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Paul Yoon prefers a small canvas but his stories span centuries and continents

The author of the short story collection ‘The Hive and the Honey’ talks about history, dislocation, and his energetic dog

Paul Yoon, author of the short story collection “The Hive and The Honey.”Peter Yoon/Simon & Schuster

Author Paul Yoon considers the short story his first love. His debut story collection, “Once the Shore” (2009), won the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award. His second collection, “The Mountain” (2017), was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. He has also written two critically acclaimed novels, “Run Me to Earth” and “Snow Hunters,” and says that each of these books began as a short story that then built to something longer. Yoon’s stories tend to encompass disparate times and places, and in his latest collection, “The Hive and the Honey,” characters search for belonging and connection across continents, cultures, and centuries. Yoon teaches at Harvard University. The Globe caught up with him at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.


Q. The characters in these stories — as in much of your earlier work — are often migrants or expatriates whose lives have been shaped by war. Why do you think you keep returning to the phenomenon of displacement?

A. We moved around a lot when I was young, and I remember never really feeling at home anywhere. At the same time, I was aware of how scattered my extended family was — the majority I have never met, and never will, because my father’s side of the family fled North Korea at the start of the Korean War and never returned. I also had relatives who lived in different states across America but we couldn’t really afford to go see them — and my parents are very anxious travelers — and so we never did. I grew up keenly aware of all this separation and not really keeping in touch with anyone. And I think I’ve spent five books exploring that incomplete family tree — my scattered, distant family, wherever they are.


Q. Some of the stories here take place in modern times while others are set decades and centuries in the past. Why did you choose to layer the historical and contemporary?

A. I think a lot of my most rewarding experiences on a day-to-day level are when I am moving through a space and feel both the now and the history of it. It’s like walking along the Seine and looking up at these buildings that have existed for far longer than you have. Or being somewhere deep in the remote countryside and feeling that, too. I feel connected to the world in a deeper way when I feel history, and I wanted to bring that into the book in as layered a way as possible.

Q. The title story of your collection is a letter written by a Russian soldier to his uncle. What made you choose this epistolary form?

A. I’ve always wanted to write an epistolary story — probably because I love the ones Alice Munro wrote — but I never could find a way into one. The character of the title story came first, and I wanted in some way to capture the severity of his isolation within a very remote setting, and so I thought it might be interesting to evoke all this through a person writing a letter into the void, so to speak. There was something really lonely about that, like he was his own island within another kind of island.

Q. The harsh, rural landscape in “Valley of The Moon” really stayed with me: the rocks, the barrenness. When violence erupts in the story, the environs seem complicit somehow. Do you spend a lot of time in nature? How do you think about the influence of a story’s setting on the events and characters?


A. Oh, I think landscape is almost everything to me. I need to see that deeply and vastly in whatever fiction I’m creating, or I lose the thread. To be honest, I’m not sure where that comes from. Maybe the books I love, and wanting to be in dialogue with them? I go for longish runs. I also have a dog who loves to go for hikes, so yeah, I’m outside a lot. I’m lucky enough to have time to be outside a lot. And I’m lucky enough to live in the most beautiful place in the United States, the Hudson Valley, in New York. It’s a place where the natural world always feels beside you. I’ve had the good fortune to travel abroad, and not just to major cities, so I think creating landscapes is also a way to connect with the world I’ve experienced and of course, with the many people I’ve been fortunate to have crossed paths with.

Q. How does a story typically begin for you? And how do you know when it’s finished?

A. I think my end goal for each work of fiction is to create the best possible painting — and so in the beginning, I’m usually trying to focus on one small part of that canvas, say, one corner of it, and lingering there for as long as possible, whether that is landscape, a character, a situation, whatever. And from there I slowly spread out until I see the edges of what I’m making. Then it’s about filling it all in, I suppose. I think I know I’m done when I feel like I’ve taken the characters as far as I can possibly go with them. At the same time, I feel their journeys haven’t ended. It’s just that their time with me has. So I let go of their hands. And I know there is a future for them, but it’s not for me to say what that is. It’s like having closure, but also feeling like there is a new beginning.


Paul Yoon will be in conversation with Keziah Weir at Harvard Bookstore on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public; no tickets required.

Shubha Sunder lives in Boston and is the author of the short story collection “Boomtown Girl.”