It’s been six years since your first novel, Everything Asian. What took you so long?
The short answer is that I’m just a very slow writer. The long answer: As I neared the end of this novel, say the last thirty or so pages, I thought I’d race to the finish line, which is what happened with my first novel. But with this second one, those final pages took longer to write than any other part. And it wasn’t because it was difficult… it was purely psychological. I think I was terrified of a number of things, like what I would do after it was done. Or the reality of how awful the book was (and it was pretty bad – first drafts, you know). But even if all I squeezed out was a sentence or two on a good day, I kept on wringing. So here we are, half a dozen years later.
Your second novel is titled Love Love. The cover is of a tennis court. Logic dictates that the sport of tennis plays a part.
Indeed it does. But notice that there is no hyphen between the two loves! That missing hyphen, I hope, signals to the reader that the novel is about more than just tennis. The cover is also a painting instead of a photograph because visual art is the other half of this novel. This book is split between two characters, siblings Judy and Kevin Lee. Judy is the failed artist, and Kevin is the failed tennis professional. I guess you could say I’m into failure. You could also say that I’m into halving things. The odd chapters of my first novel, Everything Asian, are told in the first person from the point of view of David, my main character. The even chapters are in the third person and delve into the lives of people connected to David. With Love Love, I chose third person narration all around, but the odd chapters belong to Judy while the even ones are Kevin’s. I should perhaps mention that I’m a Gemini.
Judy and Kevin Lee – are they Korean? Do you always feel like you have to write about Korean or Korean-American characters?
They are Korean American. My first novel was an immigrant story, chock full of Korean culture and customs, but this one is more Americanized, which is where I am in my place in life. Art imitates life, right? As far as featuring Korean characters is concerned, it’s not so much that I feel like I have to, but that it just sort of happens. I rarely go into any work thinking the protagonist will be a certain anything, but it seems like they eventually reveal themselves as Koreans of some sort. In anything I write, the toughest part is finding that foothold into the story, a way in to make it as real as possible in my mind. Since I am a Korean American, this feels natural to me. Or maybe I’m just lazy. Or I don’t have much of an imagination. Let’s go with natural, since the other options are kind of depressing.
Do you find it difficult to write from the female point of view?
I was on a panel a few months ago at BooksNJ with two other male authors, and this very subject came up. While I was waiting for my turn to speak, I was thinking back to short stories I’d written, and I was fairly certain I’d written more from the woman’s point of view than not. So to answer your question, no, not at all. I grew up without a father for a chunk of my childhood, so between my mother and my two sisters, I was constantly surrounded by female company. Also, I don’t believe there are that many differences between the sexes. Not psychologically, not really; we are, after all, human beings. Of course on a broad, stereotypical level, woman tend to be more sensitive and thoughtful while men would rather do things, but as we’re now seeing in our culture regarding gender and all of its possible fluidity between male and female, the differences might be smaller than we’ve ever considered.
There’s one more rather significant part of the novel that we haven’t yet discussed.
Do we have to?
I’m afraid so. Pornography, specifically the adult film industry, plays into this novel, too. Even though porn has entered the mainstream to some degree, it still isn’t a subject that is often seen in literature. Is that why you decided to write about it?
This might sound stupid, but often there isn’t a decision like that being made at the outset of a project, at least not for me. Whether the work is as short as a poem or as long as a novel, it all comes down to an image, that certain striking something that catalyzes a story. For Love Love, the image that started it all was a man opening up a manila envelope that contained two items, a letter from his mother telling him he was adopted and a magazine centerfold of his birth mother in the buff. When I saw that scene in my mind, it felt true. And once that mental snapshot took hold, I held onto it for dear life, because writing a novel, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is a long, drawn-out process for me. To come back day after day, month after month, year after year to the same Word document… it’s so easy to drift away, which is why I need an anchor. And for me, the anchor was that image. The image was the anchor. Which is why I now have a second book.
SUNG J. WOO’S short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, PEN/Guernica, and KoreAm Journal. His debut novel Everything Asian won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Literature Award (Youth category). He lives in Washington, New Jersey.