“I hate it,” best-selling author Mary H.K. Choi says about social media, which is amusing, considering how prominently it’s featured in the Korean-American writer’s books. In fact, since her debut novel, Emergency Contact, came out last year, Choi has become known as a writer with an almost uncanny ability to seamlessly integrate social media use into her often-romantic stories. Choi, of course, acknowledges that, say, Twitter, has its uses (anyone who follows her knows she’s pretty good at it), but it’s definitely not something she wants more of in her life.
“It’s like, Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t have an Instagram. I think about that constantly,” Choi tells us when we meet up with her in Toronto earlier this fall. “There are a lot of phenomenal people out there who are like, ‘You don’t get to have me. You will get the output I give you.’ That’s the new blue check for me – just straight up not having it and being like, ‘Unsubscribe to all of this.’”
Choi’s latest book is Permanent Record, which follows college-dropout, drowning-in-debt Pablo, who meets Lee – a.k.a. the biggest popstar in the world – during his graveyard shift at the local bodega. It has the same, sweet romance of her first novel, but is different and grittier enough that Choi worries it might make some of her fans mad at her. Oh, and it was just announced that Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu may be directing a movie adaptation – no big deal.
View this post on Instagram
PERMANENT RECORD is going on tour. PLEASE SWIPE TO SEE ALL THE ILLUSTRIOUSNESS OF WITH WHOMST! ✨✨✨✨✨✨🖤🖤🥳🥳🥳🥳🥳 Gaze upon this glorious line-up of talent, wisdom, beauty and esteem. Thank you so much to Miss Info, Jenna, BitchesGottaEat (subscribe to Sam's newsletter it's wonderful), Bobby, Laini, Stone and Jonny. Love you guys with my entire heart. 🎀💕🌺 Please pre-order PERMANENT RECORD out 9/3!!! (Opening image by @bneventsgrove; all other artwork by @john.sampson) 🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀 Also please pretend that this is in the order I intended (as in chronological lol. PORTLAND and SEATTLE are flipped but IG gallery feature tests me) 🌺
(Spoilers ahead!) Where did the idea for Permanent Record come from?
I knew that I was going to write about New York. The character of Pablo came pretty quickly – this dude looking at his own reflection in a bodega in the middle of the night and being like, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” He’s ensconced in some sort of existential crisis, so I was like, “What is the most destabilizing, exciting thing I could do to him?” And that was to plop a very, very enigmatic, overwhelmingly famous person into his life and see how it reverberates. Then it was about figuring out that dynamic without it turning into some sort of saccharine narrative about them living happily ever after at 20.
Did you always know it wasn’t going to end with Pablo and Lee together?
I knew it was a risk. I actually got really scared. When I was editing Permanent Record, Emergency Contact was finally getting some heat. People were like, “It’s so sweet, such a slow burn. I love that they end up together!” That was really in my head. I was like, “Why do you hate success? Why are you alienating everyone?”
But I am older and writing for a younger audience. I think it would be incredibly disingenuous of me to be like “This is a good idea.” I wanted Permanent Record to be about the things that really concerned me growing up: class issues, issues of identity, how you feel about your particular immigrant experiences as part of whichever diaspora. I wanted it to be about someone’s very relatable life, where something huge happens, but then having to return to that very relatable and now disproportionately disappointing life, and what all of that actually entails.
That’s something I loved about this book. Because I love romance stories, but sometimes the second one is finished it’s like, “Okay, there’s no way they’re actually going to last.”
Totally. It’s like that scene from The Graduate, where they’re on the bus and it’s kind of uncomfortable. It’s almost like how the nightly news would end. They’re shuffling their papers and not really talking to each other. What’s up with that?
It’s really important to talk about what happens after the fact, what the reality is away from the curated image on Instagram. I wanted it to be an immersive thing. I’ve been a reporter for most of my career and I’ve been in spaces where I’m interviewing extremely famous people. I’ve seen a lot of the sparkle and power and adoration, but also most of it is waiting around, travelling and being sleep deprived. With Pablo, there’s so much projection. He doesn’t know about fame and thinks Lee is just swanning around and being adored and gifted things while he’s just stuck in his house. In reality, she’s like, “Bro, I’m working so damn hard.”
How did your reporting experience help when writing Permanent Record?
I have a background both in fashion and celebrity reporting. I’ve seen all the behind-the-scenes. I’ve seen how hectic and unpleasant it can be. [My experience] came up in moments like Lee having to go to China at the last minute, or her freaking out about this mortal boy seeing her chicken-cutlet-like boob inserts. Is Lee going to break the magic in front of Pablo?
But those moments have to be relatable. Lee, at no point, puts on airs for Pablo. She relishes the intimacy and unguarded moments. I wanted to make this the smallest celebrity industrial complex story I possibly could. I can see why people are like, “This isn’t what I thought it would be.” But this is my taste. I like Eighth Grade, where the biggest deal is that she shakily stands up for herself; I like Manchester By The Sea, where someone has a meltdown in front of a freezer; I like Mark-Ruffalo-in-the-kitchen dramas. I wanted to have that in a contemporary YA novel, where even though this crazy thing happens, it’s still just two human assholes trying to figure it out.
What would you say to fans who loved Emergency Contact but haven’t read Permanent Record yet?
Don’t hate me. Emergency Contact is about really coming to terms with what you want to do with your life and all the initial romanticism that comes with that. Permanent Record is further along in that process. There’s more frustration, where maybe you’ve tried something and it didn’t go the way you thought it would. Or you got the thing you wanted your entire life and it didn’t give anything back to you. Both books are kind of uncomfortable, but there’s a disappointment in Permanent Record that I think we find a lot of ways to escape from.
Both books are kind of like Care Bear cousins. Thematically, there’s a lot that goes hand-in-hand. But with Permanent Record, there’s a lot more of the depression around daily life just being regular. Life is hard and beautiful and dazzling, but on most days, it’s just you sitting inside your fucking operating system. I want to talk about how it’s ok if you need to build discipline and tolerance around that. This is why we’re all addicts – why we find social media to be so great. It’s why escapism is the shit. They’re a reprieve from discomfort, but a lot the time, it’s self-harming to self-soothe. It takes you away from doing your true work.
How did you come to realize that for yourself?
I’m older. I’m also an addict. I don’t drink anymore. I’m in recovery for an eating disorder. I’m awake now. Not to be like, “I’ve had this spiritual journey and I’ve arrived.” I just now have some awareness around the trillions of things I apply to my life in order not to have to deal. I have a lot of challenges with just being okay. I’m incredibly dissociative. I’m so anxious, I can’t drink coffee. It makes me hate myself very fast, very repeatedly.
For a long time, I thought that being sober was this lack of something; that it was this very Draconian way to be. What I’ve learned is that, actually, I loved getting fucked up because then I don’t have to talk to anyone. Or, I can talk to them, but it’s like a hologram, this fake version of me and it doesn’t matter. But now, I have human experiences with people and they’re hugely informative. You have such a finite time and you get to spend it with the people you love and have meaningful connections with. That’s the game. I didn’t know that.
How did you get comfortable talking so openly about all of this?
Because it’s not a moral issue. I used to feel so much shame. I thought that if you weren’t self-sufficient, people wouldn’t respect you. As a woman of colour, East Asian women are considered to be diminutive and servile. So, if you seem weak, you’re just this horrible, reductive generalization and stereotype about your people. But now I talk about it because it’s true. These are just the ingredients that I have. It is what it is. I have black hair, I’m really sensitive, I’m really observative. It all just ties together. I’m able to do the things that I do because I am the person who I am.
You’ve said it took a long time to admit you actually wanted to write a novel. Can you talk to me about that?
It’s so embarrassing.
Because it’s pretty binary. It’s a lot easier to be comfortable with the fact that you don’t want to write a novel. The second you admit it, it’s corny. I’d never known any writers growing up. I didn’t see a lot of East Asian authors. There’s Amy Tan, but she seemed like one of those West Coast Asians who has been here for many, many generations and, I don’t know, that didn’t seem accessible to me. So I did a lot of little things around [writing a novel]. I went into journalism.
But to go from that to fiction, like, really? Like, I’m going to say, “I’m going to make things up and you’re going to be into it.” It seems like such an audacious and delusional thing. But then it just got louder and louder. I believe that unacknowledged desires can really fester. It’s not an issue of talent, because I think you create talent for yourself. So it just took me a long time to admit it. Even when I wrote the first version of Emergency Contact and my agent didn’t like it, it sat in a drawer for eight months and I thought that was it. But it wouldn’t go away.
And it’s still embarrassing. I’ve only done it twice. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do it again. Each time, it’s like, holy shit. I talk about it because I’ve been on The New York Times Best Sellers list, so both books found their audience, ultimately. But I felt wrong pursuing it both times and I will never get rid of imposter syndrome. If you feel really beleaguered and uncomfortable admitting to yourself that you want to do something, then perhaps you’re in exactly the right place.
Obviously, both books are also romances. What draws you to that?
I love love. I really do. It shows up in a lot of different ways. Romance is the fucking best, like the high that keeps on giving. I have a partner who I don’t deserve – not in, like, a “he’s so much better than me” way. I made all the same mistakes over and over again, I did nothing right. But with this one it’s different. I’ve written both of these books fully in love with someone. It’s a natural part of my experiential life that wound up in there.
What are some of your favourite romances?
I loved A Star Is Born despite myself. I love it when movies are capable of doing that. I love Call Me By Your Name. It’s a gorgeous book. I’ve read it several times over and over again. Some people would say this isn’t a love story, but Normal People by Sally Rooney. It’s a kind of love story because of the specificity of these two people being that way to each other. We open these portals within each other. It’s such a miracle of space and time.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.