I Never Thought I’d Write a Book Like This: An Interview with Nicole Chung
Nicole Chung’s latest book, a new memoir A Living Remedy (Ecco, 2023), was written and completed in the wake of losing both her parents. Her father, only sixty-seven years old, was killed by diabetes and kidney disease after years of precarity and lack of access to healthcare. As Nicole grieved, the unthinkable happened: her beloved mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and COVID-19 descended upon the world. Without much direction or help from people or books that hadn’t been written, Chung wrote the book that she couldn’t find: a memoir of hope in the midst of loss and injustice.
Author of the national bestseller All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018), named a Best Book of the Year by over twenty outlets, including NPR, The Washington Post, Time, and Library Journal, Chung’s first memoir told the story of being a Korean American adoptee, growing up in the (predominantly white) Pacific Northwest. Just as she came to terms with her adoption story in All You Can Ever Know, Chung now blazes a trail through a complicated social system in A Living Remedy, searching for equity against an unjust landscape of rich and poor in the United States.
I spoke to Nicole Chung via Zoom, where we talked about grief, craft, self-care, and what a writer can do when their book starts off as something, and becomes something else.
The Rumpus: Can you tell us a little about selling A Living Remedy? How does the finished book compare with your original plan?
Nicole Chung: When I sold A Living Remedy, my vision for it was different. For two reasons: one, my mother was still living, and she didn’t have a terminal cancer diagnosis yet. I was thinking I would be able to ask her questions, consult her all the way through the writing process, and she would be a part of that. I pictured myself writing a book about grief for my father, and how we lost him earlier than we would have, due to years of precarity on my parents’ part and lack of access to health care. I wanted to write it, in part, because I was revisiting a lot of books on grief that had previously really meant a lot to me, and still do. I noticed that a lot of them were written by people who were white and upper-middle class. Of course, grief is grief, no matter who experiences it, or when, but these books weren’t quite what I needed at that moment. They weren’t dealing with a lot of the same concerns and burdens that my family had dealt with when my father was sick for many years. Of course, most people in this country are not fantastically wealthy, and so the way we tend to face illness and grief and crisis is very different than it would be if we had all the resources, all the support, or if these systems weren’t fundamentally broken. I wanted to write a book that really spoke to that aspect of my grief, and my mother’s, and the injustice of how my father died. I pictured my mother being a pretty active part of that book. I also imagined it in form as a book of linked essays rather than a memoir.
Rumpus: That was my next question!
Chung: That is, obviously, not the book I wrote. I tried. Honestly, I don’t know the reason why it didn’t work. I think part of it is that life intervened. My mother got a terminal cancer diagnosis not long after I sold this book and started writing it–that really changed everything. I knew her illness would come into it, and I wasn’t sure how. The book just demanded something very different of me than I’d imagined, and it took on a very different form. Eventually, after scrapping everything I had drafted, and starting over, I realized that the frame of the book, really the foundation, was going to be my relationship with my mother. It was going to start and end with her. She was still very much a part of this, but it was going to look very different than I thought. With that realization, it just became much more. A narrative unfolded—the book became much more of a novelistic memoir, very different from my first. Still a memoir, as opposed to a memoir in essays.
If I’m honest, I’m just a tiny bit disappointed that I couldn’t make that structure work–the memoir in essays–for this book. I tried for months, and it was not really coming together. So this book, as it emerged, has a different structure.
Rumpus: There are several lists in this book. I love lists. Can you talk about how you used them?
Chung: I love the list. There are three of them in this book. Once I realized this was going to be more of a novelistic style memoir, I thought, “At least I can still play with form a little bit.” So, you’ll notice some of the chapters are very short, and some are much longer. Then, there are these three lists, which are the shortest chapters.
I knew one of the things I wanted to write about was the distance between where I came from and where I ended up. Even though I kept telling my editor, “Truly my high school and college years are not that interesting; I don’t even want to read about them,” it ended up being really important to include just a little bit, and more about leave-taking, and that physical and some emotional and ideological distance. I wound up really enjoying those chapters, because I got to write about my parents, and the place I come from. Enjoying a little bit of levity [in the lists] would also illustrate the distance from home, which sometimes felt uncrossable.
I just really enjoyed having a chance to write those and kind of play with form a little bit and I was surprised how much work a list can do. But I wrote them mainly because I thought it would be kind of fun.
Rumpus: Can you speak to how you put everything together and how you use time in the book?
Chung: I originally had some time jumps. I spent more time in the narrative, hopping back and forth between different time periods. I liked that a lot as a structure, but it got hard for me to follow. I rewrote a draft which was not entirely linear. My editor at Ecco, Helen Atsma, said something like, “Sometimes the simplest solution is the best.” I’m never too worried about missing time in a memoir, just because when I read memoir, I don’t expect that I’m getting every year of a writer’s life. With my first book, I was so hyper-focused on adoption and being an adoptee. I remember taking memories and holding them up, looking at them, and asking, “Do readers really need to know this to understand my experiences as an adoptee? Why did I search for my birth family?” If they did not need that memory to follow me on that very specific journey, most of those things wound up being cut. There wasn’t room in that narrative. There’s more in A Living Remedy, but I didn’t want to write the story of my life again. I always think of my mother’s words: “You’re not famous, is anybody going to read it?” I knew what I wanted to include; it’s not so much event, event, event. Memoir is about who we are as people, and we hope readers will read it, not only for the sake of understanding us, but better understanding themselves, their own experiences, their families, their loved ones, their losses.
So, what that meant, in terms of structure, was that I skip around a little bit, trying to pick the memories, the moments that felt most essential to this particular story.
Rumpus: I was hoping you could speak to how you sought to depart from the existing, mostly white memoirs out there. Are there books you return to?
Chung: I read a lot of grief memoirs before I was even grieving; it’s a favorite genre of mine. I actually try not to read a lot of memoir while I’m drafting. I read a ton of fiction and poetry all the time, especially when I’m working on something personal. It helps me to not have other personal storytelling voices in my head. I obviously love nonfiction and memoir, and I will come back to it, but I don’t really read very much of it when I’m writing.
I never thought I would write a book like this. I never thought I would write about these topics, especially a lot of the stuff around class and inequality, like the difference between the middle class you think you grew up in, and then the reality. For years, I felt that wasn’t my place. Actually, writing this book kind of terrified me, stepping into that space. It is, of course, a space that many people think of as belonging to the white working class when they think about these types of books. That’s obviously not me, though I did grow up in a white working class family. One of the most important scenes in the book is when I’m driving with a friend to dinner and a literary event. We were talking about our parents’ illnesses and things that had happened to them at relatively young ages, in part because of precarity, and lack of access to health care. When we were talking about my father, she said, “It’s such a common American death.” I knew exactly what she meant. I’d been circling that point in my head ever since he died, because I was so angry about how it happened. I could not separate the rage from the grief. I had not expected to feel that so deeply. When he died, I’d expected to mourn. Of course, I expected to be shaken and heartbroken. I wasn’t expecting the anger. I wasn’t expecting the injustice of it to keep me up at night. There weren’t a lot of people I could really talk to about it. I have a lot of class and educational privilege now, but for most of my life, there weren’t a lot of people I could talk to. There weren’t a lot of books I could read that really took [my experience] head on. That was one reason I wanted to write this book. I wanted to write about my grief. I know that it’s an experience shared by so many Americans, so many people around the world. I wasn’t necessarily seeing it in the landscape.
Once I really wanted to write about this, I was hoping: if I needed something like this, maybe other people might too. This always sounds like hubris, but of course a big reason memoir as a form exists is to meet readers where they are, to help them think about their own experiences—not necessarily yours. Your story is a vehicle for them to do that. If they’re able to read your work, that means you’ve done your job as a memoirist. I was hoping it would help people who’ve been through similar things, maybe in their families, or people who are living “the sandwich generation life,” caring for young children when parents get sick, and also trying to help them. From afar, I hoped [the book]would help people who’d had those experiences to feel less alone.
A lot of the content, and even the structure of the book, was determined by things that were happening. For instance, I didn’t think I would have any chapters about a pandemic when I sold the book, but my mother started hospice care right before the first pandemic cases were reported in the U.S. So, [with] her decline and her death, the pandemic is the backdrop for just a small portion of the book. There’s this kind of immediacy; I felt so lost in those weeks when she was dying. I could not get to her because it was March and April 2020. Nobody was going anywhere. I tried to put myself back in that time, and think about how many other people had gone through similar experiences with their loved ones—all the missed moments and the delayed funerals, or the funerals that never happened— and I tried to write with that same sense of loss and immediacy and shock. I couldn’t have predicted that would be part of the story, especially when I sold it, but that’s what happens when you’re writing memoir. And life happens, right? I kept telling my editor, “This is not quite the book you bought.” But I was really lucky to have a very patient and encouraging editor who gave me the time I needed to figure out how to retell the story.
Rumpus: This feels like it’s on a different level than All You Can Ever Know, more accessible. There’s the pandemic component, the grief component, the illness memoir, the inequality—all these different items.
Chung: I tend to think of All You Can Ever Know, in some ways, as a really concrete book. I was writing about events I thought of as settled matters. Where I end [the book], it was probably a few years before it was published. In some cases, I was writing about things that had happened a decade or two decades earlier. I had done a lot of work, and I had processed a lot, and I had a very clear sense of what that story was going in and coming out. I have to say A Living Remedy changed so much by necessity because of what happened in my family, because of what happened in the world. So it was not the book I pitched. I think it has a much more “of the moment” feel. I’d like to think that it’s a well written story, there’s multiple ways into that type of story for anybody.
One of my big worries with All You Can Ever Know (and after) was being pigeonholed as the Korean-adoptee-writer. I didn’t want the burden of representation, necessarily, because of course, I just told my story. I’m not telling a universal adoption story. I love writing about other things. I’m interested in a lot of other things. I didn’t want that to be the only thing that I did or was allowed to do. A Living Remedy is exciting to me, but it’s also terrifying in a way. I very much hope that if it finds readers and finds an audience, then it means something to people. I hope it shows me that I can write about these other things that white writers often write about and it’s considered “universal.” I hope I can do that, too. I’ve always known there’s much, much more that I want to write about and share. So, yeah, that’s another reason why it means a lot to me. I feel like I brought my whole self to it. It’s my whole heart in a way that I’m not sure I’ve done with anything else I’ve ever written before.
Rumpus: Can you speak to the challenges of writing a grief and illness memoir personally?
Chung: I was only a few chapters into writing when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There were months where I wrote, off and on, or just took notes to myself, so I wouldn’t forget key things, but I wasn’t making much progress. Then she passed away in the first weeks of the pandemic. After her death, I didn’t write for four or five months. I would open up the Notes app or an email draft; I always have an email draft going. I would take notes to myself of things I wanted to remember—sometimes just a line, a sentence she said to me, or a feeling I had one day. Months after she died, I just didn’t want to forget important moments, important things. I was obsessed with those little details, because I knew that’s where the texture of the book would come from, but it was still too painful to dive back into writing. Again, [Helen Atsma] was a very patient editor, we’d have a check in now and then. I would tell her, “I promise, it’s coming, I promise, I’m gonna get there, I just need some time.” I probably started working on the book again in earnest five or six months after [my mother] died. I wrote a full draft straight through, from beginning to end. It was a really bad draft, but I got down a lot of things I wanted to get down. I guess I’m mentioning all this because this is not how I wrote my first book, it’s not how I’ve written anything in my entire life. I tend to be a push, push, push until I get it type of person, the chair, fingers at the keys, we’re-gonna-make-this-happen-no-matter-what. I didn’t miss a single deadline with All You Can Ever Know. My father died, and I had a book deadline the day after. I just sat there, and pushed through, and hit send, and flew to his funeral. I did not know you could miss a deadline, by the way. I want to say I thought I’d get in trouble. And so I just thought, “Okay, I’ll make this happen.”
I had to learn a lot of grace for myself with this book. It wasn’t even just for the sake of taking care of myself, because that’s a work in progress. This book wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t slowed down, given myself time, and said, “Oh, I wanted to write today, but it’s not happening. Instead of forcing it, I’m just not going to write today.” That would have been unthinkable earlier in my career. To tell you the truth, when I’m on deadline for a story or something, I will still sit and push through. This book just wasn’t going to work that way. It wouldn’t have been a good book; it wouldn’t have been a true book; it wouldn’t have been the book. I needed it to be something about the emotionally honest, raw place I had to be to write it at all. I could not do that by forcing myself at any cost. So, my process toward myself was actually really gentle and really patient. Full of doubt, and self criticism, as well, but ultimately, I think it only got done because of my patient editor and being patient with myself. I’ve never really done that before; I’m going to try it again sometime.
You mentioned therapy, and nothing I do would be possible without [it]. I write a bit in the book about finding a therapist after my father died. That was incredibly helpful. I also want to shout out not just therapists, but hospice staff, social workers, legitimately compassionate doctors, nurses. There were so many people involved who were wonderful and professional and kind, and supported my family and me through the very worst time in our lives.
Rumpus: Can we talk about writing your parents? There’s a certain generosity, I think, in both books.
My dad didn’t get to finish reading All You Can Ever Know, but he’d read pretty much everything he was in. He’d read all [of] what he called “the good parts,” or the parts that were related to him. I don’t know if I can say this is my approach anymore, because my entire adoptive family is gone now. I will say, if I’m writing about someone in my life, I do think about that portrayal a lot, obviously. What helps the most is knowing you’re never really going to be able to create a perfect, nuanced portrayal— it’s never going to be perfectly accurate. It’s also always going to be your point of view as the writer. If there’s a power imbalance at play, we’re the ones deciding what’s important, what goes in, what does the reader need to know. We’re the ones interpreting, not just events, but people, for readers. Once I know, when I read other memoirs, I’m not expecting I will read about your dad, and then understand every single thing about him, I just know that I’m getting one perspective, the author’s perspective. There’s a ton about this person I’ll never know, I’ll never glimpse. If anybody else in the story were writing it, it would be the same events, maybe, but it would be a completely different book. I let all those facts take a little bit of the pressure off. All I can do is represent my story and my memory and my perspective, to the best of my ability. I owe the reader that truth.
Ultimately, there is only one truth I can share, and it’s mine. I’ve wondered so many times what my parents would think about this book. I was very lucky that their response to my first book was so generous. I felt really glad to be able to share that with both of them. They’re not here to read this one, and I can’t hear if they thought I got them right or completely wrong. I hope they come across as whole people, but it’s so daunting. I expected to feel a little bit less pressure when I rewrote the book after my mom died, because they weren’t here. I find myself still feeling like I’m accountable to them, or to the truth of who they were, to the truth of how they loved me and loved each other. I still have a very serious responsibility to represent that as well as I can. I can’t show it to them, and get a seal of approval, but I do think about what they would have said. I hope I’ve done them justice.
Rumpus: Your honesty and lack of sentimentality really shows on the page. Something about the fact that we recognize your parents as complicated, but also we see the love that everyone has for each other. This is made complex by all these differences, right?
Chung: We all love people, or are loved by people who don’t always fully see or understand or agree with us. That was really something I wanted to acknowledge as well. At the same time, I try really hard to not be a sentimental writer, especially in a story like this. It’s so intense and there’s already so much grief, I felt it didn’t need me adding extra drama, and it didn’t need me telling the reader how to feel because I don’t think that’s my job as the writer. One of the things that actually I did much more in this book than the first and in a way that I think was really helpful in conveying those kinds of dramatic moments was, I tried to remember how a feeling felt in my body. And describe that feeling, the physical sensation.
Rumpus: A Living Remedy is much more grounded in the body, compared to your first book.
Chung: I’ve always thought about how my brain is what makes my life and career possible. My body is this sack I drag around that sometimes causes me problems. I can’t exactly separate them, but I can really try. I’m not actually sure if it’s therapy or writing, or if it’s what’s happened in my life, or the world over the past several years, but I’ve really been focused on trying to treat myself like a human being, and not a machine. I don’t think I could have written this book, it just wouldn’t exist, if I had been forcing myself to act and write like a machine. I feel like I brought all of myself to this book in a way that was exciting, honestly, as hard as it was to write. I don’t know that I’ve ever done that so completely with a piece of writing before.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Chung: I have a young-adult anthology coming out this fall, co-edited by a fellow transracial adoptee. I wrote one story for it, but primarily I’m an editor on that project. Every story is by an adoptee of color, so we’re really excited. The project is out in late October, and it’s called When We Become Ours. I’m very excited to get out there and talk about that in the fall.
Rumpus: What would you tell writers writing about grief?
Chung: With A Living Remedy, I had to give myself time and space. If I wrote a very hard chapter, I had to recognize I didn’t need to jump into revising or write a brand new chapter the next day. I might give myself a few days, I might give myself a week. I’ve also learned this is just for me, personally. I don’t want to tell other writers what to do, but I needed to do a lot of work to take care of myself. This included therapy, but it included a lot of other things too. Before I could write either [of my] book[s], there was work I had to do on my own first. It would have been really hard to write All You Can Ever Know in my 20’s. With this book—it’s coming out so soon after these events happened. But at the same time, it really wasn’t a rushed process.
Rumpus: Tell us what you’re reading lately.
Chung: Promises of Gold by José Olivarez. Also, The People Who Report More Stress: Stories, by Alejandro Varela–it’s a short story collection. Oh, I’m really into Banyan Moon, a novel by Thao Thai, a forthcoming Harper title. And I just finished Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.
Rumpus: Ok, jealous.
Chung: That’s the third book of hers I’ve read this year. It’s my year of Banana.
Oh, another book of poetry I really enjoyed lately is Gabrielle Bates’ Judas Goat. I’m always in the middle of about ten books. It’s terrible. It’s why it takes me so long to finish.
Rumpus: Any parting advice?
Chung: You don’t owe the world your grief or trauma. If you get to write about your joys? I would love to do more of that next time. Make sure you have a really good support network. There were so many writers, friends I would text. I would listen to what they were going through with their work or their books. Even during the pandemic, when this was happening, it was good to not be alone. It was good to be able to talk with people who understood. Be aware of your own boundaries, too, and try not to push yourself too far beyond them. Ask for support when you need it. And be patient.
Author photo by Carletta Girma