[Web Exclusive] Living life: questions upon questions: Interview with Kim Keum Hee

  • onDecember 31, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Your short story collection, Too Bright Outside for Love, has been published in Japan. What does that feel like?

Kim Keum Hee: It came out in spring and it was hard for me to imagine someone in Japan reading my book.  But then my Japanese publisher came over here in June and I got to meet them and was very happy to hear that my book was doing well with young readers in Japan. That was the best kind of feeling. It was thrilling to learn that young people over there, people in their 20s and 30s like my characters, could relate to the characters in a significant way, even with the differences in language and culture.


KLN: What kind of stories can the reader expect to find in Too Bright Outside for Love?

Kim: The title refers to the daytime world, if you like, with all of its constraints not exactly conducive to love. The state of being in love is like an explosion of emotions, but convention dictates that we hold back from fully reveling in those feelings. The book spans 16 years of those kind of memories, of holding back yet wanting to feel the rush of loving someone. Two of the stories, “Too Bright Outside for Love” and “Cecilia,” are focused on artists. Both are concerned with the artistic journey of taking one’s pain and turning it into art. “The World According to Cho Jung-gyun” asks us to consider the titular character, an eccentric person who doesn’t fit in anywhere, who is deemed too earnest, redundant. It’s about taking a look at how such people are viewed in organizations, and asking, is it quite fair to treat them that way, have we ever considered what was going on in that person’s mind? Then there are six other stories, somewhat different in tone, making up the rest of the collection.    


KLN: What made you decide to become a writer?

Kim: I’ve always wanted to write since I was a child. I started writing fiction in earnest in university but after graduation I got a job as an editor at a publishing company. I kept that job until I turned thirty, and I had almost no time to write for myself during that time. I had my hands full just with my work, even working overtime. But then one morning I was running to catch the bus to Paju Book City, and I fell down and hurt myself pretty badly. I was bleeding all over the place but I still flagged the bus down. I stood there squeezed next to the door because there were no seats, and I thought, what am I doing? A few days later I got up in the morning and handed in my resignation. I told them I was quitting to write myself. In hindsight I was forcing myself to hang in until that moment. There are a lot of similarities between writing books and editing them. In that way my job fulfilled my desire to write somewhat. I really liked that job so I thought, maybe I could do this all my life, keep making books that I’m proud of. But at a certain point my heart wasn’t in anymore. I thought, this isn’t what I really want to do.


KLN: How do you come up with your characters?

Kim: I’m mostly drawing on my daily life, things I notice in other people and myself. I just take those traits and give them to my characters. Nobody is an exact copy of a real person but having those bits does add to the verisimilitude. Sometimes a reader will come up to me and say, I know someone just like that. The writer’s job first job when someone picks up their book is to get behind their defenses. You have to make them forget this is a made-up story, that it’s not happening to them to get across the emotion or story that you want to tell. From that perspective it’s probably a good strategy for a writer to use ordinary characters that you might see in real life. That draws the reader in, it makes them think, I know someone like that, and that makes the experience of reading fiction so much richer. I try to draw from my daily life in that aspect. 


KLN: Your expressions always hit the mark, what’s your secret?  

Kim: It comes down to a kind of muscle memory or habit. For instance, at one time I had the thought, this feels like being pulled up like a turnip. That was when I was commuting from Incheon to Seoul by bus, and that’s the way I felt every morning. I couldn’t bear to leave my bed but I had to if I wanted to get to Seoul on time. So that feeling of dragging myself up, it was like being pulled up like a turnip. When you’re writing that kind of memory comes back to you and you think, that’s how it felt. It’s not like I keep a list of expressions like that, but they tend to stay with you. This is what it really felt like, you think. It’s not the kind of thing you’d be likely to forget.


KLN: Tell us about how your hometown of Incheon has influenced your work. 

Kim: When I think of Incheon, I think of a subway platform where people come and go, where all kinds of people gather and disappear. Incheon is an industrial city that attracts a lot of people for work, including migrant workers these days. It’s not exactly the ambiance people associate with a stable neighborhood, but in the forty years that I’ve lived there, those are the years that have informed my point of view as a writer. There were always people from different backgrounds around, and the energy that working class people bring with them was in the air. I grew up near a wood processing factory, on a housing estate built new for the factory workers. Most people had the same kind of job, and I grew up observing these very industrious grownups from the 70s and 80s, their industry and their ruthlessness as well.  Growing up with that experience, and maybe some people would see this negatively, I learned not to take things at face value. I was a child skeptic that grew up to write fiction and I continue to write that way, from a fundamentally skeptical position. I’m asking, what do I believe in, then? Then when I revise my work for the last time I’ll cut out any self-pity or excessive emotion as well. 


KLN: Would you consider yourself an observant person in your daily life?

Kim: There are things that stand out to me. Sometimes I know exactly why, and sometimes I have no idea. Those times I’ll stop and think why something jumped out at me. Not necessarily to write about it, but just analyzing, why did that affect me? And even if it has nothing to do with me, if it’s something that stops me in my tracks, I’ll save it for later. And then it’s there for me to access if I need it later on. Of course anyone who writes is going to be observant in their everyday life but I think it’s especially important to be aware of and respond to those things that stand out.


KLN: Do you have a very different approach to writing short stories as opposed to longer fiction?

Kim: For me, writing short fiction is very stressful. It feels like I have to show what I’m capable of as a writer in the shortest time possible. I feel under pressure that way. I’ve been told I include a lot of anecdotes in my work, even when writing short stories. My stories tend to have a lot of characters as well. I started out writing short stories, like most Korean writers, and now that I’ve tried writing longer fiction I find it less stressful. You have enough room to be as descriptive as you want to be, so that’s a win in my book. On the other hand, having too much room raises other questions like, do I have to fill in every bit of blank space? Is that what makes a novel? It’s something to ponder. Ultimately there are advantages and disadvantages to both, but I think of novels as the writers’ form. It’s where you have the space to say everything you want.


KLN: A lot of your work seems to speak to readers in their 20s and 30s, is there any special reason for that?

Kim: It was in my 20s and 30s that I asked the most questions about life. More in my 20s, to be exact. I had all these questions about the world, about the way things supposedly worked. When I started working, there were definitely a lot of things that I questioned: why was this or that necessary? And then my seniors or bosses would explain but in a tone that implied, that’s just the way things are. That wasn’t a real answer to me, not now, and certainly not then. I was the one saying, ‘Says who?’ Now I tend to think of the generation in their 20s and 30s as those who ask the sanest questions, those who are living as hard as they can. So when it comes to the questions of that generation, I tend to agree with them. They’re not wrong. They’re not wrong to ask those questions about their daily lives.


KLN: What would you like to write about in the future?

Kim: I always have things that I want to write about. I have all of these episodes saved up inside of me, and knowing that is my saving grace. Because once a book is finished, it’s out of your hands. It becomes something of the past. So really what keeps me going is the stories and episodes that are everywhere in the present. They’re never far from my mind when I write. When I write about a certain character, I want to depict them in their own context, so that when someone reads what I’ve written they can reflect upon their own lives. ‘Oh, so that’s the story behind that situation.’ I don’t think of my stories as particularly exciting or plot-driven. That’s not what I want to write about. What I’d like is to write something that people will read and come away with a slightly different perspective of their daily lives. That’s what I’m working towards and hoping to achieve. Visit us at to read more on Korean writers and their works.