Today I have a different kind of guest interview. Normally I feature other erotica writers, but for change, I’ve invited my friend Giacomo Lee to talk his new novel Funereal, which is set in present day South Korea (a current interest of mine, sparked by… well, if you were paying attention when I did my Gentlemen of Intriguing Appearance series you might know why.)
Before the interview, first, a blurb about Funereal.
Throw yourself a funeral. But will it make you happy?
Soobin Shin is an aspiring young woman in a near-future version of Seoul. Ever since her college graduation, she has struggled to escape from her dead-end job in a doughnut chain. Her twin sister Hyewon is one of Korea’s most recognizable models, but Soobin just can’t seem to find her lucky break… until one evening, a creepy regular customer offers her a job in a company he has just started. OneLife Korea is going to save South Korea one funeral at a time… by burying the living in order to help them find some peace of mind in the country with the highest suicide rate in the developed world.
Soobin has already lost her mother, and her relationship with her boyfriend is on the rocks. What else does she have to lose? Everything at OneLife Korea seems perfect until high-profile clients actually start dying. Soobin Shin is Korea’s beautiful new angel of death, and Funereal is a snapshot of a city in flux, taking a look at the dark side to surgery, survival, and stardom in the near future of one of Asia’s most dynamic capitals.
How long have you been writing for?
I’ve been writing seriously for 5 years or so. I first wrote a novel after graduating from university, but that was just me being pretentious, and I didn’t take it any further for a long while.
Who or what are your influences? Not necessarily other writers, but anything at all (music, art, people you’ve met?)
Funereal has been compared to Haruki Murakami, but, truth be told, it was only a few years ago when I started to ‘scratch’ below his surface. I read Norwegian Wood like everybody else, but I had no real idea about his other, more otherworldly style of writing for a long while. I love Kafka on the Shore, and that’s about it. So, he is not one of my influences. My actual influences would include Thomas Pynchon, who I was trying to ape a little on Funereal. I wanted my book to be a more serious take on The Crying of Lot 49. In his novel you can find 60s pop culture, a mysterious death, and the idea of a whole other world buried beneath the big city. Funereal has all that, but transposed to our modern, post-Gangnam Style world.
What was the inspiration for Funereal?
At the end of the 2000s, I was in Korea for a brief jaunt, and I remember being in a restaurant, looking up, and seeing a news report about Jang Ja-yeon , a young Korean actor who’d killed herself. In her suicide note she’d claimed to have been abused by men in the entertainment industry, and she could no longer take it. I was then told that other Korean celebrities had killed themselves recently, both male and female, and that really stayed with me for a long time. It was upsetting to hear, so I never once thought ‘Wow, that could be a great idea for a book!’ I had absolutely no desire to write about Korea, or suicide, or depression. I wasn’t really aware of suicide rates among the general Korean populace either, until I came across a simple news article about Seoul’s coffin academies. It was just a few paragraphs, with next to no pictures. That also got me thinking, and soon that story merged with my recollection of Jang Ja-yeon, and inspiration just snowballed from there.
You lived for a little while in Korea. How did that influence the writing of the novel?
Before living in Korea, my draft of Funereal was a lot like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in that it was superficial, starstruck and perhaps a little bit zany. After living in Korea, it soon became somber, thoughtful and perhaps a little more surreal. This is mainly because I got a chance to live outside of the more colourful, cosy areas of Seoul, far away from all the good food, nice cafes and flash neon lights.
I first wound up in the very dull and grey north part of the city, before moving on to the southern land of ‘love motels’ known as Sillim district. The latter was full of neon lights, admittedly, but it had that rough feel which those colourful, cosy parts of the city try to make up for, and which the rest of Seoul has whitewashed behind a grey landscape of very dull looking architecture, especially up the north side.
I really liked Sillim’s lack of pretension, something that you’ll find a lot of in the more well-known parts like Gangnam area. I fed these contrasting parts of the city into my writing, depicting Seoul’s chimera-like quality of the new, the old, and the ugly, and by the ugly I mean both the character, that unpretentious quality, and the otherwise lack of character to be found in urban Korea.
This is one of the first (and I believe the very first) novels about modern day South Korean written by a Westerner with Korean lead/view point characters (as opposed to ones about visitor/tourist/expat experiences). Did you feel any pressure/responsibility in portraying the society accurately while still being somewhat critical? What kind of reaction do you anticipate from readers in South Korea (assuming there are any)?
Other Western books on modern Korea are sci-fi based, or based around foreigners in Korea, as you mention. Actually, all the Western sci-fi books on Korea are also based around expats, funnily enough. There was a lovely novella released a few years back called Once Around the Sun by Melanie Steyn, which focused on a Korean family in a more rural and timeless area of the country. My book though is the first to hit Seoul with all guns blazing. And by Seoul I also mean urban Korea, by default. But, I didn’t know that at the time I started writing it! Absolutely not. That only transpired during the redrafts. So, I wouldn’t say I felt any pressure, but I was always mindful of certain things, such as avoiding the checklist of lazy Korean cliches. I refrained from mentioning national drinks and dishes, for example. I gave nods to k-pop, without actually naming any real k-pop bands. That would have been too cheesy. I also refrained from treating the characters like something strange beneath the magnifying glass, or as something exotic in an Oriental sense. At the end of the day, they are human, and this is a humanist book which hinges on humanist themes.
I hope Korean readers will enjoy the book, and not take it as an uncalled for examination from the West. At the end of the day, it’s a story, with a narrative that goes from A to Z, and which is more interested in people on a spiritual level, rather than a national one.
What do you think readers, who are not Korean or have little knowledge of South Korea, will find most interesting about the novel?
The idea of people being buried alive must be the most interesting thing. It plays into something much more primordial, and universal, and it’s why I think my book is more than just a ‘Korean Novel’. It’s about mortality, and meaning. It’s a very humanist book.
How did you develop the characters? There is Soobin, of course, and her boss Joe. What about the supporting cast?
I wanted the characters to take on a familial role around our main character, Soobin. They’re like a family she finds herself thrust into, and thus encompass different generations. So Joe is like your nice, funny uncle, and her customer-slash-patient Geonwon Kang is like the distant sort of uncle who you can never really decipher. Characters become family surrogates in a way, and each has a dark shadow in the book that pops up the more Soobin explores her city. So Kang is definitely Joe’s shadow, in that way.
Soobin gets involved in the entertainment industry a little, but no-one in the book is based on a Korean celebrity, I should add.
When do you get your writing done?
It varies, mainly depending how excited I am by an idea. If I’m really excited, I’ll be working on it in the evenings, or over as much as of the weekend as possible.
What is your writing process, from idea to final draft?
6 months on the first draft. Let it linger, get some perspective, some rest. Another six months on another draft, and then less and less time on the following ones. Nothing too out of the ordinary.
What is your next project?
Something based in England. I have no plans to write about another country again, not even Korea! That’s all done with.
Bonus question: I know you’re very into music. Any K-Pop or Korean music in general recommendations? 🙂
Humming Urban Stereo does the best and weirdest lounge/pop/electronica. Glen Check do post-Justice dance better than any other Western act.
For something darkly digital, try Haihm, a solo musician, or the fantastic duo Twomyung, who are easy to find on Soundcloud. I also love ukulele folktronica trio Ookoorookoo.
Giacomo Lee hails from London, but has also lived in Italy and South Korea. His writing has been featured on Boing Boing, io9 and Shortlist, whilst short fiction of his can be found in Aspidistra, L’Allure Desmots and the New Asian Writing anthologies.
His writing heroes include Borges, Orwell, Yukio Mishima, Stefan Zweig, Steven Moffat and Vince Gilligan.
Find all buy links at Giacomo’s store page.