10 Questions for Juhea Kim
- By Edward Clifford
My name is DeDe and I’m eleven years old. D-e, capital D-e. It’s not short for anything. My dad’s name is Bobby and that’s not short for anything either. Our names are similar, both made of two of the same consonant sounds. BO-Bby. DE-De.
—from "Cockroach," Volume 63, Issue 1 (Spring 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was about six years old, I wrote an essay called “What is the meaning of life?” in my diary. It’s embarrassing but also endearing that, like most children, I wasn’t self-conscious about making art. Then followed a long period of not thinking I’m good enough to write. My first real piece of writing was a short story called “Body Language,” which was written in early 2015 and published the following year.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I admire so many writers, but the ones who have had the most enduring influence on me are Tolstoy for novels and Kafka for short stories. I appreciate the many ways to write beautifully and well, but there has to be a match in the temperature of your prose, how you see the world, and how you think, in order for you to be able to constructively absorb that influence. Both Tolstoy and Kafka translate their inner vision into precise and assured sentences—that is to say, they’re highly visual writers. This is how my mind works as well, especially due to my art history training. And then they both have a kind of fatalism shot through with deep humanity, like a beam of sunlight breaking through a dark cloud. Maybe Tolstoy’s sun shines a bit brighter and Kafka’s cloud is a bit thicker. I would say I lean more toward Tolstoy.
What did you want to be when you were young?
My very first answer was an “artist,” then later I changed it to “writer.” And I’ve become that! A few years ago, I was digging through some boxes at my parents’ house and found a mandatory aptitude test from the tenth grade. It said that my ideal career was an “artist or writer”—I kid you not. It’s uncanny how much our natural propensities are already set in place at a young age.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I stand behind everything I write, but “Cockroach” is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. I was inspired by my childhood in Portland, Oregon in the 90s. There is a road that the protagonist walks to and from school—that is a real road that I also walked along when I was in high school, called Canyon Road in Beaverton, Oregon.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Absolutely. I am a very place-based writer. New York influenced me a lot when I was beginning to write, and I’ve also been inspired by France throughout the years. Oregon, of course. Then there are places that I have only visited once, like South Africa, or places in distant memory or imagination—like Korea. The Korea that is described in my novel is an imagined place, because the country in reality has lost so much of its natural environment. This is why contemporary Korean literature that’s coming out in Korea—while clearly excellent—focuses on issues like hyper-competition, wealth inequality, plastic surgery, etc., rather than the more timeless themes I prefer to explore. In my heart, I’m a nature writer, so I looked to the country in the past.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Short stories happen for me like a lightning bolt—I hardly need a soundtrack, it’s like a fever I must get through until it’s finished. Longer works are the opposite: I always begin with musical inspiration. For Beasts of a Little Land, it was Bruckner Symphony No. 8. For my next work, it’s Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. Music teaches me the emotional poignancy I want to deliver through writing, and it also gives me an understanding of how to structure the work.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
It’s true that writing is very taxing on your physical and mental health! I read somewhere that chess champions do rigorous physical training and eat like Michael Phelps on competition days; and while I don’t consider myself a Grand Master of anything, it definitely helps to be your own coach and stay balanced. I take a walk in my neighborhood every morning, listen to the birds, smell flowers, and really feel my own insignificance. Does it really matter if I am an “author” who writes “Big Books” and wins praise? In the grand scheme of things, it’s not important—at least not more important than other living beings just going about their lives. Then I ask, so why am I even struggling? And then it comes back to my purpose—to use writing to save nature and reduce animal suffering—and it humbles me and firms up my resolve to go back to my desk and run straight through the metaphorical wall. If that doesn’t help, I coax myself with chocolate or a glass of cocktail if it’s decently late.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My agent Jody Kahn of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency. She is such a class act, which to me means that she has the integrity, editorial intelligence, and the gentle guidance of the best literary agents. I couldn’t do this without our partnership.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
If I had had the talent to be a professional, I would have become a ballerina. I can go on record to say that dance is much harder than writing. There is no editing, everything happens in an instant, and the level of discipline an average professional dancer has is far higher than that of an average professional writer. It’s very, very hard to fake being a good dancer whereas I think some level of fudging is totally possible with writers.
And I'm currently working on a ballet novel. lol.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished my friend Stacy D. Flood’s devastatingly masterful The Salt Fields. I got an emotional hangover so I chose something that I knew wouldn’t be so affecting, which was Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Also on my coffee table are Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country and Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring.
JUHEA KIM is a writer, artist, and advocate based in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has been published in Granta, Slice, Zyzzyva, Guernica, Catapult, The Independent, and elsewhere. She is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, an online magazine at the intersection of sustainable lifestyle and ecological literature. She earned her BA in art and archaeology from Princeton University. Her debut novel, Beasts of a Little Land (Ecco), was named a Best Book of 2021 by Harper's Bazaar will be published around the world in 2022.