Interview: Novelist Giacomo Lee

[su_heading size=”18″ margin=”18″]Giacomo Lee is a writer from London, which, funnily enough, is where he started writing Funereal, a novel about Korean characters in Seoul that centers around the practice of the fake funeral business. He first visited South Korea at the end of the 2000s, where he remembers a news report about Jang Ja-yeon (장자연), a young Korean actor who’d killed herself. That story stayed with him, but he wasn’t aware of suicide rates in Korea until he came across a news article online about Seoul’s so-called ‘coffin academies.’ This, along with his recollection of Jang Ja-yeon, inspired him to start writing Funereal. Two years later, in 2013, he came to live in Seoul, which was where he finally finished the novel.[/su_heading]

What are the advantages of writing Korean characters from a non-Korean perspective, and what obstacles, if any, did you encounter in trying to infiltrate the psyche of someone from a culture that is not your own?

Any author or journalist writing about a culture not of their own can, of course, see a bigger picture of it without attached biases or preconceived notions. That’s perhaps the only advantage. Obstacles, though, are more likely to be faced by a journalist. For an author, there’s just one golden rule – you’re writing about people, and if you keep that in mind, then there are no obstacles. Funereal is about Korea, true, but it’s a story which is more interested in people on a spiritual level, rather than a national one.

How did you go about building the character of the protagonist, Soobin, and where did you gain inspiration for her story?

Soobin is someone who willingly takes on the roles assigned to many of us around the world. She’s decided to be an educated graduate. She’s agreed to be a good partner, waiting for her sweetheart. She’s agreed to be the polite, smiling face of customer service. Unfortunately, despite all this, Soobin’s getting nothing in return. So, building her up was simple. She had to be a character who goes from reactive, passively doing what’s expected of her, to proactive as events in the book take their toll.

Giacomo Lee
Giacomo Lee – Photo by Simon Slater

In the story, Soobin undergoes the ritual of a fake funeral. How does this symbolize the fears and hopes of Korean people in your mind?

The idea of people being buried alive plays into something very primordial and universal. That’s why I think my book is more than just a ‘Korean novel.’ It’s about mortality and meaning. It’s a very humanist book, about humans trying to reconnect with something outside of the modern and material world of today.

Considering Korea’s apparent quest for perfection, why do its imperfections appeal so much as topics to explore?

Any country that strives to progress is an ongoing story. Its imperfections, therefore, may be fleeting, soon to be gone. As such, a book can provide a snapshot of such a temporary spot in place and time. That’s what fascinated me as an author, this idea of capturing a country in transition.

I also feel the imperfections’ appeal as they stand out more when placed against everything else that is great about Korea, and thus provide a greater insight into what makes the country tick. They show a deeper reality and perhaps something long ingrained that will take a longer time to ‘shiftas time marches on. Perhaps those imperfections will grow in the future, so it’s better to spot them now before it’s too late. Besides, any story about perfect people in a perfect world is boring to read. All writers are constantly seeking the imperfections in life!

Find out more on Giacomo Lee’s website:

funereal Cover Giacomo Lee


Simon Slater
Simon Slater is a freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Seoul. As well as contributing to various media outlets, he writes photo-led stories about Korea and the rest of Asia in his blog 'The Secret Map'.

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Dine & Drink

Eat Like a Local: Old-Style Korean Pork Cutlets – Ms. and Mr. Wang Tongasu

Any Korean, who has memories of going to a street market with mom or with friends after school, would remember the Korean tongasu in 1980s or 1990s. Here you can taste the good memories.