Translated by Anton Hur
Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Sang Young Park is the author of Love in the Big City.
He tells us how he started his reading journey as a child with the canon of detective fiction and why he refused to send his mother a copy of his longlisted work, Love in the Big City.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize?
I was actually on an exercise bike at a gym when I heard the longlisting news. It made me so happy that I screamed with joy. Everyone stared at me, but I didn’t feel embarrassed at all. So many of the authors that I’ve read since I was young have the Booker Prize in their bios, and I still can’t believe that I am nominated for that very award. I find myself sitting around at home and laughing to myself. I’m just so thrilled.
What first inspired you to write Love in the Big City?
It has to be my parents, friends, lovers, all of my past loves—everyone. I wanted Love in the Big City to contain all the emotions of love that I was familiar with and the book to be a kind of general reader on the subject of love. The first scene that came to mind was a mother and son sitting on the grass at Olympic Park in Seoul. This scene enabled me to start what would become the book Love in the Big City.
What’s your earliest reading memory?
Back when I was a child, as now, Korean parents have this thing where they buy their home a set of ‘world classics’ for their children (and for interior decorating purposes). As a little boy, I began reading Agatha Christie mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and Lupin by the set. Eventually I realised that reading about jealousy, slander, and murder were not exactly conducive to the moral development of young children. But it also gave me a taste for other worlds. I moved on to other classics that were lying around the house: Little Women, Wuthering Heights, The Sadness of Young Werther, The Count of Monte Christo, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Jekyll and Hyde. These books shaped my very emotions. And it was through Park Wanseo’s work that I became acquainted with Korean literature in earnest.
What authors have made the biggest impact to your work?
Sometimes when I’m writing, I feel as if I’m just shouting into the void
How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?
I’ve received more feedback than I expected regarding Love in the Big City from people in the UK and US. It fascinates me that their reactions are not that different from Korean readers. I would’ve thought it was an extremely Korean story, but most of the reviews spoke of the book as if the events had happened to them or to someone living next door, which made me very happy. The most memorable review was one where they said the characters were people they wanted to keep near them always. I am incredibly grateful that readers are treating the characters like real people and identifying with them so deeply. Sometimes when I’m writing, I feel as if I’m just shouting into the void, but the thought of people of different languages and cultures understanding me so deeply makes me feel as rich and fortified as if my wallet is fat with bills.
Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.
I was always in a relationship from when I was nineteen until I debuted as a writer, but in the past six years since my debut at the age of twenty-seven, I have never been in a relationship. I just tell people that my relationship is with literature now. Seeing as how I’m writing up these answers for a Booker longlisting, I would say the relationship is going well—unlike any of my past relationships! I also like eating frozen blueberries with my bare hands, much like Young in my book. I like the crunchy texture and the feeling of the sweet, tart, fruity flesh spreading in my mouth. It’s funny to see how my fingers and fingernails turn purple. They look like zombie fingers.
And an interesting fact about the book.
When my book was about to come out, my mother asked me to send her thirty copies so she could distribute them to her (extremely devout Christian) friends. I don’t think she knew what the book was about. I said alright, and proceeded to not send her the books. I avoided her calls for a while after that. When I visited her afterwards, I saw a copy of my book on her kitchen table and almost jumped out of my skin. It had a barcode for the municipal library on it. You would think she would buy a copy of her own son’s book. My mother said their library system was so excellent that she didn’t need to buy any books. I have a great mother.
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
I studied French Literature for my university degree. Reading Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover in the same semester was like having my whole life split into two. I was overjoyed that such literature and such writing were even possible, and it fed my desire to become someone who could create such literature.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Only you can depict the landscape of the journey you take towards yourself.’ During the many times my work was rejected when I was starting out, my writing teacher, the novelist Kang Young-sook (author of Rina), would say those words to me. I still think of this phrase whenever things get rough. That the journey into my heart is a beautiful, unfurling landscape that only I can paint.
What book haven’t you finished?
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I’m not entirely confident I can finish it in this life. But I do try at the start of every year.
Translated by Anton Hur