[Web Exclusive] Curiosity Born out of Ennui: Interview with Eun Heekyung

  • onAugust 21, 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: What were you like before you became a writer?

Eun Heekyung: I liked spending time alone, and my favorite pastimes were reading and writing. I knew early on that writing was my only forte and I should become a writer. But it wasn’t until I was 35 that I actually became one. The reason being I was a timid and conscientious person. Step by step, I did my part as if I was doing my homework. I went to university after high school, found a job, got married and had children. I thought life was all about doing what was expected of me. Until I reached my mid-30s, the talent or passion I had for writing only expressed itself as an enjoyment of books and cultural activities. But in my mid-30s, I realized something was wrong with my life. I wasn’t very happy. Around that time, I began thinking about what I was doing wrong and why. Then I decided to write about it. Now I had a story that I wanted to tell.


KLN: A Gift from a Bird has been translated into multiple languages. How do you feel about its success?

Eun: A Gift from a Bird is the most widely translated of my works. I think it’s been translated into five languages (Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, German, and French). I once travelled to Mexico after its Spanish translation got published. I visited a high school in Mexico, where I gave a lecture and answered some questions. The experience left such a lasting impression on me. The Mexican students asked similar questions as their Korean counterparts. But their society was so different that the issues I thought were important didn’t matter there. On the other hand, things that didn’t matter to me were considered important. We found some common ground or universality despite the differences. We were able to narrow the gap and interact with one another. It gave me immense joy to meet readers of my work.


KLN: Beauty Looks Down on Me has been recently translated into Russian. Please tell us a bit about the work.

Eun: I wanted to write a new kind of novel. A novel that is at once unfamiliar, sad, beautiful and entertaining. That was the idea behind Beauty Looks Down on Me. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do so well. The stories in the collection convey the moments when things we take for granted become unfamiliar. The title story, “Beauty Looks Down on Me," features an overweight man who were born out of wedlock. He finds out that his long estranged is facing imminent death, and decides to go on a diet to improve his looks so that his father will regret abandoning him. The story reminds us of the human survival instinct ingrained in our DNA. Long ago, primitive men had to store body fat in order to survive harsh environments. Modern men must lose body fat in order to be considered superior. The story depicts that dilemma. The protagonist retains DNA passed down from his father but denies his own heritage. At the same time, the society is full of prejudices. The story explores all these concerns. You’ll find a very detailed diet plan in the story, which makes it all the more entertaining.


KLN: When writing a novel, you start with a question rather than a theme. Please explain this in more detail.

Eun: When I introduce myself as a writer at overseas events or to foreigners, some people ask me what I write about, which always takes me aback. ‘I write about people.’ I can only give this broad answer.

Do you write about love? Yes, I do. Do you write about family? Yes, I do. Do you write about the society? Yes, I do. Do you write about history? Yes, I do.

I’m not trying to turn my writing into a particular genre. Rather, I’m always asking questions about what life throws at me. Those questions turn into novels in the end. I think about what conditions we face in life. We all live in different conditions, and some of them are utterly absurd. I ask myself these questions, and consider relationships in which power enables people to make others miserable. The more I wonder where the fundamental error lies, the deeper my thoughts run, and I end up with stories about people. Actually, I can’t care less what stories I come up with. I believe that stories or narratives can easily be created or derived using a kind of permutation.


KLN: You’re often described as a cynical writer. What’s your take on that?

Eun: I’ve been told I’m cynical ever since my literary debut. In a way, that was my attitude in the beginning of my writing career. I began writing novels as a way of denying my own life. ‘The way I’m living my life is wrong,’ I thought to myself. ‘What have I done wrong then? Where did I go wrong?’ I took up writing filled with that kind of negative energy. I’m not the kind of novelist who warmly offers comfort and reconciliation. It was never my aim to cover things up and console people. In that kind of patched-up life, emptiness ensues underneath. As long as the established order, which we may call the majority or the strong, forces the weak to keep silence, peace is maintained.

Since I identified myself with the weak, I began writing novels to tell our stories. My stories are certainly critical, pessimistic and cynical. Yet, having been described as ‘a writer of cynicism’ for the past 20 years, I often wonder if I’m really that cynical after all. But then if you think about it, perhaps that attitude itself is cynical. So these days I try to uphold my cynicism, because as time goes by and I grow older, although I shouldn’t, I become more understanding and more embracing. Sometimes I find myself prepared to settle for a compromise. As a result, my novels are getting softer. I believe a writer must never stop asking questions. A writer must keep raising objections. It’s actually necessary to do so.


KLN: What do you think is your special talent as a writer?

Eun: The word ‘boredom’ sums up my talent as a writer. I get bored easily. Once I’ve written something ambiguous, I want to move on to lucidity. Once I’ve dealt with humor, I want to go for a more ostentatious style. Even with the novel I’m working on now, I get bored at times. I find new energy by reminding myself I can do something different next. I tell myself that I’ll write a more fun novel after this. Sometimes while working on a humorous novel, I resolve to write something much more philosophical next. That helps me concentrate better on the current project. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in a writer. I like using various literary devices. I prefer to move from one to another when I write. That’s why some readers, who enjoyed one particular novel of mine, get disappointed to find a completely different style in another. For me, that’s how I keep my energy up as a writer. Even as I write, it’s important to remind myself that I can do something different next so as to boost my energy. Another thing that I may call my gift as a novelist is my lack of certainty. The moment I realize something, I immediately think ‘Maybe it’s not true.’ That’s why I always have something to write about.


KLN: Is there a reason why you like to travel a lot?

Eun: I really like traveling. Maybe it’s because I’m a timid person. I can’t make big changes in life, like moving house or something. So I let those things be, and travel frequently instead. Since I go through intensive periods of work, my life is not serene but consists of a cycle. There are times when I take off after focusing on writing for a while. I often say that writers never get off work. When I travel, I find time to think about life and those thoughts naturally turn into novels. You can almost say traveling is like doing research.

I’ve even traveled off the beaten track. Once, I went to a remote island further away from Tahiti. I was cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by nature. It wasn’t just because of nature that I appreciated the whole experience. When I travel, instead of making an objective observation, I tend to focus on how I feel. On that island, I enjoyed the feeling of being disconnected and isolated. One night I encountered a squall on that remote island with no electricity, I felt as if the island were sinking or rising in darkness. I like destinations that offer unfamiliar discoveries.