Wednesday, March 28, 2018

0 Mary H. K. Choi, author of EMERGENCY CONTACT, on books feeling deeply weird from the inside

We're excited to have Mary H. K. Choi drop by to chat about her debut novel, EMERGENCY CONTACT.

Mary, what scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

There’s a scene I love with the three girls in the car—Jude, Mallory and Penny our MC—they’re ditching homework and driving to the beach just to be close to the water since Austin is so landlocked. It’s the least neurotic version of Penny that you see and she’s becoming more and more comfortable with her roommate and college friends and you can see the cogs in her brain electing to let loose a bit. It’s kind of a throwaway scene in that it doesn’t particularly drive the narrative in an urgent way but I’ve always liked how it passes the Bechdel Test in that they’re talking about themselves and their moms and not “The Boy.” And it’s encouraging as the person who invented Penny to watch her play well with others like this. It makes me want to give her a gold star for not being such a pill even though it makes me feel completely overbearing and hypercritical to say any of this about her. Poor Penny… lol.

How long did you work on EMERGENCY CONTACT?

All in, it was about two years. It took about six months to write the first draft and then it shifted to be the epistemological format with them texting back and forth in the second draft. By the time my agent read it and sold it I was on my third full rewrite. And then it was another year before it came out.

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

First books feel deeply weird from the inside. It’s everything they tell you about writing. It’s like having homework for the rest of your life. It can also be unspeakably lonely. You feel inert but also bone-tired because your butt’s threatening to sprout bedsores but your brain is racing all day. It can be terrifically discombobulating. But getting to the end of a book, a whole novel that you made up on your own is a wonderful experience. Emergency Contact was the first piece of evidence that proved I was capable of writing an entire book. I’m still over-the-moon high-fiving myself about it.

What do you hope readers will take away from EMERGENCY CONTACT?

I hope people fall in love with the love story but I really want readers to fall in love with the idea of excellent friendships. Sam and Penny are friends first and that’s clutch. It took me my entire life to figure out how to be a good friend. The wild thing is, I was trucking along thinking it was all about being self-sufficient and not asking for stuff and being there whenever I was needed. But so much of friendship and intimacy is making space for yourself and leaning on your friends when you need them and asking for help. It seems like a no-brainer since so many of my friends are wonderful and available but these days I don’t rely on them to be such mind readers.

Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?

I had horrible jetlag in Hong Kong over Thanksgiving, which also happened to be my birthday. I was climbing out of a bad relationship and falling headlong into a dazzling new one and some part of me was preoccupied with the optics of it all. It just seemed foolhardy and rash. I hadn’t slept in two nights and as I was waiting for it to go from nighttime to daytime, that’s when I decided I would rewrite this book. I was jangling from nerves but there was an aspect to it that felt like that galaxy brain meme.

It’s the best thing about traveling, that moment of realizing how indifferent the world is to your problems and that’s what lent a certain distance to what I saw as being a string of mistakes. I could see without value judgments how my relationship ended and how the new one began. And it was all so fine. It’s weird but until that moment I don’t think I fully appreciated that there was no such thing as a perfect book. There was only the best I could do at that time. I trudged through the second draft and then turned right back around to start on the third draft without being paralyzed by the specter of “the best book.” There is no best book. There’s just my best. And even that will change. For some reason I had to be incredibly sleep-deprived to realize that.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

I usually write from home. I’m usually wearing some version of workout clothes because there’s a naïve, truly superstitious part of me that thinks I’ll make it to the gym at some point if I do that. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I work at a coffee shop and drink tea all day. I bring earplugs and I never try to do more than three hours in one sitting because everything that comes after that is by brute force and usually not worth keeping. I try not to snack while I write because when I get anxious I start chewing. It’s almost like a nervous tick. If it’s a bad chewing day and I need something to allay the super scribbly circles in my brain then I might nibble on sunflower seeds to calm myself. I ruminate by chewing because it gives me the false sense that I’m propelling myself forward which gets bad if I’m stuck in my story. You never know what kind of day you’re going to get but as a writer all you know is that you have to do some writing. Sometimes the hardest part is forgiving yourself for not getting as much done as you had hoped. Just because this work isn’t physically grueling doesn’t mean it’s not taxing in its own way and compassion for yourself is a necessary part of the ritual.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

Write the book you want to write. Full stop. And get to the end of the first draft as quick as you can. Try your darndest not to judge the book based on who you imagine it to be for or what you think will be a more successful book. That’s a seductive but generally pretty useless game to play. I always know I’m in a bad place when I’m fantasizing about the movie meeting about the book I have yet to finish. Whenever I think of how to market a book I know I’m creating distractions.

It’s always this tremendous leap of faith to keep plodding forward but that’s what distinguishes a writer from someone who wants to write. You have to sit down for a long, long time and mete it out so you may as well write exactly the book you want. Your own company is already insufferable some days so the book you’re working on has to be a decent enough companion that you don’t want to set everything on fire.

What are you working on now?

I just completed a first draft of my second novel. It’s about a kid who works at a bodega in New York. I’m also two chapters into my third novel. I don’t think that one’s going to be YA only because of the way it’s unfurling and insisting on grappling with more adult themes but it’s also generally having an identity crisis so who knows. It keeps threatening to transmogrify into a script so we’ll see. It’s going to be a doozy but then again, I’m learning that they all are so shrug emoji. It’ll work out.


Emergency Contact
by Mary H. K. Choi
Simon & Schuster Books for You
Released 3/27/2018

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.

Purchase Emergency Contact at Amazon
Purchase Emergency Contact at IndieBound
View Emergency Contact on Goodreads


Mary H.K. Choi is a writer for The New York Times, GQ, Wired, and The Atlantic. She has written comics for Marvel and DC, as well as a collection of essays called Oh, Never Mind. She is the host of Hey, Cool Job!, a podcast about jobs, and is a culture correspondent for VICE News Tonight on HBO. Emergency Contact is her first novel. Mary grew up in Hong Kong and Texas and now lives in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @ChoitotheWorld.


Have you had a chance to read EMERGENCY CONTACT yet? Are you writing the book you want to write? Are you able to take the tremendous leap of faith to keep plodding forward? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!

Happy Reading,

Jocelyn, Halli, Martina, Charlotte, Anisaa, Erin, Susan, Shelly, Kelly, Laura, Emily, and Lori Ann

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