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Yun Ko-eun on What Makes a Great Eco-thriller

Posted on 3rd July 2020 by Mark Skinner

Yun Ko-eun is at the forefront of an incredible wave of new Korean literature that combines the elements of the finest thriller writing with flinty, scalpel-sharp satire. In this exclusive piece, Yun Ko-eun discusses her compelling eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist and reveals the secret ingredients that make for a peerless example of the genre.  

A good eco-thriller has a skin like the crust of an apple pie. Thick enough to contain a sweet filling, but not too thick: just enough so that when you take a bite, crust and apple collapse into your mouth with a cheerful crunch. Crust and filling fuse in a delicious apple pie; adhesion is key. A good eco-thriller, in turn, doesn’t ignore its readers with a faraway fiction, but instead bonds deeply with their daily lives. With each turn of the page, the writer’s creation intertwines with reality. A crispy crust cannot part from its filling; if the two don’t commingle, the pie is half-baked, the thriller undercooked.

Central to eco-thrillers is the push and pull between fantasy and reality. If the world inside the book seems too distant from real life, the reader will be left scratching her head in confusion. On the other hand, if the story feels too close to our own world, the reader might anxiously stop reading and put the book down. As both a reader and writer, I prefer novels that give us a moment to scratch our feet, to take a sip of water, before the story instantaneously envelops us like a wave. Rather than stories that take themselves too seriously, I prefer those which sense the small anxieties that burrow into the life of the reader, someone who is, perhaps, worrying about what to eat for lunch tomorrow. The real horror of an eco-thriller begins with the disturbance of our supposedly unchanging everyday routines. In the corona era, such disturbances have become more terrifying.

If you watch the news for a few days, you’ll see that the world is chock-full of eco-thriller material. Forest fires in Australia, wildfires in California, destruction of the Amazon rainforest, rising temperatures in Siberia, nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, endangered animals, factories spewing out carcinogenic wastewater... catastrophes are endless. The ecological issue that I'm most interested in is the world’s trash crisis. I started to write The Disaster Tourist after learning about the Great Pacific garbage patch, a six-thousand-mile long pile of trash traveling across the Pacific Ocean. Another one of my novels centers around mysterious toxic waste buried in someone’s suburban backyard.

This preoccupation with waste extends beyond my writing life. I have a game on my phone where you pretend to be a caveman or a dinosaur. What I like about this game is that “waste” doesn’t exist in its virtual prehistoric world. All the cavemen care about is self-sufficiency and survival, which means that all resources are precious. The game even features a "View History" button where you can see the history of items that have come into the cavemen’s possession. The material scarcity of this virtual world inspired my interest in the use and meaning of things. When I press "View History,” I can see where each item was created, and how it reached my character.

In a way, this process reminds me of online shopping. If you buy a frying pan online, you can see when the seller packed and shipped the pan and where it is now. Several lines of text, tracing the item’s history. Unlike my caveman game, however, any record of the frying pan ends there. No one records what happens after the buyer opens the shipping box, removes two or three layers of packaging, and pulls out the pan. No one asks about the cardboard box, Styrofoam, and plastic covers. The same goes for the day that the frying pan is finally thrown away. Where do these things go? We live in a single-use society. If we futilely click "View History" for the items around us, nothing comes up. The nightly news might show us mountains of plastic bags and plastic bottles, but it's hard to pick out our own contributions to the towering piles. Of course, we can’t say that we have no personal responsibility. Unless one of us manages to leave Earth, we’re all characters in an ongoing real-life eco-thriller.

 “It's too scary to visit disaster destinations close to home,” says one of the travelers in The Disaster Tourist. “Don't we need to be distanced somewhat from our ordinary lives—from the blankets we sleep under, and the bowls we eat from every day—in order to see the situation more objectively?"

Perhaps this is the appeal of eco-thrillers. Even if the disaster in question is a fiction, I want to keep my distance. Some eco-thrillers may seem to shield the reader from the discomfort of proximity. But in the end, the boundary between book and crust will collapse with a crunch.

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