Author Spotlight: Mary H.K. Choi

She wrote Marvel Comics’ Lady Deadpool. She was founding editor-in-chief of Brooklyn-based women’s magazine Missbehave. She runs a podcast called Hey, Cool Job! Her most recent project was publishing her debut young adult novel Emergency ContactMary H.K. Choi has done it all. And she’s heading to Austin to talk books.

Emergency Contact released back in late March, and Choi will be one of many authors to appear next weekend Oct. 27-28 at Texas Book Festival to talk about her book. Mashable called it “a love story for anyone obsessed with their phone.” New York Times bestselling YA author Rainbow Rowell said it was “Smart and funny, with characters so real and vulnerable, you want to send them care packages. I loved this book.”

Emergency Contact Summary

For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him. 

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.

Read our interview!

Just reading the official synopsis of Emergency Contact made me instantly feel like I need to buy this book. What inspired to write this teen fiction novel?

Oh, I’m so glad the description of Emergency Contact prompted you to pick it up. Okay, so I knew I wanted to write a YA for a long time and definitely a contemporary because I adore them.

I’d been tinkering with the idea of Penny for a while, a taciturn, scribble-brained introvert with goth-leanings and then Sam happened because I’d recently met the person who would eventually become my partner.

We had a torrid love affair over text and it reminded me so much of middle school and high school when you never had enough access to the person you were crushing on despite how much time you talk to them or think about them. A few years ago I reported a feature for Wired magazine on teens and their phone habits and EC fell into place. I knew wanted to write a story about a relationship that predominantly happens over text.

What is the meaning behind the title Emergency Contact?

It’s a term we’re all familiar with. It’s usually your next of kin, a phone number that you scribble on a clipboard or enter into an iPad if you’re having a medical procedure or going to a particularly hardcore hot yoga class. Sam and Penny become emergency contacts (at first because of Sam’s panic attack) but eventually they use this emotional buddy system to navigate heartache, sexual assault and intergenerational trauma. I thought about it in terms of how many friends you can have or else followers on social media or contacts in your phone, but that it’s usually only ever one or two people you can truly turn to in times of crisis.

I wanted this book to be about the relief and comfort one person can provide. It’s about the signal for the noise.

We’re starting to see more fiction books feature characters of color, especially in Young Adult literature. Penny Lee is a woman of color in Emergency Contact. Did you write from any of your personal experience? Or did you research to write this character?

I wrote mostly from personal experience, but of course that evolves in various edits. There wasn’t so much research involved but if the Wired piece informed the book at all it’s that a lot of the social anxiety, depression, fear and insecurity that we feel as teens or adults have been with us since time immemorial. Technology doesn’t alter that on any fundamental level nor does youth despite how many findings that the internet is out to kill all of us.

You got your degree in Textile and Apparel from the University of Texas at Austin–Hook ’em! Can you explain how you transitioned from fashion to reporting and creating content?

Hook ’em indeed. \m/ I love fashion. The UT textiles and Apparel program is pretty great (Iris Apfel for life). I love clothes and the very human inclination to transmit creativity and subvert expectations in the way we dress. I appreciate that I know fabrics and construction, but by the time I hit the work force, I couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the commerce side of it. Making people feel bad for not wearing the correct expensive crap at the right time was a buzzkill. So I started interning for an art magazine and the rest of the writing came from there. I interned, I assisted, I hoovered as much information as possible from a lot of great bosses and when I was ready I launched my own magazine and then started writing books. It only took FIFTEEN YEARS. Now that I have some distance, I don’t feel as negatively about fashion. I think getting out of fashion reporting helped me fall back in love with it again and find the humor in it.

You’re a Vice News Tonight reporter. You used to write for Wired and Allure. You have a podcast called Hey, Cool Job! You created comics for Marvel and Vertigo. You were founding editor-in-chief of Missbehave. What can’t you do? What is the secret to your productivity?

I don’t really work for VNT anymore or find too much time to freelance for magazines now that I write books, but I still love doing the occasional culture piece. I don’t know that it’s about productivity to be honest.

If you work and commit to the fact that you’ll be working for a long, long, time you’d be surprised by how much you get done. It’s definitely more about persistence than productivity.

And if my jumping around in all these industries testifies to anything it’s that I’m super curious. It’s why I have a podcast about jobs. It’s an excuse to pillage people’s minds and be super snoopy about what makes them tick and if their work makes them happy. Originally it was called, Yo, do you have MY job? Because I never knew what I wanted to do next and I wanted a shady way to ask people for an in.

Are there other projects in the works?

I have two more books coming down the pike. Both with Simon & Schuster and both featuring a lot of melanin.

You can speak four languages. That’s incredible. Which languages can you speak?

Korean, English, Cantonese, and the sort of French from school where you can ask about the time, the proximity of the train station and where to buy a stamp but is otherwise fairly useless regarding nuance, politics or transmission of meaning.

Do you consider yourself a geek or nerd? What fandoms do you love?

I love comics. I am a Marvel person with a great and boundless appreciation for Vertigo. I love supers. I don’t consider myself a geek or nerd in any stringent taxonomical sense but I have an enthusiasm for outputs and so much respect for artists who are ballsy enough to make things. I am a big fan of my friends. They make amazing things.

You have an appearance at Texas Book Festival next weekend. Will you be part of a panel?

Yes! I will have be on a panel on the Oct. 27 at 10:30 AM at the Young Adult HQ tent with Ngozi Ukazu (Check Please!) and Claire Legrand (Furyborn) and moderated by Leila Sales. I also have a panel with Sandhya Menon and Ngozi Ukazu at 1:45 PM. There’s usually a signing after so I hope to see everyone there!

Texas Book Festival in downtown Austin is free and open to the public. You can view the full schedule here.

You can follow Mary on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


Featured image credit: Hatnim Lee

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