[Web Exclusive] Interview with Choi Jin-young: Looking from the Hearts of Others

  • onMarch 26, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: You’ve published steadily for fifteen years. What’s your secret?

Choi: It’s my work. Thankfully my work is what I like to do. And I don’t have a lot of desires. I don’t have this great passion or longing for something. It’s just that I like myself best when I’m writing. I still don’t like myself that much when I’m not writing. At least when I’m writing, I can put up with myself. I wrote in To the Warm Horizon, how precious this work is to me, how precious this time is. So I’m not going to waste it, I’m going to do my best. I feel that way more and more. That feeling has only grown stronger over the years. It’s the most important, most precious thing to me.


KLN: What’s your typical day like? 

Choi: I get up around eight or nine and tidy up a bit, do some laundry, get something to eat, and around noon I sit down at my desk. I work from noon to five, five in the winter, six in the summer, writing or work that relates to my writing. When I clock off at five or six, I get up and go for a walk for about an hour and a half. Then I come back and take a shower, have some food and a beer, and go to bed. Every day, almost exactly down to the minute. When I have to break my routine sometimes I get stressed.  


KLN: Your novel To the Warm Horizon is set in Russia, was there any special reason behind the epic scale? 

Choi: It may be on an epic scale geographically, but at its heart it’s a plain old love story. The setting wasn’t planned from the beginning. When I started to write about Dori and Jina, it was to write their story as a lesbian couple. But if I set their story in Korea, that means dealing with all the hatred and discrimination and violence that same-sex couples face in Korea. There’s no way around it. And I really hated writing that. I didn’t want to write about my characters being exposed to the same kind of hatred and discrimination they would experience in reality, so I thought, I know, I’ll put everyone in misery and let their love story shine. So that’s how the virus came in, and then I thought I wanted show them galloping across a vast continent. I was looking at the map of the world in my room and saw how big Russia was. It was definitely big enough, and you can reach it by land or sea from Korea. So that’s how Russia came in. It wasn’t like I planned the virus and Russia first, they were means to show off the love story of these two women. When I was writing the novel I didn’t think of the setting as epic.


KLN: To the Warm Horizon is coming out in English soon. The pandemic setting of the book must give you an odd feeling now given the actual situation in the world.

Choi: It’s creepy. I wrote about a virus because I was trying to think of a disaster that would apply fairly equally to everyone in the world. I was just imagining things, I never wished for it to happen. The situation is far more dire in the novel, but looking at the world now, I wouldn’t wonder if COVID-19 wasn’t the end, but another virus cropped up. Living through this pandemic has actually given me more faith in mass intelligence. I’ve always seen the dark and evil side of people, but since the pandemic I’ve mostly seen people taking care to abide the rules. It restored my faith in humanity. And it gives me hope that even if a more powerful virus came up, we could overcome it, as people trusting other people. I certainly hope so. On the other hand, I think I was able to write what I did because it was before COVID-19. If I had actually had lived through a pandemic, I would have been a lot more restrained in writing a novel like that. 


KLN: Soon your book will be read by English readers, how does that feel?

Choi: I’m a bit scared, honestly. What if nobody reads it? Whatever happens, it’s my story that I wrote staring at the walls in my room. In the society I live in, in Korea, people have read it and responded to it. As for how people from other countries might respond to it, the story deals with universal themes like love and sacrifice and family and friendship, so I don’t think it’ll feel that strange. I’m half afraid, half looking forward to it. 


KLN: Dear Yi Jeya tells the story of a rape survivor. It can’t have been easy to write, what kind of message did you want to convey with this story?

Choi: It wasn’t easy, no. Do I have the right to write about this? So many people have gone through this in real life, I didn’t want to add to their pain. I felt a huge sense of responsibility about that. But then it seemed to me that to shirk that responsibility as something too heavy and too hard would be even worse. And so I decided to make the novel entirely about Jeya, to not worry about distance or impartiality, but to focus on Jeya the survivor, to show what kind of person she was before the rape and what changed after. That’s how I wrote it, trying to become Jeya. I tried to look at everything through Jeya’s eyes, to think like her. For the parts that I still couldn’t imagine, I kept asking the Jeya inside me, is it alright if I write about that? I questioned myself the most I ever have out of all my books.


KLN: What do you keep in mind when writing, what are your ground rules? 

Choi: I write from my character’s point of view. I’ve always worked that way, otherwise I get stuck. When I try to write in the third person, to look at the character from an impartial point of view, from a distance, I get stuck. So when I make up my mind to write about someone, I try to become that person as much as I can. And if that makes it less worthy artistically,I’d rather that someone reads it and finds it comforting. The other thing is, when I’m writing about someone, I’m not going to make them a passive victim. I want to write about how they try to do things for themselves, to move forward no matter what happens. I’m definitely on their side, cheering them on. 


KLN: You’ve been writing for a long time. What changes have you seen in yourself, or when writing about your characters?

Choi: I would say a lot of changes. When I was in my twenties, I could just be angry in my writing. I would write how society is unjust, how people are corrupt and two-faced, how much I hated the malice and hypocrisy of it all, and that would be it. But then one day I realized that I had grown up. And I realized how cowardly it was to deny being an adult. I grew up being protected by adults, so how terrible would it be now that I was an adult, if I didn’t protect others around me? The moment I realized that, I couldn’t go on just being angry in my novels. I had to explain, at least to myself, why the world was the way it was. It wasn’t fair to those younger than me to keep writing about how tragic everything was. And if I still wasn’t sold on unconditional hope, I should at least try to start thinking of ways that might help us get better. To think, to hell with you all, is such a young person’s game. I decided it was time to grow up, to think grown-up thoughts. And that shows in my writing. I’ve come to feel more responsibility towards this unjust world.


KLN: Could you tell us about your next work? Any projects you’re looking forward to?

Choi: I have a novel that just came out, it’s called A Dream of Becoming Me. It’s hitting the shelves in a couple of days, it’s a coming-of-age story of the kind I haven’t written in a while. As for the future, I’m happy with my life the way it is, I’d like to keep writing. I’ve just finished a novel so I don’t know what my next project will be.


English subtitles translated by Helen Cho


Choi Jin-young (b. 1981) was born on a snowy day in Seoul and moved around often during her childhood. She made her literary debut in 2006 by winning the Silcheon Munhak New Writer’s Award and has since won various awards, including the 2010 Hankyoreh Literary Award, the 2014 Shin Dong-yup Literary Prize, the 2020 Baek Shin-ae Literature Award, and the 2020 Manhae Prize for Literature. She has authored the novels The Name of the Girl Who Brushed Past You Is . . ., The Never-Ending Song, Why Did I Not Die, The Proof of Ku, To the Warm Horizon, and Dear Yi Jeya; the novella A Dream of Becoming Me; and the short-story collections A Spinning Top and Winter Break. The English translation of To the Warm Horizon is forthcoming from Honford Star in May, 2021.