INTERVIEW with Author, Sohn Won-Pyung
Sohn Won-Pyung is a Korean author, director and scriptwriter. Her movie script I Believe in The Moment won the Science Fantasy Writers’ Award in 2006. She also wrote and directed a number of short films including Oooh You Make Me Sick (2005), and A Two-way Monologue (2007).
Sohn made her literary debut in 2017 with her first full-length novel Almond, which follows a boy with Alexithymia - a trait that prevents him from identifying and describing the emotions experienced by himself and the people around him.
In Counterattack at Thirty, Sohn depicts how younger generations live in the consciousness of authority, falsehood, unjust treatment, and structure of exploitation that are widespread in Korean society.
Sohn is currently active in both the movie and literary scene as a film director, screenwriter, and novelist.
The decisive factor was childbirth. A newborn baby can't talk. Nevertheless, it’s amazing and phenomenal that they can express their intention and needs with emotions. I realised that emotion is the first means of expression that precedes language. As a writer, I always assume the opposite of what I experience or think. I thought that there might be people who don't experience feelings as well as those who are grateful for their emotions. When I investigated these questions, I found out that there was a disease called Alexithymia, and that inspired my story.
I didn't interview anyone because I wasn’t writing an actual case study. Instead, I read books about the human brain. I also reflected on the people around me who are both emotionally rich and people who are relatively slow in expressing themselves. I found that a person’s personality is a combination of natural brain topography, temperament, growth environment, and surrounding stimuli. I worked with that in mind.
In “Almond,” the characters Yunjae and Gon are quite opposite, yet they develop an unlikely friendship as the story goes on - did you always intend for them to be friends, or did it happen as you wrote their story?
The two children are extreme opposites, so I thought there could be a point where only they could understand one another. Yunjae and Gon’s strange friendship helps them identify things that others don't understand. That element of the story was planned. I let my stories flow when I write, but I tend to plan important points in advance.
What inspired you to write “Counterattack at Thirty”?
There was a time in my life where nothing was going well. I've always had faith in myself, however, I felt defeated because I was not recognised in the world, and I was afraid that my faith was gradually disappearing. I also thought a lot about whether to compromise with reality or become an adult. All those worries melted into the creation of “Counterattack at Thirty.”
Are any of the character in ‘Counterattack at Thirty’ based on women you know?
No, the first principle of my writing is not to write stories about me and the people around me. That doesn't mean I’m setting up a completely fictional character, there are scenes and characters that are a little bit inspired by people I know, but I think it's the artist's job to mix characters as much as possible and make them into new dishes. Still, compared to Almond, Ji-Hye - the main character of "Counterattack at Thirty" - projects more of my thoughts that I had during that time.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was younger, my first dream was to become a writer. But after adolescence and college, that dream had been diluted for a while. I don't think I wanted to be a writer specifically, I just knew I wanted to do something that I could freely manage. I always had a desire to create something.
Have any particular authors or books inspired you to become a writer?
As a child, I read a 50-volume series of traditional fairy tales from around the world. I was very interested in those kinds of stories. I don't usually keep a pile of books at home, but I still have those fairy tales, which are being read by my daughter.
It's hard to pick just one author. After adolescence, I read a lot of classical literature, and I liked Herman Hesse's books. I still like British writers such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Roald Dahl. I like Japanese authors Kaori Ekuni and Keichiro Hirano, Chinese author Lu Xun and the American author and poet Edgar Alan Poe. Guy de Maupassant and Jean Cocteau are among my favourite French writers, and for Russian literature, I prefer Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov's works more than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
What has been your experience as a female author and director in Korea?
Like many places around the world, Korea has also gone through a period of upheaval against gender in the past few years. The gender revolution and the change in perception of gender roles had spread to Korea through the trend of globalization.
Until just a few years ago, most commercial Korean films featured the story of a large group of male protagonists involved in a serious conflict - women were supporting roles. And films starring women in main roles were included in the independent film category. The wind of change is blowing now. It's a very encouraging phenomenon, but it's a pity that the coronavirus is preventing the opportunity to present various works to the world.
Has motherhood had an impact on your writing?
I think motherhood is acquired, so I'll say it's more of an experience of childbirth than motherhood itself. “Almond” would never have been written if I hadn't experienced childbirth.
Giving birth and raising children is a very common experience, but it's very special. It’s really different to experience it. It's a very unique and universal experience that makes you look at the world you knew in a completely different way. Family is a very powerful theme, it’s touching and terrifying. Becoming a mother was an opportunity to understand human behaviours that I didn't understand before.
If you wrote another novel, what kind of story would you want to tell?
I want to write a novel that represents humans well. A special and universal story.
It's also a writer's job to describe the times. However, I would like to write a story that can still be relevant over time whilst still depicting the times we live in now. I want to write a classic - yes, I know it’s a big dream. I also want to write a simple, interesting story that even people who don't like books can enjoy. Just like the fairy tales I read and fell in love with when I was a kid.