. She hides this at first by focusing on the romantic stories about her husband. Jim’s helplessness stems from his inability to do anything about his brother’s death. He hides this by continuing with his work and trying to pretend that nothing happened. I suppose they are haunted by this doomed feeling that there are events that occur in life that are ineffable. So do they become resigned to this fact? Do they accept it? Or fight it? How do they cope with loss and frustration? I think both Jim and the widow ask these questions throughout the story and come together, in the end, for a way to go in search for some kind of solace.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
PY: I started writing “Once the Shore” in late September 2004 and finished a draft about a month later. I generally write first drafts fairly quickly. (Or at least I think a month is quick.) Revising, however, takes longer. I finished in late May 2005. So this story took, roughly, about eight months (not including many breaks where I worked on other projects).
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
PY: A sense of place is very important to me. Hemingway once said that you can’t write about a place until you’re away from it. I read that somewhere many years ago and it has always stayed with me. I have a hard time writing a story set in Boston if I’m there. When I write about a place it is necessary to have that distance in order to cull the worthy bits from my memory (or from my notebook) and shape it. Of course, all I’m saying is that this works for me and I’m certainly not insinuating that Hemingway’s words are gospel. I tend to think if writers do whatever works for them then they’re doing it right.
HT: What are you working on now?
PY: I’m currently seeking a publisher for my novel manuscript. I’m also halfway done with a story collection that will include three stories set on Cheju Island. The second story will be about the “Sea Women” I mentioned above.