[Interview with Kwon Yeo-sun] Blood, Lemon, Cigarettes, and the God of Liquor

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byYoo Hui-sok


Yoo Hui-sok: Let’s start off the interview with something casual. What is the first thing you do in the morning?

Kwon Yeo-sun: I’m not sure if it’s okay for me to say this, but I start off my day with a cigarette. I don’t feel awake if I don’t smoke.

Yoo: Are you active on social media? If not, could you share some of your perspectives on social media?

Kwon: I used to post on Twitter or Facebook once in a while after a drink, but not so much anymore. But I do read and comment on posts by my Facebook friends. I love it because most of my friends on Facebook and Twitter are fellow writers, literary scholars, or bibliophiles, and they have a lot of useful information and thoughtful insights to share.

As for my general thoughts, I think social media can be a great playground for anyone, as long as they don’t let these platforms consume them. At least, that’s what I think of it on principle. Realistically, the fact that these are real people on social media means that sometimes it makes me feel disillusioned or vicariously embarrassed for people who are just too transparent in spite of their efforts to hide themselves. It’s a place with its share of problems, just like any other place in society.

Yoo: In your opinion, what is the difference between a novelist and a poet?

Kwon: If I were to put myself at the center of that question, a novelist is something I was able to become, and a poet something I wasn’t able to become. But I’m not sure why that’s the case, and I can’t really define that difference.

Yoo: You’re known to be fond of drinking. Could you give us a word of praise for the God of Liquor?

Kwon: Just thinking of him brings a smile to my lips, a glint to my eye, and love for every person on the planet. He truly works miracles.

Yoo: Do you ever want to learn a new language?

Kwon: No. Even Korean, my native language, is hard enough. I do want to take some time to read Middle Korean, though. It’s just as intensive as learning a foreign language.

Yoo: Because you majored in Korean literature in graduate school, does a part of you identify as a scholar of the field and not just an author? Did that perspective affect your growth as a novelist?

Kwon: Yes, but at first, it had a very bad influence on my writing. I was heavily criticized while writing my thesis because my sentences were supposedly not appropriate for academia. And I agreed with the criticism. So I thought I would be better off becoming a novelist, but the styles I had learned in school subconsciously carried over into my work. I had developed a habit of forcing my sentences and narratives into logical flows, which drained them of dynamism. It made it look like I was boasting about my intellect in many cases, and my characters all sounded like intellectuals—and these were just some of the problems I faced. But looking back, those problems weren’t caused by my academic background. They were simply manifestations of my own shortcomings. Studying literature came with benefits too, the best being that I was trained to read difficult theoretical texts. I also learned that reading these scholarly texts really spurred my imagination.

Yoo: Your debut work was a full-length novel titled The Blue Opening, published in 1996. That means you’ve been an author for over twenty years now. If writing is the act of nourishing readers’ souls, what do you find is the most intensive part of that “cooking process”?

Kwon: Flavor should of course be the top priority when it comes to cooking, but I tend to put more effort into conveying the fact that my food tastes better when we consume it together. I want readers to know that by sharing, by empathizing, and by opening up our hearts, we are able to truly appreciate the depths of the many flavors that novels offer.

Yoo: Your stories are as keen as a razor when it comes to exposing the hypocrisies of society, while simultaneously being warm and empathetic to the voiceless people of the world. The singular coexistence of these unyielding perspectives is one of the reasons you have such a large following. Could you recommend three stories in particular from your bibliography for readers hungry for more?

Kwon: For short stories, I would recommend “Spring Night” (“Bombam”), and for novels, I would recommend The Blue Opening (Pureureun Teumsae) and House of Clay Figurines (To-u-ui Jip). Writing is never an easy task, but “Spring Night” holds the special distinction of being the only one that made me cry during the writing process. The Blue Openingwas, of course, my debut work, which I’d fretted over as I made my first submission. House of Clay Figurines sold the least out of all my publications. It’s a bittersweet book, sort of like an aching finger that’s always going to be a part of me.

Yoo: You’ve lived the life of a “cynical optimist,” to put it inelegantly. Could you share what makes you feel the best and worst about the world?

Kwon: I feel the best about the world when I’m fully expecting to drink soon. As for the worst, it’s when I’m fully expecting that the story I’m writing will fail.

Yoo: The late US author Charles Bukowski once wrote: You see what the racetrack does? It makes the lines roll. Lightning and luck. The last bluebird singing. Anything I say sounds fine because I gamble when I write. Too many are too careful. They study, they teach and they fail. Convention strips them of their fire.

If you could add anything to this, what would you say? And is there anything analogous to Bukowski’s racetrack for you as a writer?

Kwon: I don’t think I have anything that “makes the lines roll” like a stroke of “lightning and luck.” Not even drinking does that for me. So I can’t say I have anything to add. But if Bukowski writes as though he were a gambler, I’m the type who writes as though I were preparing bean sprouts for cooking. I take a sprout, break off the head and the tail, and do the same with the next sprout and the one after it. It’s endless repetition, a job where I only get as much as I put in. For me, the time I spend on a piece of writing corresponds exactly with its quality.

Yoo: Your 2012 novel Legato was about the Gwangju Uprising, where citizens of Gwangju rose up for democracy, and the 2014 novel House of Clay Figurines was about the People’s Revolutionary Party Incident, where the South Korean dictatorship accused citizens of being communist sympathizers [based on laws enacted in 1965 and 1975]. These are social themes that can exert enormous pressure on a writer, and you commented in an interview that it was akin to doing homework in your own way. But these “homework assignments” seem to just keep coming. The Sewol ferry sinking in 2014 is a little different from the aforementioned incidents in history, but it is a significant social event nonetheless. As an author, how do you approach Korea in the post-Sewol world?

Kwon: I think it will take a very long time before I can write about the Sewol sinking, just as it took a long time for the Gwangju Uprising and the People’s Revolutionary Party Incident.

Yoo: Congratulations on publishing the novel Lemon. On that note, could you give readers a brief introduction to the book and tell us about what the concept of “family” is to you?

Kwon: Lemon deals with the death of a beautiful girl and its aftermath—her family’s pain, the pain of the family of the accused, and the theme of revenge. In terms of format, I’ve used more elements of genre fiction in this book than in any I’ve written before.

When I was young, family was defined by blood relations, like a destiny that I had no say in. So it came with its share of pain and sadness, and of course with happiness and warmth. But now my idea of family has changed. It doesn’t only encompass blood relations, but is a new community that I did have a say in creating. Blood relations are unbreakable, true. But I don’t think that means it should be the center of a family. A real family is a community of people who do life together, love one another, look after one another, and take responsibility for one another.


by Yoo Hui-sok
Professor of English Education
Chonnam National University