Korean Culture: Some writers, like O Chong-hui and Ch’oe In-ho, begin writing early in life; others, like Pak Wan-so, begin relatively late. When did you begin thinking about creative writing?
Ch’oe: I began rather early myself. The first work I published, back in middle school, was supposed to be a short story. From then on I’ve written continually in just about every genre. I started out with critical essays and after putting in some more time studying literature and literary theory I felt quite comfortable settling on fiction.
Korean Culture: How do you see yourself as a writer? Do you have a message? Are you an ideological writer? An art-for-art’s-sake writer? An experimental writer? All of these?
Ch’oe: I guess critics like to make these distinctions, but it seems to me the true nature of creative writing is to be found outside such classification. To be sure, I have all of those tendencies you mention. A variety of them exist in all writers. If we really want to depict the infinite scope of reality, then we need to mobilize all of those tendencies. It’s precisely that infinity, shown to us by people and reality, that makes us write. The simplest fact that defines a writer as a writer is the expression of this infinity solely through language.
As far as a message is concerned, no work lacks one, no matter how neutral that work is. On the other hand, I am in no way an ideological writer. No matter how lofty-sounding a political ideology, I can’t help viewing it with suspicion. I can go along with the idea that ideologies are used to defend certain ways of life, but for me only the literary realm is broad enough to include all ideology.
At the same time, I’m one of those who believes, with Bakhtin, that even silence is a form of conversation, and so I could never be an art-for-art’s-sake writer.
The important thing for me is to depict reality through the most appropriate language and form. And because reality is always changing, it’s only natural that each of my works should be different in language and form. When I have a world-view I wish to present, my first task is to flesh it out in language and structure rather than in a message. And so when I hear occasionally that my works are experimental, my reaction is that there’s some misunderstanding. One needs a unique language and form to depict a changing world, and in this sense a work’s world-view creates its own form. I prefer to describe this process not as an experiment but as the pursuit of a different factuality. If you’re going to change the world, how are you going to do it through conventional methods and language?
Korean Culture: How do you find the time to teach, translate, and write? Can you describe your writing schedule? For example, do you always write at the same time every day?
Ch’oe: I’m not the most regular person in my daily life, and that goes for my writing, too. When I’m into the flow of writing, I somehow come up with a way to write, but it’s a mystery to me how I do it. At such times, day and night cease to exist for me. I tend not to waste time, and I don’t spend time on things I don’t want to do. And after I finish a work, I have to give myself enough time to recharge my batteries.
Korean Culture: Are there any authors, Korean or non-Korean, whom you feel close to in terms of goals, style, or artistic vision?
Ch’oe: Yes, too many of them. If there weren’t fellow writers, dead or alive, that I agreed with regardless of nationality, life wouldn’t be very interesting. I still get excited by all the new books coming out that I want to read.
Korean Culture: Do you write with Korean readers in mind? Or for a world audience? Or both?
Ch’oe: In my mind there exists a vaguely idealistic reader, but I don’t write for any particular kind of reader. Since I live in Korea and write in Korean, I guess it’s natural that my primary readership should be Korean.
Korean Culture: Can Korean writers write whatever they want now, without government interference or censorship?
Ch’oe: The problem, I think, is not so much a question of subject as the fact that the variety of approaches to the subject is limited. Interference in civil rights and other areas is a problem, but what’s more difficult to overcome is the stiffness and uniformity of people’s thinking patterns. At the same time, the utilitarian idea that literature must be used for something is as much a point of concern to me as sentimentalism, which paralyzes the intellect through overuse of emotion.
Korean Culture: How would you like yourself and your works to be remembered?
Ch’oe: Writing is a struggle to transcend time. Writers know roughly how long each of their works will endure. As a writer, I’d be happy if any of my works should outlast me. Korean Culture: The Korean literary establishment seems to be pouring all of its energy into winning a Nobel Prize. What do Korean writers have to do to win the prize? Ch’oe: If there’s one thing writers must do to win a Nobel Prize, it’s to completely forget about it. Writing is its own reward. Who cares about the Nobel Prize? And I think most Korean authors would agree with me on this.
Korean Culture: Which of your works are especially dear to you?
Ch’oe: Sometimes I’ll change from cherishing a work to despising it, and on the whole I tend to do this without reason. But these days, for a variety of reasons, I cherish my novella There a Petal Silently Falls. This work takes the Kwangju resistance as its subject matter, and because of the circumstances in Korea at the time it was published, it created quite a stir. At the time I felt quite isolated, but the passage of time has reaffirmed my attitude toward writing, which is to strive for both timeliness and universality. In that sense I cherish this work the most. Recently Chang Sôn-u finished filming it. It’s the first movie about Kwangju, and I have high hopes for it.
Korean Culture: Are you still translating? Which Korean authors do you as a translator consider easier to translate?
Ch’oe: Yes, I still translate—when I can’t do any of my own writing. When I need to unwind, there are few things as restful as translation. In particular, translation is the only way I can work with the two languages I like the most—Korean and French. Translation is a kind of high-tech wordplay, and if the original work is good, it gives you a great deal of pleasure. Paradoxically, even a difficult work can be easy to translate if it’s well composed and precisely structured. The flavor of the writing can be enjoyable too. As, for example, with Yi O-ryong’s “Bridge of Illusion” or Cho Se-hui’s A Tiny Ball Launched by a Dwarf, thanks to their flawless composition. They’re delectable!