Novelist Jung Yun Finds ‘Shelter’ in Writing

Assistant Professor of English Jung Yun
Jung Yun, novelist and assistant professor of English, in Seoul.
The English professor's novel Shelter hit the bestseller list, the latest step in her creative journey.
January 12, 2017

In the 1990s, Jung Yun, now assistant professor of English and a bestselling novelist, gave up on writing. When, at 19, she was denied a spot in a creative writing workshop, the rejection stung. She closed the book on the idea of becoming an author. For the better part of a decade, she wrote nothing.

But a chance meeting with a famous author changed her literary life. While working as the special assistant to the president of the New York Public Library, Yun struck up a conversation with novelist Walter Mosley. She told him that she wanted to write too. “What are you writing now?" Mosely asked. Yun admitted that she wasn’t writing anything and rattled off excuses about working long hours and having no free time.

“He was very kind but emphatic that, if I wanted to be a writer, I had to really commit to it,” Yun recalled. “He told me that if I was serious, something about my life had to change.”

It was a crucial step in a journey that has taken Yun from her family’s home in South Korea to a childhood in Fargo, N.D., to her triumph as the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Shelter (Picador, 2016), a debut that The New York Times Book Review hailed as “captivating” and The Los Angeles Times called “a marvel of skill and execution.”

Entering her second semester teaching creative writing at Columbian College, Yun encourages her students to dedicate themselves to regular practice and experimentation. But as a self-described “late bloomer,” she concedes that same lesson took her years to learn. After meeting Mosley, “I realized I had to reprioritize if I was ever going to be a writer,” she said. “I feel very fortunate. My life could have turned out much differently.”

From Korea to Fargo

At age 4, Yun came to America with her mother and sister. Her father had left Korea a year earlier to settle among the Asian immigrant community in Chicago and open a Taekwondo school. But raising a family in the city was expensive, Yun said, and her father was alarmed by the crime rate. Instead, he brought them to Fargo—a place that, Yun said, “felt like a big small town.”

“Fargo was great in many ways. I went to terrific public schools and it was safe and very clean,” she said. “The drawback was that there was only a miniscule community of color. I never really had many peers who weren’t white.” It wasn’t until she left home to attend Vassar College that Yun was exposed to diversity on a large scale.

While Yun enjoyed Vassar’s emphasis on the liberal arts, she also felt intense pressure to choose a field of study that would lead to a rewarding career after commencement. “I was keenly aware that my parents had given up so much when they came to the U.S. because they wanted me to have the best possible future,” she said. “I didn’t know how writing fit into that. I only thought of it as a good skill. I didn’t think real people made a career out of it.” By the time she approached Mosely in the library, Yun had walked away from writing in favor of a career in public service, and later not-for-profit service. While she eventually heeded Mosley’s advice, enrolling in a community writing workshop that met weekends in a cramped Tribeca basement, her professional responsibilities continued to grow as she moved from the New York Public Library to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She was working increasingly long hours, leaving less time and energy to write.  But even as she skipped friends’ weddings and canceled vacations for work, she never missed a session of the writing class that seemed to ground her. Soon, Yun quit her job and at, age 30, enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, fully invested in succeeding or failing as a writer. “At that point, there was no turning back,” she said.

Finding Shelter

Shelter, Yun’s breakout novel, didn’t come easily. She began sketching an outline—“Just fiddling with words and images at that point,” she said—of a Korean American family story in 2004. But she shelved the idea for years, revisiting it again in 2007. By then, she had become intrigued with a brutal crime in a Connecticut suburb. Two men took a family of four hostage and set their house on fire. Only the father survived. Yun obsessed over the case, scouring court transcripts and police reports in an effort to make sense of such a violent act. “I didn’t understand how the father could move on with his life,” she said. “But every time I saw this man on the news, he was surrounded by a loving family.”

Shelter, Jung Yun's breakout novel

She asked herself what would happen if the same traumatic crime had happened to a different kind of family—perhaps a Korean American family, one that wasn’t as supportive. “Once I understood the question I wanted to answer, I didn’t look up again for three and a half years until I’d finished writing Shelter.”

While she’s quick to point out that the dysfunctional  family at the center of Shelter bears scant resemblance to her own, in her classroom Yun urges students to draw material from their own lives. (“Write-what-you-know may be a cliché but there’s some truth to it,” she said.) While young writers can feel they must invent a dramatic scenario to hold readers’ attention, Yun tells them to trust that “a quiet story about small lives can be every bit as powerful.”

Meanwhile, Yun sticks to the writer’s routine she’s kept for the last few years: She rises at 4:30 AM each day, makes a pot of coffee and tackles The New York Times crossword to clear early morning cobwebs. She’s at her desk by 5:15. “What I love about mornings is that there aren’t any excuses for not writing,” she said.  She tries to complete 500 words a day when drafting something new, netting as few as 50 if she’s in the editing process. After a steady three hours’ work, she leaves for campus—sometimes boarding her commuter train with her hair dripping wet if she’s lagged behind to finish one more sentence. She’s not ready to talk about her follow-up novel-in-progress yet, other than to say it’s “a joy to be writing it here at GW, where my professional life and artistic pursuits finally feel like they’re in balance. My teaching and writing inform, rather than compete, with each other.”