Interview: Kim Sagwa

b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa; translated by Sunhee Jeong
Two Lines Press

Best friends b and Rang are all each other have. Their parents are absent, their teachers avert their eyes when they walk by. Everyone else in town acts like they live in Seoul even though it’s painfully obvious they don’t. When Rang begins to be bullied horribly by the boys in baseball hats, b fends them off. But one day Rang unintentionally tells the whole class about b’s dying sister and how her family is poor, and each of them finds herself desperately alone. The only place they can reclaim themselves, and perhaps each other, is beyond the part of town where lunatics live―the End.

In a piercing, heartbreaking, and astonishingly honest voice, Kim Sagwa’s b, Book, and Me walks the precipice between youth and adulthood, reminding us how perilous the edge can be.

Today we welcome the author Kim Sagwa to the blog to share about her book b, Book, and Me.

Before getting into the actual content, can we talk about the cover images? On Goodreads, I found the original title of the book, 나b책. I noticed that when read aloud with the letter ‘b’
there, it sounds like the Korean word for butterfly. When the original cover showed up in my search, it had a beautiful butterfly as the illustration. The cover image for the English version is lovely, but quite different. It made me think about translations and how some things simply don’t make the jump from one language to another. Reading the original and the translation will always be a slightly different experience. Do you have thoughts to share about the translation of this book or the art of translation in general?

As you mentioned, the original title 나b책 translates as “Butterfly Book” in Korean. The story is
about three people: 나(me), b, and 책(book). So the title has a double meaning and that’s how I
like it because I’m addicted to puns. When I sent the script to the publisher I was worried that
they wouldn’t like the title. But luckily for me the publisher bought into the whole concept and
even let me choose the cover image. I sent them a picture of a butterfly I found on

The English cover has a different approach. What I love about the English one is that it is an
impression based on the story I’m telling in the book. It shows a pair of big scissors about to cut a tiny flower which gives a hint that something horrible is going to happen in the book, and so it does. The Korean cover is, in its way, sly, because the beautiful butterfly on it has not much to do with the nasty kind of things that happen in the book.

My theory is that someone’s first encounter with a text written in a strange language produces a more direct, objective, even realistic point of view. Sometimes this peculiar viewpoint is hard to imagine by people of the native language, because they notice too many cultural layers beneath a story. As a translator, if someone tries to deliver on all the layers she/he found as a reader of the original, it would be hard not to fail. That’s why I believe the simplest, word-for-word translation is best in practice.

When you are asked about this book, how do you generally describe the story and your

It’s the story of two young girls who live in a small seaside town, which is a town that I’ve made up. Rang is well-to-do; B is smart, but full resentment because her family is dirty poor. After B’s sister dies of illness, she decides to leave the town with Rang. They reach the edge of town where they meet Book. Book is a childish young man who lives by himself in a hut that’s right next to the coastal cliff. B and Rang follow Book and crash a strange party thrown by a bunch of lunatics. It’s the best time B and Rang ever will have, but the reason this is so is because it’s the last and only time they get to celebrate the joy of youth.

I haven’t seen many teen books in this particular format. How or why did you make the choice to write in numbered sections rather than chapters or using another format? 

Because I wanted the book to have the feel of a serious document or journal, or anyways
something official.

I found b, Book, and Me surreal and dreamlike at times although it also felt quite realistic and contemporary. This contrast is partially because we get an intimate look at the mindscapes of b and Rang. What led to your focus and interest in the thought processes and even the mental health of teens?

Honestly, I didn’t think much about what teenagers are like in general, because my real goal for writing b, Book, and me was to make money. I had just graduated from college and I needed money. But I certainly had a hidden ambition to write a unique story about young people. I was weary about teen books, because I found many of them fake and boring. Writers of teen books usually have a fixed image about teens. Happy and energetic. Positive and curious. I thought it would be a good idea to introduce some realistic teenagers who were unhappy and slow, pessimistic and dull, but still cute.

Was there research or other preparation necessary before or even during the writing of this

From the first stage of writing, I carefully thought out the form the story was going to take. I
numbered the section headings (as you mentioned) and tried to make the language as simple as possible, because I wanted to evoke something audible, like a real-time confession. But the story itself is, on the contrary, far from realistic. This is partly because I wrote the book in Porto, which is, like the one in the book, a beautiful small seaside town. I was visiting for the first time, and all the exotic things I found about the place made it into the book. For example, there were all those little boys diving into the sea. I hoped that the town itself, apart from the narration, would seem dreamy and artificial. I even drew a big map for the story. I put everything on the map, the beach, the seaside supermarket, Rang’s house, B’s poor  neighborhood, the cliff for Book, and the abandoned hospital for lunatics.

You now have two teen books translated for the U.S. market. What are your plans and goals for future writing? Will your writing journey likely include more books for young adults?

Recently, I’m working on a nonfiction book about the three years I spent in New York City. After that I think I’m going to write a novel about white-collar workers. I don’t think I’ll write another book for young adults anytime soon. I’m more and more curious about what’s expected from ordinary adult life— maybe because I know next to nothing about it in the first place? Or is it a simple sign of aging? For whatever reasons, the white-collar world looks such a gold mine because my superficial observation as an outsider tells me that urban white-collar culture embraces a crazy amount of insanity. The madness in civilization is always a fascinating subject for contemporary writers.

Thanks so much for joining us!