Author Interview: Sung J. Woo delves into the detective genre and Korean adoptee identity in Skin Deep | By Martha Vickery (Summer 2020 issue)
Writing about the exploits of a single, 40-something woman detective who has a good dose of self-sufficiency and attitude is new territory for Sung J. Woo. That his protagonist is a Korean adoptee may have given Woo a literary first, as author of (possibly) the first Korean adoptee detective series.
The Siobhan O’Brien Mystery Series, as the inside page of the new novel Skin Deep proclaims, may be a long or a short series, depending on the success of the first two stories, according to Woo. There will be at least two books, he said, because he has a contract for two, and is writing the second one now. Woo published two novels before diving into the world of the private eye. He has also written short stories and essays for The New York Times, PEN/Guernica, and Vox.
Woo lives in western New Jersey. A virtual launch of his book took place on July 25, sponsored by the Odyssey Bookstore in Ithaca, New York, the city on which his protagonist’s hometown, Athena, is modeled. One of the institutions named in the book, Lenrock University, is (sort of) a backwards spelling of his alma mater, Cornell. “It’s so great to see a bookstore, even on a screen,” he told the audience on the Zoom link from his home.
Launching a novel during a pandemic has been low-key affair, much less complicated than some years ago when he made appearances in numerous cities all the way out to the West coast. The excitement level is muted when there is no travel or face-to-face meeting. “It’s just not the same,” he admitted.
His first two novels Love, Love (2015) and Everything Asian (2009) both describe the experience of growing up Korean American in the U.S. Love, Love also contains an adoption theme; it centers around a brother and sister whose parents are Korean immigrants. The story takes off when the brother finds out he is adopted. He was never told about it by his parents; he finds he is not genetically related when he gets a tissue-type match in order to donate a kidney to his ailing father.
Siobhan, the protagonist in Skin Deep, seems not at all focused on her background as a Korean adoptee, but often describes the reactions of new acquaintances who are alternately curious about or amused by her very Irish name. “I get that a lot” she says at one point when someone asks her how she can have that kind of name. “I am one of those Irish Koreans I’m sure you’ve heard of,” she says to another confused person.
“This book has been percolating for a long, long time,” the author said in a phone interview. It started when he was a junior in college, in an effort to emulate some of his favorite detective-story writers, among them Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series (later a TV show Spencer for Hire) and Dick Francis, who wrote a series in the ‘60s about criminal shenanigans in the tony British horse-racing world.
In his senior year, he was in a year-long class to come up with some kind of substantial piece of writing. He pulled out the beginning of the detective story he had written the year before. He worked on it, producing something that was a version of Skin Deep, except about a half-Korean guy. Like Siobhan, that character’s Koreanness is hidden, but is a central inner conflict.
“It didn’t go so well,” he said. “Part of the reason was that I was just a dumb kid of course, but the other reason was that the mystery genre is not really something you can do that well in the academic setting.” Aside from his lacking the life experience for the complexities of the genre, the class was about literary writing, which was what other students produced, and what writing professors know best. Mystery writing is a slightly different universe.
In 2009, Woo went on a book tour for his first novel Everything Asian, a funny and touching account of a boy whose father had relocated by himself from Korea to New Jersey, and left his wife and children in Korea. The novel is from the perspective of the son David Kim, who has to get used to an unfamiliar father and unfamiliar country all at once.
The story takes from pieces of the author’s own upbringing. Woo also had a father who moved to the U.S. ahead of the rest of the family when Sung was a toddler, and the family reunited in Ocean, New Jersey seven years later as his autobiographical New York Times essay Saying ‘I Love You’ With Baseball describes. Like the father in Everything Asian, Sung’s father also owned an Asian gift shop.
On the tour of the first book, Woo did a reading at a San Francisco book store. “That is where I met a group of Korean adoptees in San Francisco. I had never encountered adoptees, at least not in that kind of environment, and it was really lovely talking to them, and discovering who they were and why they were there —- it was to support me, which was wonderful.”
A few years later, Woo said, he and his wife saw the film Adopted, a documentary about a transnational adoptee and a couple about to adopt a Korean child. “It really opened my eyes to how different things could be if the parents were prepared or not,” he said.
When it came to a third book after the 2015 publication of Love, Love, which also plays with the theme of families and adoption, Woo said he thought he should work again on the detective story he put aside so many years ago. The half-Korean character “never quite worked in my mind,” he said, and the character of Siobhan, who is (probably, Woo guesses) the genre’s first transnational adoptee woman detective, took shape.
Woo stumbles through an explanation of his creative process. “Most of what I write, I really don’t know where any of it comes from, except that it’s in the back of my head, and eventually, at some point, it just comes out!” The Irish name “just came to me,” he said, adding that he plays with names frequently in his stories, not just in Skin Deep. The name becomes a way for the character Siobhan to express her feelings about being a transracial adoptee and a Korean American whose birth name is Kim Sibong.
Now deep into the writing of Siobhan’s second adventure, Woo is experiencing the feeling of exploring the personalities and backgrounds of known characters, while also rechecking to see which of several alternative character backgrounds and story lines finally ended up in the first book. “I had Siobhan as a divorcee and had written a whole other part of her relationship with her ex-husband. In my mind, she was a divorcee, but then when I was writing in the second novel, I had to go back into it and check on my facts,” he admitted.
The network of mystery writers is out there, but so far, Woo said he is not well connected in it. “My contacts are in the literary world, so I came into this pretty blind,” he said. He decided on the idea of a series through his own reading and by scanning the shelves in bookstores. A lot of authors have penned successive books about the same character.
The title Skin Deep was suggested to him by the publisher to match a theme about the beauty industry that runs through the story. However, it also reflects Siobhan’s own attitude about her Korean heritage. Is being Korean only skin deep for Siobhan or are there hidden longings in her core? The author is parceling out exploration of this enigmatic character so that future stories will have a gradual reveal.
“I don’t spend a huge amount of time with her dealing with her heritage. …She is very businesslike and just wants to get things done,” the author explained. “Who she is, how she is portrayed by the outside world and how others see her is something that is constant, and I will definitely be exploring more of that in the second book.”
Having a sort of double life is something that all immigrants and second-generation adults have to cope with, so putting it into words for his Korean adoptee character is familiar territory for this author. “I certainly feel I have led two lives… There is me the Korean Sung and there is me the American Sung. I am a Korean American and the two things don’t always mix. It is kind of like oil and water. They can stay in the same glass, but they are separate, and I don’t really always feel that I am a Korean American. I vacillate quickly between a Korean and an American.”
Woo says he struggles with not being Korean enough, having grown up in a very white environment with mainly Jewish friends; he did not have a Korean circle of friends until his college years. “A lot of that has to do with the [Korean] language. I speak it and I write it, but my ability to do so is vastly limited. I came here in third grade, and if anything at this point, I think I am now at a first-grade reading level,” he said. “When you encounter people who speak so much better than you, you definitely feel less Korean. I think that’s something we all go through.”
Interestingly, Woo became a self-taught computer programmer in the early ‘90s, which still provides a living for him today as he mixes programming and writing from his home office in New Jersey, which he has been doing for 20 years. He cheerfully calls himself a “corporate drone,” and jokes that the COVID-19 pandemic and sheltering at home —- except for the oddity of a virtual book launch and virtual author appearances —- has not altered his lifestyle at all.
Sheltering at home is his professional life. The only problem with the programming is that it gets in the way of his reading time. What he likes best is to sneak away with a new juicy novel.
Woo doesn’t recall a moment when he decided to write fiction, but it had something to do with discovering that he loved to read fiction; first for pure entertainment, and later in college, to study more classic literature. His list is long on favorites, but his favorite author of all time is Richard Yeats, whose 1961 classic Revolutionary Road was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett. “Yeats writes with such clarity about human feelings. So accessible, he is a really easy guy to read and also really hard to read, because he talks about such naked emotional truth,” Woo remarked.
“Why I started writing anything at all is a bit of a mystery,” he admitted. “I thought I was going to be in the sciences when in high school and I certainly excelled more in sciences than words. But it just turned out that I was a fan of words as time went on.” He studied writing, but serious non-class-related writing requires a spark, the mystery ingredient of creativity. “You get an inkling that maybe I can do that,” he reflected. “Maybe I’ll try. Then you try, and it happens.”
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.