The Korea Daily interviews Jay Caspian Kang, author of “The Dead Do Not Improve” (Hogarth, Randon House Publishing), a novel about the Virginia Tech Massacre. Kang says he saw glimpses of himself in Korean Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 33 people at Virginia Tech, and for the book he explored concepts of Korean emotions and how they related to the shooter and the community’s reaction to the massacre. The article was excerpted and translated from Korean.
Why did you choose the Virginia Tech massacre?
I was very interested in Seung-Hui Cho, the suspect of the incident. His background is very similar to mine. His parents came from Korea, and he wanted to be a writer like me. He and I have so many things in common but I wondered why we became so different from each other. So I studied resentment ["Hahn" in Korean], Hwa-Byeong [Korean term that means a mental or emotional disorder resulting from repressed anger or stress], and the relationship between suppressed feelings and the history of Korea. And I was also interested in what kind of effect the case had on Korean-American society, and why it is so touchy to talk about, even now.
Why do you think it’s such a sensitive issue?
It was interesting how the community faced the incident. I thought that because of the Los Angeles riots and the Virginia Tech massacre, the Korean-American community was more exclusive and closed. Maybe it’s related to the history of Korea, which is a small country constantly invaded by others.
Where were you on the day of the massacre?
I was on a plane heading to L.A. I saw the number of deaths increasing — 4, 7, 15, and 33… I was shocked and frightened. When the news said that the suspect was Asian, somehow, I thought, it’ll be Korean. I was upset for a long time because of that shooting.
Born in Seoul, Kang’s family came to the U.S. when he was two months old. He has lived in Oregon, Boston, North Carolina, San Fransisco, and New York. He graduated from Bowdoin College, a liberal arts school in Maine. He also got a Master’s degree from Columbia. He now works as an editor at the sports and pop culture news site, Grantland [read an excerpt there of "The Dead Do Not Improve"].
How long did it take to finish the novel?
It took three and a half years, but I had been doing some research for the last five years. I observed the life and unique culture of Korean-Americans and how they live here as immigrants. When I worked on the book in L.A., I woke up at 6, surfed for two hours, then went to a cafe nearby and wrote for three, four hours. I can’t work more than that. My brain gets stressed out [laughs].
Is the novel related to your own life?
At first glance. The main character is a writer and the background is San Fransisco where I lived. But the main character is more masculine than me. I’m older and more tired. The setting and background of the novel is pretty similar to my surroundings but there is no exact similarity with my own life.
Do you have a lot of interest in Korean culture?
My mom told me a lot about the unique emotions of Koreans and traditional Korean fairy tales. I don’t really share feelings like Hahn and Hwa-Byeong, but I can understand them. The existence of terms for those kinds of emotions seems pretty meaningful, historically and culturally. I love Korean football and K-pop but I don’t get the meanings of the lyrics. I can understand Korean but the songs are too hard. It makes me embarrassed. But my mom doesn’t understand them either. That’s a relief.
I heard there is a lot of humor in the book.
When dealing with subjects like shootings, it’s easy to be very dark so I use humor to lighten it up.
Jay Caspian Kang will stop by powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn on Sept. 27 to do a reading and talk about “The Dead Do Not Improve.”