Short and sweet, “The Spook School” does indeed satisfy. What were some of the inspirations behind the story?
I’m a Caledonophile, basically. My wife was born in Glasgow, we’ve visited, and I read the daily papers online and follow Scottish Twitter. Fine art has also shown up in a lot of my stories, which is probably because I love museums and galleries and hanging around in artist studios, but can’t draw a stick figure. One of the themes of the story is about wanting what one can’t actually have, or be.
“The Spook School” has a terrific narrative voice, humorous and dark at the same time. When you set out to write this story, how much thought did you give to the presentation, the way the story would draw the reader in, not only to the plot but to the characters?
Oh, none. By writing the story, it all came out. I had no idea what the right-turn in the middle of the story would be, or what the themes would be—someone pointed out that it was about the discontents and dangers of “authenticity” after proofreading it for me, and I said “Huh, that sounds good”—until I composed the sentences making up those scenes and concepts in the story. That sort of discovery via composition is one of the things that keep me writing short fiction.
I loved the cultural perspectives, reaching out to “The Other” to enrich your own seemingly mundane world. Some have said that the unknown reaching into our world is “The Other” of horror. What does “horror” mean to you?
Well, everyone is an “Other” to someone else, and the Other both attracts and repels. Of course, we’re also all Others to ourselves—we’re not unitary individuals who have complete self-knowledge or even self-regard. So we’re all always looking for and running from something.
As far as what horror is, for all that I write it, it doesn’t mean all that much to me. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, honestly. There’s a little bit of horror, potentially, in any kind of story. It’s a spice, like salt or cumin. Sometimes there’s a little, sometimes the whole dish is designed to center the spice.
You are a prolific writer; everything from poetry, to comics, to fiction, to cultural narrative. Do you find that one type of writing feeds the others, or are your various projects fairly exclusionary?
I’d say that my primary focus is the short subject—whether it’s essays or short fiction. Scripts also tend to be short, and even my novels are fairly short. The common wisdom is that a genre novel has to be at least 80,000 words long, but thirteen years after my first, I’ve never managed to write one that length, and it’s not been necessary to do so. I like little projects, and writing to theme, and mixing genres and forms, so I end up keeping very busy.
You recently gave a speech at the United Nations on the Gwangju Diary. How did you become involved in such a far-reaching seminar?
Back twenty years ago, a friend of mine, Kap Su Seol, approached me about helping him translate a book on the topic of the Gwangju Uprising, Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age, which we edited and added to, giving it the name Kwangju Diary. (Since then, style guides have called for the city to be spelled with a G rather than a K.) It took a few years of us working together, but we finally got it in shape and published via a small series of the University of California press. The book fell out of print as academic books usually do, but the title sparked a small uptick in the number of books written about Gwangju and the US role in the massacre that ended the uprising. The tide of politics turned, and a lot of right-wing revisionism vis-a-vis the uprising was being put into print, so eventually we decided to grant the copyright to our translation to the May 18 Memorial Foundation in perpetuity, to guarantee that the book will stay in print forever. The seminar at the UN, which featured reporter Terry Anderson, CIA employee and former ambassador Donald Gregg, and radical Koreanist and historian Bruce Cumings, was a celebration of the book’s republication. It’s now called Gwangju Diary and will be made freely available soon. It was quite an unusual event—I spoke a bit about the diary and about Han Kang’s wonderful documentary novel Human Acts.
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