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Interview with Kim Yeonsu: He Who Writes and Rewrites Every Day

by Kim Hyunwoo March 3, 2023

Kim Yeonsu

Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the Mask, Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7, The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost Writer, Twenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.

Your latest short story collection titled A Future as Ordinary as This was noted “Novel of the Year” in survey of fifty Korean authors run by the largest bookstore chain in South Korea. In your opinion, what is it about the book that resonated so much with readers? 

I’ve been doing a lot of walking around lately. I just walk wherever my feet take me. Although I look at the scenes unfolding on the streets and the people I walk past, I rarely think about anything. I just walk. I got into this new habit after the coronavirus pandemic broke out. I realized that my own thoughts didn’t hold any special power. In fact, many thoughts are crossing my mind this very instant, but I choose not to pay attention to them. That’s because there are other thoughts I’d rather focus on. This is the biggest change I’ve experienced lately, which is something my readers might’ve picked up on through my writing. But that, too, is just a thought I had right now. The truth is I don’t really know.

You made your literary debut as a poet and later became famous as a fiction writer. You’ve also published numerous essay collections. How does writing essays differ from writing fiction?

I used to write essays whenever I hit a wall with my fiction writing. This is a creative writing technique known among writers as “creative procrastination.” The logic behind it is that performing two difficult tasks at once makes the least difficult one feel like a breeze. A short story is easier to write than a novel, and an essay is easier to write than a short story. That’s why I would turn to essay writing whenever I would struggle with fiction writing. As a result, I’ve never really struggled when it comes to writing essays. However, essays are sensitive to lies. As I grew into more of a fiction writer over the course of my career and writing fiction became easier, the conventions of the essay genre began to feel increasingly stifling to me. That’s why most of what I write today is fiction, including things that I might’ve written in the form of essays back in the day.

One of your earliest works, the short story “If I Take Another Month to Cross the Snowy Mountains,” features a character who writes as a means to come to terms with his girlfriend’s death. Your stories seem to be inspired by a will to overcome feelings of denial in the face of loss or frustration with reality through writing. What is it about writing that allows us to reconcile with reality? 

I write something every day. Sometimes I’ll sit down at my desk to write, and other times I will pull out a notebook to hastily jot something down as I wait for the train at the station. I hardly ever write proper sentences. It’s as though I stick my arm into a manhole without knowing what lurks inside and pull out whatever I can get my hand on. It could be just a few words, or a handful of sentences. My mind is constantly attempting to fill the void left behind by each letter I pull out. Since I don’t know what lurks inside the manhole, I must rely on my imagination to string complete sentences together. Anything goes since it’s all a product of my imagination. I could end up with a trivial piece of writing or an idea that will flourish into a novel after decades of writing. Imagination knows no bounds. I also do a lot of rewriting, too, of course. A single idea could lead to multiple versions of the same story. Which one gets to see the light of day will depend on the story’s skeleton. What differentiates writing from speaking is that written words leave a visible skeleton behind. If the bones are too brittle, I go back and rewrite everything from the start. I then look at the story’s skeleton once more. If the bones still seem too frail, it’s back to square one again; but if they appear sturdy, I consider my job done. I often recommend writing as a tool to reflect on past events for this exact reason. It’s because writing holds the power to make a story’s skeleton stick out in plain sight.

Losing a loved one or failing to obtain the object of one’s desires are some of the painful things we all experience in life, but the sense of loss or frustration we feel comes as a result of attachment, or love. There would be no loss or frustration if we didn’t feel emotionally attached to begin with. Given this, couldn’t we say that people who write as a means to come to terms with loss or frustration are in fact doing so in an attempt to continue protecting the very object of their love? Could writing be considered an act of love in this sense?

Looking back on my youth, there were many instances where I confused violence with love, both in regards to myself and others. This led me to wonder—is that just the way love is? Perhaps so. I think the opposite of love is fear. We sometimes choose love because we loath fear, or vice-versa. My point is that we have a difficult time distinguishing between the two. This gives rise to misunderstandings which don’t reflect reality, the kind of situation which easily lends itself to being made into a story. Love and stories share different realities. The reality of a story lies in revealing our own misunderstandings. This is what I meant by the story’s “skeleton” in my previous answer. If you can convince yourself of your love through writing, then you are admitting this reality. 

“Everyone gets one shot at love.” This sentence appears in your novel No Matter Who and How Lonely You Are. Everybody has their own experience with love, which may manifest itself in the form of mutual misunderstandings, or in some cases, violence. Among the various factors which may give rise to discord and conflicts between individuals, is there a reason why you chose to focus specifically on loneliness? 

Everything in the world falls into one of two categories: things we can understand through the right amount of effort, and things we can’t understand despite all effort. When two or more individuals get together to agree on something, they’re likely to reach a common understanding if they try hard enough. On the other hand, no amount of effort may help one understand what someone else is going through. I believe this is where history and fiction differ. Each of our individual lives is closer to fiction than history. The reason we have a hard time making ourselves understood to others is because we each have different lives. If we look at loneliness simply for what it is, it doesn’t seem hard to understand. I recently read Oh William! (Random House, 2021) by author Elizabeth Strout, a novel which begins with a question and ends with an exclamation point. It’s similar to when we ask ourselves “What’s that?” only to reach the conclusion “That’s what it is!” When a question turns into an exclamation, loneliness simply becomes loneliness. I don’t think it strange at all that love may sometimes turn into violence, or that we treat loneliness as an old friend who is neither good nor bad.

You’ve written that loneliness doesn’t come from a state of neediness, and that a doughnut’s hole isn’t a void where something used to be, but that it was just a hole to begin with. I found such thoughts to be comforting. However, loneliness is bound to replace an empty hole left behind by something that goes missing. Are we being misled by a false perception that there must have been something when there really wasn’t? What can stories do about physical memories? 

I feel like this question has more to do with mourning than loneliness. Someone going through a loss will naturally feel sad. There are many ways of grieving, among which my own preferred one is stories. I’ve used characters going through a separation with their lover as the protagonists for a long time because they have a greater craving for stories than anyone else. The story someone tells after breaking up with a loved one will go through a number of revisions. The first version on the day following the breakup won’t be the same as the version a week or a year after. Through the process of revising the same story multiple times, one reaches a point where they decide not to bring any more changes to it. This is when the period of mourning comes to a close and they are left with a story about their loss. In a sense, mourning allows us to get a story out of what we’ve lost. To me, all stories are like reminders of the voids left behind by loss.

In many of your works, events in modern Korean history are depicted as the driving factor behind violent acts of love, or as the direct source of loss and frustration. Whether it be the Japanese colonial period, the Korean War, or the student protests of the 1980s, you seem to have a particular interest in modern historical events. Do you think this has something to do with the fact that you grew up as a teenager in the turbulent period between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s in Korea? In other words, to what extent has history affected your own experiences with loss and frustration? 

In my freshman year at university, I remember seeing the rallying cry “REVOLT” painted in big, red letters across the walls inside the bathrooms of the liberal arts building. The mood on the campus felt like we were on the eve of a revolution. Every day was extremely tense. I don’t remember any of the minor details—only how tense it was. The relentless tension came from our misled belief that we were perpetually in the midst of a decisive moment in history. Looking back on the events now, I realize that this couldn’t possibly have been the case. This means that we’d been wrong most of the time. Today, I feel like such misunderstandings were responsible for the loss of many lives. And this kind of tension wasn’t limited to my time in university—it resurfaced again when I worked an office job and when I had my first child. I think society is governed by big currents. It’s no easy task for a single individual to stand up to any of these currents. And there’s no way out for those who get caught in one. Those who are lucky might ride a current’s waves to success, but the majority of people will fail and fall into despair no matter what they do. Whether we’re looking back on history or what’s happening right now, people are and have always been pursuing some kind of current. When they actually get swept away, however, things hardly ever go as planned. One can always blame the current for the frustration and loss it leaves in its wake, but I think we ought not to let ourselves get swept away in the first place.

Even if a story was to be written and read outside of a major social current, it would still have to be circulated and consumed within society. How do you think stories are able to influence social currents? In other words, what role do stories play within society?

Although society presents us all with a formula for success, it’s really difficult for the majority of us to succeed using this exact formula. There must be a reason why we continue to believe in the formula even though it doesn’t work, but it’s really not something I’m interested in. I often find myself wondering whether or not I’m living in a dimension that falls outside of mainstream society. Since I’m not interested in the kind of life perceived as exemplary by societal standards, I just write stories dealing with other things. My stories may seem to challenge societal norms on the surface, but my intention isn’t to have them play any kind of role within society.

In your novel Wonder Boy, you use “wonder” as a new solution to the issues you raise in your writing (as can be surmised from the work’s title). I’d like you to tell us more about wonder as a means of coming to terms with frustration and loss, and as a way of overcoming loneliness. 

If someone finds themselves submerged in water, it most likely won’t occur to them that they are wet. They will only come to such a realization once they come out of the water. I think “wonder” works in a similar way. You need to be out of the water to experience what it’s like not to be wet. Only then can you know that being in water makes you wet. I don’t think one can arrive at this wondrous conclusion through the experience and insight gained from being in water. One needs to come out of the water to realize they aren’t lonely. All the stories and clichés ensnaring us are just like water. I advise readers not to believe all the stories they are told. 

Keeping on topic, here is a line taken from Wonder Boy: “Understanding is to tell someone else's story for them, and to fall in love again with them through their story.” When I read this passage, I got the impression that your view of loneliness extended beyond your own condition to include the loneliness of others as well. As a fiction author, what is the significance of conveying other people’s stories for them? 

I’ve lived a very narrow existence until now, both in terms of life experience and the kind of knowledge I’ve acquired. For me to pass judgement on the world around me with such limited life baggage would be akin to walking on the edge of a precipice with my eyes closed. I need more life experience in order to open my eyes. I’m always surprised when I have a conversation with someone. More than anything else, it has to do with the fact that the material environment in which others live is so different from my own. The same applies to the kind of lives they’ve lived—we might as well be living in completely different worlds. But whenever I accept these other worlds, they allow me to stretch the boundaries of my own existence a little further. That’s why I need to expose myself to more numerous and diverse stories. 

Following the publication of Wonder Boy and If the Waves Belong to the Sea, eight years would go by before the release of your next title, The Last of Seven Years. Interestingly enough, the novel tells the story of a poet who becomes unable to write poems. In your case, what kind of situation would make you unable to write fiction?

I asked myself the question: “If one day you were suddenly forced to write poems of worship [praising those in power], would you rather follow in Baek Seok’s1 footsteps and escape to the remote countryside instead?” I didn’t think so when I first began writing The Last of Seven Years. However, by the time I reached the last sentence of the novel, my answer had changed to a resounding “yes.” My perspective completely shifted through the process of writing the story. Many people think of Baek Seok as a poet who lost the freedom to write the kinds of poems he wanted, but I came to see him as a poet who made the deliberate choice not to write poems that he didn’t feel inclined to. I’m sure Baek Seok continued composing poems the way he liked but simply kept them for himself. I would do the same—I wouldn’t write any stories I didn’t want to write. I would only write the kinds of stories I felt inclined to, even though in the eyes of others it may appear like I’ve lost the freedom to write what I want.

What kind of novel do you want to write at this point in your career? 

I’ve always been interested in people who managed to survive in situations where the odds were stacked against them. For example, the Manchurian communists appearing in “The Night Sings,” or the Joseon-era Korean and Japanese Catholics appearing in “Three Steps Toward the Sea.” These people went through the worst imaginable kind of suffering and would’ve been better off dying, and yet they didn’t. I only recently found out why I felt drawn to these kinds of characters. It’s because what I thought of as the end of life is in fact only the start of something else, and there are things which only reveal themselves to us in such moments. I think I finally have an idea of what these things are, and I want to write about them.

In your short story collection A Future as Ordinary as This published last year, the “ordinary” is presented in a positive light as something with the power to make loss and frustration bearable, an idea I found both refreshing and odd. Do you think the ordinary is really all it takes? 

I think many of our problems in life stem from our level of satisfaction with things. There are times when frustration can feel satisfying, such as when we know we’ve done our best in a particular situation. We feel satisfied when we’re able to tell ourselves we did everything we could and have no regrets. Achievements can also be satisfying, of course, but it’s not always the case. The difference between feeling satisfied or not is semantic. It also depends on how we felt prior to reaching that state. In A Future as Ordinary as This, I opted for the word “ordinary” because the most amazing of futures will also be the most ordinary. We all wish to feel satisfied, and there’s nothing quite as amazing as being able to find satisfaction in the ordinary.

While some people will despair in the face of the ordinary, others will manage to find satisfaction in it. What is responsible for such a difference in mindset?

I’m someone who works with language. Although language reflects reality, language itself isn’t reality, which is why it’s bound to be misleading. This explains the constant need we have to correct our language. We can all think differently as long as language can be corrected. And if we’re able to change the way we think, we can all become different people. Despair can be turned into satisfaction through the act of rewriting. I think our mindset depends on the words we use. It’s a difference in language. This is why I recommend writing to everyone. Someone who can correct their own language will be able to tame their mind, and in turn, transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Many people I know who have read A Future as Ordinary as This told me that the book brought them comfort. What is it about stories in general that give them the power to comfort us—both for the writer who writes them and the readers who reads them?

Back when I was in university, one way I would console friends going through a breakup was by drinking with them. I hardly did anything. I just listened to whatever they had to say. It was the same for me—I would also feel the urge to talk to someone whenever I went through a difficult time. Somebody once said that sorrow becomes bearable when it’s converted into a story. Stories undoubtedly hold this kind of power. But writing a story takes this one step further because it requires one to go back and revise what they wrote. The story might be the same, but the writer has to rework it. This could either make the story more elaborate or more abstract. Since it deals with language, the act of rewriting doesn’t make a story worse. Rewriting a story several times also allows the writer to make new discoveries. The message I was trying to convey in A Future as Ordinary as This is that we have the power to rewrite the story of our life multiple times. We can’t change things that have already happened, but we can rewrite our memories of those things. I think this is where the power of stories lies.

You wrote the following in the author’s note of A Future as Ordinary as This: “One day, these stories will become the reality of our lives.” This line made me realize that writing isn’t just a means of reconciling with the past, but also a way of propelling the present into the future. Thirty years have elapsed since your literary debut, and you are now in your fifties. How can a change or a shift in perspective allow us to look in on the present from the future without remaining stuck in the past?

I really enjoy getting older. When I was younger, I thought of every moment as a decisive one. In my mind, not getting what I wanted amounted to failure. But with age I’ve learned how silly that is. All of these moments I thought to be so important at the time were just part of a larger process. I also see this moment right now as part of a process. If we see every moment as part of something bigger, then it doesn’t matter what happens in this very moment because we know it will be followed by a next one which has yet to reveal itself to us. There’s no way of knowing what the next moment holds. The world abounds with stories I’ve yet to encounter, but each passing moment allows me to experience more of them. That’s why I’m constantly reading stories I’ve yet to understand. I might have an experience one day that makes all the pieces fit together. It’s also why I write stories I still don’t even understand myself. I think it’s all I can do given my own narrow life experience. 

Although you write in your native language of Korean, you’ve written stories taking place all around the world including countries such as China, Japan, and Germany. As an author with an interest in world history, and who has been influenced by the cultural traditions of both the East and the West, I’d like to ask you about your thoughts on translation. Given that your works are being translated into foreign languages as we speak, please tell us what you think about the role of translation.   

I was born in a small town in the south of Korea. Growing up, I was encouraged to become either a lawyer or a doctor by the elders in our neighborhood. I had been convinced that wealth and power would be my only ticket out of a miserable life. That is, until I read a copy of Demian I found lying around at home when I was in high school. The novel left me shaken to the core. I felt like I was reading my own story—I was Emil Sinclair. Each word uttered by Demian came as a shock. How come no adult ever told me this kind of story? I thought to myself. I wanted to read more of these stories, not be told that becoming a lawyer or a doctor was the only way I could live a dignified existence. I started making frequent visits to the bookstore and the library where I had the chance to read more stories. I believe in a community of stories spanning the world and whose purpose is to offer alternatives to the stories of those in power who control the global narratives. A story offering an alternative in one country is just as relevant in any other country. That’s why I believe in the need to actively translate stories that can serve as alternatives to dominant narratives.  

Translated by Léo-Thomas Brylowski


• A Future as Ordinary as This (Munhak Dongne, 2022)

『이토록 평범한 미래』 (문학동네, 2022)

• The Last of Seven Years (Munhak Dongne, 2020)

『일곱해의 마지막』 (문학동네, 2020)

• If the Waves Belong to the Sea (Munhak Dongne, 2015)

『파도가 바다의 일이라면』 (문학동네, 2015)

• No Matter Who and How Lonely You Are (Munhak Dongne, 2014)

『네가 누구든 얼마나 외롭든』 (문학동네, 2014)

• Wonder Boy (Munhak Dongne, 2012)

『원더보이』 (문학동네, 2012)

• “If I Take Another Month to Cross the Snowy Mountains,” I am a Phantom Writer (Munhak Dongne, 2016)

「다시 한 달을 가서 설산을 넘으면」, 『나는 유령작가입니다』 (문학동네, 2016)

[1] Translator’s Note: Baek Seok was a Korean poet born in 1912 during the Japanese colonial era. Although he spent part of his life in present-day South Korea, he returned to his hometown in the North following the division of the country in 1945. He opted to retire from his writing career as a poet in 1962 to become a shepherd after facing criticism from the literary establishment in North Korea.

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