• Crystal Hana Kim and Laura van den Berg on What It Means to ‘Learn to Write’

    Research As a Creative Act, The Limits of First-Person Point of View, and More

    After reading and loving Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, it was a great joy to team up with her for a joint paperback celebration. This conversation took place at the lovely Books Are Magic in early September. We talked about what it feels like to be a year out from publication, vulnerability, voice, research, and writing the next book.

    –Laura van den Berg


    Crystal Hana Kim: I’m really excited to be here with you, and I’m excited that we can celebrate together. I also want to say that I’m selfishly thrilled about this event because I want to learn from you. You’re so prolific, and we’re at different stages in our writing careers. What would you like to talk about first?

    Laura van den Berg: Since this is a paperback celebration, this event is coming at a different moment in the life of these books. What has the last year been like for you? What have you learned? What has surprised you? What challenged you?

    CHK: Before If You Leave Me, I had not published much—I went to grad school at Columbia, but I moved to Chicago for four years right afterwards, and I was outside of my literary community. That distance allowed me to sink into the world of Haemi and Kyunghwan and Jisoo. But at the same time, since I hadn’t published anything except for one short story that actually was just an earlier iteration of a chapter in my book, I wasn’t used to the publishing world. I didn’t realize how vulnerable I would feel. Even though my book is set in 1950s to late 1960s Korea, and it’s not autobiographical, I felt so vulnerable this past year. This strange writerly anxiety came over me. Do you ever feel like that, before a book comes out?

    LVDB: All the time!

    CHK: I was really nervous, as if everyone would be able to pinpoint all of my secret obsessions and fears. But after you get over the initial fear, it’s an incredible experience. It’s been particularly amazing hearing from different readers—from Korean Americans, mothers who told me that the way that I depicted postpartum depression stayed with them, or war veterans.

    LVDB: I think it is also a particular thing for novels. I think publishing any book can be anxiety-inducing. But with short stories, people very often publish them in magazines along the way and so other people have seen them and found them legible. With novels, a part of my worries is: will this make sense to anyone who’s not me? Did I just have a weird dream and write it down continually for three years? And a novel is a very private thing for a long time, so I think also that when it finally goes out into the world it can feel like a bit of a loss.

    CHK: I think that’s true, and for me, at some point my characters became their own beings. I had to follow them through the narrative, and I started to care for them as if they were my own children. So for me to let that go and let them have their own life and interact with readers made me feel defenseless on behalf of my characters, as if they were actually real people. Right? Do you feel like that?

    With novels, a part of my worries is: will this make sense to anyone who’s not me? Did I just have a weird dream and write it down continually for three years?

    LVDB: Yes, absolutely. I was just thinking that, with your novel, you have this wide cast of characters, all written in the first-person, which I feel like is the literary equivalent of the high dive. Super hard, but you do it so beautifully.

    CHK: First-person just comes easier to me.

    LVDB: But the way you channel all of these different voices—and they are distinct from one another and there is a very powerful sense of voice with each of these characters—is brilliant. For me, there is a deeper intimacy with the characters that I write in the first person. Do you feel that way too?

    CHK: Yes, definitely, because I’m in the head of each of my characters. I love polyphonic novels because as a writer, I can create a multiplicity of ideas and layers that can develop over time. I mean, I’ve only written one novel, but that’s how it’s been for this one. In many ways, I think third person is harder. . . .Writing from multiple first-person perspectives is an easy way to show the reader how people are imprinted by their backgrounds. So in the case of my character Jisoo, I can answer the question of “How is his world view impacted by the fact that he has not necessarily known hunger before the Korean War, and how is that so very different from Haemi, who is a woman from a lower-class background who has not had access to education or stability? How does that affect her desire for survival? With different narrators, you can widen the world for the reader.

    I think third-person is harder because you have to create that well of empathy but you don’t get to use the “I.” So how do you do that? I will also say that I’ve been obsessed with Laura’s writing for years. We have the same literary agent because I queried Katherine after reading Laura’s books. I’m fascinated by the way you create these distinctive, unsettling voices, like in The Third Hotel. There is humor but also this sense of unease, and with Clare we don’t exactly know what she knows, what is actually real from her perspective, and what is real in this world. How do you do that with voice?

    LVDB: My first novel was in the first person, and that felt like working from the center to the exterior in that I feel like I had such a deep understanding of that character from the start. And it was more about how to write this character in such a way where what I understand about her is accessible to a reader who is not me. With The Third Hotel it was sort of the opposite in the sense that there was a lot that I actually didn’t know about Clare and didn’t understand about Clare and so hard to work from the outside in. One bit of latitude that you get in the third person is that you can see into a character and you can also see around them. That roundness of perspective felt important for The Third Hotel, given how much instability there is in both Clare’s POV and the world at large.

    CHK: When I was reading The Third Hotel, I was also getting a little education on horror film theory. I was curious about the research that you had to do. Even though there is a sense of instability in what Clare knows, or thinks she knows, one way you ground the reader is in the facts of film theory and how you describe Havana. What form did the research take for you? Did you go to Cuba? Did you start with research or did you imbed that in as you write?

    LVDB: Yes! I want to hear about your research too. For me, it was a multilayered process, first a lot of reading and watching films.

    CHK: Do you like horror films?

    LVDB: I love horror films!

    CHK: I can tell. (laughs)

    LVDB: I needed to read in a lot of different directions, from histories of Havana to film theory to books about elevators and airport design. I’m really interested in travel literature as a form. There are a lot of travel novels that have been very important to me and very influential for me. It is also a form that comes with a lot of problems and flaws and baggage and so I was really interested in seeing if it was possible to write a new kind of travel literature.

    My reading, then, also included travel novels and critical theory about travel and tourism and I took three research trips to Havana, in part to attend the film festival that Clare goes to in the book. But there wasn’t really like a start and stop point in the research; it was a continually unfolding process. I had never done so much research for a book before and it was really challenging in some ways to figure out what was important for me to know and what actually belonged in the world of the book. I read this interview with you, and I really loved what you had to say about research. You talked about how you did a lot of historical research, but even more critical was the research focused on capturing the details of daily life.

    CHK: Yes! I like novels where the author has taken the time to reimagine what they’ve learned and have put it into a character-driven narrative. I dislike it when you read a text that just has chunks of information that the author wants you to know. Our earlier drafts are probably like this, but it’s not as compelling. When I was doing my research, I first read historical texts. I got obsessed with specific military details like: what army vehicles each nation used in the Korean War, details that would never get into my novel anyway.

    Then I realized I needed to shift my research focus. I needed to understand: what does it feel like to be a Korean woman in this Busan refugee camp, what does it feel like emotionally when you are witnessing and experiencing trauma and yet when the men return, they discount your suffering because you haven’t seen a battlefield.

    So I read memoirs, I interviewed family members who were alive during the Korean War. I watched films and documentaries. I also found there was a lack of information on the experiences of women during the Korean War. The women at that time were not valued, and so their voices weren’t recorded. That forced me to get creative with my research. In the end, I had a wealth of information but then the question was: how do I distill all this and turn it into a narrative?

    LVDB: The most exciting research is really exploratory in nature, right? Like, it’s not so much about: okay, here is a list of questions that I need to answer. Sure, sometimes research is really functional in that way—here I have ten things that I need to resolve or fact-check— but I think research can become a creative act as well. Sometimes we’re researching and we don’t know what we need to find, we don’t know what we need to know, we don’t yet know the questions we need to be asking.

    I think research can become a creative act as well. Sometimes we’re researching and we don’t know what we need to find, we don’t know what we need to know, we don’t yet know the questions we need to be asking.

    CHK: I have this theory that there are two types of writers. One being writers who write without knowing what’s happening, and the other being writers who have a whole plan for their novel before they sit down. I feel like writers who don’t know what’s going on while they are writing are the ones who enjoy exploratory research. What do you think?

    LVDB: Well I have no idea what’s going on while I’m writing, so I think we just proved your theory to be true.

    CHK: Right? I was talking to a writer who told me that she plans every single step of the book; she wants to always anticipate what the reader will think is happening. I was impressed and yet, I’m a completely different type of writer. I’m drawn to topics that I want to understand, I’m curious about the questions of: what does it mean to be a woman during this time? Or how does power corrupt people? I always have a larger question that I want to understand myself, and that drives me to the page, which means that I don’t know what’s happening in my novel until I am writing, and the story keeps changing every day. I think I have a plan for the next scene and then it changes. Does that happen to you?

    LVDB: Oh absolutely. One of my many peculiarities or idiosyncrasies is that I don’t tend to save drafts. I actually write over them even for novels.

    CHK: No. . . .

    LVDB: Yeah.

    CHK: That’s very brave.

    LVDB: There have been times where I’ve regretted this choice (laugh) so again this is not something I recommend to other people but I do usually write over drafts instead of saving them: draft A, draft B, draft C, and so on. So I don’t have like a first first draft that I can go back and look at. But at the same time the important things carry over. The permutations that this book went through were so radical and that is the sort of challenge and the joy of being that kind of writer, you are kind of writing into the abyss and the invention is happening during the physical act of writing.

    CHK: I would love to talk about writing the next book because I’m working on my second novel now. I actually had about 60,000 words, and I recently realized that one of my narrators had to go, so I cut 30,000 words from her perspective. Perhaps the consequence of writing without a plan, writing from curiosity to curiosity, is that I had to go into this rabbit hole before I realized this character wasn’t working. I had to reimagine the structure of the novel and that was sad. But it’s okay, the book is better for it.

    I’m curious, how do you reclaim the writing headspace, how do you get back to writing after you have published a book? Because it’s strange, right? You have one set of characters in your head for so long and then you need to jump into a whole new narrative. How do you do that?

    LVDB: The publication process nudges us out of our writer caves and out into the world to make contact with other humans, but at a certain point we have to find a way to move back to into that private creative space. I think it can be. . .a challenging transition for sure. For me, there are two things that I find helpful. The first is that by the time a book comes out—and this is not workable for everyone, but it has been my rhythm—I am usually working on something else.

    And as someone that moves between short and long form it is very often that stories follow a novel. There is something very appealing about the discipline and the compression of the short form after being in novelandia for a while.

    The publication process nudges us out of our writer caves and out into the world to make contact with other humans, but at a certain point we have to find a way to move back to into that private creative space.

    I have a story collection coming next year, and I was working on those stories while I was also working on The Third Hotel, but to write another novel requires a more profound gathering of energy.

    The other thing that I think is more transferrable or more practical is that my morning routine is super important: coffee, read a little bit, write something, it could be a page in a notebook, it could be a few paragraphs that I never look at again, it doesn’t really matter at a certain point, it’s just the act of it, the practice. On book tour, my mornings get fucked, so coming back to those touchstones of practice and routine, at a certain point, becomes really important.

    CHK: I tell my writing students to keep a journal where they have to write down a couple of thoughts regarding writing every day, even if it’s just writing down: I did not think about writing today. I think it is so important to cultivate that creative muscle so you don’t walk around the world thinking that inspiration has to hit you first.

    You have to be writing every day; it’s a muscle that will grow stronger with practice. I wish that I liked to write short stories because I love reading short stories, but—I don’t know if this is a water sign thing—I am obsessive, and if I come up with one idea, I will have to sink into it, so I get deeply deeply embedded into these novel ideas until I can’t see anything else, I don’t want to think about anything else, I don’t want to write about anything else.

    Laura van den Berg
    Laura van den Berg
    Laura van den Berg is the author of the novel Find Me, a TimeOut New York and NPR "Best Book of 2015," and two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, both finalists for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Her next novel, The Third Hotel, is forthcoming in 2018. Her honors include the Bard Fiction Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Born and raised in Florida, Laura currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she is a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University. She also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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