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‘Having foreign readers gives me strength’

Author of ‘Please Look After Mom’ shares her experience of first world book tour


When author Shin Kyung-sook took off to New York City in September of last year, she was just looking forward to relaxing in the foreign city. She absolutely had no idea she’d have to go through her first world book tour ― an insanely busy one ― some seven months later.

“I don’t think I would’ve agreed (to do the tour) if I had known how hectic and busy it was going to be,” Shin, who finally returned to Seoul last week after her year-long absence, told reporters at a press meeting held in Seoul, Monday. “It’s very meaningful to me that I’ve somehow completed every schedule and returned here.”

Shin’s original plan to “relax and enjoy herself” in New York was completely scrapped when the English edition of her bestselling novel, “Please Look after Mom” was published in North America on April 5. 
Author Shin Kyung-sook speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Author Shin Kyung-sook speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The book, a heart-wrenching tale of a selfless and devoted mother who has gone missing in busy Seoul Station, has sold over a million copies in Korea since its release in 2008. Its English edition appeared as No.4 on the New York Times list of best-sellers, and the original text has sold its rights in 28 different countries.

So far, translated editions of “Please Look after Mom” have been published in 18 countries, including U.K., U.S., Norway, Spain, Portugal, Israel, and Vietnam.

“Many writers, including myself, often feel like their novels are their own children,” Shin told reporters. “But for this particular novel, I feel I’m the child of this book. It has allowed me to see, hear, and feel things that I’ve never thought of before ― like a mother.”

Shin, who “never thought of the possibility of having foreign readers in her lifetime” and “does not enjoy travelling very much,” started her book tour in NYC in April. She visited seven U.S. cities from April to May, and eight European countries in June. In August, she made her way to Israel to meet with its readers and critics.

“I feel like I’ve done all the travelling that I should be doing throughout the next 10 years with this book,” Shin said. “Having realized that I have foreign readers, on top of my Korean ones, it does give me more strength and energy to do what I’ve been doing.”

Having met with so many readers and reporters worldwide, Shin had many funny, touching, and hilarious episodes to share.

“A reporter I met in Toronto, Canada, started crying out of the blue during the interview,” Shin said. “I asked her why she was crying, and she said it was because the book reminded her of her own mother.”

In France, a reader was extremely furious about one group of characters in the book ― the police officers. “The person told me, ‘I was very upset with the police officers in the book. Why don’t they work harder to find the missing woman?’” said Shin. “That was a totally unexpected question. I told the person that the purpose of the novel was not to literally ‘find’ the missing mother, but to once again discover what kind of a human being she really was. And that may be the reason why the police officers may seem like they are slacking off in the book.”

When Shin arrived in Norway, she was greeted by the person who translated for the Norwegian edition of her book. “The translator was adopted by Norwegian parents when she was five,” she said. “She spoke very good Korean, and later I found out she majored in Korean literature in University. Throughout my stay in Norway we worked as a team for countless interviews and meetings with readers. It was a strange feeling ― there I was, entirely relying on a Korean adoptee’s words to exchange my thoughts about mother with Norwegian readers. To ease my feelings, she told me she considers her adoptive mother as the one who is similar to the one in my novel. I think I will someday write about the translator in my future novels.”

Throughout the trip, the writer was asked about young writers in Korea and what Korean novels should be translated into foreign languages. “I got this feeling that many European and North American readers were fascinated by Korean novels’ unique narrative, as well as the strong sense of community and affection for human kind that are often displayed in them,” she said. “I often felt they were eager to find hope and an alternative in Korean literature.”

Though Shin has just returned to Seoul, she has a busy month ahead of her. She is scheduled to leave for Australia to participate in Brisbane Writers Festival from Sept. 7-11, and will make a visit to Japan from Sept. 14-19 for the promotion of the novel’s Japanese-edition. 14-19. Showing her serene and reserved nature throughout the conference, Shin said she wants to “live in seclusion” after her Japan trip.

“I’d really like to go back to my desk in my room,” she said. “I want to write.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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