Author Interview: June Hur on THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS, Researching, and Korean History

Hi readers!

I am just about ~quaking~ with excitement because I finally get to share my interview with June Hur, author of THE SILENCE OF BONES and THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS with you! Ever since I read THE SILENCE OF BONES, I’ve been itching to interview June, especially as a history major who has grown more interested in Korean history.


Illustration credit: Pedro Tapa

Suspenseful and richly atmospheric, June Hur’s The Forest of Stolen Girls is a haunting historical mystery sure to keep readers guessing until the last page.

1426, Joseon (Korea). Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime scene.

Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared from the same forest that nearly stole his daughters. He travels to their hometown on the island of Jeju to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and collides with her now estranged sister, Maewol—Hwani comes to realize that the answer could lie within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

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Sara (Lyrical Reads): Hi June! Thank you so much for letting me interview you today! To start off, what drew you to writing historical mysteries and specifically stories around Korean history? How did the focus of THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS come about? 

June: I majored in history like yourself, and so for most of my teenage and adult life, I’ve been drawn to history in general. I became specifically interested in Korean history when, one day, I suddenly wanted to read a historical K-drama in book form written in English—but there were so few books to choose from. So I ended up reading scholarly articles about Korea’s past instead and fell madly in love.

Now, each book I write is my way of learning more about the history of my homeland, and each book gives me the excuse to spend months researching and writing about a particular Korean event, using mystery as a vehicle to explore the period more.

As for THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS, I was drawn to the idea behind this book when I stumbled across the term kongnyŏ (공녀), which refers to the girls who were taken from their homes by the Korean government and given up as a human tribute to China. I was haunted by the idea of kongnyŏs, and knew I wanted to write about them, and this ended up becoming the inspiration behind my sophomore novel.

What is your research process like? What is your experience with researching in two languages—Korean and English? 

I love research questions! When I first wrote my debut, I struggled so much researching in two languages, but through that experience, I find that my Korean literacy skill has improved a lot. Now, I find that researching in Korean is no longer as difficult, and I tend to rely more on Korean sources. Still, I don’t have the thorough knowledge of Korea’s past as, say, a Korean who was born and raised and studied history in Korea. This reality has forced me to wrestle with and come to terms with the fact that, as a Korean diaspora writer, I have my limitations. No matter how much I research, I’ll probably make mistakes now and then (hopefully just small ones), and I think that’s OK, as long as I represent history and culture as respectfully as possible.

This is a kind of nerdy question, as I’m a history major, but what sort of sources did you consult to write TFoSG? If readers (myself included) wanted to learn more about Jeju Island as a penal colony and/or about Korea’s stolen girls, what sources would you recommend looking into? 

Regarding Jeju as a penal Island, I had a hard time finding English resources, mainly because there aren’t too many translated. Most of the information I did find, I found during my research trip to Jeju. But I would definitely check out letters written by political convicts who lived in Jeju, and a few of these letters can be found in Jahyun Kim Haboush’s Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Chosŏn, 1392–1910.

And as for information about Korea’s stolen girls, the English resource I’d recommend is Jinyoung Kim, Jaeyeong Lee, and Jongoh Lee’s Goryeoyang and mongolpung in the 13th–14th centuries, and Park, K. J.’s A Life of Korean Women as Gongnyeo. History and Discourse, Vol. 55, pp. 33–64

In your author’s note, you mention that you took a research trip to Jeju Island, which is the setting of TFoSG. How did Jeju, then a penal colony, become the backdrop of this story? Do you have any particular memories from your research trip? 

While trying to figure out where in Korea to set my next book, I knew I wanted the mystery to take place in a small village, and while brainstorming I happened to visit Jebudo, a small island not too far from my parents’ home. I initially attempted to set the book there, but found so little historical information about Jebudo. So, one day, while my dad was talking about his place of birth, Jeju, I realized that it would be so cool to set my mystery there, especially as there’s more information about that island.

I went on a research trip to Jeju, and this was possible because I was already in Korea to visit my parents. A memory that stands out to me is when I stumbled across an outdoor museum / folk village in Hallim Park. I was so happy I cried a bit, because at this point, I had really been struggling to imagine life in a Jeju village. So when I got to explore the traditional village, I finally found myself able to world build a bit better in my book.

Hwani and Maewol are estranged sisters. How did you navigate their characters and their relationship with one another, as well as their drastically different relationships with their father?

I based their relationship loosely on my relationship with my sister, and we were estranged for many years—“estranged” as in, I was so cold and mean to her my friends often asked if I hated her, and my sister had little memory of me growing up, since I’d always avoid her. But when we came to study in Canada, we had to live together without our parents, and this forced us to work together to build a semblance of home. We’re best friends now, and this relationship inspired Hwani and Maewol’s story. Also, as I grew older, I came to realize that my sister and I had a very different (but equally special) relationship with our dad. So I channelled this difference into the two siblings.

In addition, how did you choose their names? Do they have any particular meanings? 

My way of choosing names is rather chaotic. I usually go through many names until I find one that “sounds” and “feels” right. Hwani’s name means “Bright/Rising Star” + “Joy, Harmony.” And Maewol’s name means, “Magic” and “Moon.”

Fathers play a significant role in TFoSG—was this always going to be an important part of the story? 

Initially, when I wrote the rough draft of TFoSG, I noticed how many fathers were characters in my book. I told my editor that there were too many fathers and I planned on editing them out, but she highlighted how I must have subconsciously woven them in to interrogate the role of fathers—these figures who sometimes hold too much authority over daughters. So I think my subconscious knew that Fathers played a significant role in the book, but I didn’t know until I began revising.

I saw a similar question in Lili @ Utopia State of Mind’s interview with you for THE SILENCE OF BONES and thought it was such a good one! So, was there something you researched for TFoSG that you didn’t end up including?

I didn’t include details of how the human tribute system worked!

There was a whole official process behind the selection of tribute girls (kongnyŏ). Once girls were selected, they would have to pass a preliminary screening, and once passed, they would have to go through the test of wearing the Ming Dynasty dress and make-up in order to be moved to the final round. Finally, at the guesthouse, the king and queen would attend their farewell ceremony. At this time, relatives and spectators were often weeping, since the girls were often being taken from them against their wishes. It was a pretty devastating procedure.

What’s coming next for you? The (gorgeous) cover of your next book, THE RED PALACE, was recently released! How would you describe this story if it were a K-drama blurb on Netflix? 

I’m currently working on a new project, just for fun, but we’ll see where that goes!

And as for THE RED PALACE, here’s my Netflix K-drama pitch: While dangerous rumors about the Crown Prince spreads, a palace nurse and a royal investigator must team up to look into a pattern of grisly murders within the palace.

*Me, looking at this pitch*

And since my blog is called “Lyrical” Reads, if you could choose three songs for a TFoSG playlist, what would they be? 

Thank you once again for speaking with me! I can’t wait until THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS is out in the world on April 20, and I look forward to reading everything else you write in the future! 🙂

Thank you for your lovely questions! And thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm :3

photo by Julie Anna Tang

June Hur was born in South Korea and raised in Canada, except for the time when she moved back to Korea and attended high school there. She studied History and Literature at the University of Toronto. She began writing her debut novel after obsessing over books about Joseon Korea. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop. She is the author of The Silence of BonesThe Forest of Stolen Girls, and The Red Palace, published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, and she currently lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

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Is the forest of stolen girls on your tbr? do you read many historical fiction novels?

Until next time,

Banner photo by tom Lok from Pexels.

5 thoughts on “Author Interview: June Hur on THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS, Researching, and Korean History

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