Continuing with the Asian author interview series, today I have special guest Axie Oh to talk about her debut sci-fi dystopian YA debut, Rebel Seoul, out this fall on September 15th!
After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.
When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.
With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.
Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.
Now, for the interview! As always, my comments are in bold and labeled “SW.”
SW: Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for Rebel Seoul came from?
Axie: The idea for REBEL SEOUL came from a very productive senior year of college watching anime and K-dramas. Haha. Jokes aside, I’ve always loved anime, K-dramas and books. I was also a creative writing and East Asian history double major in college, so I love writing and history. But the actual spark that lit the flame of REBEL SEOUL was a dream (really, all writers should depend on their dreams for ideas). In the dream, a girl was standing on top of the tallest building in Seoul, and in the distance, she heard someone singing a song. I woke up from this dream crying because something about the song moved me so deeply. I thought to myself—what about the song would make me/her cry? Who is she? How did she get up there? Was this the first song she’d ever heard? The dream was cold. I set the book in winter. The girl was fierce. I made her a supersoldier.
SW: I’ve never had a dream that has inspired a story, but hopefully it will happen in the future because your dream sounds so cool.
Rebel Seoul has been pitched as Pacific Rim meets kdramas. Were there specific kdramas that inspired the story?
Axie: So many! But the dramas that most directly inspired the story would be: Shut Up Flower Boy Band, Gaksital, and School 2013. Shut Up Flower Boy Band and School 2013 are both realistic high school dramas that deal with the day-to-day life of students and their hardships and relationships, joys and growth. Gaksital is an amazing historical action drama about a masked freedom fighter in Korea during the 1930’s Japanese colonial era. The themes in both shows (combined with the futuristic settings and tech of anime) directly influenced REBEL SEOUL.
SW: I’m tempted to watch Shut Up Flower Boy Band, if only because Kim Myungsoo, a member of my favorite kpop group, Infinite, is in it, haha. Gaksital sounds completely up my alley in terms of genre!
A good part of the work of writing speculative fiction is drawing on reality to make your world convincing. What kinds of research did you do for Rebel Seoul, if any?
Axie: Most of my research for REBEL SEOUL was in Korean words and honorifics since I use Korean to complement the voice of my narrator. My first language is English, so I wanted to make sure my Korean was accurate and reflective of the language (since it’s written out in English, not Hangeul). I’m indebted to the keen eyes of my Korean readers, as well as my Korean copyeditor. Other research included: looking around Seoul when visiting family, reading other works of fiction written by Korean and Korean American authors, and watching K-dramas and films.
SW: Representing languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet is always tough and something I’ve dealt with myself while writing. This factors into character name decisions all the time for me.
Speaking of character names, I noticed that there are a lot of Korean characters in YA named Jaewon. There’s Jaewon from Ellen Oh’s Prophecy, Jaewon who’s Daniel Bae’s brother in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, and now your protagonist for Rebel Seoul. How did you decide on his name, and what was the overall process of coming up with names for your characters like?
Axie: I love PROPHECY’s Jaewon! By the time I read PROPHECY, REBEL SEOUL’s Jaewon had already inhabited his name, so I just thought of it as a fun coincidence. Now with Nicola Yoon’s Jaewon, I wonder if we all had the same naming process! For me, I wanted a name that would be easy to pronounce for English-speakers, since I knew it would be Romanized (converted from Korean to Roman/Latin script). As anyone who has an ethnic name knows, it really matters that our names are pronounced correctly. Whatever name I chose for my protagonist, it would be a real Korean name, and I wanted it to be pronounced correctly. But for how I actually chose the name, at the time I was watching a Korean drama called “Can You Hear My Heart” starring Kim Jaewon; hence, Jaewon was born (but with a different surname). In another revision, I later changed his surname to “Lee” because my actor inspiration for Jaewon became Lee Jong Suk. So, Kim Jaewon + Lee Jong Suk = Lee Jaewon. The other characters’ naming process was less complicated, but no less thought out. I really believe names are important.
SW: I agree! I swear I spend more time coming up with names for my characters than writing sometimes.
What would you say was the most difficult part of writing Rebel Seoul?
Axie: The actual drafting of REBEL SEOUL was fun, as were the revisions I completed with help from CPs and beta readers. The most difficult part were the revisions post-winning the New Visions award, mostly because I rewrote a lot of the book. I drafted the book in 2013-4, won the award in 2015, and then rewrote most of the novel in 2016. By then, it had been awhile since I last worked on it. I had gone a year through grad school and written whole books since that initial draft, and it was a challenge to face the novel, flaws and all. I managed, with the help of my brilliant editor, to revise the novel into the best possible version of itself, but…it was difficult, to say the least!
SW: Rewriting is definitely tough because you have to apply tough love and tear down what you’ve created to rebuild in a better form.
What was your favorite part of writing Rebel Seoul?
Axie: My favorite part was how a lot of my own love of Korea—the country, the people, the culture—appeared in the book without conscious intent on my part. In a way, I was re-discovering my love of Korea while writing the book—its back alleys, food, music, fashion, everything. The ways these elements came out in the book as I was writing it constantly surprised me!
SW: I guess that’s the beauty of #ownvoices, being able to incorporate the things you know and love into your writing. 🙂
Last question is a fun one. If Jaewon had a character theme song, what would it be and why? (does not have to be a song sung in English!)
Axie: I love this question! Jaewon’s theme song would be “Just (그냥)” by Zion T. featuring Crush. When I heard it for the first time, I thought, “This is Jaewon’s theme song!” Lyrics include: If you’re saying hi / Because I look down / Don’t worry about hurting my feelings / And just pass by (translated lyrics from: 1theK). It’s such a melancholy song and captures how Jaewon feels at the start of REBEL SEOUL—a self-imposed loneliness that refuses to let others in.
SW: I am a huge sucker for loner types, haha. I can’t wait to finally meet Jaewon when Rebel Seoul releases. Thanks a bunch for the interview!
Axie Oh is a first-generation Korean American, born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California San Diego and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea, and she currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her puppy, Toro (named after Totoro).