When reading a work of fiction, readers often wonder how much of the author’s own life makes it into the book. To write her new novel, Excavations, about a young mother’s quest to uncover the truth behind her missing husband after the collapse of a Seoul skyscraper, Hannah Michell revealed that she had to dig deep into her own childhood in Seoul in the 1980s and ’90s.

Photo of author in big turtleneck
Michell incorporated some of her experiences as a new mother into the novel’s main character. Credit: Nan Phelps

She said she grew up during a “calamitous time” and calls the novel “an excavation of the history I experienced but didn’t have the context for.”

Several incidents in the book were inspired by real events, including student demonstrations for democracy in 1987. Though Michell was too young at the time to participate, she lived a mile from City Hall and often passed the protests on her way home from school, at one time even walking into a fog of tear gas and then scrambling to get out. 

The book’s inciting incident, the skyscraper collapse, is based on the collapse of the Sampoong Department in 1995, when Michell was 12. 

Her novel, she said, is “kind of a cautionary warning about what happens when you prioritize rapid development over safety.”

Cover of Excavations: A Novel. An adult and two kids walk against a blank backdrop — their faces and torsos are mostly obscured by smoke
The new novel by Hannah Michell took around six years to write. Credit: One World

Michell revealed what went into the making of her book at a July 30 talk at Berkeley Public Library’s North Berkeley branch. Michell was interviewed by David Roderick, a poet and co-founder and co-director of Left Margin Lit, where Michell wrote much of the book and had it workshopped with members of that literary community. She had met Roderick, however, via the parent community: Their children were at Mustard Seed Preschool at the same time.

Excavations is Michell’s third book and marks her American debut. 

Digging up childhood memories was one of the details from her own life that Michell incorporated into the book. Michell, who teaches Korean pop culture and Asian American film in UC Berkeley’s Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies Program, was a new mother when she began writing the book six years ago. 

She was about 25,000 words into the novel when she realized she was writing from the wrong point of view. Originally, her protagonist was the CEO of the company behind the collapsed skyscraper. Michell couldn’t empathize with him. 

“Originally I was going to write an unreliable patriarchal figure who later reveals himself to be really oppressive. I had hoped by the end that he would be seen as a horrible guy, even though he liked to portray himself as Korea’s gift,” she said. “I realized that in writing for a Western audience, people might not have gotten to that conclusion on their own. I needed more narrative threads to disrupt his narrative.”

Michell added two more narrative threads, both of them from the point of view of women. Myonghee is the madam of an upscale club who is privy to the secrets of drunken businessmen. She ends up helping the book’s protagonist, Sae, a journalist, in her search for the truth about what happened to her husband, who disappears after the skyscraper’s collapse. Michell relied on her own experiences as a young mother to shape Sae’s character. 

“I didn’t think I could include my experience as a mother and have it taken seriously,” she said. Yet it was only when Michell began including the day-to-day experiences of motherhood — the Cheerios on the floor, the hovering at a safe distance while her sons played in the tub and the exhaustion of early parenthood — “that gave this book more momentum.” 

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...