We are celebrating this week’s release of Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi — one of my FAVORITE debut novels this year, and in stores now — with a Q&A with Mary, plus your chance to win a copy of her book. So keep reading for all the juicy bits!
Emergency Contact was inspired by a long-distance friendship that blossomed into a relationship IRL. I was draining my phone battery and my mophie charger case texting this person I’d met on vacation who is now my partner. It was everything from random questions to innermost fears and I remember my brain and eyes aching from unspooling my guts to this human I’d only known for a few days in “meatspace” but knew so well over text.
Penny came first since she’s loosely based on me in the way that most characters have granules of the author in them. Sam is Penny’s riblet.
Penny and Sam find an ease of communication through text – which I think a lot of us can relate to. How do you think removing voice and face-to-face from their interactions (at least at first) helps their relationship develop?
Penny has trouble making eye contact with people and while she’s keenly observant and secretly funny she’s terribly shy. Sam’s all up in his head and while there was a time when he was way more easygoing and I guess “cool” he can be incredibly self-conscious too—about his upbringing, his family’s financial issues or what he thinks are other people’s expectations of him. Stripping away the visual cues of how to look and even all of the markers of physical attraction helps them to become true friends. Worrying about what you look like at all times is super distracting and forces you to have your guard up in a way. Not being able to see what your Emergency Contact’s reactions are going to be can be incredibly emboldening. There’s a safeness and intimacy that’s devoid of any physical insecurities.
You’ve written extensively for various publications, as well as essays and graphic novels. But this is your first novel. (Congrats!) How was your approach to writing this different? How was it the same?
Books are long! It sounds ridiculously obvious but when you’re in the thick of one and you look forwards and back, there are so many words on either side that it can be terribly overwhelming. At every point I had to ask myself, “Is this what this character would do?” “Am I doing it right?” “Will there really be a book at the end of this?”
When it’s your first novel you have absolutely no muscle memory for what it feels like and the stamina required is sort of shocking the entire time. I despise the actual act of writing so this is just the same kind of deeply uncomfortable labor but it goes on for a lot longer. But when I got to the end of the first draft and then the second and was finally ready to show people it felt unbelievable.
So basically, this is the question where I fangirl and gush about how much I freaking loved this book. (I freaking loved this book!!!!) And while I am so utterly satisfied with how it ended, I’d be totally okay reading more about Sam and Penny. Have you contemplated writing more of their story? (Totally cool if you just wanted to shoot that over to me in an email. It’s fine. I’ll wait.)
Stories come to me in these little flashes of detail. I keep thinking about light streaming into an apartment that Penny and Sam share. Not that they’ve necessarily moved in together but that they’re spending a lot of actual physical, time-space together and are constantly shocked by how many growing pains this implies. They think they know each other so well and in many ways they do but in other ways they’re discovering details about each other while evolving and discovering more faults, traumas and desires within themselves. Plus, they’ve never had to share each other or deal with each other in the context of other people. So I think a sequel with them bumping up against each other’s specific peccadilloes could be great. Their arguments would be interesting to explore. Not that I’d want to torture them but they’re both so idiosyncratic that a transcript of their fighting dialogue could be potentially hilarious.
Related: can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
I’ve just finished another YA novel. This one’s based in my adoptive home of New York. It deals with class, race, fame, and how it’s nearly impossible to know what to do with your life when you’re young. It’s not based in high school or even college which should be interesting. And there are a lot of snacks in it.
You’re making a mix tape for EMERGENCY CONTACT. What’s the first song you add?
Mitski, Best American Girl.
What’s the last song?
The Smiths, There is a Light That Never Goes Out.
Go to writing snack/beverage?
Coke zero, dill pickle flavored sunflower seeds.
Favorite Disney movie?
Excluding Miyazaki distribution, Marvel or Pixar it would be Bambi because of the Tyrus Wong art direction and landscapes.
Ravenclaw. Actually Slytherclaw more accurately.
Please pick an Avenger.
For the movies, I guess Dr. Helen Cho? It’s so weak that there isn’t an another Asian character to pick other than maybe Jubilee who’s an X-Men. Or the Ancient One lolol *full body sigh* Of all comic book characters ever though I would pick the cat (a.k.a. “2”, a.k.a. Tinker) from We3.
Book you’ve reread the most?
Secret History by Donna Tartt
“Smart and funny, with characters so real and vulnerable, you want to send them care packages. I loved this book.” —Rainbow Rowell
From debut author Mary H.K. Choi comes a compulsively readable novel that shows young love in all its awkward glory—perfect for fans of Eleanor & Park and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
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
Learn more HERE!
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Mary H.K. Choi is a writer for the New York Times, GQ, Wired, and the Atlantic. She has written comics for Marvel and DC, as well as a collection of essays called Oh, Never Mind. She is the host of Hey, Cool Job!, a podcast about jobs, and is a culture correspondent for VICE News Tonight on HBO. Emergency Contact is her first novel. Mary grew up in Hong Kong and Texas and now lives in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @choitotheworld.
Thanks to Simon Teen, we’re giving away one copy of Emergency Contact and a branded PopSocket. To enter, tell us in the comments below about YOUR emergency contact, and why they’re your go-to person. Then fill out the Rafflecopter form to complete your entry and earn more chances to win.
U.S. only. Contest runs through midnight (PT) on Wednesday, April 4th.