Hey everyone! I’m back from the void with an interview with Mary H.K. Choi, whose debut Emergency Contact just released into the wild. Not going to say I laughed out loud reading the answers to some of these, but I dare you not to want to pick up her book after reading this interview because I would want to read her words all day everyday.
Hey Mary, welcome to the Fictasian blog! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First of all, as a fun way to start things off, what is your favorite food or meal?
OMG this is a random-ass question after my own heart. I love food so much! Okay, my favorite meal (this way I can include many things) is very non-traditional poké with all the avocado, masago and extra sriracha. Plus, a Kinder Country candy bar for dessert and Hawaiian sweet maui onion chips and a LaCroix sparkling water on the side. If it’s a meal I’m eating at home it’s probably a supermarket roast chicken that I eat with my hands like an animal. Dipped into either sriracha or sprinkled with a little bit of white truffle salt from Piedmont.
As a debut YA author, what are you most excited about your book being out in the world?
It’s wild to know that people are reading something I made up completely from my own brain. I know it sounds obvious but as a reporter and essayist who’s only ever written non-fiction, it’s mind blowing to sit inside the experience. I’m also stoked that so many POCs are in my mentions talking about how excited they are to see a non-white main character so that’s really encouraging too. It’s amazing to have this tidy little package of my entire bleeding thumping heart out in the world and have people respond positively to it. It feels stressful and risky but so far it’s going well so I’m ecstatic.
What are two fun facts you would like to share about Emergency Contact?
It used to have this scene in my favorite store in the world. It’s a truck stop called Buc-ee’s and Texas people know what I’m talking about. It’s enormous and has a trillion bathrooms and walls upon walls of snacks, a barbecue area, kolache bar and something called a beef jerky bar. It’s paradise. In any case it’s legendary and I had Penny make a pitstop in the New Braunfels one on her way to college only because I like the place so much but the story dragged so I took it out. But I think about the deleted footage often.
There’s an anecdote in the book that I gently lifted or else “sampled” from my friend’s life. My friend has an ex who shows up as Liar on his phone and we were commiserating about broken hearts and dashed hopes and when they told me that I thought it was hilarious and brilliant. Of course I asked for permission but I wonder if they’re going to get any blowback if their ex notices.
As an Asian author, how has your culture or background influenced your books and writing?
I talked about this in another interview and it’s something I’ve tweeted about before but I love being Asian and getting to write about Asians moving around in the world and looking out of Asian eyeholes, thinking out of Asian brains. It affects everything and nothing at the same time. People have commented how Celeste, Penny’s mom in the book, isn’t a typical “tiger mom” and that’s something I get to do because that’s where I want diversity to go. I want to write roles where people are falling in love and fighting and freaking out where it’s a non-issue to me and my Asian friends that they’re Asian but might startle someone else who has a flattened, pat, simplistic idea of “how Asians are.” Also, there’s so much pleasure and joy in me writing about the Asian experience however I want. Cis white people must feel like frickin’ Midas all the time where everything they touch turns into Cis white people and everyone thinks that’s the natural order. I want that for everyone else. And the incredible thing is, I think in YA and middle grade that’s actually beginning to happen.
In the past few years, mainly due to the strength of the WNDB campaign, we are seeing a more vocalized demand for inclusive literature in the US, especially in kidlit. How would you say that has influenced your experience in the author industry?
I’m incalculably lucky to be getting here exactly when I am. I’m benefitting so much from a lot of hardwon territory and moved needles due to the emotional labor and social justice pursuits of other people. I’m grateful for everyone who’s ever spoken on issues of sensitivity readers, the many layers of privilege, ableism and intersectionality, like Dhonielle Clayton the COO of WNDB who I just met at Teen Book Con. Like, between writing her own novels and moving the campaign forward, she’s never not working. Ever. In a pristine, matte red lip no less.
The thing is, I don’t know what it was like a few years ago in kidlit, I only just arrived. But my experience has been incredible. Out the gate I had dinner with Jenny Han the New York Times Bestselling author of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. It was on the strength of us both being Korean! It was awesome and amazing and started from me sidling up to her on Twitter. I got to ask a thousand questions and trust her wisdom and perspective wholeheartedly. And when I went to Houston last week, it was nerve wracking to be thrust into a group of strangers especially since so many of the authors have written so many books before but I already kinda knew what “high school cafeteria table” to sit at. I went straight to where there was melanin and of course there were New Yorkers at that table too and it was wonderful. Not to say that it was exclusive or anything like that—it’s not like, “You can’t sit with us!” lol—just that there was an emotional shorthand and generosity that I found very reassuring as someone who struggles with social anxiety.
Aside from being an author, you’re also a reporter. How was writing a novel different from your experience of writing articles and what would you say you enjoy best about both of these sides of writing?
I enjoy both because they’re so different. It’s nice to get a break from one kind of mode of thinking especially when you’re stuck in another. I always equate being a writer to always having homework and while that’s true it also means that you’re never bored or lonely. You always either have interviews to transcribe and fiddle with or else you have characters running around in your head demanding your attention. The other thing is that for a long time no one was paying me to be a novelist so the paychecks in reporting were supremely helpful to underwrite what was a passion project.
Are you currently working on any future novels or writing and can you share anything about them?
I just finished a draft of my second novel that’s based in New York and I’m working on a third about Korean sisters that may not be YA. I’m still in the process of figuring that out but I can definitely guarantee that you’ll see some strong female characters and some intense moms.
If you were to say something to your 17-year-old self, what would you say?
To treat yourself as you would something outside of yourself. To be kind and careful and patient and that happiness is not a finite spot in the future that you have to work punishingly hard to deserve and reach. And not to weigh yourself so much. My ED was bad at 17.
Finally before you leave, do you have any Asian literature recommendations? Feel free to list as many as you’d like.
- Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
- The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
- To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
- Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
- Everything I’ve Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- A Wild Sheep Chase Haruki Murakami
For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.
Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.
When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other. – Goodreads
Follow Mary on twitter @choitotheworld and make sure to check out her book Emergency Contact!!