Youjeong Jeong in Conversation at Foyles, UK.

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What better way to celebrate a night of gore ( 31st October – Halloween) then to spend the evening exploring a book delving into the mind of a psychopathic killer. I was given the honour by the Korean Cultural Centre to moderate Youjeong Jeong’s first translated novel into English The Good Son for the October literature night. Translated by Chi Young Kim.

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Partipants at a literature night in August 2018

I had read the book earlier in the year and due to all the marketing hype surrounding it as a whodunnit novel, I felt unappreciative of the writing style. As each chapter unfolded before my eyes, I was expecting, and hoping for something more. Some twist, and unforeseen situation that would absolve the narrator and completely turn the story on its head. Unfortunately none of that came to pass and I completely failed to appreciate the narrative. When I re-read it again, ahead of my preparations for the moderation, I was able to delve into the mind of this unsettling pathological individual and became in awe of the author.  An author that seeks to understand and push the boundaries of what is considered culturally normal.

I was struck by the sense of intrigue within the novel, the complexity of the familial

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relationships, the detailed imagery of the blood and guts spattered throughout and the interweaving flash backs that play with your sense of understanding from a very unreliable narrator. This is Jeong’s first novel that has been translated into English but she has written five others. One can be classified as a young adult novel and was the first of her works to win the Segye Youth Literary Award, My Life’s Spring Camp. [내 인생의 스프링캠프, 2007. She then went to write Shoot Me in the Heart [ 내 심장을 쏴라, 2009] and Seven Years of Darkness [7년의 밤, 2009]. The latter two of which have become movies. Her fourth novel was the popular 28 written in 2013 and then came her latest, The Good Son [종의 기원, 2016].

She has sold more than 500,000 copies of Seven Years of Darkness and before even being published, The Good Son, climbed to the top of the bestseller list as pre-orders soared through South Korea’s major online bookstores. It was also voted as by readers of the country’s largest bookstrore – Kyobo Book Centre as the Best Fiction of 2016.

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Youjeong Jeong in conversation at Foyles [2nd Nov]

Youjeong Jeong’s route in to writing has been  rather an unusual one. Born in 1966 in Jellanamdo Hampyeong. She spent her formative years studying nursing at Gwangju Christian College of nursing, and then five years as a nurse in an intensive care unit. She later went on to work as a health insurance reviewer and assessor and did that for a further 9 years. She had always wanted to pursue a literary career, but despite her mother’s objections, she never really pursued it until her early forties. She then began writing short stories and entered competitions and on her 12th try, she eventually won the prize and the rest as they say, is history.

Since the Korean Cultural Centre had planned for the The Good Son to feature in their book line up for October and to screen the film Seven Years of Night [2018] by director Chang-min Choo, for the London Korean Film Festival, it made sense for them to bring the author over.

It was a slight relief to note that I would moderate the book without the author being present. It would have been a nerve wracking experience. KCCUK instead held the  the Q&A event a few days later and had   Philip Kim, managing editor of the Asia Literary Review and Professor Grace Koh, lecturer in Korean literature over at SOAS, moderating and interpreting. It was also held at Foyles book shop, Charing Cross branch to coincide with the Culture month they were holding in the store.

Although I must say that the evening of the 31st did set the tone for the event at Foyles as most of all the questions from the audience came from the attendees of the literature night and the questions they posed to the author were along the topics of debate that they had been grappling with that evening.

During the question and answers, Professor Koh did enlighten the audience of how unique Jeong’s route into literature was. In Korea generally to be considered an author you need to have  formally studied the subject;  literature or creative writing and obtain a mentor and be in that environment. Even then, you are not really considered one until you win a prize.

Below is the summary of the Q & As asked by both Phillip Kim and Professor Koh, including a few asked by audience members.

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[From right to left] Phillip Kim, Youjeong Jeong and Professor Grace Koh at Foyles Charing Cross
Professor Koh: What was your inspiration for writing the book and you can tell us a little more about the title?

The Korean title of the novel is different. It was published as ‘종의 기원,’ Which in translation means The Origin of the Species. The choice to name the English title was determined by the publishers in consultation with the translator and myself.

I have always been interested in questions about the evils of human kind and the psychology of human beings. The particular inspiration for the story was based on a real life event that took place in Korean in 1992. Back then Korea as a country was very much in its developmental stages and was not as affluent as it is now. Back then the term ‘psychopath’ was not widely known or recognised in the society. There was a small community who were affluent within the Gangnam area in Seoul.  You might call them ‘nouveau riche’ who were able to send their kids abroad to study. These were spoiled kids running amok. In Korean, we called them ‘오렌지족’ or Orange Clan. This term was associated with Orange County in California. This became a terminology that stuck at the time.

One of the sons, who was sent abroad to study by his hard working parents, had developed a gambling problem. He had accrued huge debts and when the father found out, you can imagine how shocked and disappointed he was in his son and called him a good for nothing. The son became  enraged and stabbed his parents to death. He stabbed his father forty times and his mother fifty times. He also set the house on fire. At the funeral, he was laughing and showing no sense of guilt or empathy. Throughout the investigation, the detectives in charge found it very hard to corroborate his story as it was never consistent each time he told it. When it was discovered that he was the one who committed the crime, it became headline news in Korea. Filial piety is huge in  our country. It was an unprecedented event in modern Korean history. It was inconceivable as to how someone could act in such a callous way towards their parents let alone take their lives.

I remember at the time how shocked I was. I had lost my mother during my twenties and could not understand how someone would want to willingly take the life of their parents. There was a time where I would cry simply by watching adverts depicting a mother and daughter relationship as I would miss my mother so much. To understand why someone would want to do this, I was inspired to conduct research. I started reading Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud on the topics of criminal pathology and psychology. I had to read them in translation as they had not been written originally in Korean. I really wanted to write about this topic.

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Phillip Kim: Given the taboo nature of the topic you wrote about, how was the book received in Korea?

I have a nick name – ‘Amazonian’ in South Korea as when this novel first appeared, it was a completely new kind of novel, the first of its kind. However it enraged the literary critics on the scene. Many critics and writers felt that I wrote the story for commercialism and to gain popularity. Although this was not my intention, I do not think commercialism is an entirely bad thing. However I was criticised and ignored. Interestingly enough, the book was well received by the readers and the general public as they felt it was something new. It opened up a new genre.

Phillip Kim: Some people refer to you as the ‘Stephen King of Korea’ and you have said in the past that he has been a great influence on your work. Do they compare you because of simlar subject matter or is it the  style of how you write?

Imagine if you will, two different places. A sunny wide open field and a forest. In this forest, beasts and creatures hidden within.  In the case of Stephen King, he writes  about the depths of the hidden forest using the method of suspense. So when people compare me to him I get compared with this method of story telling. As I did not study or major in literature, unlike many other  writers, I did not have a mentor to guide me.  In some ways writers like Stephen King and Raymond Chandler were my mentors. I love their works and I feel inspired by and influenced by their methods. I feel Stephen King has taught me the ABCs of writing.

At the same time of being compared to him,  I am extremely honoured  and humbled, but also feel like I am committing acts of blasphemy because he is such a god like figure.

Phillip Kim: This novel delves deeply into the mind of a psychotic killer. How much of this person that you wrote about is in you?  How did you set about doing this?

In any novel, there does contain elements of the writer within.  This book took me three drafts for it to come into fruition the way that it had. I think the reason why the two drafts failed was that I simply mimicking the things I had studied. For my third and final draft, I had to really get into the mind  of a psychopath and become like them. Such was the extent that my husband started becoming scared of me and asked maybe if I could live or sleep elsewhere. I think about Freud, when he says that everyone of us has dark dreams and those that exhibit normal behaviour  will not let them  surface or act on these. If they had a horrible altercation with their boss that day, they may dream about killing them, but they would never act on it. To be a psychopath is that you would carry out these sorts of actions. The frightening thing was that I felt at peace when I was acting this way. However it took me a while to recover after finishing the novel. I had to spend three months recuperating in France living as recluse.

Professor Koh: Four years ago when Korea was the market focus at the London Book Fair, I remember being asked as a panelist by audience members if South Korea had genre fiction. At the time it was not something that was common or popular in Korea. However that seems to have changed since/ What do you think of the label and genre of crime fiction?

At the time when I was submitting my work for competitions, categories like fantasy, thrillers and crime did not exist as a genre. When I did win a prize, it caused a bit of a sensation as it was the first work of its kind to be have been awarded. Some of the younger writers have said that I drove a tank through and raised a flag for these kinds of categories to now exist in South Korea in the literary scene.

Phillip Kim: You have written two or three crime thrillers, one that is apocalyptic in nature [The novel 28] what is next for you? What are you currently working on?

I do have other work in progress and its looking like it will be published in May of next year. In terms of genre, I would largely describe it as a work of fantasy. It will be my first work where a woman is the protagonist. She is a chimpanzee trainer. Overall the novel deals with the theme of death. My mom’s untimely death early on in my life,  remains one of the biggest tragedies. It is a  kind of trigger for me.  I worry not being able to see my son again all all that goes with the idea of  personal extinction. This has always consumed me. This would be a project where I would think about and confront this idea of death. Although death is a depressing subject, I aim to present it in a captivating way. Choosing a female protagonist was a good way to explore this topics as I feel that women are generally more mature and I could explore this theme through this character. The challenge has been that I lack femininity myself and am generally regarded as being a bit of a tomboy. My readers who are mostly male, call me ‘Hyunnim’ This is a term that is usually reserved for males referring to older males. It means older brother and they consider me on honorary man. But since I have revealed the topic of my new work where the protagonist is a female. I have been branded a traitor.

Additional questions that have been asked by audience members have been summarised below.

How important is it for you to depict strong female characters?

I do believe that it is important to have strong characters alongside the protagonist. They help fuel the narrative and act as a plot device. My mother was a very strong woman and was what you would call a ‘tiger mom’ I was never allowed to say I couldn’t do or achieve something. She did this out of love to make me a strong woman. For me a strong women is someone who is similar to my mother. I have been criticised by readers for some of my female leads as being too aggressive or scary.

How are you able to stay strong as a person whilst delving into the minds of evil and darkness?

The reason I am able to do this is largely to do with my personality. I am quite fearless and resilient. This  largely has to do with  my mother raising me to be a strong individual. I also have an innate sense of survival which allows me to investigate the darker side of human nature without  falling apart.

What other challenges did you face whilst writing the third draft of this novel?

I often get asked this question and always say that it was a challenging time for me. However it was the first time in my life I did things that that I would not have done before whilst living as a psychopath and it was very liberating for me.  This was quite a surprise. It might sound scary but I really understood the mind of psycopath and why they do what they do and was able to sympathise with them. It would be dangerous to consider thinking in this way. But I think being a writer is a great profession, as it gives me the opportunity to explore this and write about it but of course return to a sense of normal at the end of the day.

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Me and Youjeong Jeong at Foyles, UK

Thank you to Foyles, the Korean Cultural Centre for making the event possible. Professor Koh for her excellent interpretation and Phillip Kim for moderating and of course to the author for her insightful answers.

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