When Korean financier and philanthropist Michael ByungJu Kim decided to write a book, he could have easily written a memoir about growing up in Seoul, South Korea, receiving an education in America, and becoming one of the most successful financiers in the world. Or he could have written a nonfiction book about spearheading one of the most successful investments in South Korea: the sale of KorAm Bank by Carlyle Asia Partners to Citigroup during the Asian financial crisis in 2002. Another option: a nonfiction account of creating MBK Partners, a private-equity firm that manages more than $20 billion in capital.
Instead Kim, a self-made billionaire and Shakespeare enthusiast, chose to write the novel Offerings. “I thought it more compelling to let the reader make the connections,” Kim says, “and figure things out in their personal way.”
Offerings, which tells the story of Dae Joon, an investment banker from Seoul who works on Wall Street, is a roman à clef and timely bildungsroman. Known as Shane to his American friends, Dae Joon works with colleagues to rescue South Korea from sovereign default during the Asian financial crisis—something that could lead to a worldwide economic meltdown. To that end, Dae Joon—also known as jangnam, or first-born son—goes back to his homeland, where he discovers that his Eastern upbringing and Western sensibilities don’t easily mix. Conflicted both culturally and morally, Dae Joon finds himself in the grips of a personal crisis that can be resolved only by making a difficult decision.
“I started writing the book many years ago,” Kim says. “But I thought it propitious, in this time of political and cultural conflicts amid economic globalization, for a story to come out about ‘offerings’— attempts to forge connections between the West and Asia, between business and family, and between father and son.”
And while Kim is the 23rd wealthiest Korean on the planet, he says that finding the time to write a 278-page novel proved more difficult than he anticipated. “I have a day job that is fairly consuming,” Kim says. “So I wrote every evening when I could steal a few hours and every weekend I could get away.”
While carving out the time proved difficult, Kim says writing the novel, especially finding the right voice for Dae Joon, proved that much harder. “English is my second language,” he says. “So I tend to be a conscious, deliberative writer to start with. But the discipline of working and reworking a sentence to get it just right—I found this as challenging as it is gratifying.”
But Kim has never been one to shirk a challenge. He began Offerings when he was in his early 30s and finished it his mid-50s. “What happened is that as the years passed and I moved from my 30s to 40s and 50s, I found my perspective changing,” he says. “To remain true to the voice of energy, and some anger, of my 30s, I decided to keep the main narrative voice to a young man in his 30s, but heeding the calmer, somewhat wiser voice of my 50s, I bookended the story with an older man’s perspective.”
And while Offerings is a roman à clef, Kim wants to make one thing clear: while Dae Joon’s thoughts and feelings, he says, “are thoughts and feelings I’ve experienced, the circumstances, even if familiar or based on historical events, are fictional.” That said, the author is sure readers familiar with the Asian financial crisis will engage in a character guessing game. “My hope is that readers will be able to wring out from a specific environment certain universal truths,” Kim says, “that go beyond time and place.”
Though Offerings will be of particular interest to readers with a background in banking, Kim says the book will appeal to general readers as well, even those not well versed in finance. “The finance parts were what I ended up spending the most time on during the editing,” he says. “I tried to simplify the financial writing so the layperson would understand. In the end, I tried to strike a balance between verisimilitude and clarity.”
Striking that balance took Kim 25 years. Now he can focus on the other stories he would like to tell. “As with many first-time novelists, I had so much to say,” Kim says. “I learned to save some stuff for the next book.”