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Author Jo Jung-rae

One of the nation's most revered novelists who has loved Korea and its people




Jo Jung-rae is an author known for his piercing novels that shrewdly punch through contemporary Korean history. He has become one of South Korea's most revered novelists by telling the painful history of the country including Korea's colonial rule by Japan, the Korean War and military dictatorship through three novel series: Taebaek Mountain Range, Arirang and Han River.
Jo's literary work has been acknowledged through countless accolades, including the Hyundae Munhak Award, the Korean Literature Award, Manhae Daesang, Danjae Literature Award and Noshin Literature Award. His novels have been adapted into comics, television dramas, movies and musicals, leaping beyond paper pages to touch audiences. Jo's work has also been translated into different languages, including English, French, German and Japanese and loved by readers around the world.
Three years after releasing Grass Flowers are Flowers Too (Hainaim)
, Jo recently published The Question of a Thousand Years. The Question of a Thousand Years was also released in audiobook format on South Korea's biggest internet portal, Naver, to the delight of readers. It's enjoyed weeks on the bestseller lists in South Korea after racking up 300,000 copies in sales in just two months after release, confounding critics who had recently been lamenting a lull in Korean novels. 
We met with Jo who, with his latest work, is prompting readers living in the 21st century to ask themselves what a nation is.




We are delighted to meet you through our webzine K-Book Trends. You're already very well known in South Korea as one of the country's representative authors, and readers outside South Korea know you as well, as your works have been translated and published overseas. How would you describe yourself in one word?


For the past 30 years, readers have attached so many prefixes to my name. It would be unbecoming of me to tell you about them myself, and to answer your question feels like I'm showing off but the first prefix would be 'the people's author', and the next would be 'the nation's author'. Others would be 'an author together with our people's history', 'the eternal author in active duty' and most recently I even heard 'living legend'.
These titles were given to me as an expression of gratitude by readers after they read my work and felt they could trust me and liked what I wrote. I just feel blessed. I feel very grateful to have heard those titles in my lifetime, and that might be what keeps me writing, out of gratitude for my readers.


<The Question of a Thousand Years> series

The Question of a Thousand Years series



People say South Korea is the only country on earth that has managed
to achieve economic development and democracy within a short period of time.
I think this is the source of the Korean people's pride and ego.



In June, you released your latest work, The Question of a Thousand Years. Through your body of work over the years, you've relentlessly shown Korean society as it is. What aspect of Korean society did you want to portray in your latest novel?


People say South Korea is the only country on earth that has managed to achieve economic development and democracy within a short period of time. I think this is the source of the Korean people's pride and ego. However, because all this was achieved in such a short period of time, so much evil and vices have accumulated throughout our society. I felt if we don't fix this, we won't have a future.
I think the accumulated evil in South Korea was created by five power groups that currently make up the power structure in South Korea's society. The legislative, judiciary and administrative branches of government that form the country's power; the chaebol that form the country's economic power; and the media that has joined forces with them all - These five power groups have forged illicit liaisons with one another, sought out profits and shackled the common people, repressed them and exploited them.
So The Question of a Thousand Years was written to tell the people, "We should not tolerate these things". Not only was the novel written to tell them that, but also to lead the way to the answer. By driving out an administration that was guilty of wrongdoing through candlelight protests, we made an immense, democratic achievement. It surprised advanced countries like the United States, France and the United Kingdom. In my novel, I say if we establish a standing army for peaceful revolution like we had during the candlelight protests in order to seize our basic rights and create a happy country, this nation may become the heaven we seek.


In your novel The Question of a Thousand Years you asked readers, "What is a nation?" It's a meaningful question with implications that will bring readers both inside and outside the country to think about what it means. What was the message you'd wished to tell them through that question?


Nations can be created because there are people. But ever since the history of mankind began, from thousands of years ago, we've asked ourselves doubtful questions like "What has the country done for us?" "Doesn't the country just take taxes from us?" "Do we need a country?" This is not just South Korea, but elsewhere too, I believe.
The novel The Question of a Thousand Years is a work that has particularity and universality all at once. The particularity comes from the backdrop that is South Korea in the early 2000s, and the novel's universality is derived from the fact that all countries trick, restrain and exploit their people although they all differ in degrees.
The solution is for people to always never forget that they are the owner of their countries and be careful to protect that ownership should their rights be violated, taken away or abused. That is what I wanted to say through the book. If we are unable to do that properly, that is, if we are indifferent towards politics and neglect monitoring and inspecting the power groups, we will live this way for the next thousand years. We will end up living the same way forever.
I wanted to tell readers to come to their senses.


<The Question of a Thousand Years> on Naver's Audioclip, an audiobook service

The Question of a Thousand Years on Naver's Audioclip, an audiobook service


Among your work, Han River started as a series in a newspaper in 1998. Your latest novel The Question of a Thousand Years is now being presented in an audiobook series. Was the decision to provide the book in audiobook format to keep in rhythm with changing times? We'd like to know how you made that decision.


It wasn't planned from the beginning. I only agreed to it once my publisher suggested it after I completed the novel. I was able to see I had made the right choice shortly after the audiobook was uploaded because not many days had gone by before I saw comments from Canada, Australia, the United States and France. These people were saying they were happy to see the book online. I was truly able to experience the global age, where people around the world can all see and hear things at the same time. I think audiobooks offer a favorable method of reading books that are in tandem with changing times, and feel there should be more to accommodate people's busy lives.

When The Question of a Thousand Years was first published, male readers in their 40s made up the bulk of your readers, but recently the novel is being loved by those in their 20s and 30s. This is likely due to the fact that the novel is available in digital format, as well as in audiobook form in addition to paper books. Have there been differences in feedback from readers in different age groups?


The differences between age groups are only natural, I feel. However, their understanding of the novel's theme or their judgment can only be the same, just as everyone acknowledges the beauty of flowers or how a certain temperature feels. I believe this comes from the homogeneity and empathy language gives us, as an effect of literature.



What I mean by density refers to the elasticity and tension the sentences carry.
I believe this is directly connected to how easily they can be read and the emotions readers feel.



Despite changes in this world, we heard you still write your manuscripts by hand. We couldn't help but hear in awe about your writing every word by hand. Is there a special reason you don't use a computer?


I do this in order to keep the density of my sentences. What I mean by density refers to the elasticity and tension the sentences carry. I believe this is directly connected to how easily they can be read and the emotions readers feel. To paraphrase it, I feel the soul reflected in my work would be different if words were quickly typed on a machine rather than written by hand, word by word. Readers say they "try to save the book the further they go" or they "can't put it down once they pick it up" about my work. I think this feedback bears witness to the ability my sentences have in drawing in readers, and this ability comes from the fact that I hand-write all my work. I also think it's also the price I pay to receive such comments.


Your novels have been translated into different languages like English, French, German and Japanese. There must be some similarities and differences in responses between Korean and non-Korean readers. How has the overseas response been so far?


Similar responses from all readers have most been, "the novels were fun" and "I learned a lot". The difference would be Korean readers say they felt responsibility for the future along with fresh anger" while foreign readers say they were unaware that Korea had such a painful and tragic history. They have also said they feel sorry for having been indifferent for so long and some sort of responsibility.


Since your work deeply addresses Korean history and its people, you must have had concerns over inaccurate translations. Were there some parts you had to specifically pay attention to when exporting your work overseas?


Some people say translation equals treason. This most likely refers to the limitations that translation has because of all the different characteristics languages have. I have a very strong Jeolla Province accent, and it's become an issue every time someone attempted translating it. There were many attempts, but we gave up translating the dialect and reverted to the standard form of language in respective countries. This was the solution we found in order to avoid making mistakes in translation.


There are most likely many readers outside South Korea who are unfamiliar with South Korea's society and history. Please tell our readers of any books you would like to recommend to them.


That would be Human Mask (Munhakdongne) that has an English version. The first reason I selected this is because it's short and easy to read. Secondly, I wanted to show readers what tyranny strong countries have unleashed upon weaker populations. Third, the book deals with a theme of mankind's history that we should block strong countries from this inhumane tyranny that could happen again at any time because of the dynamics countries still retain even after the 20th century.


<Human Mask>

Human Mask


After you made your debut in 1970, you've written many novels. You've not taken much rest but rather continued to think of new novels and written them. Have you thought about what you want to write next? How do you approach your writing?


I hope to be able to keep writing for the next 15 years and am contemplating around 10 novels inside my head. Reading patterns are changing quickly because of swift technology advancements, and people are reading less and less. Paper books are being consumed less. This is being observed globally, and there is talk of a literary crisis. Faced with this strange change in the times, I have a premonition of a tragedy in humankind's mind. But you know the saying 'Even if the world ends tomorrow, I will plant an apple tree seed.' I will strive to continue writing, just as I did from the beginning when I told myself I would write even if there were one person left to read my work. Only that I feel, would give completeness to my life.



If we care about each other, respect each other and understand each other
then many misfortunes mankind has experienced so far could be resolved in an instant.
That is the final goal I hope to achieve through my literature: the dignity and value of mankind.



People say writers speak through their work. What is the message you want to tell your readers eventually through your entire body of work, including The Question of a Thousand Years and the novels you will come to publish in the future?


People have one thing in common. Everyone is born once, and they die once. This is why I think there is no human who is above or below others. When you take that into consideration, all humans are their own little universe and shining stars that have their own light. So, people should all respect each other and be understanding. They should try to look at each other's good aspects rather than their flaws, and if we don't do that, human society can't be happy.
If we care about each other, respect each other and understand each other, then many misfortunes mankind has experienced so far could be resolved in an instant. That is the final goal I hope to achieve through my literature: the dignity and value of mankind. This is why on a wall of the Taebaek Mountain Range Literature Center in my name, I've written 'Literature should contribute to mankind for mankind to live as mankind should.'





Arranged by Choi Ha-Yeong


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