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[Latest Read] Hwang Bo-reum welcomes readers to 'Hyunam-dong Bookshop' with healing dose of books

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : March 25, 2024 - 18:00

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Hwang Bo-reum (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Hwang Bo-reum (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

At some point in their lives, many people pause and ask, “Is this the life I wanted?”

We find ourselves overwhelmed by work, experiencing burnout as professional obligations overshadow personal lives. This critical juncture prompts introspection -- a moment to reassess one's life and ask if this path is truly what I wanted.

Hwang Bo-reum's bestselling novel, "Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop" begins with Yeong-ju, who is burnt out. She leaves behind her old life -- she abandons her high-flying career and divorces her husband -- and opens a bookshop in a quaint residential neighborhood in Seoul.

Surrounded by books, she finds new meaning in life as the bookshop morphs into an inviting space for hurt and lost souls to rest, heal and learn about what is truly important in life.

Covers of the Korean (left) and English editions of Covers of the Korean (left) and English editions of "Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop" (Clayhouse, Bloomsbury Publishing)

Finding fulfillment in life

Hwang’s journey as a writer is quite similar to that of Yeong-ju -- they both veer off their "intended" paths to discover the lives they truly desire.

Hwang, 43, studied computer science and worked as a software engineer at LG Electronics for seven years. She had a successful job that many would envy, but she was unable to find happiness in it. Before turning 30, she asked herself, "Should I continue living like this?"

“At the age of 29, I was anxious just like many others. When you turn 30, you feel like you really have to become an adult. So what should I do with my life? I didn’t have an answer, but I knew that was not the way to live,” Hwang said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

It didn't require much courage to leave her job. Rather, it felt like a natural progression after long-standing contemplation.

“What surprised me the most when I first joined the company was that I had studied so hard for it, but I had no idea what kind of life awaited me. My ignorance and the realization (of the reality) struck me. I knew right away that I didn’t fit in there. In a way, I endured for seven years,” said Hwang.

“If you tell me that Yeong-ju and I are alike, I would take it as a compliment. Yeong-ju is someone who worked very hard at the company and climbed up the ladder, but I don’t think I had the same level of passion.”

Hwang Bo-reum (Clayhouse) Hwang Bo-reum (Clayhouse)

Serendipitous breakthrough

Hwang decided to give herself 10 years to explore new avenues. And by chance, she stumbled upon a writing class where she discovered her passion for writing, particularly essays. Although she published several essays throughout her 30s, that hadn't been all smooth sailing.

“My first essay didn’t do well and after that, it was a series of submissions and rejections. It was a tough time. I poured my heart into something for the first time, yet there was no response.”

A breakthrough came when she shifted her focus to fiction writing.

"When I wrote ‘Hyunam-dong Bookshop,' it was kind of taking a break from essay writing. Just an easy, lighthearted attempt because writing essays had become too difficult for me (after repeated rejections). I enjoyed it very much because I poured in everything I love -- books, characters who read books, conversations with readers.”

About a year later, Hwang serialized her story on Brunch, a content-publishing online platform, but even then there was no response, only one or two people leaving comments.

Because she had already uploaded her work online, she submitted it to an open contest co-hosted by Brunch and Millie's Library the following year without giving it much thought. Millie's Library is one of South Korea's largest e-book subscription platforms.

In 2021, her story won the contest which led to the publication of her debut novel as an e-book. It quickly soared to the top of Millie's Library's bestseller list and was released in paperback in 2022. The novel became a word-of-mouth sensation, selling over 110,000 paperback copies in just five months.

As of December last year, the number of readers for both paper and e-books reached over 250,000. Copyrights were sold to over 20 countries, with translated editions scheduled for publication in the coming months.

"I was amazed when I heard about the overseas publications. I vaguely dreamed of becoming a bestselling author when I started my writing career, but it's truly unbelievable seeing reviews in different languages tagged on my SNS account.”

Essay books by Hwang Bo-reum: (from left) Essay books by Hwang Bo-reum: (from left) "I Read Every Day," "I Tried Kickboxing for the First Time, "This Distance is Perfect" and "The Simple Liver"

Good dose of healing power of books

"When I was writing this novel, I didn't have a particular message for the readers because I didn’t even think this would be published,” reflected Hwang.

“Come to think of it, all the characters have deviated from their initial paths. I also diverged from mine. I feel like I was consoling myself. I think I needed to give a nod to my own life saying, 'It's okay, you're not living a wrong life.’”

Transitioning into a full-time writer was a long journey for Hwang, juggling various part-time jobs over 10 years. It was her passion for writing that served as a steadfast anchor.

"I don't really know why, but I just love writing. Writing can also be tough, stressful and burdensome. But completing a piece, I feel extremely satisfied. I believe I endured that unstable period because I loved writing."

In Hwang's latest essay, “The Simple Liver,” (direct translation) detailing her life after “Hyunam-dong Bookshop,” the writer describes her approach to life as waiting for her inner strength to fill up.

Hwang mentioned that she's currently gathering input for her next project.

"Right after ‘Hyunam-dong Bookshop,’ many people asked me what my next novel would be. I said, 'I don't know -- I don't think I know how to write or what to write.' Last year, I started to think I could try writing fiction again. Now, I've come to a point where I think I should write a novel. But I think I'll only know once I actually start writing."

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In this series, The Korea Herald introduces Korean literature through translated works, offering interviews with authors or translators as well as reviews, inviting readers to explore the vibrant literary landscape of Korea. -- Ed.

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"Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop"

written by Hwang Bo-reum, translated by Shanna Tan

Bloomsbury Publishing

November 2023 (UK)

February 2024 (US)