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Korean author's gripping stories fascinate European readers

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Author Lee Jung-myung / Courtesy of Lee Jung-myung
Author Lee Jung-myung / Courtesy of Lee Jung-myung

Award-winning author Lee Jung-myung speaks about his latest novel 'Broken Summer'

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Best-selling author Lee Jung-myung's daily habits are quite different from those of other Korean novelists.

Unlike many other writers, he's not a night owl. Waking up early in the morning, like a full-time salaried worker, he works from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in his studio near his home in Seoul, researching topics that interest him to get inspiration for future book projects, writing stories and editing drafts.

Prior to his career transition into a full-time author in 1997, Lee worked as a journalist for daily newspapers and a monthly magazine over a decade.

"It's interesting to know that the two-word Chinese characters referring to a reporter means a person who writes. So writers and reporters are basically doing almost the same work," he told The Korea Times.

The soft-spoken man said his career transition was so smooth that he himself didn't have any difficulties in adapting to being a novelist after leaving journalism.

Lee is the master of gripping stories. Out of 11 novels he has published over the past two decades since his literary debut, several of them are best-sellers. His strong presence in book sales seems to be the result of his decades of a consistent, steady and thorough work habit.

"Broken Summer" by Lee Jung-myung
Lee's latest novel, "Broken Summer," released in May by publishing house EunHaengNaMu, became an instant best-seller.

More good news came months later. In August, the New York-based literary agency, Barbara J. Zitwer Agency, closed a deal with Liza Danton of Amazon Crossing for a translation of "Broken Summer."

This is Lee's third novel to be published worldwide in English, following his 2012 thriller "The Investigation" which captivated European readers. His historical fiction "Painter of the Wind" will be published worldwide by Harriet Press in English later this year.

Lee is one of the rare Korean authors who is popular among European readers.

"The Investigation," translated by award-winning Korean American translator Chi-Young Kim and published by Pan Macmillan, is a historical work of fiction about a real figure, poet Yun Dong-ju, and begins with a murder case of a prison guard in Fukuoka in 1944. The thriller was nominated for the United Kingdom's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 and selected among the final six books for Italy's Premio Bancarella literary award.

Lee's 'The Investigation'
Lee's 'The Investigation'
Regarding the overseas success, Lee remains humble, saying poet Yun's beautiful poems, which were extensively cited in the novel, seemed to have helped his work appeal to the hearts and minds of European readers.

"Set in Korea during Japanese colonial rule, I think my fiction novel was able to move readers living on the other side of the world, maybe because of the story. Stories have the power to captivate people from different cultures," he said.

Zitwer said Lee's work strongly resonates with Europeans partly because it provides a fresh perspective toward World War II, a shared experience between Koreans and Europeans.

"It is a World War II story told from a very different perspective but yet one that resonates deeply in Europe where the war was fought bitterly and where much of it was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany at the time," Zitwer told The Korea Times. "So for European readers this particular story struck to the core of their hearts, I believe. And also the story about how poetry turned the most heinous prison guard into a humane being lifted readers. Europe is such a literary and poetic place filled with the greatest authors of all times so words and literature and the power of the pen are as strong, more so, than the power of violence."

Making his debut as a novelist in 1999 with "One Thousand Later," Lee rose to literary stardom in 2008 when his historical fiction, "Painter of the Wind," was adapted into an SBS TV series. The drama was a big hit. Knowing belatedly about Lee's book thorough the TV drama, fans flocked to bookstores to buy his books.

Three years later, another historical work of fiction, "The Deep-rooted Tree," was made into a hit TV drama.

His expertise to pull off entertaining fictional stories from historical events made him one of the most sought-after thriller authors in Korea.

Lee's new novel "Broken Summer" is another thriller that has captivated Korean readers.

It revolves around a middle-aged painter, Han-jo, at the peak of his career as his iconic wedge-shaped painting technique he created himself has lifted him to become an unrivaled artist. His rise to Korea's highest in-demand painter is a feat that he himself never imagined after his life was torn apart 26 years ago when his friend Ji-soo was found dead, five days after she went missing. His father was arrested as a murder suspect and admitted to killing the girl to protect his two sons_ Han-jo and his academically excellent older brother Su-in. While serving a jail term after being wrongfully convicted due to his false testimony, he dies of pneumonia. Years later his alcoholic wife follows suit at a nursing home.

Ji-soo's younger sister saves the devastated Han-jo from decades-long despair. Continually reminding him of his talent as an artist, she helps him rise to his feet. All of a sudden, his devoted wife, friend and patron turns back on him to ruin his career and life.

"Broken Summer" tells the story of truth seekers who are desperate to put together a puzzle to find an untold truth. Remaining suspicious of the police investigation, they are convinced that Han-jo's father is not the real murderer. Their mind games based on limited knowledge and insufficient information of the day when Ji-soo went missing reinforces their violence against another innocent victim 26 years after her death.

Lee said he was inspired to write a thriller like "Broken Summer" from a distant childhood memory. "When I was very young, I saw a crime scene from a distance. I saw several police officers around there. The dead body was found near a river and the area was crowded with people. That childhood memory has been deep in my heart for a long time and it triggered me to work on that story," he said.

It took almost three years for him to complete the book. "In a story like this, accuracy and causal relationships are crucial. There were a few characters that initially didn't exist but I had to create them later on while rewriting the story for accuracy. I kept rewriting the story, repeatedly creating and removing characters and this was the hardest part," he said.

Zitwer said Lee's sophisticated explorations of the lives of painters and family in "The Painter of the Wind" as well as in his latest novel "Broken Summer," are of great interest in countries where Michelangelo, Picasso, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and Van Gogh were born.

"In Europe, the lives of painters as well as family stories are as essential and classic from Shakespeare to Elena Ferrante. I think Mr. Lee has a very European sensibility actually in his choice of family and art. Family, art and food; that is what Europeans value and treasure most I think. Maybe this is why they admire him so much, especially in Italy," she said.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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