The Rumpus Book Club chats with Nicole Chung about her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, October 2018), revising the book based on a dream, and her recent appearance on The Daily Show.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, T. Kira Madden, Maylis de Kerangal, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Nicole Chung about her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know!
Nicole Chung: Hi, everyone! I am so happy to be here.
Eva Woods: Nicole, this is off topic so I’ll get it out now, but my roommate posted all three of our copies of your book on Instagram the other day—we’re big fans.
Nicole Chung: Eva, that is lovely to hear; thank you! I believe every individual should have 1.5 copies, at minimum.
Ann B.: Hello, Nicole!
Marisa: How is the book tour going, Nicole? Does it feel strange/exciting/awesome for the book to be out in readers’ hands?
Nicole Chung: Thanks for asking, Marisa. Yes, all three of those things! I love that the book is in readers’ hands, and that it has its own life now, and at the same time it is so surreal to see it out there in the world. Book tour has been thrilling and exhausting—I am really enjoying it, and at the same time I get overwhelmed a lot and try to just take it a day at a time.
Ann B.: Your book is on every list you’d want to be on. Are you surprised by the hoopla? (Which is deserved, btw.)
Nicole Chung: Thank you, Ann! I probably shouldn’t say this, but yeah, I have been a little surprised by the buzz.
Eva Woods: The care you took with telling other people’s stories in addition to your own was really moving. Can you talk about that thought process a little bit?
Nicole Chung: Thank you so much—I did really try to take care with everyone’s stories, everyone’s memories and perspectives. My primary goals were to honor those perspectives and experiences while being truthful, and to give my family members the kind of depth and complexity they deserved. I always knew I couldn’t write this memoir with myself as the only nuanced, fully human character—no one can write a memoir that way.
Nicole Chung: I checked a lot of facts with family members, asked permission before writing certain things—particularly when it came to my sister’s story—and had them read early drafts so they weren’t surprised.
Eva Woods: I love that idea, that all the characters needed to be fully drawn. How were your personal relationships from before meeting your new(old) family affected by the book writing process?
Nicole Chung: I think I was worried that writing this book would put some strain on various family relationships, but it really didn’t! Everyone was very supportive. I did take pains to try and protect their privacy; I still do. We’ve had some good conversations about it and I imagine will continue to. My sister and I were already close, but I think talking about all of this has brought us closer. I wouldn’t have even attempted to write this without her support.
Sarah Appleton Pine: I read in your acknowledgements a little bit about your shaping of the book. Can you talk about your writing process and what it was like to put this book together? It’s beautifully and movingly done.
Nicole Chung: Hi, Sarah! Thank you so much for the kind words. I began writing this book in the fall of 2016, a couple of months after it sold. I finished my first draft around Thanksgiving 2017, and spent several more months refining and editing—and by that I mean I had a dream about tearing it apart, and spent weeks doing that and restructuring/rewriting the first half. I still feel a little guilty when I think about what I put my editor through at that point (she really liked the first draft!). But we both believe the book benefited a lot from that restructuring. And once I had that solid second draft, I mostly stuck with that, and made only small changes from then on. All in all, it took about a year and a half to write, including edits.
Sarah Appleton Pine: A year and a half—that’s amazing! I feel like restructuring and refining is often times the most challenging part of writing. But, yes, revision deserves its own space like you say!
Marisa: You’ve been an editor yourself for a while now; when you write, how do you turn that off? Asking for a friend…
Eva Woods: Lol, Marisa; great question. (Also, same.)
Ann B.: Tee hee
Nicole Chung: Lol, Marisa! I get so little time to write that I just kind of tune everything else out and DO IT when I have the opportunity. Occasionally I do get hung up on editing myself as I write, which is terrible and counterproductive, but I can often turn it off—I know I’ll get my crack at it later. Being an editor means that I have a great deal of faith in the writing and revision process. So I know that even if I don’t love it at the draft stage, eventually we’ll edit and I will… not hate it entirely.
Marisa: That’s such a great answer. Thank you!
Eva Woods: Going back to Sarah’s question, the structure of the book was amazing. I really felt like there was a driving force behind the narrative and a clear beginning and end of the story, which is something a lot of memoirs lack for me. Was that something that you and your editor were trying to do particularly differently?
Nicole Chung: Thank you! Structure is so difficult. I didn’t really feel good about this book until I had that figured out. My editor, Julie Buntin, is an author herself, and she always had total faith in me—she really trusts that the author is the expert on their own book, and was glad to follow my lead.
Nicole Chung: I think Julie was just surprised when I told her, “Hey, I am restructuring the book based on this dream I had.” 😉 Which is understandable! But she told me to go for it. She was great.
Eva Woods: That’s so dope. Bless good editors very, very much.
Sarah Appleton Pine: I also found it so interesting that ostensibly your book is about adoption, and being a person of color often in very white spaces, but your book also felt to me like so much of it has to do with motherhood and a meditation on that. When you think about your book, does this ring true to you, too, or is it just me?
Marisa: I’m going to add to Eva’s question, and ask about the ways the book tackles race and family, alongside telling your own personal story. I wrote in The Daily Rumpus that it felt like throughout the book you opened little doors to bigger worlds than your own. How did you accomplish that? (Because it was stunning and wonderful.)
Marisa: Ooh, yes, also what Sarah wrote, too!
Sarah Appleton Pine: I love that, Marisa! I completely agree! What a beautiful way of putting what Nicole does!
Nicole Chung: I would agree. I think the book is very much about family relationships of all sorts. Motherhood, sure, but also what it means to be a daughter, a sister, a long-lost connection.
Nicole Chung: Marisa, thank you. That was a lovely note in the Daily Rumpus. A lot of mainstream narratives about transracial adoption center non-adoptees: what they think, what they should know, what they experience. Not to oversimplify this, but I really did just set out to try to tell the truth, tell a good story, and hoped that would encourage people to reflect on and maybe reconsider some ideas about adoption and family and what it means to belong.
Sarah Appleton Pine: Absolutely. Connections over generations struck me throughout your memoir, most obviously when you’re looking through the family album with biological dad, but also in moments between you and Cindy and you and your oldest daughter.
Nicole Chung: Really, every time we read about someone else’s experience, that’s opening a door we didn’t have access to. It’s why I love to read and edit and publish memoir and essays.
Eva Woods: If you and your sister had grown up in the same house, who would have been the bad one? (Signed, the bad one from my house.)
Nicole Chung: Eva: I would have been the difficult one! I am the difficult one now.
Sarah Appleton Pine: Seeing you form a relationship with your sister was the coolest!
Nicole Chung: Thank you! She is my favorite. I feel so, so lucky to have her in my life.
Sarah Appleton Pine: Your book compelled back when I saw it on one of the many lists it has landed on, and I have been eagerly awaiting it. Part of what compelled me is the history of adoption in my own family. Your book really helped me see some of the struggles my cousin is or will be going through and be more sensitive to her experience. In your writing process, how did you work through what you note at times were difficult emotional experiences, like unexpectedly receiving the phone call from your biological father?
Nicole Chung: Sarah, I benefited from the fact that I wrote this book a decade or so after a lot of the events in the book—so it’s not that writing about them had no emotional resonance for me, but I’d had years to think about and process and deal with those moments and shocks and discoveries.
Eva Woods: I’ve had so many conversations about this book with my adopted friends! It’s incredible how few and far between books told from the point of view of an adoptee are. Are there other books on the subject you’d recommend?
Sarah Appleton Pine: Yes, Eva! My question exactly. Books, or even essays?
Nicole Chung: Outsiders Within is a collection that had a big impact on me years ago, when I read it. I remember reading the work of Jane Jeong Trenka. I read A. M. Homes and Jeanette Winterson.
Nicole Chung: Matthew Salesses is one of my favorite writers, and he’s also an adoptee. And then I edited a wonderful adoption series for Catapult. And I also edited some essays by adoptees at The Toast!
Eva Woods: Writing all of these down!
Sarah Appleton Pine: Same!
Eva Woods: Can you compare the attention the book has gotten versus your online writing?
Nicole Chung: Eva, that is a good question! The book has been out for less than two weeks, so it’s hard to compare. I just went on The Daily Show, and that was certainly different—a level of exposure like nothing I have experienced writing essays. But I have had essays and other pieces go viral. When that happens, it’s a conversation for a day, or a few days, or a few weeks. With a book, I can only imagine the shelf life (haha, sorry) of the conversation is longer.
Nicole Chung: I will say I often spend days muting or blocking people after an essay goes viral. There’s been less of that with the book. Most of the direct feedback I’ve seen has been kind and positive.
Eva Woods: I think there seems to be more respect for books than online writing, and that might be a little ameliorating.
Nicole Chung: Eva, that may be; I think part of it is also that it takes a certain investment of time and energy to read or even just skim someone’s book! You can read and react quickly to an essay, but that’s not possible with a book.
Marisa: How was being on The Daily Show?! Was that super surreal?
Eva Woods: HOLY MOLY! The Daily Show is a huge deal, and Trevor Noah is so cute.
Nicole Chung: Marisa, it was like an out-of-body experience. It was so overwhelming, and it went so fast! I watched the segment and was like, “look, Trevor Noah is talking to someone who looks just like me.”
Marisa: So. Cool.
Eva Woods: Has that been the wildest thing so far?
Nicole Chung: YES, going on television and trying to talk intelligently to Trevor Noah about my book was DEFINITELY the wildest thing so far. 🙂 but I’m only two weeks out from pub day! So there’s still time for that to change, is what I’m saying.
Eva Woods: OMG you could get interviewed by someone EVEN CUTER.
Nicole Chung: EXACTLY, EVA. (Though honestly, it is unlikely!)
Sarah Appleton Pine: I think readers could take away loads of gems from your memoir, but what is one or a few things you hope readers get from your book? I guess that depends on who the reader is (adoptee, non-adoptee, writer, etc.), but let’s say your average reader… if that exists.
Nicole Chung: I hope readers experience and enjoy the story as a story, first and foremost. And then I hope it helps them think about family, about adoption, about existing in the sometimes lonely space between two cultures, about how powerful the truth can be.
Eva Woods: I had a huge moment of realizing how much I had built my relationships with my friends by hand, brick by brick, the way you had to do with your sister, and how much shorthand was built into my relationships with my sisters automatically. I REALLY appreciated that.
Nicole Chung: Thank you so much, Eva.
Sarah Appleton Pine: Thank you so much for your time and answering our questions! I spent a lot of time with your book today (and then I remembered about this chat! It was so fortuitous!) so it’s really cool to be talking to you about it! Thank you so much!
Nicole Chung: Thank you for being here, Sarah!
Eva Woods: It was so nice talking to you! I can’t wait to see what’s coming next. Anything cool in the hopper you want to tell us about before you go?
Nicole Chung: Eva, I am working on a novel. I’d love to publish a book of essays. I’d love to edit books. Mostly, I really want to sleep, or go on vacation for a year, or both. Although that is not going to happen, because I work all the time.
Nicole Chung: My adoptive father passed away in January, and there is a lot of grief, frankly, that I have not begun to deal with because the book stuff was going on at the exact same time. When the tour is over, I think I am going to need to take some serious time for that.
Eva Woods: I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you get the time you need, that’s a huge deal.
Sarah Appleton Pine: You’re working on a novel! That’s so exciting! Now I know I have more work to look forward too!
Nicole Chung: I kind of caught the nonfiction bug, and have been so focused on that. But I used to only write novels—and terrible, terrible poetry.
Eva Woods: I have to go make supper for my daughter (your dedication “to our daughters” totally made me cry by the way). Have a wonderful night, everyone!
Nicole Chung: Thank you Eva! You, too.
Marisa: Okay, last thing: Nicole, please list your favorite TV shows.
Nicole Chung: I don’t know what to do with myself now that The Americans has ended???
Nicole Chung: I love Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Week Tonight, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Elementary, Silicon Valley. I’m a Trekkie. I love Slings and Arrows and re-watch it twice a year. I will also watch just about any British mystery.
Marisa: Last Week Tonight is the only way I can get news without feeling like I want to crawl into a hole with my four-year-old and never come out. And I’ve been meaning to watch Miss Fisher’s forever! (I think Eva recommended it!)
Nicole Chung: Marisa, you will LOVE Miss Fisher’s. Come for the mystery, stay for the delicious unresolved sexual tension.
Marisa: Okay, I’m exhausted, so I’m going to call this even though I’d like to let it go on all night. Thank you everyone for joining us, and special thanks to you, Nicole, for being part of the Book Club and for putting this phenomenal book out into the world. It will do good things for so many people.
Nicole Chung: Thank you so much, Marisa and The Rumpus and everyone. I’m so honored you chose my book and spent time with it.
Author photograph © Erica B. Tappis.