[Draft II] The Law of Deleted Lines — by Pyun Hye-young
- onDecember 22, 2020
- Vol.50 Winter 2020
- byPyun Hye-Young
What goes into writing a book and translating it? A writer and translator reveal their behind-the-scenes experiences from both sides of their computer screens.—Ed.
I don’t know about other writers, but in my case, there are many times when my initial story concept and the story that actually gets written end up being very different. I guess this is because I don’t plan everything fully and in detail before I start. A plot almost never comes to me all at once, and I write taking each step as I go. I’ll begin with a general event, situation, or particular scene and write a novel from there, working at completing it little by little, while actively incorporating the coincidences or impromptu thoughts that come to me in the process. This means that, more often than not, the story or characters from the initial stage of my ideas aren’t fixed, but rather, variable and open to change on a whim.
This happened with my novel Seon-ui beopchik [published in English as The Law of Lines—Ed.]. It is the story of a character named Se-oh Yun, who cannot accept her father’s sudden death and vows to carry out revenge on the man she blames for it. Although the basic narrative structure of a “failed revenge story” remained the same, Se-oh’s character and behavior, along with the events of the novel, gradually changed.
Se-oh is someone who has spent years not leaving the house because of regret and self-blame over her past choices. She has had absolutely no social interactions, no friendships, and no one to talk to about routine everyday events or to smile at from across a table. The only person Se-oh meets, talks to, and shares meals with is her father.
When her father chooses to commit suicide, tormented by the pressure to pay off insurmountable debts, Se-oh loses everything—not only the one person in the world who loved her unconditionally, but also her home, which is destroyed in the fire. Se-oh lives alone for a time in the burned-out house before revenge leads her to venture out.
Back when I first imagined the story, I thought that Se-oh would think and act purely with “malice” and “murderous intent.” Thinking up circumstances in which a character faces setbacks because of practical issues was so entertaining and fun that I thought I would have to write a story where Se-oh wavers and then fails.
Se-oh thinks long and hard about what weapon to use. It occurs to her that the best weapon would be one that could instantly kill. Just an ordinary twenty-something, the first thing Se-oh thinks of is a hammer: a weapon she can come by most easily. And it’s something she finds—its handle blackened by the flames—in what is left of her home.
Let’s assume she causes a fatal injury by attacking her target with the hammer. For that to happen, the best place to strike would be the brain. Of course, she could strike elsewhere. She could go for the chest or back, where a flailing hammer is more likely to hit because of the larger surface area, or the arms and legs which would inevitably stick out in defense during an attack.
She could certainly cause some damage, but to inflict a fatal injury, the person wielding the hammer would need to strike from an elevation or at least from a similar height as the target. But Se-oh is a slight woman who isn’t very tall. Su-ho Lee, her target, is a tall and sturdy man. Will she be able to overcome this physical difference to exact her revenge?
Even if she swings with all her might, the worst she can do is to send her target to the hospital for a month. In fact, she might only end up causing some bruises, a few burst veins just under the skin. With the physical constraints she has to work with, a hammer is preposterous.
After realizing she can kill Su-ho only if she strikes at his brain, Se-oh goes around for some time studying people’s heads. The more she looks at them the more mysterious it is to her that people eat food, go to the toilet, wait for buses, and argue with others out of greed, all with a 1.5-kilogram brain perched atop their bodies, and she begins to think of humans, who can do absolutely nothing without this brain that has a surface area no bigger than a newspaper page, as utterly bizarre.
Se-oh was a recluse before this. Having gone through something that hurt people close to her, she became incredibly disappointed in humanity. Afterwards, she lived with such intense malice toward others that it made her twisted inside, and she wondered if living with so much malice made her “evil,” even if she didn’t act upon it. She had no reason or opportunity to think about what people were really like at their core, but because of the hammer, she finally looks closely at people living their everyday lives.
Se-oh is fundamentally different to vengeful protagonists you find in genre novels or mainstream films. Unlike those characters who succeed in heroically meting out their revenge,
Se-oh can’t spend all day, every day climbing to the top of a mountain and perfecting her martial arts skills in preparation, or meet a talented mentor who will teach her secret techniques; her general stamina and fitness are not outstanding either, and she doesn’t have the resources or connections to hire a contract killer. She’s stuck in a situation where her revenge must be arduous, carried out with no more than her existing strength, using nothing but a weapon she has devised herself.
If she had the time, Se-oh could become a kung fu master or bulk up to enact her revenge. But she has to earn at least minimal living expenses just to sustain herself. She is an all too ordinary avenger: someone who can only dream of revenge in quiet moments while working a minimum wage job, someone whose exhaustion is so compounded that she might fall asleep carrying out her revenge because she’s so worn out.
If she came into a ton of money, Se-oh could pay a huge sum for a gun on the black market. But even if she did manage to get one, there’s no way this female protagonist who has never handled a firearm or stalked prey would suddenly be able to pull off her plan with sure-fire aim.
Se-oh gives up on the hammer and sets her sights on using a knife—the easiest weapon to acquire and wield for this realistic character. She decides to buy a knife in an inconspicuous store, like a department store or one of the kitchen goods wholesalers in Namdaemun Market. She intends to pick out the most ordinary-looking knife she can find. She has used a knife to cut fruit or chop vegetables plenty of times, but now Se-oh has to use one to inflict a fatal injury on Su-ho.
To do this, she would of course have to aim for his heart, but that also comes with bodily limitations. Se-oh’s height isn’t advantageous to stabbing a man in the chest, and there is a good chance that she will end up uselessly waving the knife around in the air. If her revenge were to end in attempted murder, her plans would be foiled and she’d wind up on the run.
Having given up on using a weapon, Se-oh next considers a deadly fall or poison. She thinks about pushing Su-ho onto the subway tracks, but realizes that this has become impossible since all the subway stations in Seoul have had platform screen doors installed. Poisoning comes with its own set of difficulties. In order to poison someone, you need to have a relationship with them. You can’t just pour a poisoned drink in the hopes that your target will saunter in and take a sip. That would only result in innocent victims. So, in order to be practical to administer, she would have to interact with her target, and that would give rise to the irony of having to befriend her enemy.
In the end, almost none of these scenes made it into the actual novel. If I had written them all the way I thought of them when I was coming up with the story, the novel might have become a black comedy. But as I was working through the novel, for some reason, Se-oh gradually started to show herself getting on with life, and after some hesitation, I decided to respect her choice. This meant I had to throw out a lot of the ideas I had before I started to write.
What keeps us going? It’s common to tell people who are dejected and in despair that life is still worth living, but what makes this true? There must be various ways for someone who is dejected and despairing to recover their will to live. Of course, things like the anticipation that life will get better, the belief that one will discover some value in life, and the belief in human solidarity all give meaning to life, but it’s also true that the urge to die or faith in malice can make life disappear.
Although Se-oh was a weak person, she had the mettle all along to try and get back up any way she could. She had a heart that could accept its own inner workings. I had failed to notice this back when I was first thinking up the story. I realized that Se-oh was not someone who would rehearse murderous moves or lie in wait for a chance to attack her target. Rather, she was a character who, in the end, would put aside her despair little by little and in doing so, recover a motive to keep going, to do her best to live her life. I also realized the strange truth that the will to live and the will to die aren’t always so different.
Thinking about it now, it’s clear to me that some novels have much deeper thoughts than their writers, and so they arrive at a point somewhere beyond what their writer could have imagined long before she ever gets there.
Translated by Sophie Bowman
Writer Pyun Hye-young (left) & Translator Sora Kim-Russell (right)
Pyun Hye-Young completed her BA in creative writing and MA in Korean literature from Hanyang University. Her novel The Hole was the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award, and City of Ash and Red was an NPR Great Read. Her works in English include Evening Proposal (Dalkey Archive, 2016), The Hole (Arcade Publishing, 2017), City of Ash and Red (Arcade Publishing, 2018), and The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing, 2020). Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Words Without Borders. She currently teaches creative writing at Myongji University.