Sung Woo emigrated to the US as a ten-year-old. With virtually no English, he transitioned into a New Jersey public school student, continued his journey into the Ivy League and landed, as we meet him here, a professional novelist with a slew of tales to tell. His third book, SKIN DEEP, a novel turn at a hard-boiled detective story, was published in the midst of the COVID pandemic and he has two other books in the pipeline. Here, we talk about his journey as the son of immigrants, his writing process, and a little bit about what drives his work.
What is The Story Forge?
The collected stories of people making things that matter and inspiring others to do the same.
Lyle Smith 0:05
Hello friends and welcome to the story forge podcast where we believe making things matters. I'm Lyle Smith, your host, I'm a writer, a storyteller, a professional marketer and an occasional journalist. But that's not why I'm here for you today. I'm here to share and hopefully inspire you with yet another story of someone making something that makes the world a better place. I apologize. I you can hear me I'm still a bit congested from living in plague House last week. But I'm getting better I'm on the mend. And today we have what I think is really cool conversation. Seung Woo, is a friend and a writer whose third novel titled skin deep, was released this year in the midst of the COVID pandemic. He's got two more books in the pipeline, and has established himself as a unique voice among his literary peers. Skin Deep This is the new book is a fresh take on on the hard boiled detective story first established by giants of the forum, like Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler Shavon O'Brien's boss just passed away unexpectedly. Even more unexpected in his will, he left his detective agency to his junior agent. Sure, it didn't really have anyone to leave his GM shoe legacy to, but she really had no idea why, and even less expectation that something like this would happen. shirvan occur Korean American immigrant adopted as a child, given the most Irish of names, has been engaged to find the missing college freshmen daughter of an old friend, specifically the younger sister of her best friend. There's history and conflict between client and Detective challenges by campus revolutionaries and interaction with a daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the world. It's a terrific read. But my conversation with song is more about the author himself. You see son is a Korean immigrant transplanted to New Jersey as a 10 year old grew up from the son of a shopkeeper at Monmouth County's peddlers village into an Ivy League educated writer of fiction. His own journey from the Far East to where he stands today is compelling and inspiring, and funny, and he's humble and amusing. And it was a terrific conversation. He delivers his own unique insight into today's world, where just being Asian during global health crisis that spread originally from Wuhan can be enough of a challenge all by itself. He talks about his process, what led him to become a writer and what's next for him. As I said, it was a great conversation that I'm going to share with you now. So hey, how are you?
Unknown Speaker 2:55
I am doing good. Thank you.
Unknown Speaker 2:57
Very good. Tell me tell me where you are these days.
Sung Woo 2:59
I am in Washington, New Jersey, in Warren County, which I have to specify because I think there's like five Washington's in New Jersey
Lyle Smith 3:11
RSU we know that there are at least two that I know that I've been to Yeah.
Unknown Speaker 3:16
town name in Orange County about 15 minutes away from the Pennsylvania border. Very good.
Lyle Smith 3:21
It makes me happy to talk to a fellow New Jersey native from time to time and anchors me back into into my my heart I think we miss you. I missed I miss it. I miss you I miss the state from time to time I gotta tell you it's funny. It's it's I tell people you know down here in Florida, you know you talk to people and they'll give you the oh I'm sorry. I didn't mean to you know, salty language or something like that. And I just laugh and I say oh don't worry I'm from Jersey all my favorite words have four letters
Unknown Speaker 4:02
so so anyway, we're gonna wander around a bit but but I was I was looking I literally I just this morning picked up a copy of skin deep tissue so I will admit that I have not finished it I just started I started flipping through it because I found it you know, I haven't I haven't read the new one. So I'm kind of gonna get into it. So that's that's the latest of your of your efforts in the literary world. A.
Unknown Speaker 4:34
It is yeah, that's my third novel. Although it's not actually it's technically my fourth because I wrote a third before it I think yet. Okay, but I have since written a fifth which is actually the follow up to skin deep. Oh, cool. I have written A sequel. It's the first sequel I've ever written. And maybe the last sequel ironic.
Unknown Speaker 5:07
Is that? Is it hard? Is it hard to write a sequel? Or is it?
Unknown Speaker 5:10
Yeah, yeah. I, it's legitimate legitimately it is harder for me at least. Mostly because I kept having this fear of having written like the same thing in the other book, right? Many times, I had to, like flip to the book saying like that I mentioned, this particular trait of my main character, like, why should I? And if I, if so, is it okay to mention it again? Because even if I did mention it, you know, it's a be like a year or two since the person read it. So maybe they won't remember remember?
Unknown Speaker 5:48
I don't know. I wonder about that. Because I remember reading like, for I'm not big, my wife is big on on reading series, you know, and I told you, we were just watching a couple of the they were British productions of Harlan Coben's. Oh, yeah, stuff. And they're all in series, and based on either standalone books or Series books, and so they have that same kind of thing. And I remember reading like the Harry Potter series, and I remember reading in each book, you'd have sort of a reintroduction of the characters. And I haven't read it and not been in tune with series. I thought, Oh, this is her, introducing the character to me again, as if I hadn't read the other book. You know, so that she's, it's like, Okay, let me just make sure this needs to be readable by by both people who are reading them all. And by people who are reading just picking this one up the fourth book for the first time.
Unknown Speaker 6:43
It's absolutely true. Yeah, you have to think of these other facets of the sequel, that I never had to deal with. Any other books. So. So that was a challenge. And but I mean, in a basically, I wrote this follow up because I had to, because it was a two book.
Unknown Speaker 7:06
Contract. So content. Well, that's good. That's good. Right there. Yes,
Unknown Speaker 7:10
it is. I mean, dude, in the way that it forced me to write a second one. Right. Right. It was harder writing this one than the first without question.
Unknown Speaker 7:20
Really? That's interesting. Yeah. I never thought about that really, is it's, you just think, you know, again, not not being really a series reader. Like we're watching also the Wheel of Time. thing, which is that Robert Jordan syndrome that I my wife and her entire family are, we're addicted to the books when the books were coming out. And now they're addicted to the show. And I'm, you know, I enjoy you know, the fantasy genre a little bit, but I'm not. I'm not hooked into it like the way they are. So there you have to read this, you know, it's, it's, it's kind of my how many how many books are in this series? This is 14, oh, my mind was like their their tomes all and they're big. Yeah, man. Here read the first one here for my father in law said here, read the first one. And I started reading it. And I got a couple 100 pages into it. And he said, Yeah, it's not it's a little slow to start. But by the time he finished the first book, the rest of the series is really good. And I'm like, I don't know that I want to invest 900 pages into getting started. But, but they love it. So you know, I have to give it a shot and try reading I hope I've watched the show. So now I'm you know, I kind of I kind of get it a little bit now. So maybe, maybe I need to do it reversed. Yeah. I hate doing that. So what's so Skin Deep is is I have to ask you about this because this is this is the in a setup when you when you read the literature about it is it's basically a Korean American detective, basically named Shivani O'Brien. Right, which strikes me is unusual.
Unknown Speaker 9:08
Unknown Speaker 9:10
Not having read the book without and without revealing too much. What's gone on there.
Unknown Speaker 9:17
It's actually a fairly straightforward explanation. She was adopted the, what is known as a transracial adoptee. So she is a Korean born woman. But she was adopted by a an Irish father and a Norwegian mother. So she has a brother who was also adopted, and he's African American. And his name is spin. Oh, that's funny. Shivani you can imagine who got to name her and who got to
Unknown Speaker 9:52
and but it's, you know, it's interesting. So it made me want to immediately pick up the thing and find out what's going on. So and how not not so much out of curiosity for the explanation of the name, but like, how? What part does that play in the character and in the story, and how does that go down? Why and so I'm looking forward to that. I don't want you to reveal too much.
Unknown Speaker 10:14
Yeah, yeah. I mean, more than anything, it just causes confusion for people. When people first meet her, and they have heard her, like, on the phone or got an email from her, they're a little shocked at the person who stands in front of them. And it can also, in a way, you know, mostly for kind of humorous purposes, I suppose you could say that. But, but you know, more than anything, I mean, for me the even though that the name might be a kind of a goofy thing. She is still a detective. Yeah. And, and she's still, at the end of it all, no matter what her name may be. People respect her because she gets the job done. And she knows what she's doing. Right.
Unknown Speaker 11:06
So what made you what made you want to write a detective story? I love stories, by the way. So
Unknown Speaker 11:13
yeah, yeah. I've wanted to write one for a very long time. I actually wrote the first part of this book in 1994. Yeah, when I was a senior in college, and it was my it was my final project for seminar in writing, which is like, creative writing class, that the last one that you can take. So I started the book then, and some parts of that book still actually exist in this final version. Not much, but but the bed the basic gist of it actually is the same is a girl disappears from our dorm room.
Unknown Speaker 12:01
Okay. So the idea the idea held up the core, this sort of the skeleton of it kind of held
Unknown Speaker 12:06
up. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I always wanted to write about there's this little women's college that I was friendly with, with some of the gals there. I went to Cornell and Ithaca, New York, and there's a woman's College, which is no longer a woman's college. But when I was there, it was called wells College in New York. Yeah. So that college is kind of what I wrote about in this novel. Cool. Yeah,
Unknown Speaker 12:40
that's insane. We have you know, it's funny, all those all those colleges that college experience, too. I mean, I went to Villanova outside of Philadelphia. And there we have, you know, they're everywhere you look, there's you can't throw a stone without hitting a school building. And so, you know, Villanova was one St. Joe's was one there were the bigger Catholic Catholic universities. They're actually, but there were also Rosemont and Bryn Mawr and there were you know, Cabrini, I'm not sure to Cabrini was was co Ed, I think when I was there, but it was, I think it was an all girls school at one point. And so there are a bunch of them. And there's a whole, like sort of cultural community amongst the colleges nearby each other. Which kind of makes sense. Really. Yeah, everybody's the same age, with the same interests in some things anyway. So it makes sense that they'd all be hanging out together. Cool. So that can't so skin deep came out. At least according to my, my Amazon, Amazon download the 20. So it came out during the pandemic. It did. Yeah, that impacts that affect you on your end, or it was well in progress before that.
Unknown Speaker 14:09
It like 100% affected. No way I had to deal with, like, promoting the book and doing any kind of press for it. Yeah, I was basically all done through zoom. Which, that was not the way it was done with my first novel or my second so yeah, it was different. I mean, I didn't even when I knew because I think I knew the book was gonna be coming out in 2020, like in 2018 or 2019. And I never really had like Great Expectations of like taking things on the road because I did that for the second book. And even though it was good, like, you know, it gets tiresome After a while, and I honestly, I don't know how much it really helps to visit bookstores, and libraries and such, certainly, it helps me be you know, for that day when a few people show up, or whatever, but like, you know, this whole thing is all about selling the book. And it seems like there's probably a better way of selling the book than actually physically making an appearance.
Unknown Speaker 15:29
Yeah, I wonder about that. I remember reading once years ago, they asked, it was it was an interview with Stephen King. And he they somebody, somebody he said, somebody had asked him, you know, what a great life you have, you know, you're you're an author, you come out and at a book signing, I think it was in New York, probably, you know, big deal book signing in a big city. And they had a line around the block. And he just kind of laughed, and he said, You know, it's funny, it's, you got to understand, yeah, I am really, truly grateful for what's going on here. And I appreciate it. Probably more than, you know, this is not the way it normally happens for most people. This is just really, really lucky and fortunate for me, and because it's like, most most authors don't show up and have this kind of a turnout in this kind of, you know, sales and stuff. Like it's a lot, you know, it's a lot of shoe leather. And, you know, just trying to get the word out to enough people to, you know, to buy it and be interested
Unknown Speaker 16:35
in it. You know, I have two stories about Stephen King, and books. One is somebody I can't remember who it was one of my friends went to one of these events where he was actually there. And yeah, there were it's like a line sneaking out. Of course, the bookstore. Yeah, all people wanting to not only see him, but have his, like, you know, sign the book and right. But from what my friend said, I remember, he said, it was actually just kind of sad. Because all he did after his reading is he just sat in, like this corner. And he was like this little machine that just kept signing book after book after book, doing it for like an hour, right? And, like, my goodness, and he couldn't really have any time to even, like, barely say hello to whoever came up to him. Because, no, otherwise I'll be there all night. So yeah, it was almost like looking at somebody who like works at a factory. It's funny how he described it that way. Yeah.
Unknown Speaker 17:50
I was thinking I was gonna get to this question later. But it's the talk the idea of, you know, where art meets commerce. And this, this is even different than that. This isn't just about like, you know, how do you how do you turn your artwork into into something that sells this is actually being part of the, the, the production line itself, I mean, signing book after book as it goes out the door, you know, and of course, he gets a royalty on each one of those books and all that kind of stuff, but it's absolutely there's an odd, it's gonna feel weird, you know, it's gonna feel weird doing it that way,
Unknown Speaker 18:24
I'm sure and, you know, there is a price exacted on having this kind of fame and success. I have a feeling he's much happier when one of his books just becomes a movie or a TV series.
Unknown Speaker 18:37
Much. It's funny, I always had this picture of him. And I, you know, I was I've read some I have I'm not a passionate Stephen King reader. I read I've read well, numerous of his books, but I, you know, some people read them all as soon as they come out, and all that kind of stuff. But I'm not one of those guys. But I do read his books, I like them. And I'm always amazed at how much he puts out the, the, the, the number of books, the amount of the number of pages he's able to put out in any given year. And I always had a picture of him sitting in front of a typewriter, with like, a big newspaper roll of paper on top, and this is like Type Type Type Type Type Type ramp. Okay, next one, that next one, you know, so I always had this picture of him as kind of a, you know, just turn them around over and over. Again, like a machine, right? Yeah. Because the joke the joke on him and a lot of those guys who put out so many books is that, you know, it's all the same book. It's just different names and different settings. Never. Of course, it's of course, it's not. It's a whole much more is much, much more complicated and all of that. But, you know, there are, you know, some of these guys like Harlan Coben's that I like very much. Yeah. A lot of them do kind of have a formula too, you know, and it's, you know, And you can see it. And there's a lot of good in the mini way. You know, it's cool.
Unknown Speaker 20:04
Totally. I actually was one of the people who did read everything that Stephen King wrote. When it came out, I did that all the way up to a book called The Dark Half. And this was probably like, right around when I was going to college. Right. So, yeah, I popped that point, I'd read every one of his books, and I adored them. And yeah, I mean, certainly, you certainly see themes coming up that are basically alike. And characters that seem kind of echo one another. But I think that's, you know, it's that's basically just indicative of just the way Stephen King sees the world. Sure, sure. avoidable.
Unknown Speaker 20:53
But you know, any, any anybody you live your life and you go out, and you're gonna see a lot of people, you're gonna interact with a lot of people who are, you know, oh, that person reminds me of so and so. Or that person reminds me of someone or that that story. I heard a story like that somewhere else. So there's, I mean, there's, there's a lot of that, I mean, you'd have to go to, you know, Charles Dickens to get the number of totally independent, unique half page characters. Out of one writer. I remember reading about a guy who he did his I think it was his PhD thesis, where he went and basically did a catalogue of every character in Dickens work. And it's it was it was one of those it was like 1000 pages is this huge thing. And he did a little a little profile on each and every character because almost any said, you know, so many of them. There, he said, There aren't that many that are just throwaway characters, they're all sort of fully realized and one layer and, and, really, why because he talks about David Copperfield, and how there's a scene and David Copperfield, where David is walking away from home, and he's kind of, he's kind of finding his way to where he's going. And he stops in this town, and he has no place to stay. And he goes in the store, and he meets the guy who owns that his old, big old guy smoking in this shop that sort of helps them be might be preying on him, you can't tell right away. And he has this whole interaction with this guy. And then he goes on his way. And then David goes on his way to the next place. And, but you know, everything you need to know about the shop owner, to know him as a character. And it's only about two pages. Wow. You know, and it's like, holy cow. And, and he never shows up again. It's never shows up in the in the book. Yeah. And David Copperfield is substantial book too. Yeah. And, wow, it's just so wow, that was just one example. He, like she saw. That's, that's crazy. So, um, so the pandemic affected your there was more like the production and the publicity of the book then than the than the writing of it?
Unknown Speaker 23:13
Yes, yeah. Something I did, certainly right. During the pandemic, right, was no different than before. The pandemic.
Unknown Speaker 23:22
Yeah, was the nice thing about being a writer, you need a desk and a keyboard, and that's about it.
Unknown Speaker 23:26
It's true. I mean, there are some writers that seems like it really did help them to be more isolated. And to have this time, I wish that were the case for me didn't, didn't work out that way. I was just as disappointed with my output during the pandemic as I was before.
Unknown Speaker 23:48
That's, that's funny. Nick Hornby writes about that Nick Hornby writes about his little office he has in town that he goes to pretend to write Yes, I can relate. I kind of get that you know, because write it you know, if you look up and in the thesaurus, writer, it's going to be equated with procrastinator. So I want to go back because I everything Asian. Right, is that's that's your first book that came out that you know, I read it when it came out. And I love it. It's terrific, interesting story.
Unknown Speaker 24:37
fascinating characters, sort of charming, compelling characters, I thought and but I'm going to ask you the hated question because there's, there's
Unknown Speaker 24:51
autobiographical elements in that story. I'm not going to say it's an autobiography because that's easy and cheap. And that's what everybody would do. And That would just equate Oh, well, he just writing about his life. But, but some of that is true in that you came. You came to America as a 10 year old? Yes.
Unknown Speaker 25:09
I came to America as a Kenyan. Yep. That's right.
Unknown Speaker 25:13
From. So your so your story, your personal story is an immigrant story, huh? Yep. So tell me about that. How did how did you end up? You know, why did your family come from Korea to America?
Unknown Speaker 25:28
My family came separately. My father came here first. So he came. Thank you left the country around 73 or 74. It was right around the gas crisis. Okay. So I think that was the time period. And initially, he actually fled to Japan and I actually use the word fled, because it's correct. Wow, he fled the country, because like his business went bankrupt. And back then in Korea, she went bankrupt. They put you in like debtors prison. Oh,
Unknown Speaker 26:06
speaking of Dickens.
Unknown Speaker 26:10
Right, so he, he got the hell out of dodge. I don't I don't know the particulars. And I probably should ask my mom, before it gets too late to find out more of the interesting pathways he took. Anyway, he left to Japan. And then he made his way to America in like the mid late 70s. Okay. And believe he was working with his younger brother who was already there. And who was actually in the country illegally. My father was an illegal alien for like a while. Good. I don't know, seven years, if not longer. Yeah. And then me, my two older sisters, and my mom joined him in 1981. Okay, by that time, he has had established a store not unlike the one that's in the book. Definitely, this novel is heavily autobiographical. Absolutely, it is. failing. I think you find this with first novels a lot of people. Yeah.
Unknown Speaker 27:22
Well, there's that's true, but it's not, you know, it's one of those things because it is yeah, I mean, yeah. Again, the skeleton, you know, sort of the basics of it are there. And that's because you write what you know, right? And then, but then you have to make a story of it, that people are going to be interested in.
Unknown Speaker 27:41
Absolutely. Which is why I always say like, anything that really happened that seemed interesting, did not happen to guarantee you that. Yeah, so then it My, my, our family worked at that store. And that was really how I grew up until I left for college. Wow. Yeah. So it's our story.
Unknown Speaker 28:03
It's an interesting story. And I wonder, you know, given how things have gone in this country over the past several years, a really compelling immigrant story like yours, not to mention an Asian story like yours. How what is your experience been? With that kind of a background in today's America?
Unknown Speaker 28:33
You know, by and large, I lead a fairly abundant oblivious existence. And I'm often not really reminded of my outsider in this unless like something happens. And infrequently do things happened to such a degree that I'm like, a woken by, by my otherness, but it has happened from time to time, certainly. But I mean, I don't know if it I don't feel as if I have had any great advantage or disadvantage to tell you the truth. Yeah. You know, I mean, seems like when I look at the list of books that are out there, like I see plenty of Asian folks or Asian American people doing very well. Yeah. Things and I also see like, other people of color, and also I see plenty of white folks doing really well too. So I don't really see any kind of Great Schism I don't know if that's the word in the book industry, but I'm sure there is. No Well, I
Unknown Speaker 29:51
mean, not just not just in the book industry, but just in general life. I mean, you know, cuz we've had we've had a lot of, for example, I have A couple of friends I was thinking about as I was writing up some of my notes for this, who were Jewish. And they talked to me often about how concerned they are with the increase in anti semitic events in America over the last several years, and they're like they, they get really worried about things. And I know, they're one point there was sort of an anti Asian Toja going around in the last few years. And, you know, not to mention, you know, Hispanic, Latino, south of the south of our borders, peoples are notoriously targeted, as you know, or D demonized, in one way or another. So, you know, I wonder guy having, you know, been raised. In the family, I was raised in where I came from, you know, I don't have that I've, you know, I Irish Need Not Apply goes back to the 1850s. And never impacted me personally. So I don't have any understanding of it. So I wonder, you know, that's all.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai