Interview with Kim Choyeop: To View Life from a Step Removed
- onSeptember 25, 2020
- Vol.49 Autumn 2020
- byBora Chung
Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung
Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello. My name is Kim Choyeop, and my specialty is science fiction. I launched my career in 2017, winning the Korean SF Award in the short story and novella category, and in 2019, I went on to publish my first story collection, If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light.
What prompted you to start writing fiction?
My interest in science led me to major in chemistry as an undergrad and biochemistry in graduate school. I’ve enjoyed writing since I was a child, but I used to write mostly nonfiction—essays or informative articles. In my days as a student, I regularly wrote science columns for school papers and journals.
It was around the time I graduated from university that I read some formal guides to writing. I became interested in writing genre fiction and decided to try my hand at it. As luck would have it, new opportunities were opening up at exactly that time—webzines were soliciting stories and contests were seeking entries. It was a great time to start my career.
You said that your interest in science led you to major in chemistry. Can you elaborate?
In middle school science class, I learned about atoms, molecules, elements and the periodic table for the first time and was intrigued. It seems like the world plays host to a tremendous variety of substances, but at root, they follow certain principles, and if you understand the small things, this knowledge can be extended to the large as well. I found this idea very attractive. In particular, it was my interest in the chemical elements that compose human beings and the elements that exert influences on them that eventually led me to major in chemistry and biochemistry.
In which of your works so far does this interest figure most prominently?
“Gamjeongui mulseong” (The science of feeling) reflects this interest. The story is very short and based on the following premise: fancy household goods that control human emotions are surging in popularity. Even in my daily life, it often occurs to me that our thoughts and feelings are subject to material influences.
Tell us about your favorite writers and works of fiction.
I like the fiction of Korean writers Jeong Soyeon and Kim Bo-young. In terms of the international scene, I’m partial to the work of the late Octavia Butler. Besides science fiction, I also enjoy reading nonfiction on the topic of science. I especially like The Human Age and A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. I consider Ackerman a role model. She combines solid scientific knowledge with a beautiful prose style, and even with her discerning eye, she hasn’t lost her sense of optimism.
And if we were to limit the field to SF?
Confining my choices to recent works, I’d cite Hwang Mo-gwa’s first story collection, The Faces of Night, as a Korean work, and Hao Jingfang’s story collections The Depths of Loneliness and AI: Mirror of Man as compelling foreign works. I tend to gravitate towards the work of contemporary women authors, both Korean and overseas. We live at the same time and we’re riding the same wave, but even so, it strikes me that we write in different styles on different subject matter according to our individual backgrounds, circumstances, and nationalities.
Turning to another medium, are there any SF movies or dramas that you fancy?
While I’m not inclined to watch SF movies, I often enjoy dramas. I adore Doctor Who and watched it fervently. I also like some of the Black Mirror episodes. My favorite was the first episode in Season 4, titled “USS Callister.” Recently, I’ve been watching Star Trek: Discovery when I can spare the time, and it’s interesting.
Are the stories you like the same ones you find instructive in terms of improving your own writing?
Sometimes they are and sometimes not. Even when I read works by my favorite authors, I have a hard time becoming immersed in them as I always find my attention drawn to the methods the author is using—I read from the point of view of a craftsperson and not a reader. If a story is told in a completely different medium, as in a drama or a game, then I can relax and become more involved. Since those are outside my purview, I feel freed from a craftsperson’s perspective.
Were there works that you used as references, or works that helped you grow as a writer? In what way did these works affect your writing?
As I was preparing for my first writing contest and immediately after my debut, I sought out science fiction by women writers. I mentioned Octavia Butler before. On reading her work Kindred, Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, and Nancy Kress’s Dancing on Air, I was surprised to find that many SF works delve deeply into the characters and their inner lives. When I write, I tend to focus on internal conflict and transformation in my characters, and I wonder if this doesn’t represent the influence of these works on my writing.
Are there any special rituals that you observe to overcome writer’s block?
I don’t have a particular method. I tend to play games or watch YouTube when I can’t write, but this kind of escapism does nothing to help me write again. Sometimes reading helps a little to get my thoughts flowing.
Where do you usually write? Is there a particular place where writing comes more easily?
I frequently change work environments. I’ve been in several creative writing residency programs. Last year, I divided my time between my writer’s residence and workspaces offered by the district office and a Seoul hotel. At the start of this year, I spent two months alone in Chiang Mai, Thailand, writing. Sometimes if I need to concentrate hard over a short period, I also spend a few days at a business hotel. When I didn’t change workspaces or visit cafes for a few months this year after the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, my writing pace slowed. I prefer the strangeness of a new space to the familiarity of a single, designated space.
I think that windows and natural lighting are crucial for a writing space. If I’m writing along and then get stuck, I need to be able to gaze out at the view for quite a while. This view needn’t be particularly grand, but I haven’t been able to write easily when facing a wall.
Tell us about your daily life as you write out a full draft. Do you follow a routine?
I tend to spend a long time in the planning stage, and so I get through the draft very quickly. Many times I find myself working myself haggard in that period of intense writing before the deadline. Then my sleep hours are irregular and my meals haphazard—I write through the night until 6 a.m. and then take a short nap or something. I refrain from making appointments and postpone all my daily work until I’m finished. I specialized in writing short stories until recently, and so I usually spent a week to ten days like this, but now that I’m writing novels, I require at least a month of intense concentration. By contrast, the planning stage is spent in a leisurely fashion. I sleep well, I read a lot of books, I watch documentaries—I try to assemble all the ingredients that will go into the story. The books and information I read and store in my memory at this stage are of great assistance when I have to start writing.
Do you find that there are certain writing utensils or stationery supplies that you like, or that help with writing? Or maybe you don’t use pens, as you find you have to type for the writing to flow? Tell us about the tools you prefer.
I usually plan out the story on pen and paper and do the main writing on my computer, but sometimes I write in lined notebooks. I love mechanical keyboards, so from before the time I became an author I was buying and selling various models. Recently I’ve been doing my work on a capacitive non-contact keyboard.
When you’re stuck, do you switch to writing a different scene?
When I’m not making progress, I stop and write a paragraph about the setting or context to the story. This is fun to write. I haven’t yet mapped out the world of the story or figured out the details when I write the first draft, so if I stop and write descriptions of these as I go, it sorts out my thoughts as well as alleviates writer’s block. I may, however, delete those passages from the finished version.
You’ve been involved with the Science Fiction Writers’ Union of the Republic of Korea (SFWUK) since its inception in 2017. How did you become aware of this group, why did you join, and what would you say your role has been?
The Science Fiction Writers’ Union was formed in 2017, not long after I won the Korean SF Award. I joined immediately thanks to an invitation from author Jeong Soyeon, who was instrumental in founding the group. I was a new author and thought I could benefit from this involvement. I was nominated as operations director at the inaugural meeting and spent two years in this position. During that time, I saw and learned a great deal. I became aware of problems that writers were having working individually, for example, signing unfavorable contracts due to a lack of information, or receiving unfair treatment from publishers. I remember frequent contacts and exchanges with other writers as I fulfilled my office duties. Currently, I’m sitting as a committee member, but I’ve spent this time quietly as most events this year have been cancelled due to COVID-19.
Speaking of COVID-19, do you have any opinions or predictions on the pandemic from the perspective of an author or scientist?
All the offline events scheduled this year have been postponed or cancelled. I’d have been more active than any time since my debut if everything had gone as planned, but instead, I’ve spent more time alone. As for predictions, they aren’t within my sphere of expertise. Now is the time to attend to warnings and counsel from the experts.
Until we experienced it, the current situation would have seemed like something straight out of science fiction. Have you ever thought of writing a work about a contagious disease? Also, have you ever taken inspiration from life to write science fiction?
As it happens, I’ve been commissioned to write a short story about a contagious disease and am drafting it now. I’ve had a lot of concerns about it because of the present situation, though, and I reinterpret the meaning of contagious disease in the story so that it hardly resembles COVID-19 at all. While things I see and feel are always present in my work, it takes a great deal of time to convert these impressions into stories. The reason I like SF as a genre is that it allows you to view life from a position that’s a step removed, so I don’t write my direct impressions of things in stories.
From your work, I can tell that you care about marginalized groups. What drew your attention to those who are sidelined by technology, when you could have just focused your imagination on technical development?
While attending school, I became interested in Science and Technology Studies (STS), even leading a student workshop on the subject. STS is the interdisciplinary study of how society, science, and technology interact and change one another. Through the lens of STS, technoscience is viewed as contextual knowledge formed by social structures and institutions, and cultural prejudices and ideologies, rather than objective or independent knowledge in itself. According to the field, we have outsiders’ knowledge and “undone science”—areas of research that have been systematically neglected—as counterparts to technological development and the illusion of progress. This view has greatly influenced which characters and subject matter I highlight when I write.
In the future, what kind of author would you like to be? What would you like to leave as your legacy in the field of international literature, regardless of genre?
I’d rather be a writer who enjoys writing colorful stories than a writer who is considered influential. I often find myself hoping that my works give my readers happiness. By and large, I think I’m lucky so far in that stories I enjoy writing seem to be enjoyable to my readers. It’s my priority now, as in the future, to write works that can be read easily and enjoyably, and that remain with readers long after they’ve turned the final page. And I believe that if I work towards this aim, fame and critical success will follow naturally.
Interviewer Bora Chung · Translator Kari Schenk
Bora Chung is a writer of science fiction and generally unrealistic stories. She teaches Russian language and literature at Yonsei University and translates modern literary works from Russian and Polish into Korean. She has published three novels and three short story collections in Korean. Cursed Bunny, her first book to appear in English translation, is forthcoming from Honford Star in 2021.
Kim Choyeop (b. 1993) holds a BA in chemistry and an MA in biochemistry from Pohang University of Science and Technology. She launched her literary career in 2017 when two of her stories, “Irretrievable” (excerpted in this issue) and “If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light,” won the grand and runner-up prizes respectively at the 2017 Korean SF Awards. She then went on to win the Today’s Writer Award in 2019. Her debut short story collection, If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light (Hubble, 2019), was a record-breaking bestseller in South Korea, and a Japanese translation is set to be released by Hayakawa Publishing. One of the stories from the book, “Symbiosis Theory,” was also published in Clarkesworld magazine.