Mary H.K. Choi, VICE reporter, comic author of Lady Deadpool, and former Editor-in-Chief of Missbehave magazine, came to New York after college to work in fashion, but all things media won out.
She began as an intern at Mass Appeal in 2002, and since then has written for WIRED, the Atlantic, Marvel and DC Comics, and other outlets. She has served as an executive producer for MTV and is the co-author of DJ Khaled’s book, The Keys.
Now, Choi has written Emergency Contact, a YA novel about Penny, an isolated college student in Texas who learns to connect with people online and, ultimately, in-person, and Sam, a coffeehouse worker who has to believe he can overcome his past.
Recently, I chatted with Choi about her versatile writing career, the importance of friendship in contrast to romantic relationships, and how her Korean-American characters are more than tiger moms.
The Rumpus: You express yourself through a variety of mediums—a podcast, Hey, Cool Job!; you started a YouTube show, Hey, Cool Snack!; and you have written for a number of outlets, such as the New York Times, GQ, and Elle.com.
How did all this lead to writing your first book, Emergency Contact?
Mary H.K. Choi: It’s very tempting to get down on yourself if you’ve wanted to write a novel since forever and never accomplished it. And there were years where I was terribly depressed about how many things I was doing that weren’t a book. But to plot and flesh out an entire novel requires so many puzzle pieces that everything I’ve learned from freelance jobs, like being a columnist for WIRED and Allure or writing essays for the New York Times, I wound up using. Freelance magazine writing—especially profiles—requires so much interrogation, observation, and rumination that helps you to consider all types of people in interesting ways, which certainly helps for character development.
Penny’s attempts at science fiction reminded me of the structural issues I first experienced with comic books for Marvel and Vertigo and the process by which I workshopped and problem-solved in my head. I’d also written a script for a short starring a few friends, like the rapper Despot, Lakutis, Ashok and Hari Kondabolu, and Makonnen, as well as a massive blow-up doll by the artist Devin Troy Strother, that I directed that sadly never saw the light of day. Jenna Wortham is in it. And so is the writer Ben Detrick’s apartment and Kinfolk. It was such a New York love story, but there were too many plot failings through nobody’s fault but mine and that was such a learning experience in how to tell when your narrative is broken.
All of this, combined with the reporting I’ve done for long-form stories and TV news segments ended up in the hash [for Emergency Contact]. Some of it is obvious, like the feature I wrote for WIRED on teens and texting and others I may not even realize until ages from now. Plus, the paychecks from all these projects are very handy to feather the nest for when you’re working on speculative things that may never pay out.
Rumpus: Do you favor one form over another or are you interested in connecting with people on a variety of levels?
Choi: I’ve always been incredibly peripatetic when it comes to interests and conduits. I enjoy sprawling, meandering podcasts that feature very little in the way of editing. I love the rhythm of it and the depths you can mine with a certain sustained candor. I love TV news because in winnowing the wheat from the chaff, you wind up with a rather potent nugget of storytelling, and it’s thrilling because you never truly know what footage you’ve gotten on the ground. Writing is wonderful because it can be as private or public as you like. I love living in the fulcrum or that Venn diagram middle for a variety of circles as far as my interests go. I’m such a sincere fan of so many taxonomical groupings. I don’t need someone who understands my essay on female fuccbois and menswear to also love LaCroix and weed while reading my first YA novel. I’m delighted to talk to as many people as possible in the places they’re interested. I’d much rather be misunderstood than broad.
Rumpus: Throughout your novel, you also include snippets from text messages between Penny and Sam. Part of the story Penny is writing for her creative writing class, and internal thoughts from Penny. Why use all these layers of text to write your novel?
Choi: It’s how my brain works. I have a trillion tabs open at any given time, and I’m constantly swiping between multiple desktops, so it made sense for me to have layers. The other thing is that it’s a cheat. When you’re toggling back and forth between two points of view, an effective way of situating yourself behind the eyeballs of one character and sitting in their heads (beyond writing their names on the top of the chapter) is to show what they’re looking at. It’s kind of like the POV opening credits of that British program Peep Show, except circa now which, let’s be real, means a lot of different screens. Plus, I was dating someone long distance while I was writing this which was obviously incredibly informative, but I also loved how jarring it was when you were tapping away on your metal box—just utterly ensconced—and then someone would jostle you in meatspace or else you’d find yourself late for an analog in-person meeting and have to drive somewhere. It’s so discombobulating. Exploring that sense of disorientation where you didn’t even know where to train your eyes or set your brain was interesting to me.
Rumpus: It is intriguing how the love story between Penny and Sam unfolds. They don’t fall in love right away, and they focus on friendship first. What were your goals in unfurling the love story in this manner?
Choi: Because friendship rules. It’s crucial. The whole point of their kinship was that for a long time there’s a true fondness that’s not incentivized by physical intimacy. Sex is great and touch-based affections are wonderful if that’s your bag but sometimes it’s just not your scene. I enjoy a slow, searing unspooling when it comes to love stories. I feel like so much about dating and romance can seem so performative or else be the rote fulfillment of what’s expected of you. There’s this notion of moving towards some finite destination that’s “better” the further along you go based on these goals or else “bases,” and I wanted to dismantle that. Or at least table it for a spell.
This might seem hoary or reductive, but there’s so much data available on how potentially well-suited two people are, especially if you’re on social media, and I wanted to explore something outside of that context. The fact that Penny and Sam have mutually agreed that they have no designs on ever meeting in real life again, at least not on purpose, is freeing while they get to know each other.
Rumpus: While there is a romantic relationship at the heart of the story, there are other significant relationships—like friendship and familial relationships. What do you want your readers to learn about the significance of these other relationships?
Choi: I guess that in many ways the non-romantic relationships are harder work than the swoon-y, fiery ones, even if you might not necessarily see that coming. Truthfully, it’s all work. At the end of the day, there’s such a huge difference between doing and not doing those small thoughtful gestures for the people around you who consider you. Taking time to color in the people around your main characters truly does a lot of heavy lifting for you in terms of subtext and context because tiny misunderstandings and micro-aggressions or avoidance speaks volumes without requiring so much exposition. As much as I love Penny and Sam in the book, as well as the moms, I’m always fascinated by the people who love, say, a Jude [Penny’s roommate] or a J.A. [Penny’s creative writing professor] and why these characters speak to them.
Rumpus: There are a multitude of Korean and Korean-American enclaves around the US, in New Jersey, California, New York, etc. Can you discuss your choice of a Texas setting and how that informs your narrative and narrative choices?
Choi: I grew up in Hong Kong during a time when it was still under British rule. It was incredibly glamorous in the way that fast-moving cities tend to be when you’re a kid in a town with a lax legal drinking age and cheap, safe public transportation. When my family moved to the US, we moved to a suburb outside of San Antonio, Texas, that was one big long road that ended in a military base with pockets of prefab homes on either side. Koreans weren’t particularly visible outside of church, and since my mother is very churchy, that worked out for her, but I often wondered what it would have been like had she not been. How isolating that would have been, culturally speaking.
I liked the idea of setting Celeste [Penny’s mother] up in this space where her nationality could admit her into a Korean enclave but one that she’d feel sort of Groucho Marx-y about, where she wouldn’t want to join any club that would have her as a member. This absolutely speaks to Celeste’s baggage and her immaturity. She’s a “young, cool” mom and in many ways is still looking to defy her parents, so she deliberately minimizes the import of Korean culture in Penny’s life so that assimilation won’t be an issue for her. Penny’s infinitely better adjusted. The Korea she knows is well within the throes of modern Hallyu. Where Korean soft culture is fairly ubiquitous and lauded—from snail essence sheet masks to K-pop to K-dramas on Netflix. It’s a non-issue until friends or teachers Orientalize her. Korean-ing and how to view Koreanness is just one more instance of role reversal between Penny and Celeste.
Rumpus: According to Penny, her mom is a MILF rather than a tiger mom, eats pot brownies, and acts irresponsibly. You’re moving away from the model minority myth, I think.
Choi: Tearing down tiger moms makes for heartfelt drama, but it felt a little shopworn to me. I wanted to give Celeste different issues. My mother is a tiger mom, but now that I’m older, I have such appreciation for how audaciously optimistic and naïvely hopeful it is to be one. Never mind the dedication. The thing is, to truly believe that certain accolades will protect your child from unhappiness and bias is a beautiful thing even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But with Celeste, I loved the idea of having an Asian mom whose idea of cool was mortifying in a mom way but anthropologically specific. Like those crews of hardbody Asian kids who go to EDM festivals in water parks. I’ve said this before, how Celeste and Jason Mendoza from The Good Place would make a dynamite couple, and I love that’s even an example I can cite. The thing is, those kids are going to have kids! Celeste has a toe ring. Asian moms can have toe rings. And just because your mother has a navel piercing with her birthstone, wears Uggs, and watches Drag Race—WITH HER TOE RING—doesn’t mean she’s going to be easy to get along with. The relationship will still be fraught and frustrating and everyone will often misinterpret the other, but I just wanted the contours of the arguments to be different.
Author photograph © Hatnim Lee.