Interview with Mary H.K. Choi, Author of Emergency Contact

Mary H.K. Choi is a Korean-American author, editor, television and print journalist. She is the author of young adult novel Emergency Contact. She is the culture correspondent on Vice News Tonight on HBO and was previously a columnist at Wired and Allure magazines as well as a freelance writer.

Hi, Mary! Welcome to Ya Sh3lf! How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been living in New York so sixteen years. Mostly for magazines, some blogs, some comic books and one DJ Khaled biography and a novel.

Where did your passion for writing come from?

I was a late bloomer in terms of gaining enough confidence to commit my thoughts and love of stories to print. I didn’t join the high school year book or newspaper, I didn’t write a play as a toddler and I don’t have books with my name scrawled on the cover in crayon because I was born to spin a yarn. I was too scared and self-conscious to write until after college and even then I cut my teeth on the periphery as an editorial assistant for a long time. That said, the first time I wrote and understood that I could make people laugh while informing them, that was it for me. It was kind of unorthodox though. I had to launch my own magazine (RIP Missbehave) before I wrote like a demon and by then I couldn’t be at all precious about it because I had a hundred + pages to put out each issue. I had so many pseudonyms so the magazine could seem bigger than it was. It was fun. I was too sleep-deprived and high on adrenaline to think about how scary it was. And then it was another one thousand years before I gained the wherewithal to learn how to write a novel.

What is your writing process? Where do you get your ideas?

I often joke with my friends about this question. This notion of “Where do you get your ideas”? is hilarious because it almost implies that you can pluck a full-formed one off a tree and have that be A Thing. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. I know it’s not a helpful answer but honestly it’s not a linear process or a paradigm that can be entirely dissected. Ideas come from your mind drifting onto a notion and then you deciding to make it a story and then you work and work and work and work and test it and test it and test it and test it. Sometimes it has enough marrow to stand on its own and create some momentum and motility. Most of the time it doesn’t. Usually that initial notion to me is a scene. A person doing a thing in a space. Then I find what the tension inherent in that space is. What the person wants and why they’ll get it or why they won’t. Then I noodle on it.

My writing process it that I sit down and do a thing until it’s finished. Sometimes it’s a real thing and sometimes it’s heartbreaking and isn’t. I can usually only write in the morning or afternoon when the sun’s up. Most days I only have 2-3 hours of actual writing in me. When I’m editing or rewriting I may be able to eke out 3.5 hours. I also do some writing very early in the morning that has nothing to do with work that I’ll try to sell or that anyone wants from me. It’s more like milking a cow or getting the foam or head off a draught beer. I have to clear some of the crap first—the anxieties, the resentments, the non-helpful worries about a far-flung future that may or may not materialize—I do that for about 45 minutes and then I have a long leisurely breakfast where I stare out a window then I write until lunch. Sometimes I work after lunch. Most of the time I don’t. If there’s momentum and propulsion in the story I’m working on then I cancel my entire life and ask my husband to forgive me and write until I’m finished.

I just purchased your book and I can not wait to read it! What can you tell us about Emergency Contact?

It’s pink. People who love it love it and people who don’t seem to actively dislike it. It’s about two teens with debilitating anxiety and not enough tools to manage it discovering that the buddy system can help. It’s about adulting in a way but it’s more about humanning. Being a person in the world is so unbelievably challenging and being decent is an iterative process that’s constantly being tested. It’s about love and friendship and moms and Texas and texting. And taking up space in the world and then taking up more space with the art you want to make. It also tackles addiction and intergenerational trauma and sexual trauma.

How long did it take you to write Emergency Contact?

Three years. Most of the initial writing happening over a year. Most of the rewriting happening over 3 months. And then there was a lot of lollygagging while people tried to convince me it should be a different kind of story.

What’s your secret or not-so-secret superpower?

I go to a lot of therapy. I ask my friends for forgiveness, compassion and patience a lot. I also forgive myself a million times a day and try to treat myself with the compassion, care and gentleness that I would a small, temperamental and extremely fussy plant. I thought I had anger problems for the longest time but it turns out I have anxiety and self-loathing problems. I tap my clavicles a lot with my fingers and whisper, Gentle, Gentle to myself when I’m freaking the fuck out. You feel like an utter basketcase but it works. Also, whenever I overload my calendar and I’m wishing half of the appointments would cancel or flake on me, I cancel as many of the appointments as possible. I really question if I’m doing something out of guilt/people-pleasing or FOMO/clout-fear. If I am not hanging out with someone because they make my entire heart sing and they feel like an antidote to the hardships inherent in a day I don’t do it.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Writing makes you insane. It’s building a cult of one every time. It’s devastatingly lonely and interior. So be super patient with yourself. You’ve signed on to essentially doing Ayahuasca and interrogating all your capabilities and shortcomings and neuroses FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR and then reliving it over and over and over again for another year. It’s not for wimps. You’d better love it a lot. You’d better be ready to go to the mat for your characters every time. You’d better be nice to yourself because you are doing an impossible thing that is also the best and most thrilling. Your time will become so expensive in terms of what you need to take care of yourself so don’t shortchange it by frittering it away to the unworthy or people who can’t give you a proper return on investment. Be merciless about getting rid of trash friends who are soul vampires. I admire all authors and love them. I think we are the best team tbh. Even the broken ones amongst us.


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