[Web Exclusive] Interview with Kwon Yeo-sun: Writing for those whose lives have been destroyed

  • onJune 23, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byKwon Yeo-sun



1. You have a new novel out. How are you doing these days?

Kwon: Normally I would be busy doing press right after a book, but I’ve just finished another deadline. I put everything on hold until today, including this interview. So this week is going to be a busy one.

But right after you’ve finished a book is a peaceful time for writers. I cook, have drinks with friends, read. The life of those with time on their hands.


2. As a liquor lover, what strengths would you attribute to drinking?  

Kwon: Drinking is best done with those you like best, eating what you like the most. The power of liquor is such that sharing a drink with someone can help you understand them, even if it’s someone you consider quite distant or simply don’t like very much. Foods you wouldn’t normally try become appetizing with a drink. It has this effect of overcoming your likes and dislikes. That said, I would still pick having friends over and making something to share over drinks, at home.


3.What do you keep in mind when writing?

Kwon: The things I keep in mind when writing have changed over the past twenty years or so. When I was first starting out I wrote whatever I wanted, without a thought for my readers. But after a while I began to wonder if I would want to read my own books, which led to the question, what do I want to read? And I started to put myself in the reader’s position.

Now I think most about how to write in a way that both sides find relatable. I would like to write in a way that opens myself up, and invites readers to do so as well, if only ever so slightly.


4. As a scholar of Korean literature, how did that affect your writing? 

Kwon: In the beginning I felt that I was worse off for it. When I was doing my studies, I was criticized for not writing academically enough. So when I began writing fiction, I thought that would come to my aid, but actually it turns out you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—I kept trying to write in a logical way, with all this intellectual posturing. My characters were these terrible bores.

I had a hard time of it, and I came to accept that those were my inherent flaws as a writer, not because I had studied literature. I wasn’t trained to write fiction.

Now I can say that the upside of my academic career is that I’m used to reading theoretical tomes. I’ve since found that reading books on theory is good for my imagination.  


5. What draws you to political and historical subjects in your work? 

Kwon: I’m no great activist, but I when I see something that’s patently unjust I want to take a closer look at it. When it comes to state violence, for instance, ‘Sorry, we messed up’ just isn’t going to cut it. Then there’s negligence, failure to rescue or send aid; when that happens, you’ve destroyed those people’s lives. And it’s not like you get more than one chance at life.

Thinking of those people, who’ve had their only chance at life destroyed, I couldn’t not tell their stories.I don’t think fiction has an obligation to tell only those kinds of stories, but you can’t avoid them when you’re talking about people’s lives.

So writing about the People's Revolutionary Party Incident or the Gwangju Uprising did feel like doing my homework in some ways. With Lemon I didn’t address the Sewol Ferry Disaster directly, but I did want to write about the sadness of losing one’s family. 

I’ve said this before, but people, the lives of people are what matter most to me. What’s hard is entering those lives, giving them my full attention. I don’t think it’s necessarily harder to write about people having a hard time, it’s not like because you write about something light-hearted you’re having a blast.

When something is hard to write it’s not because I identify with the character too much, it’s because I can’t identify with them enough. I’m getting into a certain frame of mind, bit by bit, and if I lose concentration I have to start over.

And then when your character is suffering or in pain, that pain is such an abstract thing. Pain manifests itself in such different ways for different people, all the symptoms, expressions, emotions are different. As always, the devil is in the details, so I really try to look for those.


6. As a writer focused on characters, how do you develop them?
Kwon: Your character must have a life of their own. By this I mean their own speech and experiences, their own way of being that has led them to that point in their lives. I try not to use characters I don’t know very well, to expend them as a plot device. Even if it’s an evil character, for instance, you need to do justice to that evilness, give them language that expresses that evilness. You need to be able to say you gave that character your best.

And it’s not easy. Giving your character the right speech is the hardest. The way a person talks, it just encapsulates their whole lives, so I’m always listening to what people say. I’m collecting speech patterns. If I’m at the market and I see a fight, I never walk away. I have to stay and watch.

What are they fighting about, using what kinds of words? They keep repeating themselves, each one sticking to their story. What makes this so important to that person?

I’m zooming in with laser precision, in microscopic detail. I file that away for later use, and if it comes in handy one day, I get a real kick out of that. 


7.  Are you active on social media? What are your thoughts on using social media?

Kwon: I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I used to post on Facebook after having a few drinks. But oh, the mortification the next day! So now I don’t post, although I do leave comments on my friends’ posts. It can be a fun place. As long as you manage to curb the time you spend on it. Then at times you feel, what am I doing here, or you might cringe at someone else’s behavior.

It can be tough when you run into very aggressive people. It has its pros and cons, like most things people do.


8. If you could give a shout-out to your foreign readers.

Kwon: Not a lot of my work has been translated, which must be frustrating for those of you who want to read more.

Please bear with me and I promise to come back with better work, something you’ll be able to savor slowly, widely, deeply.

Thank you.  


Kwon Yeo-sun (b. 1965) is the author of four novels: The Blue Opening, House of Clay Figurines, Legato, and, most recently, Lemon; five short story collections: The Virgin Skirt, Pink Ribbon Days, Red Fruits in My Garden, The Nutmeg Forest, and Hello, Drunkard; and a book of essays: What Do We Eat Today? She has received the Sangsang Literary Award, Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, Yi Sang Literary Prize, Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Tong-ni Literature Prize, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. The Japanese translation of Hello, Drunkard was published by Shinkansha in 2018.