About Hyun Kyu Seo:
Hyun Seo was born in South Korea, but his heart is somewhere in Eastern Europe. After falling in love with the area’s geography, culture, and history thanks to video games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, he’d been dreaming of a trip to the exclusion zone for much of his life. Last year, he finally made his dream come true. In Chernobyl, he was overwhelmed by the beauty that had sprung up after the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster. Moved by the people he’d met and stories he’d learned, Hyun decided to write a photo book based on his experiences.
What inspires you to write?
Honestly, I’m surprised it took me this long to visit Chernobyl. I’ve been fascinated with all things Eastern Europe for years now, inspired by S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, one of my favorite video games. I fell in love with the history, the culture, and the geography of the region. Though I was born in South Korea, my heart is probably deep in a Ukrainian forest somewhere.
I wanted to share this experience with others and teach them about what I’d learned. I’m a designer by trade, but my typical day-to-day is heavily involved in process and making my customers and stakeholders happy. I rarely have complete and total creative control over a project — it was equal parts refreshing and daunting, depending on the day.
Tell us about your writing process.
Writing tak… (yes, that’s the title of my book) has been a hell of an experience, and I’m not just talking about my trip to the site of the largest nuclear disaster in human history. The trip itself was life-changing, though, between gaining clearance by the Ukrainian version of the FSB/KGB, befriending stray dogs, and walking through an abandoned school that looked eerily similar to my own high school. I’ll never forget the sound of my feet stepping on the piles of picture books on the floor, the same ones placed down by evacuating school children and never picked back up.
Naturally, I made it extra difficult for myself straight out of the gate by only deciding to write it after I’d returned home. Every photograph that I was to use had already been taken. I was going to have to get creative, I realized. While I’d taken good photos during the trip, I hadn’t been thinking like a photojournalist or author while I was there.
Already limited by my awkward workflow, the first step in the process was choosing the photos that were actually going to make it into the book. I had taken at least 400 on my iPhone alone. Sorting through and cataloguing them was a huge task in and of itself. Once I had an idea which photos to base the book around, I had to find a fix for the low quality ones that I didn’t want to let go. Remember, I couldn’t go back to Chernobyl and retake photos I wasn’t happy with. Well, I could have, but my manager and my checking account wouldn’t have been pleased.
Thankfully, my mom is a talented painter who was happy to help recreate the scenes that didn’t come out correctly. Additionally, there were grand moments I had in mind that either didn’t happen during my trip or couldn’t have happened. For instance, it wouldn’t have been possible to see an old Soviet propaganda poster the same way the Ukrainian people saw it years before the disaster. I had to work with an illustrator to bring those special details to life. While these constraints were frustrating at times, they forced me to be more creative. Like roadblocks in any process, they aren’t really problems; they’re opportunities to approach the project in more unique ways. I’ll gladly apply this lesson to my work at IBM.
Once the initial, major decisions for the visual portion of the book were made, I had to, you know, write the thing. Working on the book’s intro, ending, historical context section, and captions was difficult in a different way. I partnered with a talented co-writer which meant we were trading drafts of copy back and forth for months. Factually speaking, I knew what the photos contained and, emotionally speaking, I knew how I’d felt when I’d taken them. However, there was a specific tone I wanted to strive for. Anthony Bourdain passed away just as I’d gotten this project up and running. His TV show was a huge influence on how I see the world, and I wanted to capture his uniquely irreverent, yet compassionate point of view. The story of the Chernobyl disaster is, well, a disaster. However, plenty of stories had already been told about the meltdown, the brave liquidators, the evacuations, et cetera. I wanted to explore the region and event from a different angle, focusing on the zone’s hidden pockets of beauty and the new life that had sprung up in the wake of the meltdown. This was going to be my take on the disaster: An optimistic one seasoned with the right amount of dark humor to make Anthony proud.
What advice would you give other writers?
1. Keep the book’s scope realistic and attainable. One defining part of my my book’s process was how I decided to write it *after* I’d had most of the materials (photographs). My pipeline would’ve been very different had I decided to write a book and then had to gather the materials.
2. Ask friends for help or hire professionals, if you can. Writing a book seems like a solitary endeavor, but it’s actually very collaborative. Surrounding yourself with others will enrich your vision and teach you valuable management skills. This project helped me learn to manage time, money, and emotional investment.
3. When writing your first draft, get every idea on the page — no matter how dumb or bad some may seem. The rough draft is for exploring all of your options. The later drafts are for editing and perfecting them.
4. Do research! User research helped my writing improve and helped me identify the jokes that were too obscure. Competitive research helped me fine tune the book by taking out sections and information that other similar books had already covered.
5. Have a clear goal and intent with your book. Having these set in stone will help, especially if you’re working with editors, co-writers, designers, et cetera. Think about all the questions that are asked when starting a tech project: What is the value? What will it teach? Who is it for? What experience will it provide?
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I decided to self-publish my book. When you’re self-publishing, you have much more flexibility than other authors. I got incredibly lucky by finishing the book before the disaster’s anniversary on April 26th. There’s also a big-budget HBO miniseries about the disaster premiering in May (tak… was released on April 26th, anniversary date of the Chernobyl disaster). Even if you have to wait a longer than you’d like, it might be worth it to time your book’s release with a bigger news story or pop culture event.
However, the truth about self-publishing is that it likely won’t make you much money, especially if you pay for printing and shipping out of pocket. That being said, price your book to make it accessible. You wrote the book to share with others, so try to make it so as many people as possible can read it. You’ll probably lose money, but in my experience money always comes around when you do good work.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
With various services offered online, it is easier than ever to become an author. You can become an author, so can many others. This forces all of us to be creative. I can't say much about the future of publishing, but I think it is pushing determined authors to be creative with their work so it is not lost.
What genres do you write?: Travel
What formats are your books in?: eBook, Print, Both eBook and Print
All information in this post is presented “as is” supplied by the author. We don’t edit to allow you the reader to hear the author in their own voice.