Interview with Yoon Sung-hee: Like Rolling Snowballs to Make a Snowman
by Cha Mi-ryeong October 05, 2021
Congratulations on the release of your latest anthology, Every Day is April Fool’s. What is a day in the life like for you?
It’s always the same: working when I can on a novel I’m supposed to be writing and otherwise lazing about at home. I let my mind wander as I lie on the sofa, watch TV, or have a read through one of the three or four books I have on hand.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work? And what is your personal and professional perspective on the pandemic?
The pandemic has had little effect on my work, probably because writing is such a solitary job. Once the pandemic hit Korea, I started trying harder to stick to my routine so that I could endure through my daily life. I made it a personal rule to write three hours a day, walk one hour a day, and cook for myself rather than order out for delivery. I haven’t been perfect, of course. I tend to be lenient with myself so I’m not so great with rules. But staying put at home did help me to write quite a few short stories last year.
Counting from your debut in 1999, this is the twenty-second year that you’ve been a writer. Who were some writers who influenced your decision to take this career path?
I must have been twenty-four or twenty-five when I fell head over heels for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Of course, I’d been inspired by other works to try and reach their heights, but never so much as with Vonnegut’s work. Slaughterhouse-Five taught me to practice writing with the speed and rhythm of the prose in mind.
So that’s where your concise yet packed writing style comes from. Now let’s talk about your debut work, “A House Made of LEGOs” (1999). The motif of LEGOs is key to the story—what is your take on games and play? Your characters, whether children or elders, seem to discover something in the process of playing.
Many of my stories feature seniors, and when they play, it’s with a sense of understanding that they can never go back to the past. But I try not to use games and play as a device for evoking nostalgia, because then my stories would veer into excessive sentimentality. My intention is that the idea of play acts as a sort of cord fastening optimism, acceptance, and sadness together.
Take one character from my recent short story “Every Day is April Fool’s.” The narrator’s younger brother gets into a traffic accident and is taken unconscious to the emergency room. He briefly becomes a disembodied spirit, looking down at his own body in the hospital bed. Later, he discusses the experience with his family, saying, “When I woke up, it occurred to me that no matter what happens, I should try to live a fun life. And that’s why I didn’t study.” That’s the kind of attitude my characters tend to have about life.
What a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of your career as a storyteller. Your early works tended to be rather dark, until at some point humor became a defining trait in your writing. Where do you get the strength to endure and rise above grief?
It all started from a simple change. When I was writing the short stories that would be published in my first anthology after my debut, I felt a sense of frustration toward my characters. So I gave myself a challenge: to make sure that in every short story I wrote, there was at least one scene where the main character laughed. That changed the way I conceptualized my stories. I ask myself, When was the last time this protagonist laughed? It’s a probing question that helps me to untangle difficult sections of my stories. The challenge led to a gradual but real change. And on a personal level, I always loved absurd stories, even as a child. I really wanted to write stories where freak coincidences popped up in the narrative. I’ve gotten less self-conscious about it, too, as I set about making my characters laugh. All this has put me closer to the path of coincidences, miracles, and humor in the world of fiction.
The themes of humor and consolation are also major keywords in Every Day is April Fool’s. The entire collection has a notable emphasis on and love for the stories of older women. What drew you to the lives of elderly women?
I took some time to think about elderly people. They walk slowly, eat slowly, and often fall into their thoughts. I thought that was a great fit for my fiction. From the moment I decided I wanted my characters to laugh, I wanted to write about many wise but adorable old people. In “Every Day is April Fool’s,” the aunt tells her nephew and niece, “Loneliness makes a person crabby. And if I ever become a crabby old woman, don’t even bother visiting me, all right?” This is actually something I’d wanted to tell the old ladies in my story, not necessarily the readers.
Loneliness tends to stem from events that happened in a character’s past. When your stories look into the past, they seem to address the issue of forgiveness, whether of others or of oneself. What does going back to the past mean to you?
One of my short stories is actually titled “Boomerang,” and it means that your actions in the past will come hurtling back towards you. It’s a recurring theme of sorts in my stories. I think about what moments in the present will trigger the return of a past misdeed, and let myself think deeply about the possibilities. The opposite is true, too. When in the present might a person be visited by a painful event they’d wanted to forget? For me, the past and present don’t exist in vacuums of their own; they must overlap. And in that overlap, I look for and unearth forgiveness.
That’s a great segue into your Kim Seungok Literary Prize-winning short story “One Night,” which happens to be in this very issue of KLN and features the relationships between an elderly woman and her parents, her husband, and her daughter. In a game of freeze tag, a frozen person can only be unfrozen by another person. In your story, the person unfreezing the elderly woman is a young man. What was the inspiration or the reason you created this dynamic?
Actually, I had a bit of writer’s block while working on that story. I stopped at the part where the old woman falls, and I couldn’t write anything after that for days. That was when I saw neighborhood children playing freeze tag. Suddenly it came to me—that my character also needed someone to come and unfreeze her. I made this character a young man because I wanted to emphasize to people of his generation that it’s okay not to be working, that just doing nothing can be difficult enough. The reason he’s a man is because the old lady is a woman. She resents her husband, but still thinks back often to the good old days when he was still young. That’s why I wanted her to meet this kind, sweet young man.
On that note, concerning the elderly woman’s past with her husband, what is family to you? You’ve dealt with more than just spousal or mother-daughter relationships. Your stories feature relationships with one’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt, or uncle.
When I craft a protagonist, I think of everything the protagonist is not. This is why I focus so much on the people around my main character. And when I try to build my character in that space I’ve created with the other characters, I oftentimes end up with a family. That’s why I tend to go into the life stories of my characters. I love thinking about complicated family relationships involving multiple generations. I still feel like being talkative about this framework, as if I still haven’t said everything I need to say. And although I don’t necessarily want to leave this frame, I do want to expand out into other areas of life—but right now, I’m not completely convinced I should. I don’t think I can write my next full-length novel until I’ve come to grips with this.
Your answer makes me wonder how your stories are created.
There’s no big secret. For me, writing is like making a snowman. I start with a little snowball, roll it around in my head, and once I think it’s big enough, I write it down. Once I’ve done that, I roll it around again to form sentences. Eventually these little snowballs grow into the snowman’s body and head. That’s how it works for me.
That’s a very apt image, I think, because your stories, in which the nameless people of this world are beautifully connected, are also like a snowman made by rolling together individual snowballs.
Growing up, I always imagined that there were people similar to me living somewhere I didn’t know. I didn’t read much as a child because I didn’t have access to many books. I loved reading, though, whether it was fiction or otherwise. I also loved listening in on adults’ conversations. I even read through the little instructions written on medication packages. We had a lot of live-in tenants when I was younger. When someone new moved in, I would ask them where they lived before and try to find the place on a map. I’ve lived almost fifty years in my hometown, and the radius of my life is rather limited. But I often dream about living in another city. I think these life experiences are what shape the stories I write today.
That reminds me of your first full-length novel, Spectators. It even features characters who travel around the world, and I was fascinated by the way the roots of the story are connected to the sheer distance spanned by their travels. How does traveling inspire you? Or what is traveling to you as a writer?
I’m very much a homebody, but I also enjoy getting out of the house. The one thing I love more than traveling, I would say, is making the itinerary before I leave and picturing my upcoming journey. Sometimes I wonder if I really do enjoy traveling, or if I’m simply in love with the planning process. Anyway, traveling for me is to see beautiful things and eat delicious food with the people I love.
Spectators features children who travel around the world and parents who have never gone traveling. The parents spent their entire lives running a restaurant, where they get to listen in on diners’ conversations and hear even more about the world than their children—who are physically moving between countries—get to see. For me, both of these things constitute travel, whether you spend your whole life manning a restaurant counter or wandering the globe in search of answers.
How do you feel about the international publication of Spectators?
I had the chance to attend the Guadalajara International Book Fair when Spectators was published in Spanish [as Espectadores (Bonobos, 2016)—Ed.]. It was my first time participating at a book fair, and I wondered what sort of people would come to listen to me. I still remember the sparkling eyes of the students at the event. As I walked out of the venue at the end, I felt like the “me on the other side of the world” I dreamed about as a child was standing there. They were the people who attended the event. The moment is still a cherished memory that gives me great courage as I continue to write.
I’m sure the students who attended the session felt the same. Now, one final question for courage as we cross borders in the name of literature: your literary universe is sometimes called the “Yoon Sung-hee World” for the unique characteristics of your works. Out of your works, which seven short stories would you choose to define this label?
I would pick “The Responsibility of Loneliness,” “Take Care, See You Again,” “The Hole,” “The Slow Ball, the Slower Ball, the Very Slow Ball,” “Resting on a Pillow,” “Daytime Drinking,” and “Remaining Memories.”
This is actually really hard. Those particular stories were a joy to write, but didn’t get much public attention when I published them. I do have a special attachment to my first anthology, but I didn’t count any stories from it because it was published before I established the Yoon Sung-hee World. I made sure to pick one or two stories from each of my other five books.
Interviewed by Cha Mi-Ryeong
Translated by Slin Jung
Cha Mi-Ryeong is a literary critic. She has authored a collection of reviews titled A World of Abandoned Possibilities (2016). She has served on the editorial boards of Munhak Dongne and KLN. She currently teaches modern Korean fiction at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology.
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