Paul Yoon’s second collection of short stories (and third book), The Mountain, follows the movement of people across the globe, from the Hudson Valley to the part of Russia that Sarah Palin once claimed she could see from her door. The stories evoke watercolors: dreamy, delicate, incisive, their absences speaking as powerfully as presence.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I had smoked salmon, some red onion, and cream cheese on a slice of rye and caraway bread. Plus a few cups of coffee and a tall glass of water.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Not at all! I’m on vacation in northern California and feeling decadent. And cherishing the gift of time. Normally, I don’t really eat breakfast. I have a rambunctious young dog who enjoys a three-mile run in the morning, so I go out with him first thing. I do, however, bring pieces of a Granny Smith apple as treats for him, so I steal some, when he’s not looking.
The Mountain opens with a breakfast, a cold but pleasant meal shared by mother and son in the mountains of upstate New York. How much do you think about food when you do include it in a story?
I used to think about it a lot, but I find my relationship with food in my writing to have evolved a bit. I think now I’m more interested in a single, right detail, rather than a whole lot of details. There’s this scene in Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero—I’m near Petaluma right now, so I’m thinking of that masterpiece—where a character collects herbs for a meal, and it occurred to me that I don’t remember the meal, but I remember that the way the character collected the herbs made my mouth water. So rather than the finished plate, so to speak, I’m interested in one or two ingredients these days—and to give more space for readers to envision the meal in the fictional world.
The stories in The Mountain are set around the globe, and many are about people who cross borders, whether fleeing war or searching for new lives. What made you choose the locations you include in The Mountain? What about migration interests you?
There was so much uncertainty about this book as I was creating it—whether I was being too abstract or oblique, whether readers would understand what I was attempting to do—but one thing I was certain of was that I wanted the book to start in the Hudson Valley of New York (where I’m from) and move east across the globe and, in some ways, return to the Hudson Valley. I had a map of the world pinned on the wall in the office where I wrote The Mountain, and it occurred to me, because of my direct and indirect connections to certain places, I could set two stories in Europe and then two in the East Asia/Russian Far East area. So those locations and that trajectory became the structure to The Mountain.
Migration is in my history. I lived a peripatetic life growing up. My father, a retired physician, moved around a lot for work and brought his family with him. His own childhood was shaped by fleeing a war. And so I grew up in an environment where nothing, including myself, ever felt settled. It always felt like we were going somewhere and had to. This has continued. The day jobs have led me and my wife, a fiction writer as well, to an array of places for a year or two. We unpack, we do our day jobs, we try really hard to write our books, and then we pack up and move somewhere else. That’s pretty much been our lives. So when I was given an opportunity, and the time to work on this book, I was coming at it from a place of constant movement, transition, and thinking deeply about leaving somewhere and going somewhere and all the reasons for that, throughout the world. I’ve been talking mostly about physical geography here—where we start, where end up—but of course I was also thinking of it on a psychic level too, in how we choose to, or are forced to evolve and migrate into different identities as we grow older.