[Web Exclusive] Interview with Yoon Sung-hee

  • onOctober 6, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byKorean Literature Now



As a writer of 22 years’ experience, how do you feel about your latest book that came out in July?

Every Day is April Fool’s is my sixth collection of short stories, and ninth book counting novels. Putting together a collection of short stories written over a few years is a bit like moving furniture into a house. You have a plan in your head, but it may not fit once you get the stories together, or maybe you have stories that were readable individually but seem awkward once you put them together. So it’s a fraught process where you have to keep trying again and again. It’s the time when I talk the most to myself. So once the collection is out I feel that much lighter, that I’m happy to forget about it all. That’s the mood I’m in now. And then when I start writing a new book I forget everything about the previous one, so that’s what’s in store for me.


Looking back at your first book, A House Made of LEGOs, and at your latest, Every Day is April Fool’s, your work seems to shift constantly in tone. Was that a significant decision?  

I don’t think about that consciously. I’m actually the opposite, I’m always setting out to write something the same way, but after two or three stories I’ll stop and go, ‘Was that a bit different?’ So rather than set out to write something different, it’s just that I write something and it takes me a few stories to realize that something has changed. And that’s what I like about writing. I always tell myself, I have three selves that I want to keep separate. The self that is living, the self that is writing, and the self that is reading. I’m always reminding myself to keep them apart. The reason is that I would rather that my writing self be influenced by my living and reading selves in a way that isn’t overt. That way I can go back to something and see how my living and reading selves influenced my writing self. It’s how I learn things about myself, retrospectively; it’s a whole process. Going through that process for over twenty years now, even I’m surprised to look back to where I was when I started writing. I look and think, ‘Oh, so that’s where it changed.’


All of the characters in your works possess a certain wit as well as a sense of loneliness and warmth. Would you say those are characteristics you share yourself?

No matter what story I’m writing, the first thing I ask myself is when my character is going to laugh, what that scene would look like. If you look at my stories these scenes are constantly coming up. A couple of strangers meet, they start joking around and share a good laugh, then part ways to go back their lonely homes. It’s a pattern, for sure, it’s the kind of moment I’m drawn to. Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to be an adult who was good at making jokes. Out of all the ways to make someone feel better, I thought that grownups who could do that by joking were the best. The thing about jokes is depending on the timing, it can really cheer up a person, but if the timing isn’t right you end up hurting them. It takes a mature person to make a perfectly timed joke that really touches someone. I thought about that a lot when I was a child. And so I thought, I’m going to write a scene like that for all of my characters. It’s the reason why I’m always writing that into my stories.


The stories in Every Day is April Fool’s, including “One Night,” depict old women who are usually only featured peripherally in Korean literature. What kind of message did you want to convey through this work?   

I started writing fiction seriously in my late twenties. From the beginning I told myself that when I turned fifty, I would start writing about feisty old ladies. The Korean fiction I was reading at the time was good, but there weren’t a lot of senior characters who were feisty and playful. Older characters were always serious and mature, but for the world of me I couldn’t see myself aging into that kind of serious adult, so I promised myself that when I was over fifty, I would write stories about feisty old ladies or gentlemen. But then in the past few years I found myself slowing down in my writing, especially with short stories. For instance, I would write a first sentence then days would pass until I could think of the second one. I happened to be writing about an old lady, and it dawned upon me that the pace of my writing was synched to the pace of my character’s thoughts. That’s when things clicked together, and I realized that I wasn’t fifty yet but I was ready to write about old people. Old people whose memories are composed of so many layers, whose bodies slow down but whose minds keep racing. I wondered what it would be like to write about that. How does one go about excavating layers of memories into layers of sentences? I had a lot of fun thinking about that, so I’ve been writing quite a bit about old ladies in these past few years. Now I’m thinking I should write about old men, too.


How do you feel about sharing your work with international readers?

My first novel, Spectators, was published in Mexico a few years ago. When I first heard about the offer my first thought was, why? When I read works by other Korean writers, my friends and acquaintances, I often imagine what language might be a good fit for that work in translation. I sometimes read something and think, ‘This is so good, I hope it does well.’ I’ve never thought that about my own work, and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t know why. And so my first reaction was to be baffled, and then I thought how wonderful it was that it was coming out in Mexico out of all countries. I haven’t yet had the chance to chat with international readers who read my book, but I do wonder what they might make of the complex family relationships in the novel. I also wonder how the rhythm of my sentences read in another language.


What would you say about the potential of Korean literature as part of world literature?

I read Korean literature growing up and dreaming of becoming a writer. That, with all the works in translation I started reading in my twenties, made me who I am today. There are still so many countries whose books I haven’t been able to read in Korean that I hope to read one day and broaden my thoughts that much more. And it would be wonderful to see good works of Korean fiction translated and sold in bookstores across the world. Korean literature is only a tiny part of world literature, but it’s high time that we expanded that corner a bit. We have so much to offer. I would say there is potential in that there are so many works that have not been translated, so there is so much work to be done. That’s our potential going forward.