I’m not sure there were any novels about Korean-American Angelenos when I was discovering fiction in the ’90s. There are, I’m happy to report, a handful now — I’ve written a few, and so has Maurene Goo. I read Maurene’s latest, The Way You Make Me Feel, with great joy and a sense of recognition I never got to experience as a young adult reader.
You don’t have to be an L.A. Korean to love Maurene’s books, of course (though if you are, go buy them all right now). She’s a talented writer, and her fiction pops with wit and energy. I talked to her over email about The Way You Make Me Feel.
STEPH CHA: Okay, so tell me about Clara Shin. Where did she come from? What brought her to life for you? Was she the first piece of this book?
MAURENE GOO: She was actually the first piece. Earlier versions of this book had four POVs — four girls stuck in Clara’s dad’s food truck over the course of one crazy night. It was a lot more angsty and action-packed and my editor and I decided that Clara being the main focus would be best. She was always there — less of a prankster in earlier drafts but I always envisioned a character who was a bit surly, detached, and had complicated feelings about her family. Once the prankster, more fun-loving element was brought in, she really came to life — all her vulnerabilities and fears.
We’re about the same age, which is to say we graduated from high school a good many years ago. How do you keep up with the youth, Maurene? I feel like if I were to write a book about high school kids, the temptation to set it in, oh, 1999–2003 would be very strong.
Haha, I actually have a ’90s-set book idea but shelving it because I feel like, yes, the temptation to represent your youth is strong. For a while, I did stress about keeping up with the youth, but now I don’t bother. Because I’m writing my version of teenagehood and it may or may not accurately represent teens today, but that’s not really what drives a story, you know? Realistic feelings and emotions and growth, but not slang or technology. All of that stuff changes so quickly that you’d fall behind constantly if you tried to keep up. I always use Judy Blume books as an example — when we were growing up, her books were dated already. But as a reader you just rolled with “sanitary napkins” and old-fashioned phrases because you were so caught up in whether or not Margaret would get her damn period.
Of course, the contemporariness of this book is a huge part of its appeal. I love that Clara’s parents are a food truck entrepreneur and a social media influencer. They’re really not your typical Korean immigrant parents. Can you talk about Adrian and Jules?
There was a moment when I realized that, oh, I wrote another father-daughter book. (My last book focused on that as well.) But right away I knew that this was a different family story — one that was unconventional by American standards, let alone by Korean-American standards. Adrian and Jules met in high school and Jules got pregnant when they were both 18. Not only did they decide to have Clara, but they didn’t get married and eventually separated, with Adrian doing most of the upbringing. I loved the idea of having these young, flawed, and ambitious parents, with Clara putting her mother on a pedestal even though her dad raised her. Adrian’s and Jules’s stories eventually become a big part of Clara’s “coming of age.”
A lot of the book rides on KoBra, the Korean-Brazilian food truck that represents so many of the Shin family's hopes and dreams. It feels like a fresh interpretation of the Korean Los Angeles story, which has been anchored in part by immigrant-run small businesses.
Yes! When we were growing up, it was all about convenience stores and dry cleaners (which is real), but Clara’s parents wouldn’t be that much older than I am and I wanted them to have cool jobs that would be appropriate for a couple of big dreamers. And I wanted this story to be about L.A. as told through one of the many immigrant families who build it, every day. I was drafting after the election, so I was in that fiercely-protective-of-immigrant-America headspace.
Can we talk about how there are a zillion Korean Americans in Los Angeles but we barely exist in pop culture? I feel like we’re two of the only Korean-American writers writing about Korean-American L.A., and there is just so much ground to cover. It is such a startling pleasure to read your writing and recognize my city and see it through the eyes of a fellow Korean-American girl. I so wish I could’ve read this book when I was younger and just unquestioningly accustomed to reading about very serious white people going to war and getting divorced. That feeling of acknowledgment and recognition is so powerful, it makes me sad that so many readers are deprived of it because of the publishing landscape.
Thanks so much, Steph. I felt the same way when I read your books! I mean, you talk about Armenian Genocide! My high school unofficially honored Armenian Genocide day, I felt so seen when I read that! And there is so much ground to cover. At this point, Koreans have been “settled” in L.A. for decades — there are so many stories out there. I also wish that I had books like mine growing up, it’s 99.9 percent of the reason why I started writing YA.
You don’t deal with race in a head-on, heavy way in this book, but your cast is just casually dominated by characters of color. This rings true to me, but I can just hear the whining about PC this and forced diversity that.
Haha, luckily, in YA, we are well ahead of the diversity convo in publishing. (Sorry about Lionel Shriver, adult literary fic!) I’m sure there are still some grumpy racists out there who get annoyed by books like mine, but it’s been warmly received for the most part. Not to say that it hasn’t been a process. When I published my first book in 2013, things were definitely different and having a Korean-American main character was probably a liability. I did have someone say once that the diversity felt forced and I just had to laugh. Did you grow up in Glendale? Because I did and I had maybe two white friends in high school. I hope my books normalize that sort of diversity because it’s real and exists and way more relatable than like, teens rowing boats to see each other and having sex with their teachers (dated Dawson’s Creek reference).
You have three books now with young Korean-American female protagonists. Do you ever worry that people will all-look-same them? Like, do you think about differentiating them from each other in especially conscious ways? This is something I stress about from time to time. White dudes are allowed to have endless white dude protagonists who are all alcoholics, but I still get this sense that Korean-American woman feels weird and specific to people, like if someone else wrote multiple protagonists with Tourette’s.
Yes, I have thought about this. Because what is it about Asian culture that feels so specific rather than universal to everyone outside of it? Are you ever conscious of hanging out with a giant group of all Asians? It’s annoying that I think about it, but I do. One time I went to a college party with a group of Asian girls and this white guy yelled out, “Asian Invasion.” Clever. And honestly, with my books, I am conscious of it. I think about how to make the families distinct, the personalities of the main characters unique. But in the end, I’m always just trying to challenge myself so I don’t find myself writing the same book over and over again. Which is probably what all writers do. Early on in my career, I boldly declared during a panel, “I’m always going to write Korean-American girls.” Later it made me cringe to recall that statement, but, honestly, I could? Like we said earlier, there are so many stories to tell — we’re just as varied in experiences as white men, and it doesn’t look like people are sick of those stories yet. And I’m lucky enough to be in a position to tell these stories and share them.
I also wanted to say that this cover is amazing. I honestly keep staring at it and feeling weirdly proud and emotional.
There is something about the cover that makes me emotional and proud, too. Is it because an Asian’s girl’s face is so prominently displayed? Because the Asian girl is in a pose that is vulnerable and a little sexy, a pose that you’ve seen on endless pretty white girls? Probably all of that plus other reasons that are hard to explain. I’m glad it made you feel that way. I want everyone to be able to feel that way.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.