Interview by Riley
Riley Raab: Are you more of a pen or pencil person?
Mary H.K. Choi: I actually really love pens and the pen I use is a Pilot V7 in black, I like good flooding of the nib straight out. I like it better than a rollerball. I also write a lot of longhand, like I journal a lot now, so I just like it smooth, clean pen.
RR: How did your writing style change between writing Emergency Contact and Permanent Record?
MHKC: So, Emergency Contact was my first novel and I think I was still really learning how to do stuff. Like I remember I was writing or reading the first draft and I was just like, “Why does it say like she said, he said that like every single line?” I just didn’t know how to write, and so things like that got a little smoother. Also I think that knowing that I had a book, it was dual POVs in third person is really hard, and I think it kind of helped me relax a little bit once that hit the New York Times Bestseller List because I wasn’t super worried on having to sound super writerly or be intellectual-like or like literary fiction. I was like, “Oh no, I’m in YA, I’m a contemporary author”, so with Permanent Record I was like, “I want to make it sound like me, and I’ll just write it from the first person, and it will be really casual, and they’ll be too many words in one sentence because I never know what to do with a comma and that’s just going to be the way it is.” And so I think that that stylistically changed and also, first-person allows you to sit in someone’s brain and with that, a lot of that interiority of what you’re dealing with as it relates to anxiety. It’s one thing to read a number and be like “oh no, I’m this many numbers in debt”, it’s another thing to just sit inside that person’s brain and have that color the way they see value in everything around them. Writing a panic attack from Sam’s POV in Emergency Contact and writing an anxiety attack from Pablo, it was easier with Pablo because I was like, “Oh my God, everything’s on fire, oh, oh dear.”
RR: What routines do you suggest for other writers, who are writing creatively, for school or for work?
MHKC: I think there is this thing that happens, and I think that largely it is a product of how much transmitting we do of ourselves out there. So because social media is this thing where we take our picture and then put it out in the world for other people to grade. It’s like we’re constantly thinking about our brands and we’re constantly thinking about the ways that we’re viewed. And the thing that happens is, you’ll hear a lot of authors say that they’re fast drafters, or that they’ll allow themselves a messy first draft or some people call it a vomit draft. It’s this ugly, heinous thing that allows you to get the thought on the page, and what happens is that if you interrupt that draft, you end up having to be the writer and the editor at the same time and often time that gums the work and you’re not able to get to the end of that draft because you can’t forgive yourself for how ugly it is while you’re still in it. So I think the biggest piece of advice is just to get that draft done, and then put on the editor hat and go do that, but I think that that is actually hard because going back to my earlier point, I think that so much of us are hardwired to be in our own audience, and so I understand why it’s hard, I do it myself all the time. It was really hard to write my third novel while I was promoting my second because I was like, “Ah, I’m sitting in the wrong seat for everything.” But yeah, any advice is to get the first thing done and accept and be compassionate that it’s not the best version.
RR: Is Pamplemousse still your favorite flavor of La Croix?
MHKC: Pamplemousse is still my favorite flavor of La Croix, I have my hat. It’s still a very strong flavor and I understand that La Croix is not currently as beloved as it once was for its ingredients, but grapefruit’s a good flavor.
RR: Have you branched out to other brands?
MHKC: Well actually what I did yesterday, which was beautiful and the most beguiling experience, was– I love Topo Chico, and I really love the lime flavor– but yesterday, I’m sober so I don’t drink alcohol, so the lovely bartender at a restaurant I was at yesterday put a little splash of grapefruit juice and a slice of grapefruit in Topo Chico with ice and that was delicious and might be my favorite.
RR: What was your favorite part of doing comics with Marvel?
MHKC: So, comics with Marvel, it’s this trip man, so it’s almost like being a cinematographer, so it’s not only that you’re writing all this dialogue, you’re writing fight scenes and you’re writing where people are, and you’re moving their bodies. And it’s actually really funny, Rainbow Rowell and I were talking about this, she’s a legend, she’s such a God. She and I both come from journalism and this thing that we do is, we were commiserating about it, that our characters are often eating because we don’t know what to do with their hands, so I think that that’s something that’s coming from nonfiction to fiction is really hard for us, especially as contemporary, there aren’t world-destroying things happening. But yeah, comic books were really instrumental I think in proxemics, where people are standing, expressions, and microexpressions– and what’s not being said, like subtext. It’s also really cool because when I was working with Marvel, this was a time when you’d get Spiderman on your paycheck, and that was really cool, like “Oh my god!” I was just like, “Should I frame this? Like no, you’re poor. Cash the check.”
RR: What is some advice you’d give someone whose trying to make it in the YA industry?
MHKC: I think that YA is interesting because it’s largely a marketing term I’ve learned. Like I didn’t know I was writing YA until someone was like, “I can sell this as YA!” and I was like, “Apparently we are YA!” I think not to worry too much about what YA has come before you. I write for college-aged kids and that’s obviously older then what people are used to. If I had known that that was like, not verboten, but if I had known that there was any controversy around that I don’t know if I would have been so confident in the way I told the story and the types of stories I wanted to tell. So yea I think YA is a beautiful place. I’m so lucky because there’s so much happening right now in terms of representation, there are so many different narratives, own voices, and people are getting a lot of shine that they weren’t previously and even the discussion around who gets to tell what stories and appropriation, and who are allies and who aren’t. And all that stuff and intersectionality, I think that YA is so future, in so many ways. It’s so cool because even fantasy and stuff are so major because it’s such a Trojan horse. It’s like it’s fantastical, but everything that’s happening is basically happening in the world right now. It’s so brilliant. So my biggest thing with YA is that if you want to be a YA author, I think I would say love to read YA. Don’t just set out to be a YA author because you think that that’s a thing. And don’t worry so much about what YA has come before you, because I’m really learning about how expansive YA is. I’m seeing every kind of story in this genre, and every kind of storyteller, and it’s the best. It’s really cool.
RR: What is currently your favorite Netflix show?
MHKC: So, my current favorite Netflix show is Terrace House, which is this Japanese reality show where it’s the real world but everyone’s really nice and there’s a set of commentators. I also like the Great British Baking Show. I thought I’d be a Mary Berry loyalist in the old seasons, but since it’s come back I’ve found myself watching it like a real scab. I love Fleabag. Fleabag season two changed my life, it destroyed me, it also ruined my life. And To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Jenny Han’s movie, was so killer and I cannot wait for the second one to come out in February. The acting was so good, the casting was so good, Noah Centineo is so dreamy, the whole thing, Lana Condor is so cute.
RR: What chain has the best pizza and service?
MHKC: So, as a New Yorker, I can’t resolute just say that it’s all about a chain, the thing that’s really funny though is that as a New Yorker, I’m supposed to say like, “Ah, you go to Lucali’s or you go to De Fara’s and bah bah bah” and it’s all these storied Italian joints or you’re just supposed to get street pizza that’s two fifty for a plain or whatever. But I don’t eat that much pizza, and weirdly the pizza I crave, and this is so embarrassing, I love Dominos. I’m sorry. It’s good! It’s not like “pizza” or whatever, but I like what I like, I like the app, I like seeing where it is, I like who made it, I like to know that they’re on they’re way for delivery, it’s very soothing to me. The Dominos user experience, as an anxious person who doesn’t leave the house, is very enjoyable.
RR: What is a trend you hope to see grow in YA in 2020 and what is one that you hope dies out?
MHKC: There is a lot of beautiful stuff happening in YA and it’s such a time of change, and I think that that’s really exciting. I love that there are so many people telling new kinds of stories in different ways. The one thing in YA as a whole that gives me pause everywhere is like, “Own Voices” is really important, I think to see who tells what story and who gets to tell what story and the proximity like there’s so much conversation and I think it’s good about different authors who maybe don’t have part of an experience being very casual in their interpretation and their depiction of it. Canceled Culture really troubles me because it’s one thing to call attention to something that is unjust, it is another thing entirely for the person who does the calling out to, a lot of the time, absorb the power of this person being canceled. It’s like this weird thing that incentives people to cancel within like I don’t know. I don’t think you should get a prize for justice or morality. So that’s the part that freaks me out. But I actually think that Cancel Culture keeps us all on p’s and q’s a lot of the time. Like something that happened with me and Permanent Record was that I was really really really unsure and insecure and anxious about making my protagonist mixed race because I don’t know the desi experience, I don’t know the Muslim experience at all, and I actually talked to people who do identify with these identities and these experiences but it was interesting, even for me, like I talked to desi people, I talked to Pakistani people, I talked to Muslim people and I had them read different things. I hadn’t talked to a single mixed kid, and I was like “whoa, that’s really f-ed up kind of” and I’m really grateful that I actually learned to do that, and I did eventually have a couple mixed kids read it, and that was so illuminating, and a lot of the language changed and a lot of the sensitivities changed and I’m really grateful to have that as a part of it. It’s a double-edged sword I think.
RR: What do you hope readers take away from Permanent Record?
MHKC: That it’s okay to make mistakes. You’re definitely going to make mistakes and not only are they inevitable, but they are also just evidence that you didn’t know something until you knew it. I think that mistakes are the way you get new data, and I think the only mistake you can truly make is not trying something, and I know that sounds so benign, you know the type of saying that would go on a calendar where the clouds are parting and there’s a beam of sunshine or whatever. If you know the comedian Jaboukie, he’s this comedian and there’s this tweet from a few years ago that really resonated with me which was like, “Youth culture means that if you’re not successful by the time you’re 25 someone comes to your house and kills you”, and I think there’s so much pressure for optimization and there’s so much pressure to do all these crazy things by the time you’re a certain age, and you turn seven and it’s like, “Where’s your TedTalk?” you know what I mean? And you see all these stories and it leads a lot of the time with youth, it’s like this person is twelve, and they’re doing this and whatever, and I think that that makes it really hard to try things.
RR: Especially with social media now.
MHKC: Yeah you feel like everything’s televised and you also feel like everything’s permanent. It’s like you grow up and everyone in your life for as long as you can remember is just like “these mistakes stay with you forever”. I mean, that’s where Permanent Record the title comes from, but it’s also permanent record and the pressure that comes with that, so yeah, I think that I wanted to write a book about a kid who’s broke and in debt and really scared and didn’t know what he was doing in school, because there’s also an expectation that by the time your in college you’re supposed to know something but it’s almost like turning thirteen. The whole time you’re twelve the whole time you’re like, “Alright, thirteen, it’s coming. It’s going to feel different,” and that morning you’re like, “Uh, seems suspiciously alike to being… twelve,” and with college you’re supposed to know what you’re doing because it’s so expensive and this is it, this is what you’ve been working for your whole life. In my experience I don’t know what to do just because I was in college and I wanted to talk about how probably real that is for a lot of different people, even though that’s not the story that sells, even though that’s not the story of your brand that you want.