Annabelle Kim had to stop being an engineer. It was the only way she could be reborn.
The engineer demanded 60-hour work weeks. The engineer took all her focus. The engineer toyed with the writer. And when the triplets came along, the engineer withered on the sere ground of what she thought was supposed to be her life.
So no. The engineer didn’t figure out the solution. The writer did, guided by the necessity of raising triplet boys; a job more demanding and time-consuming than even the engineer could handle.
And then the writer was born. The real one. Not the writer of reports and studies and plans. The writer of hope and hunger. The writer of history and culture. The writer of desperation and ache and survival. The writer of her father’s story.
A decade after realizing the engineer needed to go away, Kim finished the manuscript for the debut novel she had been wanting to write for a long time. The manuscript was Tiger Pelt, a no-punches-pulled look at the intersecting lives of a young man and woman on the tragic, war-beaten peninsula of Korea.
In April, the book, which was published by Leaf Land in 2016, won the Bronze medal of the Independent Publisher Book Awards in the historical fiction category.
But when she first finished the novel, Kim couldn’t have imagined it would be so well received. Like any new novelist, she was hopeful, relieved and nervous as hell.
Her siblings read the manuscript. They loved it. The same with her husband and then-17-year-old daughter. But the are family, which to a large degree obligated them to love whatever she had written. Kim appreciated the kudos, but she wanted feedback of the brutally honest kind. She shipped her manuscript, unpolished and raw, to the Kirkus Review.
Kirkus is a paid-but-influential reviewer of books. What makes the deal not a scam is that just because Kirkus cashes your check, there’s no guarantee the reviewer will say nice things about your book. In a lot of cases, the reviewers don’t.
In the case of Tiger Pelt, this what Kirkus had to say:
“Korea serves as a perfect crucible for Kim’s expansive and impressive historical fiction debut, in which the characters must struggle against overwhelming odds… her vision is powerfully executed, taking readers through all the important landmarks of 20th-century Korean history, including the end of Japanese occupation and the division of Korea.”
The writer smiled. The writer was delightfully surprised. And the writer was utterly shocked when Kirkus named the manuscript among its “Best Books of 2015.” And the manuscript hadn’t even been edited yet.
When Tiger Pelt was published, it was the capstone of a long journey not unlike that of the book’s main male character, Kim Young Nam, in the sense of its arduous length. But certainly not in the stark hardships he faces on his way to a better life.
While Tiger Pelt is a work of fiction, much of it is inspired by a real person. “The boy is inspired by my father,” Kim says. “Some of the far-fetched events in the book really happened to him.”
The book’s opening salvo is a flash-forward prologue set in 1957, when a young soldier (Young Nam) is trudging through cloying mud during a violent summer monsoon. Ahead of him is a cow, piteously lowing in her own struggle against a current threatening to wash her away. The soldier roots for the cow, who almost makes it, then doesn’t. The soldier is upset seeing the animal being carried off to its death in the water… because a potential meal just got washed away.
It’s a startling turn of emotion and a fleeting glimpse of the book’s main undercurrent: extreme hunger.
“That character is a subsistence farmer who grew up in great poverty and great hunger,” she says. “I wanted a Western kind of thinking, like ‘Oh, that poor cow.’ But it’s about hunger.”
Hunger and the choices it forces us to make is a main theme throughout the book, Kim says. The realities of how you see the world when you’re that hungry; the fear of being hungry; the nagging worry about deprivation and malnutrition were all a driving force for the narrative.
‘The boy is inspired by my father. Some of the far-fetched events in the book really happened to him.’
Kim’s father, Kim Ho Sik, who took the name David Kim when he was naturalized in the U.S., really was a subsistence farmer in Korea who lived under the occupation of Japan, and then through the Korean War. At 15, he ran off from his farm to work for the U.S. Army. And he really did meet a girl on his journey.
Two key differences between life and fiction—for her father, in real life, there was no unfortunate cow that could have been dinner, even though that level of hunger was definitely real; and unlike in the book, Ho Sik and the girl never met again.
The girl in the book is not based on a real person, but is a patchwork of stories Kim read about the women who lived in Korea during the tumult of its 20th century. Young women were conscripted by the Japan army before and during World War II as slave labor and, commonly, as comfort girls.
Kim says she set out to not vilify anyone, not the Japanese, not the Americans, not the North Koreans. But she owed it to the story to be as honest as she could. And honesty is often not the nicest approach to history. She also says that, while her father inspired the arc of Young Nam’s story, the details are almost purely speculative.
“My dad is actually very taciturn,” she says. “He just doesn’t talk about his life or his struggles. He told me, and I quote, ‘It was difficult and dangerous work.’ So I had to do a lot of filler.”
Kim’s parents made it out of Korea and to San Francisco in the 1960, when (and where) Annabelle was born. From there the family moved to Dallas, where her father earned his doctorate in theology. From there, it was back to Korea, with Annabelle in tow.
The Kims eventually landed in Virginia. If there’s a place Kim considers hometown, it would be there, where she stayed until she went to college. Kind of like a prequel to her life as an author, Kim nervously sent out an application to MIT, not expecting to get in, figuring she was destined for pre-med.
When MIT accepted her, she fell into the MIT kind of mindset, which is to say hard work and technical pursuits, and she ditched pre-med for mechanical engineering. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in the subject, earned in 1986 and 1989, respectively. For a year-and-a-half in between the degrees, she worked for Defense Analyses.
MIT is also where she met Scott Weingartner, now her husband, and an intellectual property attorney in New York. Like Kim, Weingartner was a bit of a refugee from the military in college. Kim had gone to MIT on a Navy ROTC scholarship and Weingartner had transferred from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he he’d gone to become a pilot, but decide against it.
Likewise, after spending a month on the U.S.S. Yellowstone, a repair ship, Kim realized the Navy wasn’t a good fit for her. The experience wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for the cast of colorful characters she encountered aboard ship. Those guys, with their delightfully salty attitudes toward life, ended up inspiring much of the dialog uttered by American characters in Kim’s book.
The guys at the water treatment plant where she would work after graduating from MIT (sans ROTC, which she soon dropped) would also contribute to the realistic, gruff dialog. She developed a new water treatment process and got a patent, and professionally all was going great. The job segued into a gig at an engineering consulting firm in Georgia that became an all-consuming, 60-hours-a-week career.
“I always thought I’d be a writer,” she says. “What I never thought I’d be was an engineer. But I figured I could write on the side.”
She was a writer all right. As an engineer she wrote all the time, she just wrote technical papers while, like Dorothy-from the Wizard of Oz, she kept telling herself she’d write her fiction “someday.”
Between then and completing Tiger Pelt, she had a daughter (Julia Weingartner, now 18 and studying English and history in Scotland), moved to West Windsor with her husband (so he could commute to New York and because of the school district), and started her own solo engineering consulting firm. Things went routinely for about six years, and then the engineer started to wither.
“Ironically enough, what enabled me to switch gears was when I had my triplet boys,” she says.
Kim had triplets in a house that already had a 6-year-old in it, and that’s what helped her become a novelist. By design, being thrice-blessed required someone to be around with the boys all the time, Kim says. Trouble was, no nanny wanted to be in charge of three infant boys, despite large sums of money offered to watch them. So Kim stayed home to raise them.
Her husband, she says, was immensely supportive of the idea of raising the boys and, eventually, of her writing, which wouldn’t really kick in until the boys started school. She did find one nanny, eventually, but by and large, she needed to stay home and raise the boys. Once the boys started attending school, though, Kim set to writing Tiger Pelt, trying to piece together bones of an epic life that her father, the inspiration, didn’t say anything about.
Kim says she didn’t read anything while she was writing Tiger Pelt. I didn’t want anything to stick,” she says. Over the course of a decade, she chipped away, worked and reworked, and then chipped away more until the book was done.
With the book completed and published, Kim says she has “the modest goal of writing one more book.” If she does, she’ll be a lot more confident in her ability to tell a story from the perspective of someone who better understands how people think and what motivates them.
While she’d love to have been one of those whiz kids who gets an MFA at 20-something and then writes a gripping novel full of deep, wise humanistic insight, Kim says that was just not going to be her. She came by her perspectives and ability to tell an inner story by simply getting to know people, living a life and learning what matters and what doesn’t.