Kim Yeonsu is a man of habit. For an hour and a half every day he runs. He’s training. This fall he will be running the Chuncheon Marathon, all 42.195 kilometers of it. It’s his second marathon. For another hour or so he listens to music. He thinks it is lazy of classical music snobs to not take advantage of all the other good music out there. In high school he paid the DJ at the local bar and café for lessons on pop music. At one point in his career his byline carried the title of “popular music critic.” He spends an hour each day reading, sometimes he reads in print, sometimes on his iPad or Kindle. He checks out what his contemporaries in the English-speaking world have been writing, marveling at their carefree first-person narratives. Some say that Kim is the most serious and traditional among the young writers of his generation. They don’t know him at all. Kim Yeonsu, 41, has to be one of the most eager early adopters among his ilk. Whether it be writing, listening to music, reading, or running, Kim always gravitates to the latest and coolest. His job is to make writing cool.
Uh Soo-woong: When you and I were children, literature was still big but popular culture was just coming into its own. What’s the first book you remember from your childhood?
Kim Yeonsu: That would be a comic book. It was in our next-door neighbor’s bathroom that was just a hole in the ground, and the pages in the back were gone. They ripped out pages for toilet paper, you see. It was about these kids named Cheoli and Yeong-hee who shrank and went inside somebody’s body with this doctor, exploring. That’s the first memory I have of any book before I started school. I remember reading the Gyerim books and the Clover books and the Gyemongsa series books when I was in the third grade. They had these Sherlock Holmes books with black covers.
Uh: Did you read them as literature?
Kim: It was just for fun. The first book I remember reading as literature was a book of Hwang Ji-u’s poems when I was in the second year of high school. It was strange. I thought it must be poetry because he said it was, but I didn’t know what to make of it. How could a bunch of newspaper articles from the Gwangju Student Movement be called poetry? I was shocked. It didn’t look like poetry, but it left you with something afterwards.
Novelist Kim Yeonsu and reporter Uh Soo-woong
Uh: Was there any overlap between when you decided to become a writer and your Hwang Ji-u period?
Kim: No, not at all. I didn’t get started on the book for any of those reasons. I was on the science track in high school and I just wanted to have a go at Hwang Ji-u’s poems. It was only after university that I thought of writing poetry or novels. I never thought of writing before.
Uh: What about when you wrote that “conditional suicide agreement” and did 1,080 prostrations at a temple near your house? That was when you were in high school, right?
Kim: (embarrassed) Yes, it was. I was reading Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living and a lot of Jeon Hye-rin. I was very keen on living well, on making something of my life. You only live once, and that sort of thing. (laughs) I was young and self-important. I did the 1,080 prostrations with the rest of the Buddhist student club during summer vacation at a temple called Gsaeun-sa, which means “where the clouds roll back.” It was a nice experience—good exercise, too.
Uh: Sounds like you were a bit of a loner.