I know his back quite well. In our early twenties we were roommates, and I’m sure I saw his back more often than his face (to exaggerate ever so slightly). He sat in front of his desk, facing the wall, and wrote all the time. When I got home drunk, there he would be at his desk, tapping away at something under the light of a small lamp. When I woke up he would still be writing. Had he been up all night? He very well may have. No surprise when he became a novelist, that one.
Recently he published a collection of essays called, The Work of the Novelist. Out of all the sentences I enjoyed from that collection, my favorite has to be this: “The only important thing for a writer is the verb, ‘to write.’ ‘To write well’ and ‘to write poorly’ all come down to the same verb in the end.” Now I wonder if he was thinking that already in his twenties. In any event, he kept writing, for better or for worse.
He made his debut as a writer in 1994, and I in 2000. We met when we were 12, so we’ve known each other for more than 30 years now. So I feel like I should know Kim Yeonsu better than anyone, but I actually don’t. I do know his favorite foods (tteokbokki, noodles, and seafood). I also know his go-to coffee order (he likes cappuccinos), his past girlfriends (not that I would ever name names), and what kind of person he dislikes (again, no names). Our collective drinks together would fill a swimming pool (mostly because I drink a lot of beer), and we used to play tennis together in the daytime (usually won by me). I know what kind of music he listens to when running marathons (not at all my type). I know all these things about him, but I still don’t feel like I know him that well.
It must be because of his writing. When I read Kim Yeonsu the novelist, it doesn’t feel like I know him at all. Every sentence is an enigma. Why did he choose to write sentences this way, and why did he choose to create these kinds of characters? It must be another person inside of him that I don’t know. In The Work of the Novelist he writes, “They say, why not write [novels] better from the beginning? But how could I possibly without knowing the end? It’s the same with life. The story of my life is not over yet, so how could I live it well from the beginning? . . . Nobody lives well from the beginning. The same applies to fiction. The novel begins only after all the stories have run their course.”
Novelists are like actors in that they live the lives of multiple characters. Actually, actors only live their roles, but novelists live all of their characters. That’s what fiction is about. We empathize with the lives of strangers through the power of fiction. Who knows how many more mistakes we would make without it? Writing fiction is an inherently painful process, but one through which we strive to understand others. Mostly, I can’t get over how both of us, two childhood friends, turned out to be writers. We still live near each other so when I’m stuck I call him up for a drink. We don’t talk about writing at all, but I always feel that he gets me, at least a little bit. Afterwards, on the way home, I turn to look at his back. It’s a familiar back that looks like it’s writing even when it’s walking.
by Kim Junghyuk