I Want to Write Novels With All the Intrigue of a Thriller: A Conversation with Jeong You Jeong
- onSeptember 25, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byJung Yeoul
Jung Yeoul: I’d like to start by asking what you’ve been up to since 28 and The Good Son were released.
Jeong You Jeong: From May last year, when The Good Son was released, until October, I was on a publicity tour for the book and attending literary events. I met quite a few international readers in places like Arles and Aix-en-Provence, in France, too. I gave a talk about Seven Years of Darkness at a huge library, and I was really pleased to see foreign readers actively asking questions and buying a lot of copies of the book. Recently, I went to the United States for the first time. My younger sister lives there. I was intending to plan out my next novel under the warm California sun, but we spent so much time swimming and enjoying the sunshine that the trip went by faster than I realized. I’m now in the midst of research for that novel. While I was writing The Good Son, which has a psychopath as the protagonist, I started to worry that the book was getting to me and I was becoming a psychopath myself. But after resting and allowing myself to recharge, it seems like I’m ready to start working on something new.
Jung: The premise of 28 is that a disease is transmitted to humans by man’s best friend—dogs. I’m curious to know what prompted you to come up with this idea.
Jeong: In 2011, South Korea was struck with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. As a reactionary measure, countless cows and pigs were buried alive. Millions of cows and pigs, buried alive just like that. When I saw on the news what was happening, it rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t think about it much. One day early in the morning, though, I saw a video by an animal rights activist who’d gone to a place where pigs were being buried. The activist was almost wailing as she shot this video of pigs being indiscriminately buried alive. On camera was this scene of holes being dug and pigs being pushed into them, squirming to stay alive and stepping on top of each other, and the activist absolutely bawled while watching. I cried a lot, too. God will spite us for this, I thought. I wondered what would have happened if this hadn’t been foot-and-mouth disease but some truly deadly animal-spread illness—if it had been a deadly infectious disease, something that could be spread by dogs and cats, would we humans have killed all our cats and dogs, too? Those were the questions that came to mind. That evening, I finished a short synopsis of the book. I was originally a nurse, but I needed more specialized knowledge about contagious diseases, so I searched out veterinary professors and studied up on viruses before writing 28.
Jung: Unlike your other books, 28 has multiple narrators and is told from several points of view. Did your decision to structure the book like this have a connection to its subject matter?
Jeong: With Seven Years of Darkness, I went deep into the narrator’s inner thoughts, but in 28, I was trying to expand my narrative capabilities as much as possible. Just one perspective isn’t sufficient to do that. The main character has blind spots, you see. If I’d told the story as an omniscient narrator, the mentality of the novel’s protagonist or narrator wouldn’t have been as vivid, so I wrote neither in the first person nor as an omniscient narrator—I wrote in close-range third person, with multiple narrators. Since it was the first time I’d written in third person from multiple perspectives, it was really challenging and strenuous, but after completing the novel, I had a new sort of confidence as a writer.
Jung: Your work has dealt with the idea of the villain in multiple ways, but you said that in The Good Son, you were able to pursue this idea most satisfactorily and with the most depth. What made you want to explore the inner mind of a villain?
Jeong: I think that there are two coexisting sides to humans. You can really see this if you compare us to apes, the typical examples being orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Bonobos are a pacifist species, and they try to solve all conflicts with love. Because they use physical connection as the solution to conflict, you sometimes hear that Bonobos are “promiscuous.” Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are masculine and aggressive. I see humans as having both these extremes, the bonobo-like pacifism and the chimpanzee-like aggression. In some regards, humans are unbelievably noble, and in other regards, unbelievably shameful and nasty and wicked. What I depict best is not humanity’s grandeur but its wickedness. Since college, I’ve really enjoyed classes related to psychiatry. This interest in humanity’s dark and wicked sides developed into my curiosity as an author who writes thrillers.