Talking Everything Yolk with Mary H.K. Choi and Shea Serrano at Blue Willow Bookshop
I've been lucky enough to get to see Mary H.K. Choi at two different stops on her virtual book tour for Yolk- once at Books Are Magic (located in Brooklyn) and once at Blue Willow Bookshop (located in Houston). I didn't take many notes during Mary's conversation with Jenny Han, but last night, at Blue Willow, I took tons of notes as Shea Serrano and Mary H.K. Choi discussed fascinating questions that gave more insight into how her new book took shape. Here are some of my favorite moments!
One of the opening questions of the night hit at something that I've been wondering a lot about on the eve of making a major leap to New York City myself. Shea asked Mary if, similar to the characters in her book, she felt compelled to change when she moved to New York in the early 2000s. Mary talked about how she felt like for so long she was saving up all her energy to totally start over in New York. She talked about how difficult it is to navigate a new city and so much change at the same time. "New York is hard," she mentioned at once point, "It's almost like getting a contact high from everyone else's ambitions". The way that Mary articulates her thoughts on the world around her give a little glimmer of insight into just how spectacular her fiction writing is. All her words feel so precise and carefully chose. She talked about feeling compelled to dress and act a certain way to fit in and struggling to know how to fake the feeling that everyone else was putting out into the world. Thinking back on being 22 in the city, she reflects, "The types of situations you're willing to put yourself through because you're ambitious... I would never want to be that kind of young again." It's freeing not to care so much and just being too tired to fake anything.
Shea and Mary quickly discussed how they never read their own work and how it's a unique form of pain because there's so much you want to change in reflection, but you can't. Shea also made an observation about world building in fiction. He noted that in nonfiction, when a major moment happens in someone's life, you have a history to write about and build up to that moment. In fiction, you have to create that rich history to accent the moment. He complimented Mary's natural movement in her stories and the double coming of age in Yolk.
That lead into a question about how Mary manages to craft such a full world. I loved that Shea thought to ask this because it's something I admire most about Mary's books. Even if it's not mentioned on the page, the books give you a distinct impression that every single minute detail is accounted for. She talks about how at every juncture point, there's a fork in the road. Fiction exists with infinite possibilities. Generally, she just knows where she wants the story to land. She talks about her issue with getting caught in the details of a moment to the degree where you lose the big picture. "I definitely had moments with this book where I got so married to that line that I was trashing all these paragraphs, and then I had to go back and get them out of the trash."
Quickly going back to the double coming of age concept, Mary talks about how in life and in the book, there are a couple layers of realization to becoming an adult. She details how you become the person someone else needs you to be and then you come into your own and become the person you need to be for yourself. She also noted how it happens creatively as well, where you think you've found your voice and then you realize there are other parts of yourself you haven't accounted for that change the way you write in subtle ways.
The conversation shifted again to stories that tell you the answer (Shea said that's the kind he writes) and stories that subtly imply the answer (what he said Yolk does). Mary bluntly states that she writes small stories. "I'm not gonna have the pyrotechnics," she added. I love that description of quiet stories because those are always the ones that mean the most to me, and she beautifully articulates how they're different. She talks about how being young is scary and that's what she's interested in delving into. "Life scares me, man. I don't always know what I want. I don't always know what I'm feeling. I want there to be space for that ambiguity." That's exactly why smaller stories are so deeply important, especially in the YA space.
She talked about how we're so prone to put things off for when we're a different person or we look a different way or we achieve something that will make us feel qualified. It's important to break out of that mind trap. "You, in your unfinished state who hasn't reinvented yet is what it is." The only thing you can control is your opinion of yourself and how gentle you are with it. "I think that's gorgeous," she added at the end, "It's so ugly and it's so scary and it is what it is." As terrifying as that is, it's also almost peaceful.
They sped through a couple questions about writers block. Mary noted that she tries to write for two hours a day, but if something isn't working, she'll just take a walk. "Fiction is a weird one because the story just kinda shows up and you just have to have faith in that." It's when you start messing with that creative muse that things go south.
A similar question came up about whether voice or plot drives her books. She laughed and said, "I am crap at plot". She detailed how she loves quiet scenes where they're standing in the kitchen and someone opens the fridge door and nothing happens but everything happens. It's what I love creating as a writer and crave as a reader, and Mary's books are one of the few books that fully embrace space and nothingness. It's why she's my favorite author. "A criticism I got a lot for Emergency Contact is that nothing happens. And ya," she says throwing her hands in the air noncommittally. She elaborated that writing the screenplay for Permanent Record has changed the way she sees plot because she's had to read a lot of screenplays as well. "There's just a rhythm to it," she elaborated, "If you can write a character that has no choice but to maybe make the dumbest decision in the moment you can't lose."
From the audience questions, they answered a query about imposter syndrome, something I struggle with a lot. Shea took the question first, talking about how he had a horrible case of it until he started getting into rooms with people he thought had it together. And it turned out that they were just as stupid as he felt, and it was easier to realize that nobody knows what they're doing and everyone feels the same way. Mary added on to that sentiment after agreeing, "The first time I saw my book in the stores and realized it belonged to the store... that was a trip." But she also talked about how she's always known that everyone is making it up as they go along and has found comfort in that. She said her bigger form of imposter syndrome stems from not studying writing in school and not knowing some of the touchstone books that people reference. She's realized over time that it doesn't really matter, but it took a while to fight that insecurity.
I loved every moment of Blue Willow's event with Mary and Shea. The audience asked wonderful, thoughtful questions, Shea did a great job having a genuine conversation while bringing up thoughtful points about the book, and Cathy and Valerie did a great job moderating and facilitating the event. If you ever get the chance to go to a virtual or in-person event at Blue Willow, I encourage you to go! I might be a little biased because I basically grew up there as a little kid, but they've also thrown my favorite events in the last couple years.
If you want a copy of Yolk that's signed, Books Are Magic has signed copies and Blue Willow has really gorgeous signed bookplates and pop sockets! This event in full might end up posted on Blue Willow's YouTube page, so look out for that as well.