From the first chapter, <Player Piano> begins with the voice of someone confused and desperate who seems to be walking nowhere and gushing through the air. Written in a voice that is nobody's own, the book is filled with a longing for death and a yearning for life. Some may think they understand the meaning of it and feels like looking at the diary of the past day, but some may never understand the book. The novel, which aspires to both death and life, is novel by writer Cheon Hee-rahn. Most of her writings are like this. It runs squarely into the various problem-consciousness floating around the world. She won 18th Seorabeol Literature Award for Best New Artist from Chung-Ang University in December 2019 for her novel and made another name for herself following her previous work. Let's listen to her story with CAH.
Last February, you published a novel called <Player Piano>. Please introduce this novel to the students.
<Player Piano> is not a novel that can be summarized. You can think of it as a novel with the voices of people who are trapped inside and suffering inside. Some people said they were not sure about the content because it's a unique novel. People who are suffering internally find it hard to get their voices out, and there are words that they can't say in their unconsciousness. I tried to capture them in a way that is realistic, and the result of that effort is the <Player Piano>.
Is there a reason why you decided to publish the <Player Piano>?
In fact, by the time I was writing this novel, I was planning to serialize another novel. But I was very depressed at the time. It was a difficult time to write because it was a psychologically difficult time. So, I told the publisher that I couldn't write a series. Then, the publisher suggested to me that I should write something else, and I decided to write an autobiographical story without having to take a long breath from the beginning to the end. I thought, let's express the pain we're going through in an honest way, so I decided to write it in this form.
We wonder if you felt pressured or emotionally difficult when you published a book full of death aspirations.
I actually got a lot of these kinds of questions after I published this book. But I didn't feel much pressure or pain about writing about this topic. At the time I was writing this book, I was just having a hard time personally. I didn't feel that this topic was too hard to handle. In fact, I've been writing about death and uncertainty since my first book, so it wasn't that hard to tell my story. In this novel, I didn't hesitate to say it or hide it, but I said it honestly. After I wrote it, I felt like I was liberated. When I was writing my previous works, I thought novels were different from the pain in my life, so I forced myself to leave them out. But when I was writing the <Player Piano>, I decided to be honest with myself, so I felt a sense of solitude that I had never felt before when I was working on it.
What is the message you want to send people through <Player Piano>? Or what do you expect from your readers?
Actually, I didn't expect much. I thought it was a story that some readers would relate to. For those of you who couldn't express their inner pain but couldn't resist the fire, I thought this book would be a substitute for expression. But on the other hand, I thought some people would never understand. People often say, "Be honest, I'll understand you," but in fact, some of the pain isn't something that is understood in such simple good faith. There were a lot of responses that I expected even after I actually published the book. Of the many responses, the one I was most pleased with was not the two extremes, but the one in the middle. One said he cannot understand, but he also said that he realized there are someone in the world who are living with a pain that he couldn't understand. I think it came as a touch to me.
You won the 18th Seorabeol Literature Award for Best New Artist. How does that feel?
Actually, the award is for the Best New Artist, but I'm already a writer for the fifth year of my debut, and it's been 10 years since Hwang In-chan, who won the award together. The seniors said that the literature and creative writing department of Chung-Ang University has a long history, so they give writers this award even after a while. I'm a little embarrassed by the term ‘new artist’ but I'm not the author who published many books yet, so I'm grateful for it. Actually, I wasn't a student who was noticed for writing when I was in school. I studied really hard in college, (laugh) but I was misunderstood because I was always making up my appearance. But after receiving this award, I felt like I was rewarded for those days. At that time, I was very sad because of such prejudice. There was a hurtful feeling about why people judge not by my writing skills but by my appearance. I was happy that I felt rewarded for that.
When did you think you wanted to get a job in writing? What made you write a novel?
When I was young, my mother visited and sold children's literature. I heard my mom was a good salesman at the time. (Laughs) So she said I always lived in a book thanks to my mother, and that I liked to write. But I didn't want to be a writer from then on. My dream was to be a cartoonist when I was young. My hands are stiff now, so I'm not what I used to be, but I had some talent. But my mom told me that art costs a lot of money, and I thought I would become a novelist after thinking about what art is that I can do without money. So, I entered the Department of Creative Writing, which teaches writing. Maybe it was after I entered college that I completely decided to become a writer. It was too new to me. There are a lot of great people around me and writing was so fun, so I wanted to do it really well. So, I didn't choose a career as a second best, but I thought I wanted to succeed in writing.
Then, have you been keep trying to become a novelist since college?
Not really. There were moments that I wanted to give up. Now, the ways to publish books are becoming more diverse, but when I was in college, there were many perceptions that if you wanted to study pure literature and become a writer, you have to contribute to magazines or well-known newspapers. But the way was very narrow. So, I wasn't confident at the time, and I was intimidated and scared. I couldn't even contribute after graduating from college. After I got married, I didn't feel unhappy or feel pain in my marriage life but even so, after I entered the marriage system, I thought I am worthless. Nobody treats me like that, but I kept thinking that I didn't marry myself just to do housework, and there were things I wanted to do, and I think I've taken pride in thinking about them. At that hard time, my husband said to me that he didn't marry me to ask for the housework, and he fell in love with me because he loved my writings. I think I started writing seriously after hearing that from him.
Is there any writer or work that affected your writing?
The trend that influenced me a lot when I was writing from college was the French nouveau roman. When I was in Chung-Ang University, I usually learned what my professors teach me, but I felt it was oppressive then, and I also thought it is very strange for all students to agree on professor’s literature. So, I wrote a lot of strange novels at the time, and I wanted to show people the world I have in mind. But the strict literary standards of those days were telling me that my writings were not an ideal form. That's why I found and read such unique novels. It was a novel with a nouveau-mantled trend that was in France, and I read a lot of articles written by such writers as Samuel Beckett, Margaret Duras, Natalie Sarot and Alain Lovegrie. And as I read them and learned the theory, I realized that not just what I learn at school, but that the world of fiction is enormous and there's a lot of room for renewal.
What is your favorite piece of work?
For writers, all of their writings are subject to affection and hatred. (Laughs) Some of them have been written and hated for a long time. But my new book, <Player Piano>, is a little special to myself. My inner depression wasn't just a depression to me then. I was ill at the time and I've been working hard to sublimate this pain into my work before. But compared to previous works<Player Piano> is much more direct. So, before I published <Player Piano>, I was worried a lot about people being exposed to the power of my writing, or if people were prejudiced against me as a writer. But after I published this piece, I think I have the courage to write about the wider world from now on. And I thought that I could write freely without being tied to any form or subject. Everyone has their own stories and stories that I don't want to get caught, but I feel like they've disappeared from me. In that sense, I think I love this work.
We wonder how you write your book. How long does it take to write a book, and is there a special way to write?
I don't think I write in many different places. Some authors prefer to write in open spaces like café, but I think my own room is the best place to write a manuscript. So, when I start writing, I don't go outside very often. And it takes me a long time to write. So, I have to start working long before the deadline. Also, I edit the drafts a lot. It doesn’t mean that I refine my expressions and correct my sentences, but I write my work all over again. So, I usually rewrite 2 to 4 times, as many as possible. When I write what I wanted to write at first, it's obvious that the content is not fun to read. So, I try to twist the writing content while I fix it. For me, a good piece is one that goes as far away from the answer as I thought it would be. So, I voluntarily leave a part in the work that even I, a writer, cannot understand. Literature has the power to exercise its private self. That's why I think it's a good work to create questions, and I don't exclude myself from being asked. I think that's my own special style of writing.
Are there any classes or professors you most remember? Or do you have any other favorite memories from Chung-Ang University?
Actually, I don't remember the impressive class. I imagined university education would be free, but it wasn't actually. But I don't think those were meaningless. Rather, I think the memory of actively learning in school and confronting it has become a good experience to me as a student and writer. If it was a pleasant memory, there were more in the school club than in the classroom. Actually, I didn't even join a club at first. The club is led by seniors. I guess I've hated hierarchical things since I was a kid. (Laughs) When students enter the department of creative writing, they decide which genre to write and enter the creative club. But I didn't go in until third grade. Then, I fell in love with poetry in fourth grade and joined a club called "Jak-in," which writes poetry. I actually didn't write a poem there, but I usually interfered other’s work and made them mad. (Laughs) I'm a novelist now but reading poetry at that time helps me a lot to write. The way novels and poems are made is very different, but my experience at that time allowed me to look at the genre of fiction from a different perspective than from the perspective of a novelist. Also, the conversation I had with my friends who wrote poems at the club at that time, their views are impressive. It's the only people who have faith in each other, who find each other lacking in faith, who are willing to go in the direction they want to go in, and who they need to know. I think I met my true friends in the club.
If you could go back to Chung-Ang University, what would you like to do most?
Studying foreign languages. I regret a lot not studying foreign languages. I think if I studied a foreign language, I would be able to experience some interesting things that exist in the world. It's becoming a global trend, and I think it would have been great to speak a foreign language to find out what I'm curious about and absorb it quickly. If I had learned the language of other countries perfectly, I think my world could have been a little wider. If it were English, it would have been more comfortable. I didn't prepare for a job in college, but I still don't regret it at all the time. I chose it anyway, and I wanted to work less and spend more time writing, even if I earned less money than I earned from getting a good job career. However, I always think it would be great if we could talk to foreign writers and talk about each other's literature in depth.
Can we ask you what you're planning now, or what topics you're interested in?
I want to write about women. I haven't ruled out the topic of women in the past, but I've never written a work that was conscious to get rid of the theme about women. People often call me a writer who delves deeply into life and death, and that's how the press releases from the publishing company. I don't think that's wrong, either. But when I look back at my work, I think I wanted to write about the internal division of human beings. And I concluded that the reason I wanted to explore those themes was because I am the woman. I've always asked myself why women can't live with self-assurance as a single entity in modern society. And I think that's why I ended up with such divided characters in my work. So, I will try to write about women. But I haven't decided whether to write the work fundamentally differently from my previous works, or to deal with the reader's need to read the script on their own.
What is your goal you want to get from your job?
First, I want to continue writing my work without getting tired for a long time. And secondly, I want to be a citizen in healthy literary circles. Actually, I'm the writer in the literary circles, under the protection of a large publishing company. So, I know that it's important to write my novel well, but as a citizen of the system, I want to speak about and correct the problems within the system. And I think my age comes with social responsibility. I started to wonder how I could share the social responsibility with other young writers. Desire as a novelist is actually a very personal achievement. I'm not going to stop there, but I'm conscious that I'm a citizen in the door, and I'm going to be thinking about how I can do something meaningful and become a healthy citizen who can speak out.
What would you like to say to young university students dreaming of becoming writers?
I'd like to tell them to be prepared. This is because the reading population is decreasing and the market for Korean language books is very narrow. Even if you become a best-selling author, there are only a few writers who can live by yourself. I'd like to tell them that you have to be more prepared for the economy than any other problem. And I'd like to tell them that the time will surely come to think about how to fill it in a different way. But if someone asks if a writer's job is worth it, I think it does. And if you ask me about the writing itself, I'd say that it's important to understand the world that someone has shown you of course, but that you should be able to find something that's different from me and attach meaning to it. In the end, you don't get the answer through someone, you have to find the answer yourself. Don’t be afraid of the conflict, jump into the conflict, constantly create problems, and if refined in it, the existence of a writer with a unique language and ideas will eventually rise to the surface of the water.
During the interview, writer Cheon Hee-rahn answered each of the CAH's questions honestly and sincerely. Her answers were deep enough to know that she had been thinking deeply for a long time, but her wit and small laughter made the interview enjoyable without making it too heavy. Writer Cheon Hee-rahn has doubts about the hierarchy and order that is hidden in the system and is rarely seen and wants to raise a question through her writing. She also doesn't forget that while her desire as a novelist is important, it is also important to ponder what she can do in the problems she has been thinking about in the literary system. In an interview, she strongly expressed her desire to put them into practice. CAH is looking forward to her next novels.