First Draft episode 99: Maurene Goo 2.0
Date: May 30, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Maurene Goo, whose newest book I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE is out today. The book, a fun, funny rom-com about a girl who looks to Korean dramas for romantic advice, is the perfect reflection of the Maurene I know. Quick to laugh, never afraid to be silly, and always effortlessly authentic. Maurene is truly a treasure. I met up with Maux on a lovely, late spring day, in Los Angeles. We sat in her lush green backyard while cats, parrots, and crows kept us company. So, grab your sunglasses and a Pamplemousse La Croix, imagine a gentle breeze and eucalyptus trees, and enjoy the conversation.
Maurene GOO: No, you’re not loud, I think you have a clear speaking voice.
ENNI: Thank you, Maux. Thanks for having me over to your house.
GOO: Yeah, of course, surrounded by wild cats.
ENNI: We are in nature, and there may be some cat sounds, as usual with Maurene.
GOO: Cats, wild parrots, if bugs could make noises it would be really loud around here.
ENNI: We’re in your backyard, it’s so pretty. And we’re a week away from I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE.
GOO: Ah yes, eight days, I guess, technically.
ENNI: Oh my gosh. And this will come out probably next Tuesday, so it will be like today [when the podcast airs]. So, happy book birthday!
GOO: Thank you!
ENNI: Before we get too much farther into it, do you want to give the pitch for your book?
GOO: Sure. It is a rom-com essentially about a girl who is a perfectionist and decides to tackle getting a boyfriend using the “K-Drama Steps to True Love,” which are the tropes and formulas that she gets from watching K-dramas with her dad. And she thinks this is a brilliant idea, because she’s really bad with boys, of course. She’s good at everything but love.
ENNI: Was that what you were like in high school?
GOO: Um, no [chuckles]. A lot of people I’ve talked to for interviews recently just assume that I’m like Desi. I do think that a lot of YA authors, or maybe authors in general, are pretty driven perfectionist types. I guess I’m pretty driven nowadays. In high school, I was just doing my best in the things that I was supposed to do, like take all of the AP [Advanced Placement] classes, try to get a good SAT score, be involved enough in school to get into a good college.
But I hated sports, unlike Desi who’s captain of this team and that team. I wasn’t that involved in extra-curricular, I just loved journalism and that was about it. Everything else was kind of fake. I didn’t care about things as much as she does. I wasn’t as Type A. And I’m not Type A, or I’m not a perfectionist even now, but the one thing I related to - when I had my ah-ha moment of what this book was about - essentially was when I realized that Desi has to control everything. And she really thinks that she can control things, and I know that I have a controlling nature too.
That’s her major problem, is that she thinks she can control things… even love. And protecting her dad from ever being sad again. I have a bit of that in me too. I try to make sure that people around me are happy all the time. I like to be in control of myself so, in that way, I think we’re similar.
ENNI: I liked that you said it was your “Ah-ha Moment” with the book. I want to hear more about that, because I have those too.
GOO: And it came so late in writing this book. I started this book a long time ago, and worked on it for a solid six months before it went out on submission and got sold. It was only in the second revision where I was like, “Oh, wait! I get her now.” This book was easy to write, in a way, because I had these steps. And it followed these acts like a classic rom-com, or K-dramas. So, she was an archetype, right? I knew what type of character [she was]. Like, “She was a controlling, uptight girl that needs to just let loose and fall in love.”
I realized that was kind of boring, and I was really trying to dig into her character and see: what makes her more interesting? What makes her relatable? I was trying to find that, and it was hard. So, I would draw on certain characters I like from fiction that could be similar, like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. But she wasn’t quite Leslie Knope either. Somehow, at some point, I realized, “Oh, her mom died. She loves her dad. She never wants her dad to be sad again.” She thinks she can control that kind of thing because she saw success with certain things she did as a kid. She thought, “Oh yeah, I got this. I can control everything else too.”
ENNI: Right, and then you get that great first line.
GOO: And that was actually based on something I tried to do when I was a little kid too.
ENNI: Well, tell us about it. The first line is…
GOO: The first line is something like, “When I was ten-years-old I tried to move a pencil with my mind.” And I did do that. It was after I had read this Roald Dahl short story, THE WONDERFUL STORY OF HENRY SUGAR. That short story is about a man who gets telepathic abilities, but he teaches himself. He picks up a random book in an old, fancy, British person’s house about a Yogi. He reads about the teachings of this Yogi and how concentration and all sorts of the mind-over-matter thing can teach you how to [do things]. He learns how to read cards, look through cards, and goes to casinos and makes all of this money and then he gives it to the poor. In the book, he describes [that] if you stare into a candle flame, that’s the first step. You just stare into a candle flame until all you see is the candle flame, and everything else disappears around you.
So, I tried to do that when I was a kid. I was like, “I did it!” Probably after like thirty minutes, and I go, “I did that trick!” And so now I can move a pencil with my mind. I think Henry Sugar did something like that too. I think he moved something with his mind. So, I sat there. And really, honestly to this day, I really believe that I moved the pencil with my mind. It was probably a breeze, or I shifted, or something. Or, maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but I really believed it. And I thought I was very special for a long time. I thought I was magical when I was little and it was a secret.
ENNI: Oh man! I have some of that too, though. This is like the hubris of being an author though, isn’t it?
Goo: I don’t know, I feel like being an author is very humbling for me. I never think like, “Everyone’s gonna love this book! This book is gonna be a hit! A runaway best-seller.” I never think those things. I’m just like, “Please God, I hope one person likes it.” [Laughs] I have no perspective, you know?
ENNI: And that’s true, I think that’s a good point. But also, even just the act of writing a book is this crazy hubris. Like, why does what I have to say matter to the world at large? I have to believe that it does, and that my work will result into something that’s out in the world.
GOO: I hesitate to think that way while I’m writing a book. I try to be removed from expectations. But, I think once it’s out there and it’s done, then I’m kind of wishing for good things. I mean, obviously, duh! We all pay attention to how well our book’s doing. But there’s something about that hubris, it takes a different form. For me it’s not connected to writing, it’s connected to I think people might be interested in what I have to say all the time [laughs]. That’s so conceited, but it’s kind of what gives me confidence, and lets me do things. Because I have to believe, “Oh, people find this interesting.” Otherwise, honestly, I’d be really shy.
ENNI: Speaking of stuff from your real life that’s in the book, can you tell the pantsing story?
GOO: Yeah, oh my gosh.
ENNI: You don’t have to.
GOO: I’ve been slowly revealing more about this story. So, basically, Desi not only is bad with boys, but she always has a lot of embarrassing moments in front of them. Her friends call it her “flailures” because they are her flirt failure moments. They involve things like, some boy kisses her and she accidently punches him, or stuff like that. And so, she meets this guy, Luka, the new boy. And honestly, at first her attraction is just… he’s so hot, and he does this drawing of her in class. You know, teenage hotness. And she’s like, “You know what? I should stay away. I’m gonna flail as per usual.” But instead, they have a good moment and she gets bolstered by that and eventually she flails. What happens is, she’s wearing her fashion sweatpants on the day that she meets him. And she’s messing with the drawstring, and then they fall in front of him, when he was trying to flirt with her, you know?
So, anyway, that actually didn’t happen to me in front of my crush who didn’t love me yet. But, it happened in front of my boyfriend and a group of strange guys. It was when I was twenty-three, so I wasn’t in high school, thank god! I don’t know if I would have recovered if that happened to me in high school. But I was gonna go on a bike ride with my boyfriend, who is now my husband, so I wore these fashionable sweatpants from American Apparel. So, of course, they’re worthless! They’re just skimpy. And I was sitting on the bike waiting for him, and these group of guys are outside the house looking at his roommate’s car. I’m literally under a streetlamp at night. And his other roommate’s puppy gets out of the house, runs into the street, and I was like, “No!” And I screamed, “No!” which makes all of those guys look at me, and then I hopped off my bike. And in one motion, I jump off my bike and my pants fell off in a puddle at my feet.
ENNI: What happened to the puppy?
GOO: I think the guys caught it, cause I didn’t care about the puppy any more. I just pulled up my pants and ran into the house, and I laid on the sofa and started crying.
ENNI: Oh no, Maux [laughing]!
Goo: The good thing is that I was wearing full coverage, thick cotton underwear.
ENNI: Okay, they’re like, “Nothing to see here folks.” The moment in the book, and - spoiler alert - I hate that I kind of spoiled it, because I was reading that in a coffee shop and that moment was so unexpected, I just didn’t see that coming, and I was like, “Oh my god!”
GOO: I’ve had friends who told me they had to put the book down at that point because they were getting such bad secondhand embarrassment. And I’m like, “Well, guess what? It actually happened to me.”
ENNI: I love that. That’s such a good story.
GOO: What’s the point of me having lived through those embarrassing moments, if I can’t talk about them and give other people joy?
ENNI: Those moments are so perfect for a rom-com too.
GOO: Yes. And you know what? I have to give credit to the Dramabeans girls for that moment, because they read an earlier draft to help me brainstorm a few things.
ENNI: Wait, do you want to explain Dramabeans?
GOO: Oh yeah. Dramabeans is a K-drama website. Not only is it a website where they recap and rate K-dramas, but they also have a community. You register to become a Dramabeans user, and every recap has hundreds of comments. It’s a big forum and community, and the two women who run it live in LA. So, I was lucky enough to hang out with them and get their thoughts.
That pantsing moment, or, that sweatpants moment, is actually what propels Desi into wanting to get the guy. It was the last straw for her. Anyway, that last straw needed to be a good one, and my earlier version was something really tame. She just says something really embarrassing. But the Dramabeans girls were like, “Can you make this more embarrassing?” And I was like, “God, okay, what?” And then I’m like, “Oh. How about something that I’ve actually lived through?
ENNI: I’d love to hear you talk about rom-coms. Rom-coms, we all know, they have such a structure and are so satisfying because of the structure. If I was writing a book, I would be thinking about my favorite rom-com movies, and trying to translate that to a book, which can be hard, actually.
GOO: Yeah, it is really hard. You realize that film is film, and books are books. And I did actually have so many whack-a-doodle moments, I really pushed it. And part of it is because my husband helps brainstorm with me, and my husband writes movies. I realized some of the stuff that works in movies is just too dang much for a book. It’s a different experience. In a movie, you can push things to the limit, and make these sharp contrasts. But I think in a book, even a YA, light rom-com… some things just don’t fly. Or, they don’t feel good while you’re reading them, or natural. So, there were a lot of moments where I had these wacky pratfalls, or physical humor. It is funny to imagine as I’m writing, and the ideas are funny, but as you’re reading it, you’re like, “This is too much.” It feels like a caricature instead of a well-drawn out story and character study.
ENNI: Because you’re in the character’s head the whole time. You’re never far from the emotional impact of whatever’s happening.
GOO: Yeah, so you don’t need to have that heightened… everything doesn’t need to be so heightened. Because you can actually live through with the character. I just realized the differences between TV, movies, and books as I was writing this. And one of them was - I forgot that my favorite thing to do, and I think what people liked about my first book, and they’ll be looking for in this book - is being in this person’s head. And they’re really funny all the time. And they’re so self-aware and honest. So, I realized I needed to bring more of that in, to make you actually really connect with her.
ENNI: You think about movies, and you’re like, “Why am I rooting for this character?” Like Save the Cat! right? You have a moment where you see the character do something that makes you empathize with them, and care about what happens to them. And in books, especially if you’re doing first person in present tense - which a lot of YA is - you have to buy in to this person’s way of thinking.
GOO: I thought about Save the Cat especially with Desi. You have to be with her even though she does this completely nutty thing, right? You have to believe that she’s not fully out of her mind. You’re there with her. You’re like, “Fine. We’ll be along for this ride.” I thought, maybe I need to have a Save the Cat moment, like something really sweet she does for her dad, self-sacrificing. The prologue does show a little bit of that, but it’s not literally her saving a cat, or something. I realized, “Oh, I don’t need an actual thing.” Because through her thinking, and through her conversations with her friends in the beginning of the book, you get to know her character.
The fact that she’s running the school carnival, and she’s taking it seriously, that shows one thing. The fact that she thought she saved her dad from being sad forever, that also showed another thing. So, you could also show that in a movie, but it’s really nice that in books, I think you can do it in a more interesting, thorough way. Also, in movies, you have the ability to have music, and these long shots of someone’s face feeling emotions. In books, you have to describe all of that.
ENNI: Yeah. So, in the book, Desi gets cues from K-dramas. You just talked about using rom-coms a little bit, but did you use any plot or structure from the K-drama in your writing?
GOO: Yeah, I mean, the whole book is… you know? [Laughing] Okay, so each chapter is a step from the book, even the beginning chapter is, before she decides to create these steps. She’s following the steps unbeknownst to her. I decided early on that she would deliberately live out these steps, but that at some point she would think she was done with the drama. But, of course, I’m writing a K-drama, so she’s gonna keep living the K-drama steps even if she doesn’t want to. In a very subtle way, it’s not like all of a sudden, she’s like, “I’m in a Korean drama!” It’s just that the chapter names are no longer the steps, but if you look at the steps they match.
I used K-drama, and it really helped me a lot. I’m not that into plotting. I hate it. I hate writing outlines. I hate thinking that hard about that kind of thing. So, this was like a cheat, you know? I got to follow K-dramas. Once I sat there and thought of all of the rules, it was very easy to shape my story around it. But, of course, then I had to shape the K-drama rules to my story. Because eventually, the story takes on its own life too. And you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna fit.” Like, “Yeah, it’d be cool if I could do this next step, but does it make sense?” I also wanted her to have this moment with her dad, or her friends, so then you have to change a little bit. It became a mix of following K-drama structure pretty faithfully, to being improvisational.
I had all sorts of ideas of how to approach this book. The initial idea was two friends who love K-dramas and basically, they’re super unpopular. And they have this horrible moment with popular kids, and then they have this pact like, “Let’s lead our lives… we’re the K-drama heroines. Do you realize that? Like, we’re so pathetic and lame? Let’s take control of our love stories.” So that was one version. And then there was another version where the story moves along with the fake K-drama that I wrote, there’s parallels. So, I would open each chapter with a scene from the K-drama.
ENNI: Oh, you wrote a whole bunch of scenes?
GOO: Yeah, I wrote my own K-drama. Which was super fun, and I loved the idea, but I realized I loved it, it was fun for me. I read a book recently that did something similar where the beginning of each chapter had an excerpt from something else, and it totally takes you away each time. Each time you start a new chapter you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re sucked out. And you’re like, “I don’t want to be reading this new thing.” You just want to get to the story.
ENNI: I want to ask about writing an L.A. book?
GOO: I’m working on that right now. It’s my next book coming out with FSG [Farrar, Straus, Gireoux] hopefully, if all is on track, next year. But, I don’t know for sure yet. It’s my first book set in L.A. Not only is it set in L.A., it’s very much a love letter to the city, which I love. I was born and raised here so I have very strong feelings.
ENNI: I’m interested in writing I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, the fact that there was a bit of a gap between your first book, SINCE YOU ASKED, and I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE. What was going on in that time? Were you working on things that weren’t working?
GOO: Part of it is, I didn’t know you were supposed to be constantly writing new books! And we talked about this in the first interview, I came into publishing very naïve and uneducated on the subject. Even though I got a Master’s Degree studying publishing, but I studied publishing as a whole.
I studied a lot of [the] literary adult fiction side. Even children’s literature I had a focus on, that was always my interest. But coming from the publishing side of things is very different from being the writer. So, one: I didn’t know that there was a huge YA author community online. Two: I didn’t know that people expected YA authors to write a book a year.
ENNI: Because we say gap, and it was four years, and that happens in adult all the time.
GOO: Yes, four years. If you had told me that five years ago, I’d be like, “Oh cool! I wrote another book.” But now, I’m like, “Oh.” And that’s another thing, when I first sold my first book, I wasn’t thinking of it like this was gonna be my career. I was thinking of it as, “I’m very lucky I got to do this. Hopefully, I get to do this a couple more times, and maybe one day I can do this a lot more often.”
Like I said, I wasn’t driven. I didn’t have a plan: “I’m gonna get published, and I’m gonna do this.” Because of that, I wasn’t really hustling to get another book done. And I had a one-book deal for my debut. And SINCE YOU ASKED was such a long, long, process for me. I started that book when I was twenty-three and it got published when I was thirty. Not that I worked on it every single one of those days, but it was this long, meandering journey to get published. And so, that was the only fiction I worked on for that long amount of time. I was like, “I want to write something so different. I want to write this paranormal, urban fantasy.” First of all, I’ve read three of those kinds of books in my life [sighs]. And I also wanted to write a Latino main character cause I thought that’d be cool [laughs]. Now I’m like, “Okay, that was not a good call on my [part], obviously.” I still love the idea, actually. It was also a total Buffy rip-off.
ENNI: Oh, interesting.
GOO: That’s because I love Buffy, and I won’t apologize for that. So, I had this grand idea and I started writing it. I spent all this time writing it. I spent all this time doing art, and character studies. Totally not hustling, not even researching the market. Or, who wants to read this? Does my editor even want a book like this from me? My agent, from the beginning, was like, “I don’t know.” She was never [enthused]. So, that was obviously rejected. I had written one-hundred-and-seventy pages, or something. It was a long-ass manuscript. But I didn’t finish it. I was like, “Hm. Maybe I should stop and see if they even want this.” And, of course, the answer was no.
That was, rightfully, rejected. I had all of these ideas, but I wasn’t passionate about them. I could just feel it, and I think I actually needed a break. And I didn’t realize I needed a break. It sounds crazy because I only wrote one book, so like, “Why do you need a break?” Like I said, I wasn’t prepared for what being a published author meant, for what the YA market was like. I was not prepared. And so, I do freelance work for an art book publisher, and I just threw myself into a new project with them that ended up being insanely time consuming. That’s the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life. And I didn’t write a single word for nine months while I worked on that book. I just put being an author on hold.
I don’t know if that was a good thing, or a bad thing, you know? I think I was avoiding my problems, but at the same time, I didn’t care about being an author as my sole identity. I did that for nine months, and the whole time I had the K-drama book brewing. Because I had suggested that idea to my agent and she loved it. I gave her a list of book ideas, and that was the one that she was like, “Yes, that’s it.” So, nine months later, I was finally in the headspace to write it. And, I was excited to write. See, that’s the thing. When you take nine months off from writing, suddenly, you really do want to write. Now, for me, it only takes a month, or something, and then I really want to write. I don’t have to take a nine-month break.
ENNI: You’re saying, “Yeah, a break after I’ve only written one book. How crazy!” But, that one book was your first full book, it was an accumulation of ideas, and so personal.
GOO: I just didn’t feel prepared. I felt exhausted. Once it was out, I felt crazy emotional. I felt insecure. The one thing, my whole life, I’ve always been wildly, overly confident about my writing abilities. And then you get published, which is the ultimate validation, right? Like, “You’re published! Somebody wants to pay you. They think other people want to read it.” But, it’s actually the number one thing that makes me feel like shit. Because suddenly you are comparing yourself to other people. You’re looking at your sales as an indicator of your worth, and your talent. And I don’t think I took it that seriously. I didn’t really sit there and think like, “What do I want from this? What kind of books do I want to write?”
I love my first book, and people keep discovering it every day, and it makes me so happy. But it wasn’t that debut book that I thought would just knock it out of the park. I didn’t have any plans like that. So, I needed that time. I needed to learn about the industry, to meet more author friends, to see how people approached writing as a job. I used to think I was a fast writer, and then I met YA authors, and I was like, “What the Fuck!?” Like, “Oh my god, you guys.” I didn’t write every day, and I still don’t write every day, but if I’m drafting… I write like a job. I try to write every day. And if I’m on a crazy deadline, I write on weekends, and I write more than usual. But, back-in-the-day, I would write when I felt like it, when I felt the muse come to me. And then, I could write entire chapters in one sitting. But, I realized that’s not sustainable if I’m trying to do this on a deadline. Now, I’ve learned to write maybe more like a normal YA author type.
ENNI: It seemed to me like the break was you finding your voice. Thinking about, “Okay, this is something I can do for longer. What kind of projects do I want to [do]?” Were you thinking about it that way too?
GOO: Yeah. Suddenly, I have a lot of ideas, and that’s another thing we went over in our last interview. It’s like anything else, you just practice a lot. And then suddenly, you’re a lot better at this one thing. [Laughing] It’s so simple! I guess I always thought it did not apply to writing. I didn’t think of writing like a sport, or a skill. Because I thought, “I was born with this ability. I can just do it. I can do it when the muse calls.”
And it’s not even that I thought writing was that beautiful and special for me. I just felt like it was natural for me. So, I don’t need to be so disciplined. Or, when push comes to shove, I will be able to get it done. And it’s true to this day. You’re the same. We can get it done. We know ourselves, but it’s not good for the long run. And also, the practice makes you so much better. I’m like, “Oh! I got so much better… okay!” It just makes you cringe like, “Oh, I could have gotten better a long time ago.”
I try not to have regrets, that’s not how I live my life. But, it is one of those things, I’m like, “Mm, if I took it seriously, starting ten years ago.” You know? I could have gone into The New School’s children’s writing program, and I was like, “Meh!” In a way, I didn’t need to go to that program to become published, but, can you imagine? I think it would have fast-forwarded all of this. Who knows? Unless I sucked [laughs].
ENNI: Your life would be different, that’s for sure. I’m similar to you, where my disposition is such that I don’t see regrets because it’s a waste of time. Optimism is actually way more useful, I think.
GOO: I try to learn from things I could have done better in the past. But there’s no point in beating yourself up about it.
ENNI: And I think the trade-off, to whatever extend that there is one, is that instead of writing diligently for the last ten years, you were gathering life experiences. And, you’ve done a lot of other creative work.
GOO: I felt like I did a lot of things. Maybe not so much anymore [laughs].
ENNI: Because we’re writing a hell of a lot more now.
GOO: I know, we are. Or, I’m preparing for my book to come out, and literally bothering everyone in the world, including you guys… you should buy it [meaning you, the listener]. Gosh, it’s just so very hyper focused on one thing. That’s just not my personality. It’s really hard for me to do that. But yeah, I feel very appreciative of all of the experiences [I’ve had].
For one thing, I know that I can answer a fucking email on time. I have work skills. I have a level of professionalism. I feel like I treat this like a job, hopefully. And maybe it makes it easier to work with me. Who knows? Maybe not. I would like to think that I don’t take criticism personally. All of these things, to me, have been learned through working these jobs that I’ve had.
ENNI: I’m forever grateful - and this is not at all to say that people who write always, and have never had to have a day job - this isn’t to say that they aren’t this way.
GOO: Sure, because there are plenty [who] are crazy responsible and professional regardless.
ENNI: But I will say, that I’m also forever grateful that I had my first job out of college was four years at this cubicle, life-sucking, totally horrible… It just beat out a lot of fancy feelings that I had about how special I was. It made me feel like other people’s time was just as valuable as mine. It did give me professionalism that I am really grateful for.
GOO: Yeah, and I worked in publishing. I worked as an editorial assistant, and I worked as an intern. How many internships have I had, you know? I worked the other side. I like to think I treat people in those positions the way that I would have wanted to be treated. You know, not like trash? And respect that they are smart, just as smart as you.
ENNI: So, the root of that question was partly also to be thinking about moving on to your next project. Thinking about reflecting [on] your new, creative self, and your new career. It also reminded me of L.A., and telling L.A. stories. I think of you as a very L.A. person. You’re literally from L.A., but also, you are very proud of it, and I think you embody a lot of what L.A. means to me.
GOO: I’m kind of one of those annoying, “I love L.A. so much” people. But, I feel very entitled to feel that way because I’m born and raised here. It’s been much maligned in the past. My version of L.A. is not what people usually think of. So, I’m trying to show that part of L.A. And yes, I am writing a book, a new YA novel. It takes place in L.A., and it’s my first one.
I don’t know why I didn’t write my first two books in L.A. I kept them in Southern California. SINCE YOU ASKED is in San Diego, where I went to undergrad. And then, I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE takes place in Orange County, where a ton of my best friends have grown up. I think I chose San Diego because I liked the idea of a beachy, fun location, where kids could ride their bikes and have more freedom than they would in an L.A. suburb. And then in I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, I liked having the setting not really be a big part of the story, it’s kind of the backdrop. It’s not a character. I liked the idea of this artistic kid having to move to the suburbs and being really judgmental.
I think part of me, also, was afraid to write an L.A. book because I’m like, “If I write about L.A., it’s gonna have to be so L.A. I’ve got to really make L.A. a focal point.” It can’t just be, “Oh, we’re in a random L.A. suburb.” I grew up in an L.A. suburb. I’d have to write an L.A. suburb book then. So, this next one they live in Echo Park, which is on the East side of L.A., which is where I live now and close to where I grew up. And, to me, that is the best part of L.A. [both laughing]. Victoria Aveyard’s gonna kill me.
To me, it actually feels like a normal, American city. Not Los Angeles. And maybe that’s what’s appealing about it for a lot of people.
ENNI: It has a lot of character.
GOO: Yeah, there’s a lot of character. People are real, you know? There are families that live here. There are young people trying to do creative, fun things. There’s so much creative energy. And the food! It’s like an immigrant utopia. Not to imply that there aren’t problems. It’s really shitty and hard for people, for sure. But, it’s where everyone has to overlap. And everyone gets to know each other’s cultures. I love that about L.A.
I really love the fact that I’m gonna write about L.A. I feel fully prepared for it, and I know exactly what kind of book I want to write. I wanted it to be a book that takes place on the East side of L.A. Traverses that part of town. And I wanted it to involve food.
ENNI: You are a food person. And I talked to Renee Ahdieh [listen to her First Draft interview here] about this. She also is a super foodie. And she said that she prepares every dish that is featured in her book.
GOO: Oh, my god, what?
ENNI: She makes it. Isn’t that crazy? So, I was like, “That’s amazing.”
GOO: In very vague terms, this is about two girls who have to run a food truck over the summer in L.A., as a punishment for some dumb stuff that they did in the beginning of the book. And they’re not friends, but the main girl, Clara, it’s her dad’s truck. Her dad is Korean, but grew up in Brazil, so he’s Korean-Brazilian-American. The food in the truck is Brazilian-Korean fusion.
I’m definitely doing research on that because I don’t know Brazilian food or culture that well. But I know a lot of Koreans that grew up in Brazil, so I’m talking to them about their food. But that’s a good idea about cooking it. Because I’m making up these recipes, and I have no clue if these would be delicious in real life. It sounds delicious, but maybe I need to get an actual chef to make them?
ENNI: Oh, have a big party!
GOO: Yeah! Oh, my god. For my actual book launch I could serve the actual food from the truck.
ENNI: That would be amazing!
GOO: Oh, my god. I can’t believe I’m thinking about the next book launch.
ENNI: So, it sounds like when you got around to writing I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, it was a joyful thing.
GOO: Yeah, I loved writing it. I loved writing my first book too. I think once I understand the book, or the characters, then I have a lot of fun writing it. But also, let’s be real, I’m writing about really fun things. It’s not that difficult [laughs]. It’s difficult to write a good book, one-hundred percent, no matter what the hell the book is. But, as far as a scale from one to ten of torture versus pleasure… if I didn’t enjoy this, it would not be worth it, at all. It is pretty thankless until you reach a certain level of success. So many authors, and I included, we’re like, “Why do we do this!” You have so many moments in your publishing career where you are so demoralized. It’s difficult, and you’re like, “Why are we doing this?”
So, I really love doing it. And once I like the character… the earlier versions of I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, when I tried to do it with the two friends POV [point of view] blah-blah? It’s not enjoyable for me. But, when I made Desi, Desi? Back in that comfortable first person, then I was like, “Oh. Okay. I actually do really like writing these books.”
Same with the third book. I was trying all sorts of serious versions of this book. Super angsty, multiple POV’s, not enjoyable for me to write those earlier versions. Then once I went into Clara’s POV, into the funny girl again, then I started to enjoy writing again. Maybe I’m too comfortable writing this type of thing, but for now, I like that I enjoy it.
Enni: But it suits your voice, and it’s what you love. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that. Writing about things that are not, quote/unquote, important. You know how I feel about it.
ENNI: But it’s interesting to think about it as a way to… I mean, I ask people this when they write really intense, serious books, “You were in that head space then for a long time.” And that is really challenging. I think, to some people, maybe it seems like a cop-out to write funny, goofy, whacky books. But it’s also… entertainment is entertainment.
GOO: I think with YA it’s easy to… well, the whole YA genre is denigrated anyway, right? It doesn’t even matter if you are fucking literary as hell, like Stephanie Kuehn [listen to her First Draft podcast here]. Someone will shit on YA.
But then you write romance, and then you write comedy, and then you write a young voice, that’s all my stuff, right? It gets cheaper, and cheaper, and cheaper as far as how people value literature. I think it’s interesting. If you watch TV, or even film, people know the value of a Shondra Rhimes TV show. That is all craziness, and fun, and scandalous, and thrills.
GOO: Yeah, campy. And people know the value of Parks and Recreation, which is comedy, comedy, comedy, but there’s heart. I wish there was a little more of that kind of view of young adult literature, and literature in general. But, whatever, I can’t complain. I feel like people, once they find my book, they appreciate the humor, or the heart that I try to put in.
So, I like to think, yes, I do write light, fun books. Because that’s what I like to write. And I loved reading those growing up too. And it’s the most natural thing for me to write. But, I do try. And another author who does this is Amy Spalding [listen to her First Draft Interview here], off of the top of my head. We’re considered the light YA writers. But there is always something more there, you know? Hopefully people get that from my book. I think if you write anything well – comedy well, rom-com well, humor well, romance – then it’s like its own craft that can be respected.
I do think certain books are important. Is my book important? No. To society? No. But I do think that it offers something. I personally like humor writing and rom-coms. I think it’s such a special skill. I really respect that myself. I’m not gonna demand a level of respect for what I do, because I don’t really care. If you don’t have respect for this, then take your snobbery elsewhere. I seriously don’t give a shit about you.
ENNI: Yeah, long walk… short pier.
GOO: I really don’t care about your opinion. You know when people just roll their eyes up at all pop music?
GOO: That sort of thing. You can’t say you like Taylor Swift around them, or something. It’s like, “Give me a break.”
ENNI: Yeah, “Get out of here” that’s for sure.
GOO: “Get over yourself.”
ENNI: You did mention your husband, who is also a creative professional. How does that work with you guys? How involved are you in brainstorming? How does your creative life and married life overlap?
GOO: I feel very lucky. Chris and I have a very harmonious, creative relationship. And I say we’re lucky, because I know a lot of other creative couples have to stay far away from each other, and not get involved. And I get that too. I get it. There’s something about being critiqued by your partner that can be harsher, and it also puts them into this other space. Suddenly they’re also your critique partner, and it might affect the marriage part. Or, the girlfriend/boyfriend part.
But for us, that is actually the one time we are one-hundred percent very functional [laughs]. I mean, whatever, we’re a functional couple. We fight like everyone else. But when it comes to creative stuff, we’re actually a very, very good fit. We started off in very different industries. Chris started off doing concept art for video games and animated films. I started off doing publishing work. And he worked on enough movies where he wanted to write his own, and he became a screenwriter, while doing animated work.
So, I got to learn about screenwriting through watching him go through that process. And he also started doing illustration for picture books, so he learned a little about publishing. He’s done a couple of books, SPARKY, and A GREYHOUND, A GROUNDHOG with Emily Jenkins. And Jenny Ofill did the first one. And now, I’m like, “Ooh!” I’ve kind of got one eye on maybe I’ll write for TV, or screenplays one day. So, it’s like we’re overlapping a bit more in our careers.
ENNI: Kind of grew together.
GOO: Yeah. And we’re both, essentially now, telling stories. And he’s really great. I feel like what I lack is the focus of the plotting, and thinking of really fun, hooky things. It’s not my natural talent. But, that’s his. So, it’s a really good balance. Also, we naturally know how far to critique. We’re both pretty open to that. I don’t think either of us are that territorial about our work. It helps that we work in different industries still. If he was a YA author, maybe I would feel differently? But, I don’t know. I think neither of us have crazy, big egos, for one thing. There’s no reason for me to be competitive, it makes zero sense. I instead feel very inspired and motivated.
I like to be surrounded by people who are at the top of their game, in a way. Because it is very inspiring, and not in a creepy, social climbing way. I just like to be around that energy. The people who succeed often, they’re not better than you or me at anything. It’s just that they work so freaking hard, and they’re hyper-focused. And I need to have that reminder. And it’s really good to be around that energy. People who are really dedicated to doing this thing and succeeding at it. I get very energized from watching him do his work. That’s the other thing that I guess we’re lucky in, that I think he’s good at what he does, and he thinks I’m good at what I do. We like each other’s work. So, that helps [laughs], cause what if he was bad? Or, not my style? And I’d be like “Eww!”
ENNI: But, do you think that’s even possible? If you saw Chris’s drawings for the first time, and were like, “Ugh!” Then he would be less attractive to you.
ENNI: Tahereh Mafi [listen to her First Draft interview here, or read the transcript] also said this, where she was like, “I’m just really lucky. Either Ransom really loves my work, or he’s a great liar.” I just don’t believe that you could lie, or avoid it.
GOO: But, you know, I also think your love could color your feelings about that other person’s work. Just like I don’t think any one of my author friends, I don’t like their books [laughs]. The other day I was like, “Are they really all that good, or am I really biased?”
ENNI: A little bit of both.
GOO: I think the layer of knowing people, and understanding people, adds a depth to reading their work, and appreciation. So, I do think it does alter, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good. It could mean you have a more open mind going into it.
ENNI: And half the times I read books by our friends and I’m like, “I know what she was going through when she wrote this.” It’s meaningful on this other level, and this is what she was working through.
GOO: And you catch their humor because you’re like, “Oh, that’s totally something so-and-so would say.” And it cracks you up.
ENNI: Yeah, you hear it in their voice.
GOO: Exactly. There’s some poignant moment and you’re like, “Oh, I think I know where that’s coming from.” Also, you don’t want to project too much, because as we all know everybody thinks that everything is about you when you write fiction.
ENNI: [laughs] Oh, it’s true. And you’re the person who wrote your own embarrassing moment into…
GOO: I know. I do write a lot of myself in my books. But until I’m a master storyteller, it’s really the easiest way to make things feel authentic.
ENNI: Well, yeah! I think that does make you a master storyteller. Actually, this translates and loops me into a question I was gonna ask you. Last time, you mentioned that you were really inspired to write, at least early on, by David Sedaris. And that you always liked writing essays. And the column you had in high school…?
GOO: Oh, I just wrote a lot of random things in high school for the newspaper.
ENNI: And talking about putting your real experiences into your books, do you feel writing nonfiction would ever be something you would want to do?
GOO: I’m gonna be a part of this non-fiction anthology that’s coming out. I’m not sure when it’s coming out now, but it’s about the post-election feels that a lot of us women authors have. It’s about our personal experiences. I was super excited to go into that mode again, because I used to love blogging, and writing essays. I’d say column writing is very, very natural to me. Maybe still more natural than writing fiction. Just because I’ve had so much practice with it.
But yes, I would love to do more of it. But right now, I’ve got all these ideas for books, and other things that are fictional, so I think I’m gonna focus on that. But, I was excited to have the opportunity to contribute to this anthology because I got to slip into that mode again. It’s writing about rage and anger, so it’s was very cathartic.
ENNI: I love it. That brings me to the last question I had written, and then we’ll do advice again. I know your favorite thing to read is adult literary fiction, or, you’ve said that before.
GOO: It probably still is. It’s where my love of reading - well, obviously, my love of reading came from kid’s books - but I became a reader in high school and college. I read everything, and I read a ton of adult fiction. I still have such a soft spot for that. I get very excited by a new Zadie Smith book.
But, it’s hard to make the time for it because there are so many YA books that I’m reading, where, it’s my friend’s books and I want to read them. Or, new stuff that I should be reading to check it out as part of my job. And also, the more time I’ve taken away from adult literature, it’s hard to get back into it. When I’m in the YA reading brain for a long time, it’s really hard for me to switch to adult literary.
ENNI: It’s slower.
GOO: For me, those books can really hit me hard. I’m reading THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead right now. And I had to put it aside because I was home alone for a while, and it as making me feel very anxious. And feeling too many feelings that I didn’t want to feel alone at night. So, I was like, “Okay. I’m gonna read my romance novel on my Kindle.”
I also like reading romance novels. It’s such a good palate cleanser between YA and literary fiction. I know a lot of people like to read non-fiction. Sometimes I like Jon Krakauer and stuff, but I tend to want to read romance if I don’t want to be reading my own industry books.
ENNI: The reason I brought it up is because I haven’t heard too many other YA writers say that.
GOO: That that’s their favorite?
GOO: Hm, interesting. I thought a lot of YA authors would like adult literary fiction. I just assumed that’s all everybody reads, because that’s what I read. You know what I mean? Like, “Oh, if you’re a reader, you read the new fiction titles at the adult section of the bookstore, right? I do not write stuff like that, but I love reading it. That might be a reason, because I don’t read Zadie Smith and think, “Oh god, I will never be Zadie Smith!” I mean, I do, kind of. But only in that, she’s like a goddess to me. But I don’t read it like competition, like, “Oh gosh, this is the way I need to write.” And it’s very liberating to just read it to enjoy it. And I know I can do that with adult literary fiction because I don’t really want to write that. I don’t have plans to do that in the future.
ENNI: That’s a good point. Well… is there anything else about I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE that you want us to cover?
GOO: It is exactly what it claims to be, which is fun. About a girl who tries to get K-dramas. It’s romantic, it’s very sweet, it’s a story about her and her dad too. Which I realized is truly the heart of the book and why people have been responding so well to it. It’s been a long time in the making.
ENNI: It’s also the prettiest book in the bookstore. If you’re out there… just pick it up and then I dare you to walk out without it.
GOO: Ah yeah, I love the cover. I think the cover did a lot for this book. My cover designer was Elizabeth Clarkat McMillan. She is awesome. She designs a lot of good YA covers.
ENNI: It’s a Korean girl on the cover.
GOO: Yeah, that was a big deal too. Now, every time I tweet about it, or if there’s a flurry about something like a giveaway, I’m getting a lot of notifications on Twitter or Instagram. So many of the people posting are Asian, or Asian-American. A ton are from the Philippines or Asian countries. The events I’ve done this spring - I’ve done a lot of ARC [Advanced Reader Copy] giveaways, panels, and book festivals - it’s been a ton of Asian and Asian-American teens and women in the audience. It’s been really an emotional experience for me. It’s like, “Oh!” It wasn’t the case with my first book. It wasn’t predominantly Asian people that were responding to that book let’s just say.
And I think 1) the landscape has changed in publishing 2) my cover and the K-drama hook. There’s such a thirst out there for this stuff. They want to see Asian-Americans. That’s the thing, it’s also not an Asian fantasy. It’s not taking place in an Asian country, it’s American. And I think that makes it a big deal too. Just look at the response to Jenny Han’s books [listen to her First Draft Pod episode here, or read the transcript]. I went to her book launch in LA and it was insane! It was like a rock concert. It was so cool. And I do think that people really want to see more of that out there.
ENNI: For the 2.0 interviews, I’m asking people to give writing advice that you learned recently.
GOO: Okay. So, I had to draft this third book on a deadline, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. I had to be disciplined about my time and I actually had to get work done. And then the election happened. Literally, in the middle of it. So, of course, I was derailed. But, I found that I can’t write for that long. I can’t write for hours at a time. It’s freaking impossible for me. I learned that my days, even if I had a full day to write, I could maximum write for three hours. I think a lot of writers feel that way. But I would do them in thirty minute sprints.
I did my first thirty minute sprint with Morgan Matson [listen to her First Draft Interview here] in a café. And I remember thinking, “Thirty minutes? That’s just enough time to start thinking of about how to start.” Right? But, what’s genius about the thirty-minute sprint is, thirty minutes is not that much time. So, if you fuck around during that time, you’re like, “Ugh!” You’ve totally wasted that thirty minutes. So, you are kind of forced to snap into work mode. And then, you have the dangling carrot of after thirty minutes you can check your social media, and talk, and chat for ten minutes. That’s what we do. Then you get it out of your system in these little spurts [snaps fingers], and you go, “Twitter, texting, email… okay cool.” Ten minutes pass really quickly and you’re on to your next thirty minutes. It makes it bite sized, and so insanely productive in thirty minute bursts.
I don’t think that’s for everyone. For me, being forced to write in thirty minutes was such a godsend. So now, not only do I [do this] with Morgan or whoever else, like sometimes I work with you. But, I do it with my accountability people online. We just check in and we force each other to share snippets from our work. It’s proof that we did it, and someone’s reading it. And so, you can’t just write complete crap.
GOO: I mean, I think it’s fine to write complete crap for your first draft. But, it’s really helpful when you don’t. It’s helpful for later [laughs].
ENNI: It’s so true, oh my god, yes. You were saying that you had to write on a deadline, and then the election happened.
GOO: Oh yeah. So, I was doing NaNoWriMo for the first time, because it lined up perfectly with when my book was due. And I was doing well until the election happened, which was literally the second week of NaNoWriMo. But me, and everyone else who were doing NaNoWriMo, were like, “What the hell?” Now, in a way, I’ve recovered, and we live with the daily horror of what’s happened. But it really felt so shocking, so disorienting. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I also felt very beaten down, almost, as a human. I was like, “I don’t feel creative. I don’t feel energetic. I don’t care.” And also, you feel like, “Who cares?”
And then you hit this second wave of like, “Oh. I do care.” And this is my little thing. I don’t think I’m changing the world. I’m not gonna bloat what I do for a living is something greater than it is. But I do think it’s my way of telling stories of things that I value in human beings in the world. Even if it’s little things like – be a pretty nice person. Or, be a good friend. Care about your family. Don’t be an asshole to the environment. You know? I have Desi literally rhapsodize about trees, like a weirdo. Because I feel very strongly about the environment.
ENNI: You love trees!
GOO: I love trees! So then, I was writing the third book, after the election, and I made the book way more focused on not even female friendship, but more like women need to stick together. But our common antagonizer and challenge is the patriarchy, right? It is!
GOO: That’s the one thing, even if you women who voted for Trump, doesn’t believe it or understand it. If we live in a Handmaid’s Tale world, we’re going to look at each other at the market and understand. And I felt that on a very small scale, obviously not like a Handmaid’s Tale, after Trump got elected. I felt a weird affinity with women. I know that’s not for everyone, but I felt that way because I felt like, “Oh!” I got the official notice that America is sexist as hell.
ENNI: It’s so deeply ingrained that we would go for this guy. Shocking.
GOO: Yes. It made me so angry. And so, my writing got way more feminist and angry, and I like where that took it. If you read it, you wouldn’t necessarily say, “This is a feminist book.” The female friendship is important, but it’s actually not the main thing in the book. Initially I thought it would be the main thing, but it ended up being focused on family stuff. So, it was awful and good. It gave me this laser-like focus after I recovered.
ENNI: I relate to that big time, and I feel like I just got out of there recently. And it was a lot of being like, “I have to, because of a deadline.” Which was helpful.
GOO: Yep, deadlines help.
ENNI: And also, I can’t read seven articles about the same thing. I don’t need to be that deep. I can do the amount of good that I want to do without actually hindering my daily life. I need to sleep, you know?
GOO: It’s just not sustainable. But I still don’t want to get complacent. And I don’t want to not care. I don’t want to get used to the horror of our daily political nightmare.
ENNI: My writing did get a lot more political.
GOO: It did, yeah. I am guessing you are not the only one. Mine was not political, per se. There is overtly a political moment in there though. Where they are like, “It would be nice if I could see a woman president in my lifetime.” And then they exchange a glance. I have a moment like that in there.
ENNI: And your stories are about immigrants too. And the kids of immigrants. In a city full of immigrants.
GOO: I know, all of that. Yep, that was part of it. My love of L.A., too. I make a huge point at the end, that the reason why L.A. is the bomb is because of all of the different people who live here. That’s what makes it strong.
ENNI: Yes! Well, dude, as always so fun to talk to you.
GOO: Yeah, I feel like we were very professional this time.
ENNI: I know.
GOO: No joking. Did we have any good jokes?
ENNI: We don’t even have any wine with us this time.
GOO: I know, we are drinking La Croix Pamplemousse flavor.
ENNI: Like the true hipsters that we are [laughing].
GOO: I know!
ENNI: This is the first of many, I’m sure. I’ll check in with you again.
GOO: Yeah! Thank you so much. It was so fun, and I will see you at my launch party. Sarah is going to be hosting/moderating… whatever.
ENNI: Featuring. I’m gonna be in featuring mode.
GOO: Yeah, at my launch party on June 7th at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, at 6:30 pm.
GOO: Be there, or… what’s the phrase?
ENNI: [laughing] Be square!
GOO: [laughing] Be square!
ENNI: Yeah, let’s end on that, it’s perfect!
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