Sung Woo’s first novel, “Everything Asian,” has just been released. Yet Sung began at Cornell in the College of Engineering, “on a practical career path,” studying material science engineering. “I’ve always been decent in math,” he explains, “and I thought I could grin and bear it for four years.” He lasted one semester.
With a laugh, Sung says, “I would be full of regrets if I had tortured myself for four years. I’ve always wanted to write.” In the fifteen years since he graduated from Cornell, Sung’s short stories and essays have appeared in such places as The New York Times, McSweeney’s, and KoreAm Journal. “Everything Asian” has received praise from numerous reviewers, including The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews.
Although Sung switched to a major in English after that first semester, he wasn’t interested in literature courses. Instead, he took every available creative writing course. Stewart O’Nan, an MFA student at the time and now the prizewinning author of a dozen novels, taught Sung’s first creative writing class. Their friendship has continued ever since. Michael Koch, currently editor of Epoch, also had a major impact on Sung. “He taught me to edit myself,” says Sung, a vital skill for any writer. He adds that “I became a writer at Cornell, there’s no question about it.”
A Difficult Year
Despite his change of majors, Sung had a difficult first year at Cornell. He came from a small high school where he had a close-knit group of friends. “To have them totally gone from my life was really hard,” he says. Things turned around for Sung when one of his dorm mates encouraged him to pledge the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. “The frat saved my life at Cornell,” says Sung. “Before then, I was contemplating leaving.”
Sung describes the people in his fraternity as “more likely to be watching ‘Star Trek’ than the Superbowl. They were just a bunch of really nice guys.” Sung has remained close with his fraternity brothers, adding that “when they say you make friends for a lifetime, they weren’t kidding. The sense of community I had there I can’t find anywhere. It doesn’t seem to exist in the real world.” And every year since 1995 he’s spent time on vacation with people from Phi Kappa Tau.
In addition to his responsibilities at the fraternity, Sung worked for three years on the Cornell Daily Sun. He wrote exclusively for the Arts and Entertainment section, reviewing books and CD’s. He also began publishing an online literary magazine when he realized there weren’t any available on the newly-popular Internet. He called the magazine Whirlwind and spent two years producing two versions, one in ASCII and one in Postscript. “It was a really wonderful experience,” Sung says.
Life After Cornell
While at Cornell, Sung worked in one of the computer labs, “probably the best job I’ll ever have in my life,” he says, since he was able to read a lot of novels while signing people in and out. After graduating in 1994, he went to work for the IEEE as associate editor of their trade journals. In 1997 he moved on to ADP, where he’s been ever since, doing back-end database work and Internet programming. He and his wife both work from home.
To produce “Everything Asian,” Sung spent two years writing for an hour every day before he started work. “It adds up if you do it consistently enough. A half page a day is 185 pages a year,” he points out. “I’ve always had a fairly positive attitude. I always know I’m going to get it done, though it might take me a while.”
That attitude proved essential in the shift from writing to publication. Although Sung found an agent after sending out thirty “cold query” letters, he says that “finding a publisher was not that easy. There’s not a big market for Asian literature.” It took another two years of effort before St. Martin’s Press finally bought “Everything Asian.”
Sung has done readings all around the country, and says book sales have been going well. Now he’s working on a second novel, this one concerning “a brother and sister in a pre-mid-life crisis, because,” he says with another infectious laugh, “they’re too young to have a mid-life crisis.” The characters, like Sung, are Korean-Americans, but unlike “Everything Asian” it’s not really immigrant literature. Last year, Sung finally became an American citizen after twenty-seven years in this country; his characters, like himself, are clearly moving on.