[Web Exclusive] On secrets between awareness and memory: Interview with Kim Insuk

  • onApril 3, 2019
  • byKorean Literature Now



On secrets between awareness and memory


1. You’ve been writing for thirty-five years. Would you say you live every instant of your life as a writer?

Not at all. Being a writer for as long as this, it’s easy to slip into autopilot, for it to become something routine. I really need to constantly remind myself that this is a job, to put myself in a stricter, more conscious place. (04:45) After twenty, thirty years, you inevitably lose some discipline or sensibility. If you want to stay young as a writer, that is if you still want your writing to be fresh and relevant, you need to wake up and pay attention.


2. Did you ever have a low point?  

My entire life has been a low point. All of it. I don’t think I’m unusual in that way. Let’s say, you win a reward, of course you’re happy. You have a book that’s doing great, it makes you happy. So there are moments like that. But apart from that, you feel miserable. Because you’re always asking yourself, “Have I really written this as well as I can? Have I told the truth, and only the truth?” Over and over again, until it wears you down and you want to crawl away and disappear, but then you say, “Just one last time. I’ll write something better, I’ll be more honest.” And then you set off the same cycle. You’re always hitting that point where you think you can’t write anymore, and that pushes you to write again.


3. Your work often explores the tension between society and the individual. What questions do you think readers take away from that?

I’m often asked about the relationship of literature and society or our times. I won’t go into that now because I can’t do that without discussing Korea’s historical background. I will say that literature can only be of society, in whatever sense. Because literature deals with people, and people live in society, so you can’t exclude that completely. What is this person’s influence in society? And how are they constrained by society? It’s the place of literature to ask those questions in a cool, impartial way.

That’s not to say that literature should intentionally focus on social issues. I just happen to think that literature is about people, giving voice to the stories that people find hard to tell, that they would rather not face. And that discomfort could be the point where literature and society intersect.


4. Your most recent short story collection, One Forever Night (2018), is about secrets. What new things have you learned about them?

Secrets are my primary interest and subject material at the moment. When I talk about secrets I don’t just mean something unspeakable or hidden, it’s more of a quality inherent to human nature. How much can I rely on my memories to be true? If I believe something to be true, what are the secrets between what I remember and what really happened? In the moments that we live, in those instants that we are truly aware of being alive, trying to remember that seems to give rise to secrets outside of our control.  

I find that very interesting, or to elaborate, very sad and lonely as well. It’s a topic I plan to continue exploring.


5. Many of your works have been translated. Have you had much interaction with your foreign readers?

Once I was in the US when I was asked to judge an essay competition for college students. The subject was my novella, The Long Road. I was reading all the essays, not just the winning ones, so it was a very rare opportunity to see how my work was being received by actual readers over there. There were first and second generation Korean Americans, visiting Korean students, and Americans with no Korean ancestry. It was amazing how everyone had such different reactions to the book.

When people complain about Korean literature’s focus on the Korean War, they’re missing the fact that to us it isn’t an obscure part of Korea’s modern history, it is our history. Americans do the same, Europeans are still writing about the second world war. What’s missing is a much broader representation of Korean literature in translation, so that readers can get a better sense of what Korean literature is and why they might want to read it. I’m not the person to tell them, “Look, this is what you should be looking for.” Although I might say, “Read this book of mine.”


6. What is your answer to criticism?

As my own critic, I’m the best writer ever. Any writer who says otherwise is lying. That’s what I always think and I treasure my works. You would never show work to your readers if you didn’t think it was good.


7. What are you working on now?

I have a book coming out in April that’s already appeared in instalments. Then I plan to start serializing its sequel this fall. It leans heavily on detective writing and also deals with secrets and memories. I’m a huge fan of detective novels. I find it striking that questions are posed to the reader in a clearly delineated way. And then I thought, I’m a detective nut, why don’t I write one myself? So this time I’m going for a tighter sort of feel, about secrets, lies, and memories.