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Author Interview: Rina Olsen

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Kathy Stickles is talking with Rina Olsen, author of Third Moon Passing.

FQ: I just have to say WOW! This is an incredible debut novel, and it amazes me that you accomplished what you did at just 16 years old. Where did your interest in writing come from?

OLSEN: Ever since I was little, I was always amazed by the fact that the books I held in my hands had been created by other human beings. This was when my passion for writing was sown: I wanted to craft a world just as absorbing as the ones I was immersed in. I kept dabbling in literary arts throughout my childhood and early adolescence, but I only became serious about my dreams just before my last year of middle school. Unfinished draft after unfinished draft of various historical fiction novels went into the trash can before I finally stumbled upon an article about the 1871 American Invasion of Ganghwa-do during my freshman year of high school. Indignant that this event wasn’t included in American history curricula, I started drafting the opening chapters of what would be scrapped and rewritten to become Third Moon Passing.

My interest in writing also stemmed from my own family history. I am a zainichi Korean, or someone who was born to an ethnic Korean family residing in Japan. My great-grandparents and their children were forcefully relocated to Japan during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, so that my great-grandfather and other Korean men could compensate for the dwindling Japanese labor force as more and more Japanese men went off to fight in the Second Sino-Japanese War and, eventually, World War II. My family never returned to Korea, and Japanese language and culture effectively settled in the household throughout the generations. Even now, it’s difficult for me to connect to my heritage: I speak in Japanese to my mother and grandmother instead of Korean; I’m more familiar with Japan’s culture, cuisine, and social codes than with Korea’s; and I constantly open translation apps when confronted with Korean writing, even though I usually don’t pull out my phone at all when reading in Japanese. It’s very stifling, in a way, and the older I grow the more I feel the need to reclaim what I lost before I was even born. I discovered this overlooked event in history right at a time when I was questioning my own identity, and despite having no prior experience in writing about Korea, I decided that now was the time to do so.

FQ: I know from the note in your book that Chansol and Moonsoo are the only characters in the book that came from your own imagination. Are the backgrounds for the characters a complete invention as well, or are the legends surrounding the characters' family backgrounds based in Korean culture?

OLSEN: Yes, and no. The switch was purely from my own imagination, but during my research I came across more than one tale of a deity/creature born from a golden egg. As this appeared to be a common theme across folklore, I decided to include this. I also discovered the inclusion of an unknown woman in depictions of the yongwang when I was already deep into my second draft, and I thought it was brilliant for the narrative and would explain a lot. Other than that, everything else about Chansol and Moonsoo was original.

FQ: It is easy to see that the book is filled with a lot of factual information/history. Was it hard to do the research, or are these stories that have been passed down through your own background that made it easier to write about?

OLSEN: The research wasn’t particularly difficult due to the convenient nature of the Internet; however, any difficulty I had in gaining information was due to the number of available resources. There isn’t too much written about this historical event (at least in English), so I became heavily dependent on the handful of online articles that I could find about the American Invasion, Korean shamanism, and the Korean pantheon. Researching about the folktales came easier, though. My childhood was made up of my grandmother’s stories and illustrated collections of East Asian folktales, so it only took a closer look at those memories (and a few Google searches) for me to figure out how I was going to weave it all into the narrative.

FQ: I adore all of the characters in the book and had a really hard time choosing a favorite. Do you have a particular favorite in the story and if so, why?

OLSEN: Not particularly—they’re all unique individuals with distinct virtues and vices, and I love them all! But if I had to choose, I suppose it would be Wolhwa. She’s fearless in standing up to strict social codes, relentless in her pursuit of education, and ready to protect those she cares about whatever the cost. Despite her fiery temper and occasional hotheadedness, she’s someone that I really enjoyed spending time with, and I would love to see her in a story again.

FQ: Have you considered continuing the story of Chansol and Moonsoo and where they go from here, given what each has learned about their true background, or is this book going to be the full story?

OLSEN: Oh, definitely. While I was writing Third Moon Passing, I’d already fallen very much in love with the characters and wanted to continue their story throughout the other invasions of Joseon Korea during this time period: by the French in 1866, the Japanese in 1875, and the British in 1885. Thus, the Haedong Chronicles was born. Third Moon Passing is most certainly not the end—it’s only the beginning!

FQ: Is there anything you can share with us about plans for a new novel, whether a continuation of this one or something completely different?

OLSEN: Yes! I am currently on my way to completing Book Two of the Haedong Chronicles, The Water Stricken. It’s a prequel that revolves around the murder of a nobleman’s concubine amidst the French Invasion of Ganghwa-do in 1866. While the main characters are different this time, connected to the main characters of Third Moon Passing only by familial ties (although there are some cameo appearances...), I think the overall narrative fulfills its purpose in exploring one of the first dominos to fall in this turbulent era in Korean history.

FQ: You are a very busy teenager, given what I read in your biography. I have to ask, with all that you do, how do you balance it all - with the writing, school, and life in general?

OLSEN: I’d like to thank my mother for that — she’s the reason why I was able to develop good time management skills! Even though school has always been the priority, I managed to fill in whatever free time I had with writing. Introverted by nature, I never really looked to socialize, instead preferring to remain with my notebooks. Free periods, lunchtime, and even late at night were the times when my characters would come back to life and drag me back into Haedong Village.

I think that’s what enables me to do all that I’ve done so far: choosing priorities carefully. Sometimes it’s difficult to sacrifice writing time for schoolwork, but on the brighter side, it’s what gives me the drive to finish efficiently so that I’ll have time left over. And of course, between all the deadlines and exam dates, I find spending time with my family, as well as participating in clubs and activities with my friends, as a great way to take my mind off things—as well as find glimmers of inspiration for another fiction piece!

FQ: Tell us a bit about your own family...they must be very supportive in order for you to accomplish everything you do in your own life.

OLSEN: They certainly are! It can get kind of embarrassing, just walking around the house and seeing someone scrolling through one of my publications (again) on their phone. But I am very grateful for the support, and I couldn’t wish for a more loving, caring family that views my dreams seriously and does whatever possible to make them a reality. My father’s interest in history influenced the way I myself look at the past, and his constant encouragement for me to chase my dreams became the foundation for Scholar Ha’s insistence on allowing Wolhwa to pursue her own aspirations (though I can safely say that our relationship is much healthier than my characters’!). My relationship with my mother is the reason why I — perhaps inadvertently—tend to craft strong mother-daughter relationships between my characters. Due to my upbringing within a group family, writing nuclear families now seems a little off. This was how my grandmother became the inspiration for Wolhwa’s grandmother, with her belief in folk religion and folktales and the way she strives to impart tradition to younger generations. Third Moon Passing, as well as everything that else I have written or plan to write, just wouldn’t be possible without them.

FQ: What advice do you have for other young adults out there who would like to become published authors?

OLSEN: Don’t stop. That’s all there is to it.

I don’t remember how recently this was, but I do remember reading about a young, aspiring writer who was discouraged from following her dreams by a close family member. It was shocking, to say the least. While other aspiring writers did encourage her not to quit, this stayed with me as evidence that the literary world is often underappreciated and understated. Writing can do so much for so many people, and the fact that someone might discourage another from the activity, or even that someone might consider “quitting,” is something to be mourned. Not only this, but another thing that particularly infuriates me is the stereotypes about Gen Z and the Internet: I’ve overheard conversations between members of older generations about the “dwindling author population” and the “decline” of writing skills among Gen Z. This is clearly not the case. I’ve read so many literary magazines featuring talented young writers that I have few worries about the future of literature. It’s just a question of whether these authors choose to continue their line of work.

A lot of young writers might worry that there’s not a lot of time to pursue their literary dreams with all of the stress and work that comes with high school—and I totally get that. While I was writing Third Moon Passing, I’d sometimes end up writing only a line or two in one day because I was just so busy. But I think that as long as one doesn’t lose sight of that dream and keeps writing, even if it’s just a single sentence or phrase per day, that dream can eventually come true—no matter how long it takes. If you love something with a fierce passion, it’s more than likely that you’ll find time to do it. However short that time might be, it’ll still amount to something far greater than one might initially imagine.

So my advice is this: don’t stop, no matter what anyone says or how much time you’ve got on your hands. In the grand scheme of things, what does it even matter, anyway, as long as you’ve got a story that everyone needs to hear?

FQ: I see in your biography that you are someone who likes to read a lot as well as write. What types of books/authors are your favorite?

OLSEN: My personal hero in literature is Joyce Carol Oates—I just love her writing, her style, everything. Her short stories were what introduced me to the art of shorter fiction, and I find her longer works just as unsettling yet absorbing. When it comes to genres, my interests span across a variety of categories, but I do tend to lean towards historical or literary fiction. I love James Clavell’s Asian Saga and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series, but I also have a soft spot for books like Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers and September. Sometimes, though, you’ll catch me reading a fantasy novel: I happen to be a huge fan of R. F. Kuang, and I completely devoured her Poppy War series.

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