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Pitt writer's 'Eighty Days' began as college paper

| Friday, June 12, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Robert Yune, author of 'Eighty Days of Sunlight'
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Robert Yune, author of 'Eighty Days of Sunlight'

Robert Yune didn't intend to write a novel about identity and what it means to be Asian in a post-industrial city at the turn of 21st century. The origins of his debut novel, “Eighty Days of Sunlight” (Thought Catalog, $18), are far less philosophical, perhaps because of the novel's origin in a writing seminar taught by former University of Pittsburgh professor Chuck Kinder.

“It was a short story about people drinking in college,” says Yune, who teaches composition and creative writing at Pitt and lives in Squirrel Hill. “It sort of branched out from there.”

“Eighty Days of Sunlight” is a profound and moving debut novel about two Korean-American brothers, Jason and Tommy, attempting to make sense of their father's death. Set in Pittsburgh, Wilkes Barre and Princeton, N.J., the book follows the brothers as they argue, brawl, pursue girls and party in the early years of the 21st century as they search for answers.

One of Yune's goals was to capture the spirit of the era, the dread of Y2K that mushroomed into the terror of 9/11.

“It was like you were sailing down a river knowing there's a waterfall somewhere that's just going to carry you over the edge,” he says, “It's just apocalypse after apocalypse.”

Parts of the book are admittedly autobiographical. Like the Jason character, Yune worked at a book manufacturing plant near Wilkes Barre. Many of the characters are based on real people, and he uses landmarks in Oakland, past and present, as physical anchors. But the theme of identity and how to navigate life in a large city as an outsider was unintended.

“If you said when I was starting this project, ‘Robert, you're going to write a book about identity, or even about Asians,' I would have run the other way,” Yune says. “To me, that's not interesting at all. … When you write, you don't really write for a theme.”

As Yune worked on the book over six years, the idea of identity inexorably emerged. In a scene at a Korean restaurant, for example, a waiter asks one of the characters — Laura, half white, half Korean — “What are you?”

Being Asian in a predominately white city doesn't preoccupy Yune, but he's had experiences that made him question whether he's been singled out because he is Korean.

“People talk about it in the language of micro-aggression, but there are times when you realize people are treating you differently,” he says. “Or, they're having certain assumptions because of how you look. In that moment, race becomes very crystallized, at least for you. But it's hard to tell if the other person meant to draw that line.”

“Eighty Days of Sunlight” — the title refers to the average number of sunny days annually in Pittsburgh — features a subplot about a famous, quirky writer who lives in Princeton. It may or may not be Joyce Carol Oates — “I can neither confirm or deny that,” Yune says — but he admits the character fills a need.

“I teach creative writing to undergrads, taught creative writing to grad students; I worked at the Pitt Book Center for a while and worked at a book factory,” he says. “I am vertical integration. There weren't any writers in the book, and it seemed wrong to write about book factories and communication without a writer in there. And it had to be in the drunken, lurching chaotic nature of the book itself. It needed to be the right author for this particular book, and I couldn't think of anyone else.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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