A Man of All Interests: Novelist Kim Yeonsu

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.


Kim: So is everyone, if you want to go down that path. You go to law school, med school, it’s still a lonely way. I think that my generation differs quite a bit from the generation in their 50s right now. A lot of the older generation thinks that anyone can write if they have the mind to. With my generation, though, it’s not easy being a full-time writer. It’s harder than it used to be, and people don’t read as much as they used to.


Uh: That’s the feeling I got when Park Bumshin retired from teaching recently. There were politicians like Jeong Se-kyun and Jeong Mong-jun, and partners from Kim & Chang, the law firm, at his retirement party. Novelists commanded a certain amount of respect with that generation. (laughter) Can you think of any politicians or social figures who might show up for you at a party when you’re 60?


Kim: (laughs) They wouldn’t even show up for Yun Dae-nyeong [who is older than I am], let alone me. Literature used to hold a special place in society but now its power is rapidly diminishing. There used to be a certain celebrity status to being a writer, and also a certain amount of power, like a politician. It was like being a lawyer or a judge, for example. But while the legal profession has kept its status, literature has not. That may not be such a bad thing, however—I think it might even be a good thing.


Uh: Let’s talk about that. Why is it a good thing?


Kim: I can tell you why it’s good for me. When I went to university in the late 1980s, there were only three kinds of ways you could write a novel [in Korea]. You could write a political novel based on the labor movement, in collaboration with actual laborers, or an art for art’s sake kind of novel like Yi In-seong, or a commercial novel. That’s why I couldn’t imagine writing one. I didn’t like any of the choices, and to choose one of the three was to make a statement in itself. It wasn’t like that with poetry, though. There were political poets, but it was understood that you still had to have an innate appreciation of beauty. That’s why I got into poetry first. And then I read Haruki Murakami for the first time in my second year of college and was bowled over. It wasn’t like anything written in Korea. The book was Hear the Wind Sing, and it wasn’t a commercial novel, it wasn’t experimental, and it certainly wasn’t about the labor movement. He was in his own niche and I liked that. It got me thinking, “I could do this.” Now people talk about how high literature a...