Author Q&A:
Frances Cha

If I Had Your Face
(Viking, £12.99) 

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Set in contemporary Seoul, where extreme plastic surgery is routine, where women compete for spots in room salons, and where K-pop is king, four women navigate life and survival. Debut novelist Frances Cha grew up between South Korea and the United States and is the former travel and culture digital editor for CNN in Seoul. 

The book alternates chapters between four women living in an officetel in Seoul but one of the main characters, Sujin, doesn’t have her own chapters. Why?
I used the other characters to pull out many of the interesting parts of Sujin’s story to drive towards the plot’s bigger arc. Because of her optimistic nature, she is regarded as rather a simpleton by the other more jaded characters, but in the end, it is revealed that she actually has a better grasp on situations than the others do, and I wanted to work towards that reveal through others’ perspectives.

Miho is an artist working on a series inspired by a woman she knew and imagines that one day she will make a series about her flatmate Kyuri. Are your characters similarly inspired by real life muses?
I was very inspired by contemporary Korean artists for the character of Miho – not one in particular, but a composite of several that I interviewed in person and also a few that I have never met or researched but imagined their lives from their work.

Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star is intense but quickly dismantled. Is Korean society’s obsession with the idols as flimsy or is K-pop altogether more substantial, as we saw with its fans’ derailing of Trump’s rally in Tulsa?
This is not only in K-pop but the projections of celebrities are of course very different from celebrities as humans, and so this kind of shock that occurs when fans meet their stars in real life happens quite frequently in every country. It happened to me quite often when I was working. But K-pop fandom is incredibly substantial, not only through the activism that has been highlighted in the Western media recently, but from the decades of charity work and donations that they have done in the names of their idols.

Kyuri is a room salon girl. Tell us a bit about them and how you researched them.
Room salons are essentially hostess bars that are usually located underground where businessmen go to discuss business while being seated next to beautiful women who make conversation and pour them liquor. My first experience at a room salon occurred when a male friend of mine called me to one when he was drunk to discuss some problems he was having with his girlfriend. He was not supposed to call me there, and my first experience was so fascinating that I began asking all my male friends to take me when they were going (most said no but a few said yes) and I began my research that way, in person and through interviews, news, blogs and documentaries.

Wonna desperately wants a baby and her character serves to highlight the fact that many Korean women don’t and the country has one of the lowest birth rates. Most of your characters are motherless too and mothers in law are painted as monstrous characters. What were you exploring about motherhood in the novel?
I was not trying to make a particular statement about mothers in the book, and certainly not a negative one. My characters come from the same orphanage and the character Wonna is attracted to them because she also does not have a mother. I was interested in exploring characters who have to make their own way in the world. Wonna does feel the financial pressure of having a baby, which has led to Korea having the lowest birth rate in the world, but I think that is something experienced universally in developed countries by a lot of women.

How do you think the closing down of the beauty industry during lockdown in South Korea has impacted women there?
Well, there hasn’t been a lockdown here at all due to the incredible and dramatic South Korean government’s response to the pandemic from the beginning. But Koreans are very self-sufficient and DIY so I think they would have been fine.

South Korea and the US are two of the most technologically advanced, consumerist societies in the world. Does that give them more in common than people realise, or are the fundamental differences stronger?
The fundamental cultural and historical differences are exhibited in how the countries have responded to the pandemic, for example. There hasn’t been a lockdown here at all due to the incredible and dramatic South Korean government’s response from the beginning. Even if the same measures had been attempted by the American government (which is difficult to conceive in itself), it would not have worked because the nature of the people’s mentality is so different. Because South Korea is used to being an underdog that has been under attack from so many countries, there is a mentality and history of grouping together for the greater cause of the country at a time of calamity, and more acceptance of giving up individual freedom and privacy for the cause. I cannot imagine what Americans would say to downloading a mandatory GPS-tracking app that monitors a quarantine forbidding you to leave the front door for two weeks under the threat of deportation. But it works in Korea, and Koreans are experiencing freedom in the pandemic as a result.

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