“I was struck by the depth of this gripping story,” said Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington, who served on the bookseller panel that chose Hur’s debut. “Seol’s quest for answers about her own past are a fascinating counterpoint to her investigation into a grisly murder. The meditative quality of the narration of this historical mystery felt perfectly suited to the Korean setting and the backdrop of political and religious struggles. Seol’s courage, curiosity, and dedication make her a character I can’t get enough of. Let’s hope this is the start of a series.”
Born in South Korea, Hur grew up in Canada, moved back to South Korea for high school, and returned to Canada to study history and literature at the University of Toronto. She is currently a public librarian in Toronto, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Here, Tigani and Hur discuss the author’s love for the Joseon period of Korean history and her development of the main character, Seol.
Tegan Tigani: What was the first element of the story that came to you — the setting, the police procedural mystery plot, the family intrigue, or something else?
June Hur: The setting! I’ve always loved the Joseon Dynasty era, since I grew up watching K-dramas set in this period. But then, while researching about the Joseon period, I stumbled across information about the first major persecution of Catholics, called the Shinyu Bakhae of 1801, which was when approximately three hundred Catholics were beheaded. Thousands of others were arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. At the center of this persecution were two fascinating women: the vengeful Queen Regent Jeongsun and Lady Kang Wansuk, the noblewoman who moved beyond the domestic sphere and became a highly respected leader in a male-dominated Catholic community. I decided to use Seol’s story to explore the influence these two real-life women had on the Joseon Korean community.
TT: Your writing has such a quiet intensity. For a mystery with murders, the narration feels calm yet propelling, and there’s an almost meditative quality, including threads of Confucianism throughout. How did you achieve Seol’s unique voice?
JH: I’ve been journaling for so many years. I love picking apart my thoughts and feelings, my beliefs and values. I’ll analyze (and overanalyze) everything. I think that trained me, unintentionally, to have a meditative quality to my writing, especially when writing in first-person.
As for the threads of Confucianism, I actually had no idea how steeped in Confucianism my upbringing was until I learned more about Korea’s past. This personal connection I discovered inspired me to learn more about Confucianism, and whatever I learned, I tried to find a way to weave it into my book.
This experience with research helped me see a reflection of myself in Korea’s history and allowed me to feel very much at home in the world I created. I think this sense of belonging, combined with the personal connection I discovered, allowed me to be more open and genuine while writing about Seol. And perhaps that’s why her voice ended up sounding so unique — because the experience of creating this story in general was so unique and personal for me.
TT: Your novel explores loyalty, duty, and expectations set based on class and sex. I was particularly fascinated by the roles of the damo in society: the way these women were almost invisible but also indispensable. Could you tell us more about how you researched damo and how you developed their world in your book?
JH: Researching in general was intense and laborious. English resources about pre-colonized Korea weren’t that easy to find, and when I did find them, they were gems! But for the most part, when it came to niche details — like information about the life of damos (female police officers) — I ended up having to rely a lot on Korean articles. But even among Korean articles, there weren’t too many detailed accounts of damos, since they were only briefly mentioned in primary sources. I therefore had to make some educated guesses. Damos were, at the end of the day, lowly servants. And so I studied the role of servants in Joseon Korea, and used this information to fill in the gaps where gaps existed in my research.
TT: I read a post from you on Twitter where you wrote, “A nice heroine is boring. But a kind heroine? Genuine kindness is sometimes stronger, more courageous, and subversive than wielding a sword. Give me a kind heroine who is not nice any day.” That really hit home for me. Could you tell us some more about how this relates to your book? Do you have other books with kind heroines to recommend?
JH: Seol is motivated by kindness throughout the investigation. She is kind but she is not nice; to me, nice means to be pleasant and smiling, but kindness means to consider the good of others. And sometimes doing what is best for others is the hardest thing, harder than, for example, wielding a sword against one’s enemy. It is this type of kindness, loving and gritty, difficult and sacrificial, that drives Seol to commit a traumatic act of kindness.
A few kind heroines that come to mind is Maia from Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim and Jade from Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie Dao.
TT: Will we get more about Seol?
JH: For now, The Silence of Bones is a standalone! But I’m always open to writing more about Seol, if ever the opportunity comes up. She’s a character who’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
The Silence of Bones by June Hur (Feiwel & Friends, 9781250229557, Hardcover Young Adult, $17.99) On Sale Date: 4/21/2020.
Find out more about the author at junehur.wordpress.com.
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