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Interview with You-jeong Jeong

A Storyteller Exploring Mankind's True Nature

 

2017.10.10

 

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She may be, undoubtedly, the best writer of Korean-style thriller novels. She is also gearing up to spark a new wave abroad with her writing. She is You-jeong Jeong, renowned for novels like A Night of Seven Years, 28 and Origin of Species. Jeong's novels explore the true nature of mankind hidden deep in the folds of humans and they have captured not only Korean readers but those abroad, leading to her books becoming translated and published in different countries.
Her most representative work The Night of Seven Years tells the story of a man who has lost all from a murder case that happens in a village called Seryeongho. The man decides to take revenge on those who murdered his daughter and his conflict is illustrated in the novel. The novel has sold consistently in South Korea since it was published in 2011. This novel was also adapted into a film and is slated to open in theaters in late 2017. Jeong's latest novel Origin of Species deals with 'evil' one step higher. The story of a psychopath serial killer draws in readers with its descriptions of the killer's thinking.In this interview, 'storyteller' Jeong tells all from her childhood to hints on her next upcoming work.

 

KPIPA

While we were preparing for your interview, we found a number of words that describe you: star writer, storyteller, female warrior, monster writer. What would you personally like to be introduced as to our readers abroad?

 

Jeong

I was born and raised in Hampyeong in Jeolla Province. In our regional dialect, it was a "wicked village town" with not a library in sight. The only cultural experience I had was the circus that came to town whenever the five-day market opened. My grandmother loved the circus and she used to take me. Now, this circus was not your conventional one with dancing elephants and trapeze dancers. It was a circus with a traveling medicine peddler who would sell a cure-all ointment for your stomachaches, your headaches. Of course, the circus' repertoire was far from vast. They would roll cans, walk a tightrope, spin plates on sticks and do some magic. Of those, the most popular was the tented theater where two storytellers would sit and tell old traditional tales.
The most interesting tale was the traditional Korean story of Heungbu and Nolbu. The storytellers would never say Heungbu was poor, despite the fact he is known for his poorness in the story. Instead, they would they would talk endlessly of the happenings that could occur to poor people. On days I came back from the circus, I would gather the village children together and tell them the stories I had heard, pretending to be one of the storytellers. When they would tell me I was better than the storytellers, I was overjoyed. My audience burst out laughing whenever I said anything. Basically, I was the storyteller for all the young children in our town. Now and in the future, for a long time, I'd like to be called a storyteller.

 

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Shoot My Heart, recipient of the Segye Literature Award in 2009 (LEFT)
Jeong's Himalayas travel essay collection (RIGHT)

 

KPIPA

When reading your books, the strength in the narratives is quite impressive. It seems the reason behind your success as a bestselling novelist is here. What is the source for your forceful and speedy narratives?

 

Jeong

There are three. First would be my stamina. It takes me at least two years to write one novel. During that long, long time, I need strength to persevere with a clear head. This is why I exercise roughly two hours a day. If I didn't have the physical stamina, there would be no force in my stories. For instance, in scenes where the main character has to scale a mountain to fight a tiger, if I had little strength I would make the character avoid the tiger and go all the way around the mountain instead. The story would suffer for it.
Second would be my desire. I have to feel like my heart is bursting whenever I think of my stories. I have to be madly in love with my characters. When I lay in bed at night I have to see the faces of my characters on the room ceiling and dream of them when I fall asleep. When I wake, I run to my desk and meet that person. If I don't, that character lacks life. A character without life is a guaranteed ticket to failure. To do this, I have to write the stories I really want to write. This is the reason why I cannot write stories because the readers want them, or I have to follow the flow of the times or because society wants them.
Lastly, balance. One end of the story lies the real world, where at the other end, lays a fantasy world. You have to have the right balance between these two ends to have a forceful story. If you lean too much towards one end, then you have to check yourself as a writer.

 

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△ FROM LEFT The Night of Seven Years, 28 and Origin of Species

 

KPIPA

Through many of your novels, you talk deeply about the true nature of mankind and evil. It's a theme that is quite interesting and worthy of interest, but it doesn't seem like an easy task to pull off. Is there a special reason for the theme of your writing?

 

Jeong

All writers have their own themes. Actually, many writers keep writing about the same theme over and over again until they die. Hemingway wrote about humans facing death, Charles Dickens focused on family or fathers, and Stephen King writes about man's deepest fears. I don't believe these themes are selected on purpose but rather, they are created through the writers' personalities and experiences.
My theme is the "true nature of mankind". I also have much interest in dark woods that lie in the abyss of man. Inside this forest sleep all kinds of beasts that create problems for man. Jealously, envy, rage, hate, disgust, lust, fear, despair and violence...When and why will these dark life forms open their eyes? I wonder. What will spur them to take life? What is the force that drives them to the surface? When this force is combined with the violence of destiny, what happens? I enjoy asking myself these questions. I feel a need to find the answer and the result is my work.

 

KPIPA

Your novels are much loved in South Korea but they are also gaining attention outside the country. Have you had a chance to personally feel this interest? Please tell us if you had an experience that stands out from others.

 

Jeong

Yes, I've had a few. Among these, the open book talk even at a Aix-en-Provence library in France comes to mind. Back then I was suffering from a very bad cold and I took to the stage after taking some very strong medicine. I don't remember a single word I said during that one hour as well as the questions that were asked of me. It was like I had blacked out after drinking. It remains in my memory as because I have no recollection of that event.

 

KPIPA

Could you tell us what you're planning after 『Origin of Species』?

 

Jeong

I think in my next novel, the main character will be a woman. It will be the first such main character since I became a novelist and this is because of my literary lacking. I tried multiple times to create a female protagonist, but I failed each time to keep a certain distance between myself and that character. When the writer fails to do this and the writer's voice becomes louder than the character, that novel goes beyond saving. It becomes a perfect failure. It no longer becomes a story, but a work of propaganda with too much self-awareness. This is why I kept bringing in female characters into my stories -- to practice keeping that distance.
In this next novel, I plan to test myself.

 

KPIPA

Lastly, could you tell us what you would like to achieve as a writer? If you have a dream, please tell us.

 

Jeong

My dream is to write novels of a certain quality (preferably those that improve) regularly until I die.

 

 


Arranged by Myung-im Nam
Photographs provided by EHBook

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