News & Politics

Spotlight: Euny Hong

A writer turns a sad situation, and her family's royal heritage, into a first novel.

Cory Ohlendorf ( writes for

Euny Hong had just gotten divorced in 2003 when she sat down at her computer and began to write. She didn’t realize that moment would be the start of her debut novel.

Left living alone in Berlin, the journalist who had written about television and literature for the New York Times, Financial Times, and New Republic was looking for an escape.

“The novel began out of the ashes of the marriage,” she says of Kept, a novel about a privileged and smart woman who when cut off from her aristocratic family becomes a courtesan in New York. Hong began the story as a memoir.

Feeling lost, she recalls thinking, “The only thing I’d be good for is being a kept woman.” Hong’s social circle at the time included a group of wives of international bankers. They were connected by a love of art, classical music, and antiques. It struck her how funny it’d be if they all lived under one roof—a bordello. The story evolved. “What was depressing starting out became more fun.” The first draft was finished in four months.

Now living in Silver Spring—Hong moved to Washington two years ago with her new husband, who works in international development—she shares some similarities with the novel’s lead character, Judith, a descendent of the Korean royal family. Hong can trace her family’s ancestry 28 generations on her father’s side and 26 on her mother’s side—in both cases to Korean feudal monarchs.

“I was never a courtesan,” she says with a laugh. “But there are parallels; I borrowed heavily from my family’s history.”

Hong, 33, was born in New Jersey and raised in Chicago until the age of 12, when her parents, who came to the United States to pursue doctorate degrees, moved the family back to Seoul. She returned to the States to attend Yale, earning a degree in philosophy. Hong, who is fluent in French, German, and Korean, then began working as a freelance journalist.

“Reporting is about facts, so you don’t have to work to make it sound truthful. But fiction has to sound real,” says Hong. “You don’t have to include every last detail in your story, but you have to know it.”