Interview with Chung Serang: A Champion of Small Birds and Fish

  • onJune 18, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byBae Myung-hoon

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

Bae: It has been a difficult time for everyone. Are you and your family all right?

Chung: Luckily, we’re doing well. My social circle isn’t very wide anyway, so I’m content with sunning myself by the window. But in this time of hardship and loss, I’d like to extend my condolences to those who are suffering.

Bae: I’ve followed you for many years and am always amused to hear about your everyday life with your family. I used to think you were surrounded by colorful characters, but one day I realized that it might just seem this way because of your writer’s sensibility—you can transform ordinary life into a sitcom. 

Chung: I’ve always thought that people with fine mental filters can mine more material from life, and that the ones who can pick up even very minute particles become writers and artists. I’m especially good at spotting fun things; 
I don’t think that literature must always be serious. You know, even long, serious novels can be compressed into one-line jokes when they are widely read and loved. 

Bae: Your writing is renowned for being witty and fresh, and your readers adore you. Maybe this is why your look has changed from that of your early profile pictures, where you looked so nice and neat.

Chung: This might partly be owing to the direction from the photographers, but it’s true that I’ve become more comfortable in front of the camera. I learned that I didn’t have to smile or appear especially gentle. And something similar has happened with my novels. Although I’m known as a writer who makes difficult subject matter more palatable to read, sometimes I don’t sugarcoat things at all. I’m confident that my readers will follow along even if I write rough stories that march off toward distant places, or walk precariously along the edges, and it gives me strength. 

Bae: Your stories can be bloody and violent, but they look tame from their covers, like As Close as This (2014), for example. It strikes me that the world is hard to deal with no matter what disposition one has. 

Chung: Yes, I always want to write about optimism in the face of difficulty. While I don’t want to ignore the dark and twisted aspects of society, my focus is on the resolve of those working towards what comes next. We’re in dire need of novels that attack reality for what it is, but at the same time, I think there must be something beyond that. Two of my favorite subjects are recoveries and turning points.



Bae: Maybe that’s why so many of your stories take place near medical facilities. Two major novels—Fifty People (2016) and School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung (2015)—do, and the early novel Show Me Your Snaggletooth (2011) does as well, to an extent. Although these are not hospital stories per se, the events end up occurring around hospitals. Was there an incident that attracted your attention to people being wounded and healed?

Chung: As a child, I received treatment at a large hospital for a couple of years. Now, I often think of the body as a site of struggle among different body parts working towards different goals and being prone to error, rather than as an integrated system. Coincidentally, many of my relatives worked in medical facilities as well. I think of hospitals as public places where life and death cross paths, and anyone born nowadays will have the experience of passing through one.

Bae: Looking back, it seems prescient that you made medical centers the stage for human interaction. The stories “I’ll Give You My Voice” and “Medalist Zombie Age” seem to predict the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Chung: They arose from my interest in the environment and the climate crisis, and I was surprised to see reality follow so strangely in tandem. Our current social model, dating from the mid-twentieth century and focused on overproduction and consumption, is not going to work properly anymore. And the job of the author to picture other worlds seems vital at this time.

Bae: The web-based story “Wedding Dress 44” exploded in popularity, and your novel Fifty People won a major literary award. You’ve cemented your success as an author with these works. Both have interesting structures, combining dozens of small plots together. How did you come up with the idea for this distinctive structure?

Chung: I’m not as interested in one special individual as I am in the large numbers of everyday people who somehow overlap within a community. Also, I believe it’s important to present a problem in its complexity rather than to simplify it, and this structure is consistent with my aims. 

Bae: Each person you portray is as vivid as a fragment in a mosaic. Do you have a special method for capturing characters so well?

Chung: I read a lot of nonfiction. I think that if you are reading fiction to guide your writing of fiction, the characters will lose their vitality. It is a good idea to make them lifelike even if you are situating them in an imaginary world. To do this, I tend to write a lot of supplementary reference material that doesn’t appear in the story.

Bae: Recently, reading works like Hana from Earth (2012) and “Reset” from the story collection I’ll Give You My Voice (2020), I’ve been thinking more about the environment, and feeling a sense of duty. The stories seem quite removed from us because they are hypothetical, but they do have some connection to us in that the world is hurt, and they touch the very spot that is calling out to be healed. 

Chung: If you love one part of something, you will come to love all of it in the end. I like birdwatching, and eventually I realized that I had to care for plants and insects as well to keep birds from going extinct. It is overwhelming to think that everything is connected, but I’m trying not to forget that small efforts can have a ripple effect. 



Bae: At the same time, you think a novel should give solace, strength and pleasure, right?

Chung: I don’t think that people who read books accept the misery of reality and feel content with the way things are, so it’s important that we keep coming together and dreaming of a better world, and that we do it in the most enjoyable way.

Bae: You’ve been involved with every facet of Korean literature. You’ve been an editor for a publishing company and the editor of an SF magazine, and recently you’ve been writing recommendations for all kinds of books. You’re as interested in the act of reading and writing as you are in healing the wounded, aren’t you?

Chung: If my goal is to understand the world exactly and thoroughly, the best way to achieve this is through reading and writing. So once I find a good book, I want to recommend it, and stay up all night talking about it. And although I like many genres, I feel especially proud of the dynamism in Korean literature. 

Bae: Recommendations are short but hard to write. Considering that you have to read a work thoroughly in order to commend it in a way that isn’t standard and formulaic, I wonder how you manage to find the time to write so many. 

Chung: Whereas critiques are written for preselected works, recommendations are not, so I feel quite at ease introducing a wide variety of literature—Korean and foreign works from small and large publishing houses. Yes, I keep balance in mind, but I’d like to continue in this role, doing my part to arouse readers’ interest in noteworthy books.

Bae: Where is Korean literature headed in 2020?

Chung: It’s headed toward an explosive conversation with the readers. I often hear that Korean literature is political or social, and that may be true, but it doesn’t resemble the totalitarian, collectivist literature of the past. I think it’s amazing that writers are writing about community but with sophisticated and individual perspectives befitting the twenty-first century.

Bae: You also write dramas. I’ve heard that School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung will soon be appearing on Netflix [tentatively titled as The School Nurse Files]. Can you tell us about the story and about your experience of adapting it into a drama?

Chung: It’s a teen horror drama about an ordinary school nurse who has the power to exorcize ghosts, and it’s also about people’s desire to be kind. A willingness to act altruistically without expectation of reward is a wonderful human peculiarity. I wanted to write an experimental story by grafting literary and social themes onto a work of genre fiction in a style that had a different gravity to it and to spring this story onto the conservative Korean literary establishment. I didn’t know what kind of reception it would get, but surprisingly, it has been embraced, and now it has been adapted as a screenplay. I’m excited to think how people from other cultures will receive this story as a novel and as a drama. 

I can’t control all the details in screenwriting, which is collaborative by nature, but it was interesting to see the insights of other professionals. A novel has no limits, and that is its strength, but overcoming the limits of the dramatic form was a special experience. Each format has its own charm, and I look forward to working on other scripts from time to time in the future. 

Bae: Your fans’ love for you is also unusual. What is your secret? Do your readers abroad share these feelings, too?

Chung: The relationship between a writer and readers is special and irreplaceable. People with a similar disposition join together without having met one another through books. When I like something, I delve into it in great detail and for long periods, and so I wonder if my readers have a similar sensibility. I often read adoring comments from Japan, where many of my books have been translated, and this is greatly encouraging. I expect to attract more fans as I am translated into more languages. 

Bae: Is there something international readers should be aware of that would enrich their reading of Korean literature in KLN or elsewhere?

Chung: If they keep in mind that Korean literature is produced in a fast-changing society, they will better understand it. Korean has developed from an agricultural society to a digitally advanced one all within a hundred years. The literary culture and individual works in each branch of literature are inevitably on different timelines. Korean literature isn’t formed slowly stage by stage. It’s more like a cell splitting before your eyes. 

Bae: How would you like to be remembered as an author, and as a person?

Chung: I’d like to be remembered as a writer who pushed the boundaries of Korean literature in all directions, a writer who expanded them every which way. As a person, I’d be happy to be known as someone who saved many small birds and fish.


Interviewer Bae Myung-hoon · Translator Kari Schenk


Bae Myung-hoon is one of the most popular science fiction writers in South Korea. His short story collections include Hello, Artificial Being (2010) and Art and the Acceleration of Gravity (2016) and novels include Tower (2009), Divine Orbit (2011), Decoy (2012), and First Breath (2015). The English translation of Tower is set to come out from Honford Star in 2020.