PROFILE (from the Vassar College Spectator)

The Making of a Novel

Piya Kochhar interviews Heinz Insu Fenkl

As Heinz Insu Fenkl, an English professor at Vassar, puts it, "My engagement with Literature has been a very odd one." Sitting in his third floor attic-like office in Sanders, he twists his chair slightly as he explains the beginnings of his passion for the written word.
Fenkl was about seven years old and still living in Korea when he read his first book which he fell in love with immediately. The book? Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. "I have very vivid recollections of it and I remember thinking that it was the most amazing thing," he recalls. Unfortunately, this experience is also memorable to him because it is linked to a certain degree of trauma. Fenkl lost the library book and his mother had to pay for it. "A lot of money at the time," he explains, smiling slightly at the memory.

During fourth and fifth grade he continued reading anything and everything, including (on recommendation from his English teacher) William Golding's Lord of the Flies, but it wasn't until sixth grade that he decided he wanted to be a writer someday. As Fenkl recalls, the epiphany came after he found a lost Puffin Edition of C.S. Lewis' book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a curbside. He read it on his bus ride home from school. "I found myself deeply, deeply immersed in the world he created, in the different reality he managed to make, and I think what happened was I began to wonder if someday I could also do something like that."

Borrowing a used typewriter from the U.S. Army Crafts shop near his home, he slowly typed out a novel based on himself and his friends which was a "mish mash" of everything he had read so far. As Fenkl explains, the novel's plot centered on a group of boys who were on their way to a shooting match (Fenkl was involved in a rifle club at the time) when their plane crashed in Canada. "It was terrible! But I thought it was splendid at the time. That was my first endeavor at writing and fortunately I didn't get past page three, partly because my typing was so slow!"

Now about twenty-five years later, and with drastically improved typing skills (on good days he can type 100 words a minute) Fenkl's first novel Memories of My Ghost Brother has been published and is on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

When asked how he felt about its publication, he responded, "Frankly, I expected to open the box and have trumpets and light. But all I found was a book. It was pretty anticlimactic!" Rather, it was his first fan letter that really excited him. "It was so unexpected. It was just someone who said that 'I read your book and I wanted to tell you that it was deeply moving.'" He explains, leaning forward in his chair, "That's what keeps writers going. It's not really the readings because they always have this subconscious feel of 'Gee, I hope I sell a lot of books.'"


"Frankly, I expected to open the box and have trumpets and light. But all I found was a book. It was pretty anticlimactic!"

The novel is about a young boy growing up in Korea following the Korean War. An intriguing mix of reality and the supernatural give many scenes an almost magical quality; as Fenkl explains, the book could just as easily have been called a memoir "because everything in it is true --there is the usual condensation or rearrangement of chronology, but as for the events or stories in the novel -- they all happened in exactly the way they're told."

In particular, Fenkl points out that the stories the uncle characters tells the young Insu are very similar to the stories his uncle used to tell him when was in Korea. The book's evolution is so linked with his that that its creation has been "a long and interesting process which at times has been difficult due to the personal nature of the material. Putting the story down on paper has been the biggest challenge for Fenkl, but luckily for his reader, he finally did manage to write his novel with a grace and simplicity that is startlingly evocative.


From the period of 1985, when he received his first "nibbles" for the manuscript, to its publication in 1996, Memories of My Ghost Brother has seen significant changes. Fiddling with his laptop computer, Fenkl remarks, "The book is unusual because it's something that kind of accumulated--not just in the material, but in the ideas of how it should function in its final form. These were all things that came together very slowly."

While the evolution of his novel began in 1985, its creation started even earlier. Fenkl's memoir has its seeds in his schooling in Germany, beginning in the seventh grade. Homesick for Korea, Fenkl would transcribe from memory folktales his uncle had told him. Even though his English teachers were impressed with his imaginative writing, (he'd write eight pages when the assignment only required two) Fenkl remains modest about his teachers' reactions to them. "I'd stumbled upon this odd process by which I could tell these stories as though I were my uncle." Fenkl learned the power of memory transcription at this early age and it is what he finds easiest about writing. What he had harder time with for this novel was telling the story he tried to avoid telling. During his junior year at Vassar College, Fenkl submitted as his writing sample for Senior Composition what has now become the first chapter of his novel. At time, he was unaware of this. His writing sample consisted of a series of vignettes which he was unsure of how to connect. "All I knew was that these were the things I wanted to write about. I wasn't sure how they added up to a narrative. I remember thinking, 'How can I make them fit together?' That's when I came up with the title, "In the House of the Japanese Colonel" -- because all the stories happened there. It was left to the reader to give me the benefit of the doubt that they all did connect."

Fenkl is ambidextrous. During his earlier writing years, he was so concerned about over-writing that he switched to writing with his left hand. But soon he was equally proficient with both hands. Later, when computers became popular, he took to writing in a dark room with the monitor turned off. Often losing track of time, he types away with no self editing until he's finished with his images. He later goes back and edits. Surprisingly, he finds that about seventy-five percent of the material is usable. He saves the rest for future stories.

Oddly enough, apart from a short scene about returning war amputees, nothing Fenkl wrote for Senior Composition made it into his novel. Instead, he spent the year writing a sixty page manuscript for what he though would be his first novel. Interestingly, his manuscript made no reference to his personal life or ethnicity. Fenkl recalls with a measure of self irony that he was rebelling against the idea that all he could write about was his ethnicity. "If you're a writer of color, you can never be sure if you readers are responding to the alien details in your writing, or whether they are responding to the quality of writing itself." More importantly, however, this stint with writing the "generic American novel" was perhaps yet another way for Fenkl to put some distance between himself and the story that he found too difficult to tell at that period in his life. It wasn't until years later, when he went back and re-read his Senior Composition writing sample that he realized how all his vignettes were in linked together by a theme of meaningful loss. "Each of those vignettes was like a dot and when I saw that they were connected, there was this shape. And of course what they were all pointing to was the story I wasn't telling -- the bigger and more meaningful loss," he explains. Leaning forward, elbows on his desk, he expands on how his novel finally started taking shape. He wrote the bulk of fit, about two thirds, during his time with the MA creative writing program (at the University of California, Davis) after graduation. It was there that Fenkl was finally about to write about his relative who committed suicide. Once he wrote that story, his novel took flight, and the many vignettes fell into place. But even here, Fenkl's writing style encountered some challenges as he tried to distance himself from some of his more painful memories. During his years in the MA program in creative writing, Fenkl had preconceived ideas of how he wanted his protagonist to evolve through the course of the novel, "which didn't quite work as a book." At the time, he was determined to develop his protagonist's consciousness in a style very similar to Joyce's in Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, in which the narrative voice develops from child-like speech to a very sophisticated narration.


In 1984, when Fenkl received a Fulbright fellowship to Korea, he finally gained a clear idea not only of what his novel was going to be about, but even more importantly, of how he was going to tell the story. After seeing the changes wrought on the country from 1953 to 1984, Fenkl decided that he'd like his novel to be more that just about himself and his life, but also about his home country and its history. As he puts it, "I had an entirely transformed attitude towards what my writing should be. So between 1984 and now I've changed it quite dramatically. And although most of the material is very, very similar to the original manuscript and a lot of the language is the same, the architecture of the book, the addition of the italics, entirely changes what those original stories mean. I think what I started to see was that this was not just going to be a book about me."


For the longest time, his mother was slightly confused by what Fenkl meant when he said he was a 'writer.' Until fairly recently (and ironically, like David Wong Louie's mother) she was under the impression that her son was a calligrapher.

Even if, after this point, Fenkl was tempted not to write the sections that made him uncomfortable, his wife Anne Dalton ('81) proved a tough reader to fool. Ironically, his actual editor was very minimally involved with his manuscript. When signing the contract, Fenkl had made it clear to her that he was going to write his novel about certain things and in a certain way. As he explains, "I was very lucky. It's very unusual to find an editor who will give you that much control -- unless you're someone like Stephen King in which case you can just buy an editor who will give you control!"

His wife, however, became his toughest editor. Fenkl explains with a grin their editing process. Unlike most people, Anne was able to see through what Fenkl calls his "aesthetic mystification." When asked what this term means, he replies somewhat sheepishly, "It's when you're addressing a particular theme or topic or emotion and instead of really conveying it, you just give some beautiful Iowa Writer's Workshop language that pretends to engage you with it but actually doesn't. Anne would see through all those things. She's say, 'You're not being honest here.'" On more than one occasion, Fenkl would proudly show his wife a passage that he thought was finished and she would respond with "This is rubbish." Laughing at the memory, Fenkl remarks, "Of course, I'd get in a pretty vile mood at that point -- largely because I knew she was right. Then I'd have to go back and write the section more 'honestly' until we reached some sort of compromise."

His advice to aspiring novelists is to take as many writing courses in college as you can, "because this is the only time in your life where you are going to get an honest criticism about your writing. Later, the economics and politics of writing a book take over."

Fenkl's honesty more than comes through in the novel. It is this close tie to his personal experiences and memories that makes one wonder how his family reacted to reading about their lives in print. As it turns out, Fenkl's younger sister was unaware of some of the things mentioned in the book -- in particular about their half brother -- so for her, reading the book was quite alarming.

But it was his mother's reaction to his book that Fenkl found most odd. His mother, who doesn't speak English fluently, read a section of his novel that had been translated (illegally) into Korean. In the story, which is a part of a chapter in the novel, the mother character is portrayed as being somewhat culpable for the events that take place.

Instead of reacting to this, as Fenkl expected she would, his mother responded with, "How could you have the guys swearing so much? What is it about you writers that you write all foul language?"

Smiling, Fenkl continues, "I tried to explain to her, 'Look, Mom, it's realism. . . people talk like that.'" To which she replied, "I don't care if people talk like that. If it's literature, you have to make it more high minded!"