[Web Exclusive] Interview with Kim Choyeop: Our Familiar Yet Distant World

  • onSeptember 28, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Please introduce yourself to overseas readers.

Kim: Hello. My name is Kim Choyeop and I write mostly science fiction. I made my literary debut in 2018, and published my first book, If We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light, in 2019. I write both literary fiction and non-fiction essays.


KLN: While at university, you wrote non-fiction about science. How did you get interested in writing fiction?

Kim: During my university years, I was largely interested in non-fiction about science such as science columns. Around the time of my graduation, I picked up a few books on novel writing. Before then, I had not tried writing fiction because I didn’t think I had what it took to become a novelist. But I realized that even without any natural talent I could still learn the techniques of novel writing through books and workshops. So, I started taking writing classes to hone my skills.


KLN: What was your first sci-fi novel about?

Kim: I was a science major at university. One day, I found out about a sci-fi writing competition for students. I wrote my very first novel for that contest. It’s about a near-future society set in Korea, which seems similar to today’s world, but is devoid of love. Love is deemed as irrational by everyone and is thus banned in that society.


KLN: You have a degree in biochemistry. Does it come in handy for writing novels?

Kim: Biochemistry does not feature directly in my novels. Because of my academic background, I’m particularly wary of creating scientific nonsense. But the process of acquiring new knowledge in science can be applied to all other fields. So, I use that skill a lot to conduct research for my novels.It’s useful to have basic knowledge.


KLN: What do science and literature have in common?

Kim: I like novels that ask questions. Quite a few of my short novels are structured like a process of searching for answers to certain questions or tracing stories. That’s similar to the way science poses questions and then seeks answers to them.


KLN: You are a member of the Science Fiction Writers Union of the Republic of Korea (SFWUK). Please tell us more about the organization.

Kim: It’s basically an organization for protection of the rights of writers. In addition, we support and encourage each other’s creative endeavors. Although we don’t usually exchange manuscripts, we run creative workshops. I get together with other members once a month to check each other’s writing progress. Last year, I participated in a full-length novel writing club.


KLN: Has any of your works been translated into a foreign language?

Kim: The online fantasy and science fiction magazine Clarkesworld ran a year-long special project on Korean sci-fi writers, which included my story “Symbiosis Theory.” Although my English is not brilliant, I could tell that the translator was very fond of the story. Even with my limited English, I found the translation to be eloquent. Since it’s only a short story, the translator didn’t have too many questions. But the few questions she did ask pointed to the cultural gap between Korea and the English-speaking world—the Korean age system, for example. She would ask me to specify if someone was male or female, whereas in the Korean language, pronouns can be gender-neutral.


KLN: Why should we read sci-fi literature from Korea? How is it different?

Kim: I recently published a sci-fi story set against the backdrop of a Ferris wheel in Ulsan, a seaside city in the southeast of Korea. Korean sci-fi literature may not be vastly different or unique compared to its counterparts in other countries. But there are quite a few stories set in everyday places. Even in stories set in outer space, the way characters with Korean names—nothing like “Jenny”—talk to one another may seem strange at first. That’s because the sci-fi genre is believed to be dominated by white male writers. It may feel awkward to see Koreans go into space and interact with aliens. But Korean writers have carefully taken that into consideration. We’re developing a new kind of imagination that will play a pivotal role in the future. Korean sci-fi literature presents a world that is at once familiar and strange to Korean readers. On the other hand, stories set in India or Africa feel different just for their settings. But sci-fi stories set in Korea bring aliens or other strange beings into places with which we’re familiar. It creates a whole new sense of difference—and an enjoyable one at that. On the contrary, overseas readers can newly discover the charms of sci-fi literature through stories set in a distant land called Korea.


KLN: You’ve gained huge popularity among young readers. What’s the key to your success?

Kim: I try to make sure that my stories are easy to read. Science fiction may not be the most accessible genre, but it unfolds such quintessentially exciting new dimensions. I’ve made my writing accessible while retaining such characteristics.


KLN: What are your aspirations as a writer?

Kim: Instead of setting myself a grand goal, I hope to write diligently for many years to come. As a writer, I’ll avoid getting trapped in my own world and always listen to my readers.


English subtitles translated by Helen Cho


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.