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.
Jung: How did your way of thinking change before and after you started to write books? I’m curious to know how your thoughts about evil have changed.
Jeong: Before I started writing novels, I thought that it was evil to disobey the norms that have been laid out by our society, to commit acts like murder or theft. But after studying evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, I realized that social norms and morality are elements of cultures, and that these norms are things that humans have created. If other animals fight and kill amongst themselves, we don’t say that it’s wicked or pass moral judgment. I find it very interesting to think about human evils for what they are and to study where they come from without using morality as a restrictive standard. I’ve developed an eye for looking at the “evil itself” without holding it to a moral standard or ethical criterion.
Jung: I’m curious to talk about what you’ve been working on recently as well. Your readers are probably wondering, too. What are you writing right now?
Jeong: It’s been ten years now since I became a writer, and I’ve published five books. For my sixth book, it looks like I’m going to finally have a female protagonist at the forefront. I’ve only written male protagonists until now. I’m planning to bring a lot of fantastical elements into the next novel. The book will draw from the genre of fantasy while maintaining the elements of a thriller. As in 28, the premise will be widespread societal disaster.
Jung: I know that you take copious amounts of notes when you’re working on a novel. I’d like to hear about the writing process, from your initial ideas for subject matter to the synopsis to the completion of the work.
Jeong: Once I have an idea and write down a synopsis, I start to do a huge amount of research. First I read a ton of books, next I do interviews, and then I handwrite a draft in a notebook. Then I see what I need to supplement. After that. I go out to gather more information and add what’s needed. This is when the real work begins, and as I start to work on my laptop, I add flavor to the details, make the scenes livelier, and give the characters more of a three-dimensional quality. Even though it’s just a rough draft, I go through these three steps in the writing process. If more than 10 percent of the original draft is left, I consider the novel to be a failure. This is because what I think of first tends to be at the surface level of my consciousness, and I find that that’s not where my real creative inspiration lies. I’m not the type to trust myself. Only if I skim off that first superficial idea will the real story hiding at the bottom of my consciousness rise to the top, so I revise my drafts multiple times, throw them away, and write them again. Lastly, I read the manuscript backwards. If I have chapters one through twenty, I read from twenty to one. When I examine the story backwards like this, I can see the final holes in the manuscript. Filling those holes is my last job. The novel that was the most different from its original synopsis was The Good Son, and the most difficult to revise was 28.
Jung: You’re also a really diligent reader, as you read widely in a variety of fields for your research. What have you been reading recently?
Jeong: A while ago, I developed an interest in astrophysics. I’ve been learning about the Big Bang Theory, too. I looked at some books on quantum physics as well, but they were so difficult that reading them would make my mind go blank, and I’d slump over as if I’d just taken ten sleeping pills at once. [laughs] Now I’m very interested in anthropology. Jared Mason Diamond’s books are all good. Recently I’ve been reading research on apes and chimpanzees, anthropology and social psychology readings, things like that. Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is really interesting, too.
Jung: If you look at your previous works, they all have strong components of a thriller. Is there a reason you’re attracted to thrillers in particular?
Jeong: I think there are two kinds of novels. The first type is a novel that makes you think and the second is a novel that gives you experiences. Novels that make the reader think are philosophical and are difficult, profound stories. In novels that make readers have new experiences, the most important thing is a feeling of solidarity with the reader. You have to grab the reader’s hand and pull him or her into a new, unfamiliar world. Then you have to lock the door so he or she can’t escape. I always wanted to write those kinds of novels. I wanted to show this world that I created to readers and say, “This is how I see the world and humanity and life. How do you see them?” And that’s how I came to enjoy thrillers, because they incite curiosity in readers. I like fear, too. When I was writing Shoot Me in the Heart, I spent about a year going hiking alone at night in order to understand the psychology of a blind person. It was a little scary, walking through cemeteries alone. I’d like for readers to feel that same sort of chilly terror when they read my books. I hope that reading my books has that same thrilling excitement, the feeling you get when you turn around thinking, “Is there something behind me?” or because it seems like someone just brushed by you.
Jung: Shoot Me in the Heart has been turned into a movie, and Seven Years of Darkness and The Good Son are currently in the process of being made into films as well. How do you feel about this?
Jeong: I think that movies are really in the realm of the director. I don’t care if the director caters to my own novelistic intentions; I just want the movie to show off the director’s creative vision. I actually hope that the director can present some completely new perspective that I’ve never thought of. The scriptwriters have all told me that out of the books they’ve worked with, my novels are the most difficult to make into movies. There’s no fluff that can be cut out. If you remove even one plot element from the original novel, the entire narrative structure falls apart. When I last saw the script for Seven Years of Darkness, it was in its thirtieth draft. The thirtieth draft! They said that after that, they revised it seventeen more times. That’s how difficult and frustrating it is to make novels into movies.
Jung: Thrillers are such a firmly established genre abroad that it must have been a challenge to break into the market. I’d like to hear if you think that there are certain characteristics common to your novels, traits that distinguish “a Jeong You Jeong thriller.”
Jeong: I don’t target foreign readers when I write novels. I don’t even target domestic readers. Readers say that I’m not a reader-friendly writer. It seems like I always do the exact opposite of what they want. They ask me, “Please, could you just stop writing about villains?” but I don’t. Other readers ask, “Can’t you make your dark stories a little more palatable and write something happy with nice characters?” I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t bend to the will of my readers at all. Instead, I try as hard as I can to make them enjoy my writing. If that means I need humor in the book, I write humor, and sometimes I even make the story lewd—whatever it takes to make readers interested enough to turn to the next page. But with that in mind, the premise and the subject matter are completely my own. I don’t work around readers’ tastes but focus rather on the psychological thriller at hand. I pay a lot of attention to shedding light on characters’ inner psychology.
Jung: I want to hear what you’re going to write next. What do you plan for the future?
Jeong: I want to tell the most fundamental, basic life stories. Just like everyone else, there have been a lot of twists and turns to my life, and we all have our own grief. I want to write about these simple twists and turns and sorrows. My hope has always been to put out novels regularly, and at a certain level of quality. I hope that I can continue to write for the rest of my life.
by Jung Yeoul
Literary Critic and Write