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Exclusive Q&A with A.H. Kim AB '87 (author)

April 10, 2024

Exclusive Q&A with A.H. Kim AB '87 (author)

A.H. Kim AB '87 (Ann) was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. as a young child. Ann was educated at Harvard College and Berkeley Law. Prior to becoming a novelist, Ann practiced corporate law for many years and served as chief of staff to the CEO and as head of investor relations at a Fortune 200 company. Ann is the proud mother of two sons, a long time cancer survivor, and community volunteer. After many years living in the Bay Area, Ann and her husband now call Ann Arbor home.

Q: Your past career history includes practicing corporate law for many years as well as serving as chief of staff to the CEO and as head of investor relations at a Fortune 200 company. What motivated you to transition from the legal/business worlds to becoming a novelist, and how has your background influenced your writing?

As an immigrant, I was raised to pursue a practical career. I was bad at science and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so medicine wasn’t in the cards for me. Law seemed the next-best option. It never entered my mind to be a writer.

Fast forward a few decades. I was in my late 40s and had just finished reading John Green’s YA novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Something about that book made me want to write a YA novel from a Korean American perspective. Being a classic Harvard overachiever, I set a goal to write and publish a novel by the time I turned 50 – roughly three years away.

That first manuscript went nowhere, not even a nibble from an agent, but I’d been bitten by the writing bug, so I resolved to keep trying. My second manuscript turned into my debut novel, A GOOD FAMILY, which came out just shy of my 55th birthday.

Being a lawyer is a great foundation for being a writer. I was used to starting the day staring at a blank screen, thinking of just the right words to make my point. My legal/business experience gave me plenty of compelling story ideas. Plus, working a corporate job allowed me to pay rent and tuition, live comfortably, and sock away enough savings so I could retire early.

Q: Can you share more about the personal experiences with your brother’s family that inspired your debut novel, A GOOD FAMILY? How did those experiences help shape the story’s narrative?

Around the time I was unsuccessfully trying to get an agent for my YA manuscript, my brother’s wife pled guilty to a white-collar crime and was sentenced to Alderson Women’s Prison, where Martha Stewart once famously resided. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK had just come out on Netflix, and everyone I knew seemed to be binge-watching it. As I corresponded with my sister-in-law in prison and learned about her new life, it occurred to me that I had an insider’s view into a world that many people were fascinated by – and that agents might be interested in reading.

In A GOOD FAMILY, I took the general outlines of my family’s experience – an ambitious and accomplished woman pleads guilty to a white-collar crime, her sister-in-law steps in to help support the people left behind – and built a fictional story around it, sprinkling true-life details throughout. So, while the book was inspired by reality, the end result is very much a product of my imagination. And yes, I did share the manuscript with my brother and sister-in-law before I queried agents, and both were very supportive.

Q: The characters in A GOOD FAMILY are intricately woven together, each with their own motivations and secrets. How did you approach crafting these characters to make them feel authentic and relatable to the reader?

Just as the storyline for A GOOD FAMILY was rooted in my family’s experience but then went off into fictional territory, many of the characters were inspired by real people but quickly developed lives of their own. With each character, I tried to get inside their heads – to figure out what made them tick, to imagine the backstories that formed their personalities. I kept asking, “why?” Why would a high-powered executive plead guilty to a white-collar crime? Why would her sister-in-law be so devoted to her family, almost to the point of self-abnegation? Why would these two characters form an unlikely alliance?

Some people have described the characters in A GOOD FAMILY as unlikeable, and that hurts my feelings. I love (almost) all my characters because I’ve put a little bit of myself into each of them.

Q: How do you balance the exploration of such complex themes like love, loss, grief, and forgiveness in your writing, especially within the context of family dynamics?

Initially, my goal in writing A GOOD FAMILY was to create a compelling page-turner with a propulsive plot that no agent could turn down. It was only as I immersed myself in the revision process – especially as I worked through each of the main characters’ back stories – that the deeper themes of love, loss, grief, and forgiveness started to emerge. 

In contrast, with RELATIVE STRANGERS, I already had the benefit of Austen’s story arc from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to build upon, so I was able to delve into the characters’ interior lives right away. Perhaps it’s a symptom of getting older, but loss and grief have been my constant companions for some time, and RELATIVE STRANGERS allowed me to explore those feelings through the lens of my fictional characters. 

Q: Congratulations on your imminent sophomore novel’s release (out tomorrow, April 2nd)! The premise of RELATIVE STRANGERS, with its modern, feminist twist on a classic tale, sounds captivating. What inspired you to retell this story in such a unique way?

The idea for RELATIVE STRANGERS came to me when I was sending out queries for A GOOD FAMILY and hearing crickets. I was feeling sorry for myself and self-soothed by watching one of my favorite comfort movies, Ang Lee’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY. As I basked in the warm glow of Elinor and Marianne’s sisterly affection and their charming suitors’ attentions, I thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be fun to write a modern version of the story but with Korean American protagonists? And wouldn’t it be even more fun to fill it with all the things I love: mouth-watering food, movie and pop culture references, and Northern California scenery? Just as SENSE & SENSIBILITY was my comfort movie, RELATIVE STRANGERS was my comfort write.

Q: You infuse a lot of your personal history into your novels. Considering RELATIVE STRANGERS is a modern SENSE AND SENSIBILITY starring two half-Korean sisters, how have you incorporated elements of diversity and cultural identity throughout the storytelling process, as a South Korean immigrant?

Having immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler and been encouraged to assimilate into my new homeland, I don’t have a strong familiarity with Korea or its culture. I used to feel some shame around that – I’m not Korean enough to be Korean nor white enough to be American – but age has a great way of making you not care about such things anymore.

My main connections to Korea are the stories my parents told me and the food we ate at the kitchen table, so those are elements that I weave into my writing. Growing up as someone who didn’t “look” like everyone around me but wanted to fit in, I was a keen observer of class distinctions and a huge consumer of American pop culture, so I tend to write characters who are similarly attuned to such details.

Q: What challenges did you encounter while writing RELATIVE STRANGERS, and how did you overcome them during the creative process?

My main challenge in writing RELATIVE STRANGERS wasn’t in the creative process but in wondering what I could possibly add to the already considerable Austen catalog. As a Janeite myself, I know how protective we are of her original work and how critical we can be of any adaptations. Case in point: the most recent PERSUASION film featuring Dakota Johnson. 

I ultimately quelled those anxieties by thinking about how much I enjoy reading or watching anything Austen – Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, Sonali Dev’s THE RAJES series, Cathleen Schine’s THE THREE WEISSMANNS OF WESTPORT, CLUELESS, BRIDGET JONES' DIARY, I could go on forever. So, I thought: why shouldn’t I write an Austen retelling from a Korean American perspective? 

Q: Setting RELATIVE STRANGERS in a cancer retreat center called Arcadia adds an interesting backdrop to the sisters' journey. Was this choice at all inspired by your personal background, either from your experience as a cancer survivor or from your community volunteer work? How did you utilize this setting to enhance the story and deepen the characters' development?

Arcadia is very much inspired by a real place: Commonweal, a cancer retreat center in Bolinas, California that I have been fortunate enough to attend several times as a cancer survivor and as part of my volunteer work. Both Austen’s original and my homage begin with the death of the family patriarch, so loss and grief are introduced right away as themes. Commonweal invites guests to sit side by side with their loss and grief rather than running away from those scary emotions, and that’s the kind of journey my characters go on in RELATIVE STRANGERS. I couldn’t think of a better place to set my book.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring authors, particularly those who are considering either writing original fiction based on personal experience or infusing that experience into a retelling of a classic story?

In the words of Nike, just do it. Don’t worry if you’ve never taken a creative writing class before. Don’t worry if you don’t have an MFA. Don’t worry if you don’t know the difference between an inciting incident and an exciting incident. All those things were true for me, and yet here I am, a published author.

Set aside time to write, preferably every day. I know that sounds hard when you have a day job, but I was my most productive as a writer when I was working full time, raising two sons, and helping my extended family. You make time for the things that matter.

Find a writing community. You may start out writing on your own – that’s how I wrote my first YA manuscript – but to improve as a writer, it helps to have other people with whom you can share your work-in-progress and exchange feedback. You can often find other aspiring writers at your local library, community college, or indie bookstores.

Embrace the personal. I think most writing is drawn from personal experience, even when the story itself is fantastical. Just as a method actor buries themselves into their character’s inner motivations and emotions, I think the best writers dive deeply into their fictional characters to understand them as three-dimensional beings. If you are drawing from real-life experiences or people, don’t use your writing to “get even” or “tell your side of the story.” That’s what therapy is for. Be generous and find the humanity in your characters.

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