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[INTERVIEW] 'Star Trek' writer shares his obsession with King Sejong, Korean alphabet

A scene from the film
A scene from the film "The King's Letters" in which actor Song Kang-ho plays King Sejong, the fourth ruler of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). / Courtesy of Megabox Plus M

By Kwak Yeon-soo

King Sejong of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) is one of the most admired historic figures in Korea. During his 1418-1450 reign, he churned out achievements in almost every field, including science, agriculture, astronomy and music.

However his most outstanding achievement was the creation of Hangeul with the help of a team of scholars. Hangeul is the writing system for the Korean language, which eventually promoted the high literacy level of the general public.

Joe Menosky, a television writer and producer best known for his work on several Star Trek TV series, has been a follower of Korean history and culture for nearly two decades. But it was not until five years ago that he became fascinated with Hangeul.

"About 20 years ago, I worked on a couple of projects with the Korean American producer Roy Lee, who introduced me to Korean cinema and cuisine. I kept watching Korean content over the next few years, and met with Korean producers during that same period of time," Menosky said in a recent email interview with The Korea Times.

Lee had worked on the American remakes of Kwak Jae-yong's 2001 romantic comedy "My Sassy Girl" and Park Chan-wook's 2003 revenge film "Oldboy" among many others.

"About five years ago, I got more serious about investigating Korean television production and visited Seoul. It was then that I first encountered the story of King Sejong and the creation of Hangeul, which immediately became an obsession in the sense that I could not stop thinking about it," he said.

Not only was he struck by the elegance and functionality of the writing system itself but the incredible tale of its creation by a "genius" king.

Book cover for
Book cover for "King Sejong The Great" / Courtesy of Fitbook
Menosky searched for and read everything he could find written in English about the history of Hangeul. Many of the other details were a part of research into Asian history in general. After years of hard research, he wrote a book titled "King Sejong The Great." Both English-language and Korean-language editions were published on Hangeul Day on Oct. 9, which commemorates the promulgation of Hangeul in 1446.

"I lived in Gwanghwamun while researching and writing, and so the monumental statue of King Sejong was a daily inspiration to me," he said.

In the book, the author shares his extensive knowledge of Korean royal life, culture and religion and gives a detailed explanation of Korea's eunuchs, shamanism and Confucian rituals.

Menosky confessed that he wrote the story originally as a script, which is why the scenes are necessarily visual. After he wrote the screenplay, his Korean management agency Saram Entertainment put him in touch with publisher Fitbook, which suggested a novelization.

"As a part of that rewriting process, it became clear that things called for in a screenplay as visual sequences or even just as background required explanation in the novel," he said.

"For example, a television audience can view a Confucian ritual and just be satisfied with seeing the action and the images. But you can't even describe that scene to a reader without explaining more about what is actually happening: the meaning behind the ritual. Eunuchs are another example. You can see them in a film without raising any questions, but you really need to explain in a novel what they are and how they came to be and their role in royal society."

Although the story centers on the real life story of King Sejong and his greatest achievement, it involves some fictional characters and settings. One of them is the character of a lone Nestorian priest who takes refuge in Joseon after having been expelled by the Ming Dynasty.

"I've known about Nestorians in China ― books have been written on the topic ― and at some point in my research for the King Sejong story, I found mention of a small stone cross in a museum in Seoul that the museum staff had labeled as possibly Nestorian," he said.

"It was not a crucial scene to the plot, I just wanted the imagery ― and the idea that King Sejong could mix with and talk to and find potential value in any kind of person."

Joe Menosky, author of
Joe Menosky, author of "King Sejong The Great" / Courtesy of Joe Menosky
The veteran TV writer said he was impressed by Korean storytellers' ability to vary tone between drama and action and comedy and romance ― sometimes in the same scene.

"One of things I'm struck most by with respect to Korean film and television is the ability to be emotional in genres where you wouldn't typically find emotion. Korean storytellers can inject high levels of emotion even into action thrillers," he said. "I admire that process and so I tried to emulate it as much as possible while writing this story."

When asked about his favorite Korean film and TV series, Menosky said, "I have a lot of favorites, but I found the film Peppermint Candy (1999) to be unforgettable. And as for television, I would say The First King's Four Gods from the mid-2000s and the recent Goblin ― because of the fantasy/historical elements."

Menosky revealed that he is currently working to adapt the novel into a mini-series or film format.

"We don't yet have specific actors attached to the project. I hope sometime in the next couple of years, we will have something for viewers," he said.

He also dropped hints about his new book.

"The next story I do will likely feature characters out of Korean mythology rather than historical individuals. And I would also like to set that story in contemporary Seoul. Seoul is a very beautiful city and visually always interesting," he said.

In the realm of Star Trek, Menosky is credited as writer or co-writer of 15 episodes of "The Next Generation," four episodes of "Deep Space Nine," 36 episodes of "Voyager" and one episode of "Discovery."

He was also part of the writing staff of "The Dead Zone," a sci-fi series based on Stephen King's novel of the same name. Most recently, he has written for "The Orville" and "For All Mankind."


A scene from the film
A scene from the film "The King's Letters" in which actor Song Kang-ho plays King Sejong, the fourth ruler of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). / Courtesy of Megabox Plus M

By Kwak Yeon-soo

King Sejong of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) is one of the most admired historic figures in Korea. During his 1418-1450 reign, he churned out achievements in almost every field, including science, agriculture, astronomy and music.

However his most outstanding achievement was the creation of Hangeul with the help of a team of scholars. Hangeul is the writing system for the Korean language, which eventually promoted the high literacy level of the general public.

Joe Menosky, a television writer and producer best known for his work on several Star Trek TV series, has been a follower of Korean history and culture for nearly two decades. But it was not until five years ago that he became fascinated with Hangeul.

"About 20 years ago, I worked on a couple of projects with the Korean American producer Roy Lee, who introduced me to Korean cinema and cuisine. I kept watching Korean content over the next few years, and met with Korean producers during that same period of time," Menosky said in a recent email interview with The Korea Times.

Lee had worked on the American remakes of Kwak Jae-yong's 2001 romantic comedy "My Sassy Girl" and Park Chan-wook's 2003 revenge film "Oldboy" among many others.

"About five years ago, I got more serious about investigating Korean television production and visited Seoul. It was then that I first encountered the story of King Sejong and the creation of Hangeul, which immediately became an obsession in the sense that I could not stop thinking about it," he said.

Not only was he struck by the elegance and functionality of the writing system itself but the incredible tale of its creation by a "genius" king.

Book cover for
Book cover for "King Sejong The Great" / Courtesy of Fitbook
Menosky searched for and read everything he could find written in English about the history of Hangeul. Many of the other details were a part of research into Asian history in general. After years of hard research, he wrote a book titled "King Sejong The Great." Both English-language and Korean-language editions were published on Hangeul Day on Oct. 9, which commemorates the promulgation of Hangeul in 1446.

"I lived in Gwanghwamun while researching and writing, and so the monumental statue of King Sejong was a daily inspiration to me," he said.

In the book, the author shares his extensive knowledge of Korean royal life, culture and religion and gives a detailed explanation of Korea's eunuchs, shamanism and Confucian rituals.

Menosky confessed that he wrote the story originally as a script, which is why the scenes are necessarily visual. After he wrote the screenplay, his Korean management agency Saram Entertainment put him in touch with publisher Fitbook, which suggested a novelization.

"As a part of that rewriting process, it became clear that things called for in a screenplay as visual sequences or even just as background required explanation in the novel," he said.

"For example, a television audience can view a Confucian ritual and just be satisfied with seeing the action and the images. But you can't even describe that scene to a reader without explaining more about what is actually happening: the meaning behind the ritual. Eunuchs are another example. You can see them in a film without raising any questions, but you really need to explain in a novel what they are and how they came to be and their role in royal society."

Although the story centers on the real life story of King Sejong and his greatest achievement, it involves some fictional characters and settings. One of them is the character of a lone Nestorian priest who takes refuge in Joseon after having been expelled by the Ming Dynasty.

"I've known about Nestorians in China ― books have been written on the topic ― and at some point in my research for the King Sejong story, I found mention of a small stone cross in a museum in Seoul that the museum staff had labeled as possibly Nestorian," he said.

"It was not a crucial scene to the plot, I just wanted the imagery ― and the idea that King Sejong could mix with and talk to and find potential value in any kind of person."

Joe Menosky, author of
Joe Menosky, author of "King Sejong The Great" / Courtesy of Joe Menosky
The veteran TV writer said he was impressed by Korean storytellers' ability to vary tone between drama and action and comedy and romance ― sometimes in the same scene.

"One of things I'm struck most by with respect to Korean film and television is the ability to be emotional in genres where you wouldn't typically find emotion. Korean storytellers can inject high levels of emotion even into action thrillers," he said. "I admire that process and so I tried to emulate it as much as possible while writing this story."

When asked about his favorite Korean film and TV series, Menosky said, "I have a lot of favorites, but I found the film Peppermint Candy (1999) to be unforgettable. And as for television, I would say The First King's Four Gods from the mid-2000s and the recent Goblin ― because of the fantasy/historical elements."

Menosky revealed that he is currently working to adapt the novel into a mini-series or film format.

"We don't yet have specific actors attached to the project. I hope sometime in the next couple of years, we will have something for viewers," he said.

He also dropped hints about his new book.

"The next story I do will likely feature characters out of Korean mythology rather than historical individuals. And I would also like to set that story in contemporary Seoul. Seoul is a very beautiful city and visually always interesting," he said.

In the realm of Star Trek, Menosky is credited as writer or co-writer of 15 episodes of "The Next Generation," four episodes of "Deep Space Nine," 36 episodes of "Voyager" and one episode of "Discovery."

He was also part of the writing staff of "The Dead Zone," a sci-fi series based on Stephen King's novel of the same name. Most recently, he has written for "The Orville" and "For All Mankind."


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr

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