Author Interview: Axie Oh

Axie Oh is a first generation Korean American, born in NYC and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California – San Diego and holds an MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada with her puppy, Toro.

  1. Rebel Seoul, on the whole, is about partitions and society, about being human and not, about those who have material wealth and those who don’t. Though the book is set in a divided South Korea, the conflicts within the world you have created are contemporary and can be seen in all the cities people live in. Jaewon, in particular, resides in an in-between space, of two worlds and yet not quite belonging fully to either of them. Would you say that the space Jaewon lives in is very similar to those of us who straddle the fences between two cultures live in?

What a fascinating idea! I definitely chose Jaewon as the protagonist because he was perfectly placed to give a narrative view of the often opposite and opposing sides—Old Seoul vs. Neo Seoul, underprivileged vs. privileged, rebellion vs. adherence to the status quo—as he has a foot on both sides, so to speak. Throughout the book, I wanted Jaewon to consider the points of view of the other characters in the story, many of whom think very differently than he does. I wanted him to listen, think on what they have to say, question them, but also question himself. The book does have many dichotomies, but it also, hopefully, shows that not everyone on either side is 100% for or against, and perhaps even partitions have blurred lines.

As for existing between cultures, I think, more than Jaewon, two side characters in Rebel embody this idea: Alex and Sela. Alex is Korean American, like myself, and though this isn’t explored deeply in Rebel Seoul, I imagine has difficulties conflating his Korean American side (culture he was born into) with his Korean side (culture he exists within). ,As for Sela, she is ethnically Korean but was born and raised in Japan. Like Alex, I think she also must have a complex experience existing as an ethnic Korean growing up in Japan due to the differences in the two cultures as well as their vast and conscious history.

  1. What sort of research went into writing Rebel Seoul? Do we see any existing-in-real-life landmarks or streets of Seoul in the book?

Not much prior research went into the first draft, since the characters drove that initial vision. As for setting, I used places in Seoul I had been to (Gangnam, Hongdae, in the first draft they also went to Insadong, which was later cut in subsequent drafts). So, yes, most of the districts and landmarks exist in present-day Seoul, except for the fictional buildings, like the Tower and Jaewon’s high school/military academy.

As for research in the following drafts, I tried to ensure that every feature of the world that was inspired by or based off something real was an accurate and respectful depiction of that something real. Although the novel is sci-fi, it’s grounded in a real culture and setting that has a present-day counterpart. I wanted my alt-future Seoul to accurately reflect present-day Seoul and the Korean culture as much as possible. This meant: online research, researching from books, asking questions of family and friends, sending to Korean beta readers… I’ve also been lucky enough to travel to Seoul to visit family, and have spent time taking photos and exploring the city.

  1. What was the most challenging bit about writing Rebel Seoul? Were there moments where you threw down your pen (or your keyboard) and wanted to crawl into bed with a pillow over your head?

Yes (*confesses to having done just that*). The most challenging part was making sure all the Korean in the novel was accurate and had consistent romanization (conversion of a different writing system to a roman one). For example, my original draft had “Ajeossi” spelled as “Ajusshi” but my Korean copyeditor changed the legend so that the “uh” sound was spelled with an “eo” which means all the words that I spelled with a “u” had to be changed to “eo.” For example, “Umma” became “Eomma,” etc.  It was mostly difficult because my brain started to hurt with keeping track of consistent spelling of Korean words in English! That pillow had a huge dent in it by the end.

  1. This might be a bit of an esoteric question but bear with me. I find Korean, as a language, to be much warmer, to give itself more to passion, than English. Did you ever wish you could write Rebel Seoul in Korean and then translate it into English?

Ooh, that’s funny! My mom definitely reverts to Korean when angry with my sister and me (and our dog). So yes, I definitely see how it lends itself more to passion. I never thought to write the whole book in Korean (beyond that I couldn’t because I’m not fluent), but also because I feel like much of my writing style is because of my fluency IN English. I do think however, that I tried to mimic through English the spirit of the Korean language, if that makes any sense. Beyond using Korean words to flavor the passages, I also tried to use Korean phrases but in English, like “Please take care of me” or “Work hard!” These are also phrases that you’ll recognize if you watch a lot of Korean dramas.

  1. Who are some of your favourite writers? Do you have a book you read over and over again?

The hardest question to ask a book lover! Here’s a few, and whose books I have read multiple times: Noriko Ogiwara, Philip Pullman, Juliet Marillier, Garth Nix, Tanith Lee, Holly Black, Cindy Pon, Franny Billingsley, Melina Marchetta, Kate Elliott, Jenny Han, Patricia McKillip, & Ruta Sepetys.

  1. Could you recommend some diverse reads to our readers?

Some recent reads include:

  1. The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee, which I adored. It’s a charming, contemporary witch story about a girl who makes love potions, set in NorCal with a diverse cast of characters.
  2. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee, also set in NorCal, about a girl who fights demons alongside the Monkey King from Chinese folklore. It’s ROFL funny and action-packed.
  3. I Believe In A Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, another hilarious book, about a girl who uses Korean drama tropes to snag the guy of her dreams. It’s adorable and I totally played spot-the-K-drama while reading it.
  4. The Reader by Traci Chee, a gorgeous and intelligent book that reminds me of the old fantasies I used to love, but with characters who look like me!
  5. Want by Cindy Pon, a smart, sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic Taipei with a vivid setting and endearing characters. I love all of Cindy’s books, but this one might be my favorite.

 

  1. As a bonus question, which actors do you see playing Ama, Alex, Jaewon and Tera in the Kdrama adaptation of your novel?

This is a hard question! Originally when I wrote the novel, I imagined Lee Jaewon as Lee Jong Suk, but that was 2013 and Lee Jong Suk was 22/23 at the time, now he’s 27/28 and going into the army (2-4 years)!  My original actor inspirations were Choi Sulli as Ama, Jung Krystal as Tera, Lee Jong Suk as Jaewon and Ahn Jae Hyun as Alex. But as actors in a K-drama, I’d want a Chinese actress to play Ama. I still think Krystal could play Tera. And then maybe unknowns/up-and-coming actors for Alex and Jaewon!