An Artist Who Fails … And Fails Yet Again by Kim Takhwan

What is so special about being a writer? From time to time, I get asked this question. It sounds like a run-of-the-mill question, but answering it isn’t easy. When I started off as a writer, I could afford to be evasive. But now that nearly twenty years have passed, I’ve come up with two answers to this question.

     The first is that writers are artists who live within overlapping time periods. Anywhere from one year to five years, Kim Takhwan the writer criss-crosses the timeline of the year he is living in and that of the novel he is working on. In the mornings, he is in his study, striding across the era in which his novel is set; after lunch, he deals with the minute problems of his life in 2015. Humans can hope to live up to, say, a hundred years at most, so traveling to another age every time one sits down to write is a privilege only a writer enjoys. What’s more intriguing is the tension between these different time periods. Even if you’re fully aware of the differences between them, the events occurring in one timeline influence those in the other. While a writer is free to accept or reject that influence, he can’t help but be conscious of it.

     The second answer is that writers are artists who taste failure every time they write. Naturally, a writer will leave no stone unturned to ensure her story is flawless on the drawing board, even before starting on the first draft. She’ll be busy refining the plot, making field trips to the places that form the backdrop of the story, interviewing experts, and reading related books and articles. The story born out of this process will look perfect, like the blueprint for a building. Yet, when she puts pen to paper, the story will invariably change. This change may be triggered by any one of the elements that make up the novel. Changes in the personality or the weight of the characters in the story are common; even places or timelines that form the backdrop of the story tend to change, not to mention the degree of conflict, which might strengthen or weaken. If nothing else, the weather, the sounds, or the wind’s direction may change.

     And it doesn’t stop with a single change. A small change can lead to a chain reaction that forces the writer to touch up other parts of the story. Such changes often don’t allow for careful deliberation but instead arise with pressing urgency in the thick of writing. The writer is forced to leave behind the path he carefully surveyed, and tread on an unfamiliar path whose destination isn’t even clear at times.

     When I was ...

Kim Takhwan made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Love Story of Twelve Whales. Historical novels are his forte, with several of them being adapted for television and cinema, including How Rueful to Be Forgotten (2002); I, Hwang Jini (2002); Death by Fiction (2003); Hyecho (2008); The Immortal Yi Sun-sin (2004); and Russian Coffee (2009). His most recent novel is The Magician from Joseon (2015).