WRITERS TELL ALL
First, buy this amazing book here.
I have said this only two or three times before, perhaps more than that, but Angie Kim's Miracle Creek is an astounding and amazing novel that has entranced me and continued to lure me for too many rereads of one book in one year. Nevertheless, buy the book immediately. If. you need a beach read, a lazy weekend read, or if you want to challenge yourself about so many tough issues, pick up a copy of this book and find Angie Kim as much a great storyteller as someone who makes you think, which is a blessing by itself.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Angie! I’m beyond obsessed with your debut novel, Miracle Creek. For the readers, it’s both an astounding mystery, a courtroom drama, and a beautiful depiction of family life, especially for first generation Americans and their parents. I saw that you are an “ex-lawyer.” How did you decide to go from practicing law to writing? What were your favorite books growing up, and what novels—especially crime—do you feel were most influential to you in making this book?
Angie Kim: First of all, thank you so much for your kind and generous words about Miracle Creek. It’s so meaningful for me to know that the book resonated with you.
As for your question about transitioning from law to writing, it was a circuitous route. I actually quit being a lawyer in my 20s, after I realized that my favorite part about being a lawyer—being in the courtroom—was a tiny part of practicing law. I transitioned to the business world at that point, first becoming a management consultant at McKinsey and then becoming a dot-com entrepreneur in the 1990s, and then became a stay-at-home mom. All three of my boys had medical issues as toddlers (they’re all fine now), and I started writing about that experience, almost as therapy. I turned to fiction when I realized that I didn’t want to publish my nonfiction pieces about my children, due to medical privacy issues.
Favorite books growing up—that’s a little tough to delve into, because I was born and raised in Korea. My favorite in Korea was probably a series called CANDY, about a plucky orphan girl. She’s similar to Anne of Green Gables, which was probably one of the first English books I loved as a preteen when I first moved to the US.
As for the novel that most influenced my writing Miracle Creek, that is probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. (In fact, the title is an homage to that book; Mystic River, Miracle Creek!) Because this is my first novel, I tried to learn by taking that book and deconstructing and analyzing its structure and plotting.
MT: Miracle Creekis about a place which can supposedly cure things like autism. I have a cousin with what I would call a more advanced form of autism, still unable to speak most of the time at eight years old, and it’s a struggle for his parents, and our family in general, but luckily he’s surrounded by so many people who love him. Yet even with my aunt, his mother, I’m touchy about bringing up the subject. It’s sort of like mental illness, which I deal with—it’s understood I have it, it’s understood I suffer with it, and yet it’s never to be talked about. How does it feel diving into topics a lot of people feel uncomfortable around, and how do you manage to execute the delivery and discussion of topics so well?
AK: It’s precisely because there’s a stigma to the subject of autism (and other chronic illnesses and special needs I explore in the novel, such as cerebral palsy and OCD) that I wanted to explore it. I’m close friends with a lot of parents in this community, having had children with chronic illnesses myself, and I think this can make it harder for parents to talk to each other about the challenges of their day-to-day lives, which isolates them. I’m so glad to hear that you, a person who’s had personal and family experience with some of these issues, feel like those issues were covered well in the novel and that you empathized with the characters going through those issues.
MT: Other than being an ex-lawyer, why did you choose to have the majority of the book take place in a courtroom? The execution of the book—in all chapters, in all positions in time and place—it was genius, brilliant and impossible to put down. Did you ever struggle with deciding how to write this novel?
AK: That was one of the first things I had to decide when starting this novel: the structure and format. I considered having it be a straight drama, with the novel beginning on the first day of the HBOT treatments when all the patients meet each other, with the explosion being the ending. I also considered having this be a murder mystery, but having the investigation take place in the days immediately following the explosion, long before the trial. I finally decided on the trial structure/format, and I’m sure that my decision has a lot to do with my own experience in the courtroom. I loved being in the courtroom and longed to return in some way, even if it was just through a fictional construct. I also knew of the dramatic possibilities inherent to the courtroom format (especially in criminal court), and that appealed to me as a writer as well.
MT: People most relate you most to Mary, the daughter of the Yoos, I assume for autobiographical reasons. Some people find that the characters in their books are nothing like them, but others (like myself) consider each character to be a part of them, and not just one. How do you feel your own experiences, life, and the journey you are beginning to travel as a novel come through in Miracle Creek?
AK: I’ve taken three separate strands of my life and woven them together for Miracle Creek. The first is my experience as an immigrant, moving from Seoul to Baltimore when I was 11. You’re right in that Mary is the characters who is most like me in many ways. The second strand is the courtroom trial aspect. And the third is my own experience doing HBOT with own my own kids, in a group “submarine” much like the one featured in Miracle Creek. I tried to take those experiences, which happened at different times in my life, and tried to braid them into a coherent narrative that I hope works.
MT: Growing up, being gay and mentally ill, I associated largely with outsiders in our community—lots of different Asian families, mostly Chinesse and Taiwanese (I had to learn certain words in Mandarin and Shanghainese in order to know when my friends’ parents were secretly talking about me). I didn’t love them because they were Asian, or because they were outsides, but because they felt like real people, growing up outside of this very limited and exclusive world here in the South. My friends were funny and brilliant—not just academically, but they watched and listened and read everything. There was nothing I could really shock them with. I’m wondering how your experience was, growing up, coming-of-age, all of these things in America.
AK: I think my own experience is one of isolation and loneliness, largely because I’m an only child and I moved away from my homeland in middle school, at the age of 11. I very much missed my close friends back home, and it was hard for me to make new friends here in the US because I didn’t speak English at all when I moved. I’ve since learned to speak English fluently and gained many close friends, but even so, to this day, this is something I carry around with me, the feeling of not quite belonging (or, at least, the fear of not belonging) and wanting desperately to do everything I can to fit in and be “normal.”
MT: I vividly remember one best friend, brilliant and graduating at the top of her class at Wharton, claiming her brother was making three (3) errors in his SAT practice, and how would he get anywhere, even something “like Berkeley.” Such a new thing with me, where white people in the town were considered to be brilliant to go to a state school, or even work as farm hands. I’d love to know if you dealt with any of these issues growing up with extreme differences in culture.
AK: Ha! I doubt that anyone (even the so-called tiger moms from Asian-American families!) would considered Berkeley to be a second-rate school that one has to settle for. I was lucky in that even though my parents wanted me to be successful, they’ve always been very supportive of my goals, even if they weren’t to pursue the “prestigious” careers. I majored in theater in high school, for example, and I think they would have been fine if I’d decided to pursue that instead of academics (which is what I ultimately ended up doing). They were also very supportive when I quit law and even when I decided to stay home to be a full-time parent.
MT: When you’re writing, revising, rewriting, etc, what is the process like for you? How do you cope with the struggles of being a mother, a writer—a job in which most writers find themselves loners, lonely, and every other aspect of your life? What advice do you give to new and aspiring writers?
AK: I don’t really have a standard process. I have a goal, which is to start or keep writing or finish a particular story or essay or chapter, and I keep sitting down in front of the computer until I finish drafting, and I keep sitting down and editing until I actually like what I’ve written. My advice to new/aspiring writers is to take time and develop your craft. Write short pieces—essays, short stories, flash fiction, whatever—and polish and polish and polish until you love them and are proud to submit them for publication. Then keep on submitting until you get published. I really think it’s important to have gone through this experience with shorter pieces before you tackle a book.
MT: What has the praise been like, especially from the reviews, the authors who love you so much, the readers who may love you more? How does this affect your next work, if you have a work in progress or something you’ve already finished?
AK: It’s been amazing to connect with readers and reviewers, especially those from the communities featured in Miracle Creek (parents of children with disabilities, immigrant families, etc.). It’s been really inspiring, and it makes me eager to tackle my next novel.
MT: I’ve seen you compared most often to other Asian authors, which I can imagine might be frustrating. I know if I were compared to individuals who share only a part of your life really limiting. What’s your response to this, positive or negative or neutral? Do you ever feel confined to writing one type of story, character, book?
AK: Not at all. I’m really proud of the fact that I’m part of the emergence of Asian-American authors who’ve come out with amazing novels in the last few years. In particular, there’s been such an amazing community of Korean-American women novelists who’ve come with amazing novels (Min-Jin Lee, Crystal Hana Kim, R.O. Kwon, Eugenia Kim, Jung Yun, Jimin Han, just to name a few!), and it’s been wonderful seeing their experiences and trying to follow in their footsteps.
MT: What can we expect next from you? Is there a book planned, in progress, finished, or something else? This book seems hard to follow but I can tell with your abilities you won’t have a hard time keeping the writing refined, the topics current and essential, and the characters and ideas nuanced and complex. Can you share anything with us about your future work?
AK: Yes! I’m working on my second novel, which is about a ten-year old boy who’s nonverbal (with autism). He goes on a walk in the beginning of the novel with his father, but only the boy returns home. Because he’s nonverbal, he can’t tell us what happened. His older siblings become obsessed with using assistive communication devices and therapies to get him to “talk,” to share with them what happened to the father.
MT: I really love your book. I really, really love Miracle Creek. It’s a brilliant book I hope all of our readers pick up, and also call their libraries throughout their state and request copies. The book is astonishing on so many levels and I really loved having the chance to read it, and to interview you. I cannot wait for your next novel.
AK Thank you so much, Matthew. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I’m grateful to you for sharing!