J M Lee Interview
By: PP Wong
“I want a fiction that reveals the truth of history, rather than the fragments of it. I dream about a fiction that can highlight the truth. Truth always has two contradictory sides: light and darkness. Men bear their own light and darkness too: good and evil. No one can avoid them.”
J M Lee is a bestselling Korean author who has written eight novels which have been made into movies, TV dramas, a musical and a play. In 2015, his novel The Investigation was longlisted alongside heavyweights Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard for the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
In an interview with BW, Lee shares his delightful musings about the evils of human nature, freedom, imprisonment and hope.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
A bear in hibernation.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
1. The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 2. New running shoes.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Writing, running, writing…
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
How did J M Lee the author come into existence?
When I was 29, I was working as a journalist and wanted to write something for myself. One day, I came back from work late at night, and then suddenly thought, "What have I accomplished so far?" So I decided to do something within the next three years, not necessarily for public attention but for myself. So I started to run marathons before dawn and write novels at night. And three years later, I finished a marathon and my first novel.
Your latest novel The Investigation has some brilliant depictions of the evil side of human nature. Yet, there are also facets of hope within the narrative. Do you find it easier to write about darkness or light?
I want a fiction that reveals the truth of history, rather than the fragments of it. I dream about a fiction that can highlight the truth. Truth always has two contradictory sides: light and darkness. Men bear their own light and darkness too: good and evil.
No one can avoid them.
And I don’t want to be one-sided. It is said that the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Men can be forgiven as they are evil, and can be saved as they are good. I believe we can balance ourselves by revealing good and evil, and misgivings and repentance all together, and facing both positive and negative aspects of our society.
Your novel talks about freedom and imprisonment. What is true freedom to you?
Korean history for the last century was that of a taken freedom and fights to take it back. In the early 20th, Imperial Japan forcibly occupied the Korean peninsula. Many young men were enlisted in the Japanese army and died in World War 2. Many young women were forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese army. Korea was liberated in 1945, but soon it divided into North Korea and South Korea, fighting against each other for 3 years. South succeeded to rise from the ashes of the war, but military dictatorship constrained its people’s freedom again. Even after the prolonged fights for democratization were finally rewarded, neo-liberalistic capitalism still restricts people's freedom in many ways; not physically but socially and mentally. I hope this tactful but merciless kind of restriction disappears from the world.
In The Investigation you cover the topic of censorship. Do you believe that censorship should ever exist in any circumstance in the writing world?
Of course I strongly believe that censorship should disappear in the field of literature. I want the word to be deleted from dictionaries. Indeed, many countries have minimized censorship and now guarantee writers' freedom of expression. However, some authoritarian states still restrain the right to write with many legal languages such as law of contempt or defamation. Moreover, it is often seen in the modern capitalist society that many multinational conglomerates use the power of capital to encourage or discourage writers to write certain pieces. Not a single attempt to limit or warp writers' conscience should be allowed in any circumstances. Many great writers in history have proven that no political authority can harm writers' conscience nor take away the right to read from ordinary readers. Those great writers’ works demonstrate their pursuit of a writing that is entirely free from any political authority and the power of capital.
Your novel was first written in Korean, before being translated into other languages. Do share with us about the process in getting a novel translated.
The final draft of The Investigation came in 2008. And my agent asked translator Chi-Young Kim to translate the first 30 pages of it. Chi-Young Kim is well-known for translating Shin Kyung-Sook's Please Look after Mom, which was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize.
When translating The Investigation, she did not simply change Korean sentences into English, but also successfully delivered the subtle emotion and lifestyle of ordinary Koreans in Japanese Colonial era. My agent introduced the partial translation and synopsis at the London Book Fair 2012. Macmillan and other publishing companies from five different countries bought the publishing rights. After that, the Korean version of The Investigation was released in June 2012, and the full translation work was finished in late 2012. Two years later, the English version was published in the UK. Thanks to Chi-Young Kim’s tremendous efforts, The Investigation was listed on the longlist for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I deeply appreciate her.
A Korean academic from a well-known university shared with me that many Asian writers still see being published in the West as validation for their work to be seen as a “success.” What are your insights on this matter?
Asian literature is increasingly gaining its voice among Western societies. Asian writers such as Haruki Murakami have become a familiar name to Western readers. The writers of many different nationalities are delivering political, cultural, and religious aspects of their own countries in their writings, and it’s bringing new inspirations to Western literature.
For Korea, the last century was full of extreme ups and downs: Japanese Colonial era, Korean War, military dictatorship, democratization and rapid economic growth. Korean writers, who have acted as observers of that turbulent history, have been able to portray the nature of power and humans, human rights and
freedom, and the power of capital and greed. If their works strike chords with Western readers, it is because they can find their own stories from the works. Though each of us leads different lives in different places, we can understand and sympathize with each other through this work of fiction.
Through literature we encounter different nations, different languages, and different lives, and find reflections of ourselves in a different world. That difference assures us that we are all same humans sharing truth, goodness and beauty. The fact that we are different makes us believe that we are not different at all. And that’s why literature is powerful.
George Orwell said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” What is your writing process like?
I suppose that he mentioned his pain as a writer to highlight the sense of accomplishment. It is often said that the greater the effort, the sweeter the reward. Writing is indeed a struggle. But the fact that it’s a struggle makes it worth more. Writers are the people who are willing to face that struggle. They are like marathoners standing at the start line. They fear the upcoming 26 miles of running track, but when the whistle blows, they run out to the finish line. There’s no one waiting for them at the finish line. All they can get is the fact that they have just finished running 26 miles.
When I work on my writing, I go to a small office nearby my house at 9 am and write until 6 pm. Sometimes I write a full 250 words, and sometimes I can’t even finish a single sentence. And I love those hours full of solitude and agony.
The Investigation is set in a prison – a nightmarish place. Do you have any re-occurring nightmares or dreams?
I often dream about going back to army training camp after being discharged. One day I even dreamt it four times. I felt very relieved when I woke up.
Your previous novel Deep Rooted Tree became a successful South Korean TV series. Many authors dream about having their novel made into a TV series or film. What was the process like for you?
I've written eight novels so far. Two of them were successfully made into TV dramas in Korea. Another three will be made into movies, and the other two will be made into a musical and a play respectively.
I don't actually think about making my novel into movies or TV dramas in advance while I'm writing. In my personal opinion, written letters or sentences should be the first medium to connect a novel and its readers.
Typically, production companies or film directors first show their willingness to make my novels into TV dramas or movies. Once I accept their suggestions, I try not to influence the production processes, since I’m not a film language expert as they are. Some producers stick to the original characters and storyline, while others try some bold changes in terms of the personality or line-up of the characters. It is the original writers’ privilege to watch how everything changes.
Where does the next unlocked door in J M Lee’s life lead?
Now my English translator is working on the next novel which was published in Korea two years ago. Its English title is The Boy Who Escaped from Paradise. It is a story about an autistic boy who escapes from a political prison camp in North Korea, and wanders around the world. The boy is naturally gifted in mathematics, and he fights against the world full of lies and evil intentions with his talent. I hope to see the readers of Banana Writers again soon. Thank you.BW