NOTE: This is from my piece in 10 Magazine, to which you should immediately subscribe!
In person, Shin Kyung-sook is modest and restrained, but there has been nothing modest or restrained about the success of her book Please Look After Mom(엄마를 부탁해). The book was named an Amazon top-10 book of the year while entering Amazon’s top 50 in literary sales, reached as high as number 14 on the New York Times Best Seller List, was chosen as an Oprah book of the month and won the Man Asia Literary Prize. To get to know this quiet dynamo of Korean literature, 10 Magazine sat down with Shin in a quiet café and asked 10 questions.
1. To what extent do you write for yourself, to what extent do you write with a Korean audience in mind, and to what extent do you write with an international audience in mind?
I consider my audience as anyone who gives me the inspiration to write better fiction. I don’t give much thought to whether I’m writing for an international or Korean audience. Each time I write a story, what I am really focusing on is making the best story possible. As I spend most of my time anxiously wondering whether I will be able to finish the book, I’m not able to worry about who is actually going to read it.
2. Were you surprised by the international response to the English publication of “Please Look After Mom”?
In all honesty, I was surprised. I believe that this response was caused by the fact that in the process of becoming modern, we have lost those human qualities that are symbolized by the word “Mom.” People today seem to share a sense of loss and longing for these qualities. Readers seem to have discovered themselves in the characters in the novel who are wandering in search of something precious that they have lost.
3. How do you decide what you are going to write about?
I devote my writing to finding the beauty and strength in humanity. To accomplish this, I have a couple of guidelines. First, I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way whatsoever by what I write. Second, I want my books to help people look at old things in a new way. Third, I want people who have read my work to be touched and want to get closer to other people. These are the goals I consider as I choose my topics.
4. Can you tell us a little about the translation process with Kim Chi-young as she worked with you on “Please Look After Mom”?
Chi-young Kim was the translator located by my agency. After the basic translation was completed, I had a long email correspondence with her and Robin Desser, the editor at the American publisher that published my book as we worked on bridging the cultural gap between Korean and English. I like to regard translation as a journey. Through the translator, the work I have written in Korean travels across borders and into another language. Of course, it is essential that the translation be good in order for the journey to be enjoyable for the reader. Kim Chi-young was able to accomplish this very well.
5. How has your life changed since you have become internationally famous?
Literature has no borders. I don’t believe, for example, that American literature and French literature are actually separate. The only difference is that since writers speak different languages translation is necessary for communication to take place. In my case, Please Look After Mom is the only one of my books to have been released overseas, although I have published eight novels and seven short story collections here. I feel very pleased that my work, which before had only been available in Korean, can now be read outside Korea thanks to Please Look After Mom. I feel a very strong sense of liberation. As for my daily life, the only thing that has changed is that I get more interview requests from overseas journals and invitations to writing conferences.
6. Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
I usually wake up at 3 am and write until 9 am. I follow this schedule because this is the time when I can be entirely alone, uninterrupted by anyone. When I’m not in the middle of a book, I use that time to plan future books, do some reading, write articles, or catch up on emails. Then at 9:30 I go to my Yoga class for an hour. Lunch is next, followed by a short nap, and in the afternoon and evening I meet people and go to concerts. This is what my typical day looks like. Of course, there are exceptions, but I always return to this daily pattern.
7. “Please Look After Mom” seems to look back with nostalgia on a more traditional Korean family structure. Are you nostalgic for the “good old days” of families and Korean society?
The traditional family structure in Korean society no longer exists. Korean families today are really not much different from families all over the globe. We can’t go back to the past, and I don’t look for answers in the traditional family structure. We are no longer living in the time when family relationships were based purely on blood ties. As I see it, someone who lives with you is your family, even if they are not related to you at all. The thing that I miss is not the traditional Korean family structure but rather the human kindness, intimacy, and communication that we seem to have lost today.
8. Your next book is scheduled to be published in 2013. Can you tell us a little about this book and what your expectations are for its success?
The English version of my book Somewhere a Telephone Is Ringing for Me (어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고) will be published under the title I’ll Be Right There. This work is a story about youth – a period which each of us has to pass through at some point. The story is about four young people who deal with tragic situations and fall in love with each other as they grow up. We’ve already finished the first phase of the translation. Just as with Please Look After Mom, the book will be published by Knopf. I hope it’s a success!
9. Readers are looking forward to your next work. Can you tell us a little bit about the next book you plan to write?
In November 2011, my Korean publisher released a collection of seven short stories I’ve written entitled Ladies I Don’t Know (모르는 여인들). Sometime in the latter part of this year, I’m planning on starting another novel. That will probably be published in Korea around the beginning of next year.
10. What do you think of the future of Korean Literature?
The greatest potential for Korean literature is found in young writers. Many of the younger generation today, regardless of what ideology they may adhere to, are publishing distinctive, original works. I believe that the very fact that there are so many young people writing today means that the future is bright. I hope that these writers’ works can be handed over to good translators (and publishers!) so that they can also speak to readers outside Korea.