Baek Minseok, You Are Right Now and You Were Wrong Then
Interview with Analrealists.
July 8, 2015 6:00 PM – July 9 4:40 AM
Translated by Mattho Mandersloot & Suhyun J. Ahn
- “I don’t like it when there’s no mushrooms.”
Bak Solmay: How many meals do you have a day?
Baek Minseok: One.
Bak Solmay: Do you only have lunch?
Baek Minseok: No, breakfast.
Jeong Jidon: Are you recording this?
Keum Jungyun: Yes.
Bak Solmay: Both of them?
Keum Jungyun: You never know.
Jeong Jidon: It’s like 2channel.
Bak Solmay: Perfect.
Jeong Jidon: Stereo!
Baek Minseok: You don’t have anything to say, right?
Bak Solmay: Yes, I do. I’ll start when my drink gets here. When I said I was going to interview you, why did you say yes so quickly?
Baek Minseok: I always say yes to everything.
Bak Solmay: Really? I’m kinda the same.
Baek Minseok: In the past, I refused to do interviews every now and then, to make people realize I am a bona fide writer. Bona fide writers shouldn’t do this kind of thing.
Bak Solmay: Which ones? Like, fashion magazines?
Baek Minseok: Correct. But after I came back, I accepted them all.
Keum Jungyun: Oh, right. You did do a fashion magazine after you came back. With pictures and everything.
Bak Solmay: Haven’t you done a whole lot of them?
Baek Minseok: I have. What’s that dog doing here?
Keum Jungyun: It lives here.
Baek Minseok: Is it a labrador?
Keum Jungyun: It is.
Bak Solmay: Is teaching rewarding?
Baek Minseok: It’s no fun. It seems most people think I’m boring.
Bak Solmay: Do you mean this semester?
Baek Minseok: All the time.
Bak Solmay: From the very first class you taught?
Baek Minseok: All of them. They don’t really like me.
Bak Solmay: You’re being too shy. I said, “Wow, it’s Baek Minseok,” when I came in, but I can’t get any closer to you.
Baek Minseok: Well, I don’t even drink with others.
Keum Jungyun: Isn’t it because your students expect something powerful, but you teach them so fairly, in a political way?
Bak Solmay: A while ago, when you were on the literary radio show, you mentioned that you delivered a lecture that you’d want to attend. What kind of lecture was it?
Baek Minseok: Unconsciousness, impulses, reason. Something like that. And something else? Something about philosophy? Yeah, a mix of philosophy and literature.
Jeong Jidon: SangWoo went to Seoul Institute of the Arts, and he said they taught all these things based on psychoanalysis.
Bak Solmay: Is that the school’s tradition?
Baek Minseok: I don’t know, really. They didn’t do that kind of thing when I was in school.
Bak Solmay: Students usually go for a drink after class, but not you. You’re not into that, are you?
Baek Minseok: I think students should study.
Bak Solmay: Me too, to be honest. I feel so awkward and overwhelmed when I think about the job of teaching. But you’ve always been a teacher. Don’t you ever feel overwhelmed?
Baek Minseok: I don’t know. Isn’t dealing with people something you get used to over your working life? You make all kinds of mistakes over and over again, and then you get used to it, right?
Bak Solmay: And you said you learned specific skills. What skills did you learn?
Baek Minseok: I’m not going to tell you.
Bak Solmay: Acquiring skills wasn’t that out of line with your character, was it? In terms of ability and talent.
Baek Minseok: I do everything when it’s in my face. Whatever it is. That’s how I’ve lived since I was a kid.
Keum Jungyun: But why didn’t you write the scenario?
Baek Minseok: Why would I write a scenario in the first place?
Keum Jungyun: Didn’t you originally decide to write it but didn’t, in the end? I went for a drink with Kim Yeonsu the other day and he asked me what I was up to these days. When I told him I’m trying to write a scenario, but have no money, he said, “Ah, that’s exactly what Baek Minseok said 10 years ago.” So I dug up an old interview where you said you were going to write a scenario but stopped because it didn’t seem like the right thing for you.
Baek Minseok: Those stories of the past keep popping up… Maybe I wasn’t sensible then, though I’m still out of my mind… But do I have to take responsibility for my past?
All in unison: No, just curious.
Baek Minseok: Look, I would do it if scenario-writing earned me good money. But after you’ve written it, you continuously have to fight for it until it gets produced. With novels, on the other hand, you get a fixed rate for the manuscript. It may not be much, but it’s secure.
Jeong Jidon: So if your payment is guaranteed, you’ll write it?
Baek Minseok: Yes.
Jeong Jidon: Money is everything.
Keum Jungyun: Why did the film adaptation of Bizarre Story in Cotton Fields fall through? Didn’t you have a deal?
Baek Minseok: Apparently, many movies end up not being made like that. For Bizarre, I signed a contract with a production company twice. If they don’t actually make it within a few years, the contract expires. So I signed two of them, one after the other and got the down payment twice. For that one book. But they didn’t actually make it, after all.
Jeong Jidon: Maybe it was just hard to make the movie around that time… Now, there are quite a few serial killer movies being released.
Baek Minseok: Now, I don’t receive a single phone call.
Bak Solmay: Maybe they don’t know your phone number
Baek Minseok: Oh, I see.
Bak Solmay: What were you like as a schoolboy?
Baek Minseok: Me? I was a funny one, I think.
Keum Jungyun: And you also attended the creative writing program at Hangilsa Publishing Company?
Baek Minseok: I did go there while preparing to resit my college entrance exams.
Bak Solmay: Did they do that at Hangilsa?
Baek Minseok: They started that. Hangilsa were the first to build a learning space open to the public.
Bak Solmay: So who taught in the program?
Baek Minseok: Kim Byung-ik, Shin Kyeong-nim, Lee Ho-cheol, Kim Nam-ju… Lots of teachers from the Association of Writers for National Literature.
Bak Solmay: So you met Kim Nam-ju the poet when he was still alive?
Keum Jungyun: He said Kim was his homeroom teacher.
Baek Minseok: He was.
Bak Solmay: How was he as a person? Charismatic?
Baek Minseok: He was blunt. Very blunt.
Bak Solmay: But do poets also write novels or… So did they teach literature in general, poetry and prose alike?
Baek Minseok: They taught both. But at the time I wanted to learn poetry.
Bak Solmay: So until then, you thought it was poetry you wanted to learn?
Baek Minseok: Yes.
Bak Solmay: Did you like going to school?
Baek Minseok: Sure, I did.
Bak Solmay: Was there Kim Hyesoon and other writers like her then, too?
Baek Minseok: Kim Hyesoon, Oh Kyu Won, and who else? Choi In-Hun, he was there too.
Bak Solmay: Were you part of the school newspaper?
Baek Minseok: Magazine.
Bak Solmay: Students who run school magazines always strike me as very devoted types.
Baek Minseok: I’m devoted. Of course, I am. What, don’t I look it? I never missed a single deadline for a manuscript.
Bak Solmay: What time do you wake up these days?
Baek Minseok: Seven o’clock. Then I eat and wash.
Bak Solmay: And after that, you start writing?
Baek Minseok: And after writing, I go for a brisk walk.
Bak Solmay: That’s quite nice. I also want to be home all day.
Baek Minseok: But you get a salary. You still have to pay the national pension and health insurance when you don’t have an income. Do you know how much that weighs you down? Stay with your job, honestly. Do you have private insurance for extra coverage?
Bak Solmay: Probably. But what if I want to stop working?
Baek Minseok: What do you mean? Even if you want to quit, you shouldn’t. You’re not gonna become a best-selling author.
Bak Solmay: Do you feel any regret? About quitting your normal job?
Baek Minseok: I don’t know. I might, actually. Ah, it’s just distressing. Paying into the national pension and health insurance.
Bak Solmay: How much is it together?
Baek Minseok: Over 100,000 won together. And I’m paying for a private insurance and cancer insurance, too.
Bak Solmay: Aren’t you slightly over-insured then?
Baek Minseok: No, just cancer insurance and extra private insurance.
Keum Jungyun: What do we do if we end up in a monarchy again? You know, if Park Geun-hye teams up with the military and stages a coup.
Baek Minseok: I think I’d rather be someone’s servant. If you become a servant for a rich family, at least you get to live among the cats…
Bak Solmay: Didn’t you write something like that?
All in unison: The Errand Boy at the Manor!
Baek Minseok: It seems like it. If I’m honest with you, I think the life of a servant isn’t all that bad.
Bak Solmay: It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot too, “the good life”… But I don’t think a servant lives one, but imagine you wake up in the morning and a master figure gives you about 100,000 won. And you can use it to have fun…
Keum Jungyun: This is so hilarious!
Jeong Jidon: A master who doesn’t make you do chores, but gives you money.
Keum Jungyun: Have fun using it and enjoy your day!
Bak Solmay: Yes, and he’d say “swing by when you feel like it” and I would say “Yes!” and come back around 5:00 p.m. to tidy up a little and go to bed.
Keum Jungyun: That’s so backward… This is so backward somehow…
Baek Minseok: And why would he give you 100,000 won?
Bak Solmay: He wants me to use it up and have a good time. That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Jeong Jidon: A maecenas, no strings attached?
Bak Solmay: I mean, I wouldn’t know when you’re younger, but I’d do something for the patron later. Anyway, at first, I thought The Errand Boy at the Manor was a full-length novel, so I wondered, after reading the first part, if I’d figure out how the protagonist goes back into the uterus in the second part. But when I kept on reading, I felt like something was wrong. I asked what was happening, and I was told that this was a short story collection. So, maybe that shows you were constantly thinking about moving in with a rich family in your subconsciousness.
Baek Minseok: Maybe you’re right, but… No, not really. But there was a house like that where I grew up. In Hongje-dong, Hongje 4-dong.
Jeong Jidon: There seems to be a parallel between the stories from “The Origin of Violence” and The Errand Boy at the Manor in that they both involve childhood memories.
Baek Minseok: But there really was a house like that. I went back a few years ago to find the whole neighborhood filled with apartment blocks—apart from that very house. This was especially true when I was little, there were small gaps in the iron gate with those kinds of houses. I remember peeping through the gap to look at that house. So when I went back a few years ago, I peeped through, just the same way, but the house was a lot smaller than I remembered. I had really looked up to it. Unlike the rest of my neighborhood, they had such a good life there. Such an enormous house, right by the edge of a shantytown. That’s why it wasn’t demolished. Everything apart from that house, all knocked down and all turned into apartments when I was there.
Bak Solmay: So in your neighborhood, nobody had any idea what that house was all about? Or who lived there, like a doctor or whatnot?
Baek Minseok: I don’t remember. I was barely 10 years old at the time. What I do remember is that there was a separate room for the chauffeur. And that was in the ’70s and early ’80s. So they must have been incredibly rich for the time.
Jeong Jidon: But your book isn’t titled after just any mansion, but “the manor.”
Baek Minseok: The manor actually stood on the road leading up to Hongeun Middle School in Hongeun-dong. They turned it into some hotel now…
Bak Solmay: Isn’t that where Kim Sung-jae died?
Baek Minseok: That’s The Swiss Grand Hotel. Big houses in The Errand Boy at the Manor are a mixture of a whole bunch of places. And the Swiss Grand Hotel is on the way to Hong-Eun Middle School. But in the past, that was some kind of politician’s house. I saw it day in day out, on my way to and from school.
Bak Solmay: And do you like meat? It features a lot in your short stories. I feel like it suits you somehow.
Baek Minseok: I prefer mushrooms. I don’t like it when there’s no mushrooms.
Keum Jungyun: So do you have them with every meal? Which ones?
Jeong Jidon: What do you do with them?
Baek Minseok: I roast them. And I add mushrooms to my curries too, instead of potatoes. I use king oyster mushrooms.
Jeong Jidon: I had mushrooms today, too. Mushroom pancakes. My mom made them. I really like them, too.
Baek Minseok: Mushrooms are great. For example, with curries, it’s like a healthy version. You swap the potatoes for mushrooms and the meat for peas.
Bak Solmay: I hate that kind of thing. I like a bit of meat in there.
Baek Minseok: Curry has a very strong smell. And you make it just as you’d make a black bean sauce. Because of the smell, no matter what you put in, their tastes won’t change. So you might as well go for a lower amount of calories. That’s my way of doing things.
Bak Solmay: Oh, I wanted to ask you something. Do you invest in stocks? I heard on the Munjang podcast that you invested a lot of money during the ten years you were working at a company. How did you get started? Have you always done it? Because the economy is on the up?
Baek Minseok: I used to make regular deposits, but the interest rate dropped massively. I’ve poured a lot of money in for a year, but I didn’t get more than 500,000 won in interest out of it. That’s why I’ve changed to derivatives since then. They’re different from stocks. They’re derivatives.
Keum Jungyun: Aren’t derivatives very risky?
Baek Minseok: Some are, some aren’t. There are many kinds, but I stay away from the risky ones and stick to the safe ones.
Keum Jungyun: Are you making a profit off it?
Baek Minseok: Yes. Is that weird? If a writer does such a thing?
All in unison: Not at all.
Bak Solmay: But I have to say this is the first time I’ve met someone who’s so open about it.
Baek Minseok: So it’s weird for a writer to talk about it?
Bak Solmay: I just find it interesting.
Baek Minseok: Interesting? How come?
Bak Solmay: No one I know does it.
Baek Minseok: If a writer has a steady source of income, the good thing is that they don’t need to write stuff just for money. I don’t write anything profit-oriented, and I get by just fine.
Keum Jungyun: In an average month, is your income from investments higher than the rest?
Baek Minseok: None of your business.
Bak Solmay: You’re like Kenichiro Takahashi.
Baek Minseok: Jiro Asada bets on horses. If you look at his novels, you’ll find a race ticket printed inside.
Keum Jungyun: In Bukowski and Kenichiro’s works, there are also scenes about horse racing. So why wouldn’t I talk about stocks.
Bak Solmay: It feels different, though. Horse racing is something an artist does.
Baek Minseok: People hate stocks, is the thing. Stock is the most hated thing. They look at stock investors as though they’re like watching someone gamble, or like watching someone fall into a gambling addiction. You know, as if there’s something immoral about it.
 A Japanese textboard community similar to Reddit. – Translator
 I realized it when I was back home later. What I’d do for this person is chattering about how I spent 100,000 won—what I bought and how I had fun with it. (Bak Solmay)