[Web Exclusive] Interview with Gu Byeong-mo

  • onJuly 6, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byKorean Literature Now



Could you tell us about the significance of the title, The Old Woman with the Knife?

The first suggestion of the title in Korean, Pagwa, would be damaged fruit. It’s an industry term for fallen fruit or fruit that’s past its prime, gone slightly bad so it’s not commercially viable anymore. I chose it as the title for its symbolism, to represent a person who was past their prime. But the same word, just by changing the Chinese characters but not the pronunciation, can also mean a fresh young woman of 16 years old. So the title has a double meaning, a cruelly ironic one. In translation, of course, it’s impossible to keep both meanings, so either we would choose a completely new title, or go with the meaning of damaged fruit.


Hornclaw, the protagonist of The Old Woman with the Knife, is a contract killer who happens to be a 65-year-old woman. Her character transcends the limits of her age and gender. And in The Wizard Bakery, the boy protagonist finds refuge in a magical bakery where he can overcome the limits of being a child. Where would you say you are leading with these transcendental elements in your work?

Creating unusual characters or an unusual background ties in with one of the most important aspects of literature for me, which is its transcendental power. With literature, we’re always dreaming of somewhere beyond the here and now. It’s an art form that constantly reaches beyond our limitations of the present.


The long-ago judges’ commentary for The Wizard Bakery mentions how it “captures the unrelenting nightmare of retaliation that grinds on even in a magical world.” What would you say is the relation between the world we live in and the world of fiction?

In my own life, I don’t make a great distinction between the world we live in and the world of fiction. Just like there are moments in our real lives that we might say, ‘Wow, that’s just like a novel,’ I think there are plenty of examples where fiction pales in comparison to reality. When The Wizard Bakery first came out it was very popular with a lot of young readers, but there was a lot of concern on the part of adults who would like to see our youth grow up into upstanding citizens, saying that the premise was wildly improbable, that such a protagonist could never exist in real life, that there could not possibly be families like that, or teenagers that went through things like that. But the truth is that more outrageous things happen in the world we live in than the world of fiction. I don’t think that fiction has the power to change the real world directly, but it does hold up a mirror to the world we live in, to force us to confront the awfulness of the real world. 


You are known for using uncommon words, and sometimes very long sentences. What is the significance behind this choice in your literary style?

I have had a lot of feedback on uncommon vocabulary. What I think about those words is, those words that remain unused and buried in the dictionary, is that they are in danger of disappearing. Words that are meaningful, words that have all sorts of connotations, words that are just beautiful to say out loud, there are so many words that are confined to the dictionary that I feel like it’s a shame not to use them. So I decided to excavate the words we don’t use every day, a bit like a miner digging for coal. That’s what I was going for.

As for writing very long sentences, I have had readers say that they actually ran out of breath reading them. I’d like to apologize to all those readers, I’m sorry I made your breath run out. If you’ll bear with me, though, I can explain how I started writing that way. I felt like we, as a society, were too used to speed. To getting to the bottom of things as quickly as possible, wanting to know how something ends right away. I wanted to push back against that idea: what if I were not to worry about getting someplace quickly but to take all the time I wanted? That’s how I began writing long sentences.


With The Old Woman with the Knife and The Wizard Bakery, what were the respective messages you wished to convey?  

A lot of the time readers are very focused on the message of a book. When I write, it’s not so much that I have a story I want to tell or a specific message, but rather there are certain scenes or images I want to show the reader. For instance, I know many people enjoy The Wizard Bakery for its overall theme, but when I was writing it there was a key scene, where the protagonist keeps breaking off pieces of a roll he has in his pocket and eating them until there are only crumbs left. That was the sort of image I wanted to convey. In The Old Woman with the Knife, the protagonist is an older woman so people at the market or the gym call out to her, “Hello, Mother,” “Won’t you stop by here, Mother?” the way people often address older women in our society. That’s when the protagonist sweeps by and says very coolly, “I’m not your mother.” That’s what I wanted to show.


What does it feel like meeting foreign readers through your work?

When a book of mine is getting ready to be published in another country, the overwhelming feeling I have towards foreign readers is, ‘Pleased to meet you, I hope you enjoy my book.’ None of this would have been possible without the help of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, my agents and publishers in Korea and abroad, and the tireless work of translators who make it possible for readers from other countries to read my books in their language. Thank you to you all. 


Could you share your thoughts on the state of Korean literature today?

Compared to the senior generation of writers, I would say that Korean literature today is less concerned about the country, the people, and more focused on the individual. I think these changes are very positive and following the natural course of things. A lot of young, energetic writers are doing so many exciting things now, I feel like the accumulation of these efforts is setting the tone for another era in Korean literature.