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Jeong You-Jeong, The Storyteller

Jeong You-Jeong, The Storyteller
Author Jeong You-Jeong

Behind Jeong You-Jeong is a black and white photo of her, wearing a suit, and looking off center. Anybody who sees it would have every reason to form an opinion of the author as a serious, if not mysterious individual.

Marketing-wise, it works and is befitting the image ascribed to her as “South Korea’s preeminent author of psychological thriller” by Entertainment Weekly.

Up close and personal, however, Jeong is the complete opposite. While answering questions from the media at the Korean Cultural Center in Taguig City, the first-time visitor was beaming and cracking jokes every opportunity she could. (She even expressed her love for San Miguel beer!)

“I’m worried that Filipino readers would be scared of me like the Korean readers are,” Jeong said sheepishly with the help of an English translator during a press conference held recently. “I’m not a scary person but also sweet and warmhearted and I hope the Philippine media will help show that.”

Jeong visited the Philippines as part of KCC’s cultural exchange initiative to promote another side of Korean culture: K-Lit. She has initially been compared to Stephen King and she believes the comparison is understandable as she considers the American author, who is famous for titles such as “The Shining,” “Carrie,” and “It,” as her de facto mentor.

Having no formal writing training, Jeong decided to follow her dream of becoming a writer at the age of 35 by reading King’s works and doing her best to analyze every cause and effect of the decisions made by the characters in his books. Combined with her experience of working as a nurse where death and suffering are commonplace, Jeong had a potent formula for writing psychological thrillers including “Seven Years of Darkness” and “The Good Son,” both available in Fully Booked.

Why it took her a long time to follow a childhood dream is a different story altogether. She fondly looks back to the time when she was a very young girl growing up in Hampyeong. Her grandmother would bring her to a traveling circus and she remembers enjoying listening to storytellers who would tell tales inside a tented theater. Upon returning to their neighborhood, Jeong would then share the stories to the village children, something that gave her a deep sense of happiness. As a result, she already knew what she wanted to become.

South Korea, however, was still developing at the time and was very poor. Thus, her mother said that she had to choose a career where she can be financially stable so as to support herself. Jeong studied to become a nurse and worked until her mother passed away. She then took on a corporate job before making the big leap towards the literary world.

Dream come true

Jeong, who was already married at the time, would find out that her storyteller dream would have its own set of obstacles, that it’s not as easy as putting words into paper. Even more challenging is that in Korea, one had to win a writing competition to be acknowledged as a legitimate writer. She participated in and lost in a total of 11 open competitions for novels before winning, at the age of 41, at the 1st Segye Ilbo World Young Adult Literature Prize for “Spring Camp of My Life.”

Her popularity continued to soar and her novel “Seven Years of Darkness” was enjoying success and critical acclaim in 2011. But on winter of that same year, Jeong was diagnosed of breast cancer.

“When I realized I had cancer, I was really angry because I was preparing to work on the sequel to ‘Seven Years of Darkness,’ ‘28,’ which would be posted like a series in a newspaper in Korea on a weekly basis,” Jeong said.

She then considered hiding on an island and finish the entire novel and that would be it. Her husband was able to convince her to reconsider and after her surgery, they found out that the cancer was at Stage 1, not Stage 2 as initially feared, and with no signs of it spreading to other organs, Jeong was able to quickly recover.

These days, Jeong goes to the gym, runs, and hikes regularly, which she says helps her write stories that are fast-paced.

According to Jeong, “it’s scientifically proven that if you’re physically fit, it will have a positive effect in your mind and heart and that’s important.”

Free will

Through sheer grit, Jeong has overcome obstacles that would have discouraged less determined souls. Her more recent works have been described as having a unique voice, a signature all her own and are no longer compared to any other.

“Stephen King focused on the darkness and evil side of humans while Ernest Hemingway tried to show the humanity in facing death,” Jeong noted. “For me, I focus on the free will of humans, I try to show it through the choices they make. People make mistakes, they take the wrong path and my stories focus who it ruins their lives eventually… how it causes dramatic changes in their lives and in a way, it becomes something relatable to readers.”

Interestingly, Jeong believes that AI or artificial intelligence will be able to achieve writing better than humans do.

And as someone who describes herself as an ambassador of the not-so-glamorous side of South Korea, she says she hopes to continue writing before the machines take over completely.

“I still have too many stories in my head that I want to share,” Jeong said with a sly smile.

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