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Grace K. Shim brings K-dramas to the page

On the podcast: Grace K. Shim's debut is full of twists, turns, and lots of Korean drama.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Growing up, Grace K. Shim relished the twists and turns of Korean dramas. Now, she's written one of her own with her YA debut, The Noh Family, in which recent high school graduate Chloe Chang discovers through a DNA test that she has family in Korea...and they're not only rich but they've got lots of secrets. Drama ensues.

On the episode, Grace talks about how her story overlaps with her character's, why she took up writing, and the rise of Asian American voices in publishing.

The Noh Family book cover
Grace K. Shim's debut The Noh Family

About our guest

Grace K. Chang ’05 received a master's degree from Lesley's Graduate School of Education. Grace grew up in Tulsa Oklahoma as one of two Korean-Americans at her high school (her sister was the other one). Today, Grace writes books with Korean-American protagonists that she wished she had read about as a teen.

When she’s not plotting (the writing kind, not the world domination kind), you can find her wearing a Korean sheet mask, baking French macarons, and unintentionally killing house plants and succulents. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three kids.

More about Grace:

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you authors mill as a community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. I'm your host, Georgia Sparling, and this episode marks the start of our fifth season of the show. So if you're new here, welcome. And if you're a returning listener, welcome back. We've got lots to look forward to this season beginning with today's guest. While many of the authors who come on our show are part of our low residency MFA in creative writing program, Grace K. Shim, earned a master's in our Graduate School of Education and taught for several years before she became a writer. Earlier this year, she published her first book, The Noh Family. That's Noh, N-O-H, is a young adult novel full of twists and turns and tons of callbacks to Korean dramas. On this episode, Grace shares how her own family's story and a DNA test inspired her novel, as she got the resources she needed to develop her craft, and what it's been like to see a surge in Asian American authors. Without further ado, here's my interview with Grace. So first, congratulations on your book. And second, welcome to Why We Write.

    Grace Shim 

    Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here.

    Georgia  

    So I flew through this book. It was such a fun read. And I felt like I learned a lot because I haven't read I haven't watched. I think I've watched one Korean movie, which obviously must change. But first of all, tell our audience a little bit about what the book is about.

    Grace Shim 

    Yeah, sure. Um, so the Noah family is about a teenage girl who takes the 23andMe tests and discovers that she's related to not just any family, but a rich, super, super rich family that lives in Seoul, Korea, and she gets invited by them once they get connected to come meet them and when she does, she gets the whirlwind experience of high society, Korean culture, and then, you know, meeting family for the first time. And soon she discovers a lot of different, you know, the other side of it, which is a lot of family secrets and drama and the experience. So yeah, it's a fun, it's like you said, a wild ride.

    Georgia  

    And so your main character is Chloe, and she's grown up in Oklahoma, and I gather that that's where you also grew up.

    Grace Shim 

    I did, yes, so I was obviously, you know, the age old saying where it's, you know, write what you know. So I am taking a page right out of that I wrote about, you know, the hometown where I was born and raised in which is Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    Georgia  

    That's great. So, for Chloe, it seems like there's not a large Korean community there. I'm curious, what was your experience, like living kind of, you know, in an area that doesn't have a large Asian or Asian American population?

    Grace Shim 

    Yeah, I mean, there, there wasn't really, I think the Korean American community for me, was at church, you know, we had one church, that was pretty much where I, my exposure to Korean people. So it was once a week, and it was very compartmentalized. And those people came from, you know, all over, it wasn't, you know, it's not a local church or a neighborhood church, it was like a church that people would drive an hour to get to, because that was the closest Korean church or, and so we were all very spread out. It wasn't a really close-knit community in the sense that we saw each other on a daily basis. And I still am still processing that as an adult, I think, in the sense that I come apart, I tend to compartmentalize friend groups. And that's sort of part of my, my day-to-day life, but it certainly was feeling of a little feeling of being othered a little bit, you know, here and there. And I would like to think it changed, but I haven't gone back since I was 16, which is some years ago, so I'll just say some years ago that but yeah, so it was a lovely town, you know, wasn't you know, anything terrible? It's just when you're one of the only that's going to make an impression on you.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, right. That totally makes sense. So one way that your character kind of connects to Korean culture is through Korean dramas. And as I said, sort of at the top like I have to admit, I haven't seen I haven't seen any of the series yet. But there's tons on Netflix that I've like bookmark now. How would you describe them to the uninitiated and kind of what was your entry into K dramas?

    Grace Shim 

    Oh K dramas. So talking about compartmentalizing my life, this was also a part where I only share, I mean, like you said, today it's on Netflix. It's like it's kind of still blows my mind how there's a whole section on Netflix. I think Disney plus just aired their first Korean drama this year and you know, not to mention like the movies you that have like won all these awards and you know squid games and things like that. So it's it's really quite blown up lately but when I was first exposed to them was through my mom and we did have one Korean grocery store in our vicinity and it was very it did you know, I think I mentioned that in the very beginning how Chloe's mom hardly cook Korean food because it was so far away. And that's really a true lived experience that I had, but we would, it would be a thing we would, I think after church on Sunday, we'd go to this Korean market, which was not that close, and we get everything in that weekend. One of the things that they had there, which I believe is probably extinct today is a Korean drama or videos like that they were videos back then. They were all like dubbed on video on VHSs and you it would be like a delayed version of what was aired in Korea. So it'd be like weeks or months after it was aired there and they were weekly, or you know, so it took forever to get them. So sometimes we'd wait. Our idea of binging, binge watching back then was would be to wait until the whole series was on on tape and then rent out check out like 10 or 16, or whatever, however many it was, and then bring them home and just like pop in one tape after another. And back then. And now the thing that strikes me the most is that not much has changed. I mean, this, it's a formula that works and the Koreans are really just not messing with that, I think. And they were wild and dramatic, then and they're wild and dramatic now and I think really the only thing that has changed dramatically is probably the cinematography of it. Like back then and really recently, up until really recently, they looked like home movies like that was this the quality because they were just churning them out churning them out. And there was always something new, but now they've worked a little bit on that and there's cinematography is like really stellar, but yeah, so I've been watching Korean dramas since I was, you know, early in my life with my mom in middle school, I think is the earliest one that I remember watching. And it was I think I stayed up way past my bedtime for the first time. Sadly, it wasn't for like a party or anything like that, its to watch K dramas. I was that kind of kid. So they're very addicting and I just, you know, yeah. Anyways, so that was my earliest exposure to it and I think as the K drama craze started here, I don't think I changed. I think I probably watched the same amount as I always do, which is intermittently like I won't, I'll go through a phase where I'm into them. And then I'll just kind of like take a break from them.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So The Noh Family, the book has a lot of there's tons of family secrets. There's like some potentially, like nefarious things going on, there's a little romance twists and turns. And that seems to be in keeping with Korean dramas, I gather, ut for Chloe, like she also sort of part of the book is her separating the drama from the realities when she goes to visit this family that she's never seen before. So what ways did you want your story to, like diverge from the tropes, while also kind of honoring them.

    Grace Shim 

    And I'm trying to think about how it really diverged from the Korean drama tropes, because I really felt like it was a lot of them. Like complete with a happy ending, you know, like a somewhat happy ending, I think the one thing that we were very, my editor and my agent early on, wanted to do with the ending was we wanted her to have a happy ending, but we also wanted it to be realistic and have some loose ends. She's not going to get everything she wants, because that's I think that might have been maybe one of the trips that we decided not to follow. I mean, she did have somewhat of a happy ending, and she had closure. But that doesn't necessarily mean she got everything she wanted. And I think that is that's probably the story telling, you know, lesson that I once learned was that, you know, in young adult characters will start off wanting something and end up getting what they need and not what they want. And so I think that kind of is not always the K drama formula. In that part specifically we might have veered off but I will have to say like a lot of it was K drama you know, it wasn't you know, we had and my editor is really loves I think she knows more about K drive than I do. So she was like, why don't we throw in this and this and this and this? and I was like, oh my god that works perfectly. So I think we did do a lot of, you know, we had a lot of nods to K drama and what we appreciate about them in the storyline.

    Georgia  

    One thing I really liked was the sense of Seoul thats, S E O U L, that you get in the story. What kind of research did you need to do to make this story feel authentic?

    Grace Shim 

    I am very wary a Korean American who is not from Korea. I was born and raised in the US and I very much identify myself as an American. I am very wary of representing the Korean culture in an inauthentic way. So a lot of what I wrote about was seen through Chloes' eyes, which is an American's perspective, which is, you know, not a far stretch to say that it was from my eyes as well. So a lot of the Korean experiences that I wrote about were ones that I had experienced myself when I when I was younger, I did go to Korea, again, this is all a part of my compartmentalizing is, because I only saw Korean people together in a Korean setting. You know, I never really saw them in like, a normal setting until earlier. I mean, later in life in like, school or in, you know, workplace and things like that. So my earlier memories of Korean people were either at, you know, in Korea or at a Korean organization kind of setting. So I did go to Korea quite often as a child every summer and I would spend like a month with my relatives there. I use some of my early childhood memories of it. But I also, you know, kept going throughout the years until my most recent visit to Korea was 2017. And every time I should state I never feel I always felt like a foreigner in that country. It's and it's not a bad thing. I do have a lot of nostalgia and memories, but it's more like a familiar setting rather than it's going home. So my most recent and it's funny that you say research because the clubbing scene in particular. Okay, so I did go clubbing in Korea when I was 18. And back in Korea, there's like this weird like you can club starting at 18. I think maybe even there's some clubs who are 16 and older. So when I was 18, I first went to Korea and first started to go to Korean clubs. And to be clear, there was an early crowd and a late crowd. So for example, we were the early crowd and I went clubbing from 6pm you know, it starts at 6pm. So I'm just letting you know, it's very innocent. So we'd go at 6pm and then we'd leave before midnight, well before midnight, because we had a curfew when when we were there, you know, I really wanted to write about this Korean clubbing scene because that was really an eye opener to their culture. In the sense how of seeing how men and women meet, I really wanted to write about that scene, because it's very different than how they do things here in the US. In writing that after I finished writing it, I felt like oh gosh, do they even club like this anymore? Like, it's been like over 20 years. So, you know, maybe it's evolved? Maybe I'm out dating myself, you know. So I did have to ask my friend who works at a Korean drama streaming company. And she had to ask her youngest intern who's still clubs in Korea. So it was quite the like a, you know, roundabout process, because when I wrote this book, it was during the pandemic. So not a lot was going on in the social setting in Korea at that time, either. So I was just drawing from my experiences, but then fact checking as much as I could, unbeknownst to me at the time, that was my research for this book that I didn't know I was going to write.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, so where did the book come from?

    Grace Shim 

    I was trying to carry out a different book. Right, right in like in february, march 2020. And it didn't go anywhere. And I wasn't sure if it was the pandemic or if it was the story. And I was kind of struggling. And my sister at the time had recently gotten her results from a 23andMe test and she actually did get an email quite similar to the one that Chloe got, saying that she had a cousin, that we had a cousin. It's a really, it's not, it's not as it's not dramatic at all. I just, I just want to clear that up. The inception of the story really came from that moment, out of kind of respect of the other people. I'm not going to tell it this story, but it's not bad at all. But it's just I think it's private for them more than us. Yeah. So the DNA is really fascinating because they're, you know, they were, quite literally strangers, you know, to us when they reached out to us and I, my sister actually wasn't going to respond to them, she's like, I don't know them, they're not my cousins. And I'm like, Hey, this is I literally had that conversation. I was like, this is DNA lady like, this is not gonna lie to you so you better reach out, and you know, we were kind of nervous to approach my parents because the link was obviously through them and I didn't want to unleash any secrets. But actually, when I did mention it, they were like, Oh, yes, we did know about this, and so it was something that was known on our side, it was not something known on their side, which was why it was more of a shocking reveal for them, but I ended up just setting up a call with them and talking with them and it was like a warm, and it was so weird, it was it's not like it was a long lost relative, it's not some one that we knew existed, like, we personally, meaning me, my sister, we didn't know they existed, and we immediately felt a sense of kinship, after knowing what what our connection was, and I think that was really fascinating to just go from strangers to family. And in a second, really, it was just a minute, you know, and I think that was kind of an idea that I wanted to play with in the story and how Chloe felt this connection with her, her family that she just met, and something that compelled her to go to a foreign country overseas, you know, like, on a whim. I feel like that was very realistic, something that I would do naturally, in my situation. But it was interesting to hear, you know, a lot of people, I think my editor, and my agent, were just kind of like, what would compel her to do that, like, that's kind of crazy, you know, things like that. And we tried to make it, you know, give her a sense of like, she had nothing, you know, give her sense of this was her only chance, but I think for me, it was kind of like, well, I would and I don't think yes. And it seems really rushed. And in really extreme I you know, but I think it was interesting for me to see that reaction, because I was like, Oh, my God, no, we actually did meet them. Like, a couple. A couple of weeks later, they they flew into, you know, meet us. So it was very, yeah, you know what I mean? Like, I feel like, no way this is really realistic, guys, but I think it's it's not that easy for an outsider to if unless you experience it, I think, which is not like a you need to experience this kind of 23andMe.

    Grace Shim 

    Yes, come on, you gotta find some family members, and then feel and see what it feels like. I think it was just really interesting. For me, that's all in writing this, but

    Georgia  

    Why did you choose to write for young adults?

    Grace Shim 

    It sounds so cheesy when I say this, but I don't think I chose to write for young adults. I think that that was the voice that naturally came to me, and actually until I wrote my first because this is not my first novel. And the first novel that I wrote, I didn't know what I was doing, I kind of I kind of I didn't fall into writing, I kind of wandered into writing. And I was really interested in it. And I had this story, and I started writing it, and it wasn't until somebody I was talking about it with somebody who was a little bit more experienced with me that was saying that this genre is young adult, like specifically, I was just writing and I had no clue I didn't about genre, age group, things like that, and they were the ones that told me specifically, this is young adult, and I was like, oh, and when that didn't work out, I wrote another one that was clearly young adult as well and I was like, Oh, this must be my voice like, so you know what I mean? Like, I think I just it was one of those things that found me rather than I found it, which sounds very cheesy to say out loud, but it was very accurate.

    Georgia  

    How did you start to learn? You know about structure? What, what worked? What didn't? Did you do classes or mentorships? Or?

    Grace Shim 

    Yeah, so when I wandered into writing, I have, I have three kids, and I think my youngest was probably like one or two. You know, I always tell people the reason why I found writing was because I was at a point in my life, and I had chosen to be like you mentioned earlier I got my graduate degree from Lesley as an educator to be an educator for early childhood, and so after I graduated, I worked in the classroom in a first grade classroom for two years and then you know, my husband and I got married, and we had kids, and we decided that, you know, the best way to use my skills were to be with my kids at home early on, because that's kind of where my quote unquote training came from, it was early childhood education and pre K through seconds, I felt like I really could do the most impacted my children's lives by staying home with them during that time. So that's, that's the lifestyle I chose, and it was really great until the third one came along, and I was ready to move on. But obviously, you can't move on from your children. So I was, you know, and I tell people that I felt like I was, I had no options. And that was truly the only reason why I explored writing, because that was the only thing that I could do, and I, it's not that I didn't love it, or didn't want to do it, but I never saw it as a career option my whole life, you know, that was never something that was presented to me as something that you could make a living out of, or make money from. So I always just saw it as like this extracurricular hobby or you know, something you do for fun. But I dip my toe back into being a teacher's aide for a little bit, and I realized that wasn't, you know, that part of my life had probably moved on from I couldn't go back to school, you know, and I did look into MFA's and writing programs, and I just felt like at that stage of my life and career, it was probably a ship that had sailed. So I signed up for all the free things that I could. SCBWI is what I was told critique groups.

    Georgia  

    And will you say what SCBWI stands for?

    Grace Shim 

    Society for children's book for writers and illustrators, SCBWI yes. I feel like that's correct. It connects you to like seminars, and you know, there's a large conference that happens once a year in Los Angeles, which was really pivotal for me, I mean, it's an entire weekend filled with all sorts of seminars and sessions with industry professionals and authors. And beyond that, I got to connect with so many people that actually debuted with me this year. The biggest thing that happened that year was that was the first year that I actually paid to have my writing critiqued by an industry professional, and these are things that, you know, like a lot of agents and editors will have as a service on the side or offer at these events. And, you know, I had for, like maybe a year been writing with a critique partner, but that was getting critiqued by other people who are just as inexperienced as me. So I think I had reached a point where I was like, I think I want an industry professional, to give me some feedback to see in my at least in you know, headed in the right direction, is there something here and I think it was like, I don't know, like $50 for a first chapter. And I felt like that was okay, you know, good. It was probably, you know, good money spent to see, if I was the head of the right direction. And I had this lovely editor who gave me an amazing feedback. You know, she said that, and looking back, that chapter was very, very much awful, it wasn't, you know, structure, there was nothing, it was just based on like, Oh, I love to write this, I would love to write this, so I wrote this. And she was just so kind about it, you know, is what struck me and I think it's an industry where critiques can come off very, not harsh, but you know, if you're straightforward, it can come off as this writing is terrible, you know, and I think she was really kind about it, but balanced. I still remember the opening line, she said, this is lovely, what a lovely image. So I think some of her compliments stuck out with me. And then some of her tips also kept stayed with me throughout the years. She said, think about your best or your most favorite, you know, books that you loved or enjoyed, and reverse engineer them, see what worked for that book and try to, you know, try to do that for yourself. And I really took to heart that. And today to this day, I when I'm stuck, I'll read some reread some of my favorite books and remind myself of what really made me fall in love with the book. And hopefully that would have transpired into my own writing. And the loveliest, loveliest part of that was flash forward. I don't know, four years later, and that became my editor.

    Georgia  

    Oh, nice.

    Grace Shim 

    Yeah. So she, when we had our call, I had to remind I reminded her and she goes, I don't remember that at all. And I'm like, that's really good because if you remember me, then it was all for all the wrong reasons. Beyond that, I also did the Andrea Brown writer's retreat and rebrand agency is the largest children's agency out there and they do a writing once a year they do this writing retreat workshop at Big Sur, and I did that with a cup, it was lovely. It is beautiful. And the best is that your cell, your there's no reception, right? Like you have  zero distractions. And so and that was really amazing, you get paired with two different groups with two different mix of writers in your genre or category. And you have a different industry professional moderating those, and what they do is they spend two full days of critiquing your work twice. So they critique that once they give you an opportunity to rub, revise or work on it, or critique something else the next day. And that was truly pivotal for me, because that was the first time I got validation that this was something I'm I'm headed somewhere. The two best things that I could never talk more about, is these mentorship programs that are out there, they're all free, and they're just like from the goodness of other writers, and so to pay it forward. I recently became a mentor last year with my mentor, Jesse Q. Sutanto, who I really credit for a lot. We're still good friends, and we chat all the time. But there are for aspiring writers out there there are more than one ways to I think get to your accomplished goal if being a published author is being your goal, and MFA is one of them. And there are certainly other avenues, yeah.

    Georgia  

    That's great. So what is next for you?

    Grace Shim 

    Well, I so The Noh Family was a two book deal. Actually, sorry, The Noh Family was a part of a two book deal, they're not there's no like, not a companion, but to stand alone. Yeah, to clear that up. So I'm currently working on the book too, that is to be determined as to when it's going to come out. I am also working on an adult book. I think what happened during the time that I was trying to be a young adult author is I, my I was maybe when I first started writing, I was still feeling very tied to my young adult roots. And then during that time, I crossed over to feeling more like a full fledged adult, young adult. So I'm starting to feel, you know, like really comfortable in the adult world as well. And so I hope that I hope that I'll find the same success there that I have found in young adults. And so those are the things that I'm currently working on. Yeah.

    Georgia  

    I feel like, this is like a, I don't know if this, this might be an overstatement. But it feels a little bit like a golden age for Asian American literature. Like, there's just so much more available now, which is just wonderful to see.

    Grace Shim 

    Totally yeah, totally, I think, you know, I'm a part of a writing group, that's all Korean authors. And they, we all started together again, through mentorship, program, author, mentor, match. And when we started together, none of us were agented,and none of us had a book deal. And the fact that we all do, and one of them is a New York Times bestseller, it's just, we we don't take that lightly, because we I think we were happened to be there at the start, you know, when it all kind of was starting, I think we've had very meaningful and important discussions about, you know, whether this is a trend, you know, like a trend, I hate to say that, because is this, you know, this is not a trend, but at the same time, like, you know, there's guilt associated with capitalizing on something that might be feeding a trope or a trend or fetishizing a culture but at the same time, we feel like this is, you know, an opportunity for us to talk about our culture and represent it in a more accurate light. And I think, you know, like you mentioned with the no family, like one of the things that I really have been blessed with hearing, you know, I feel so grateful because one of the things that people really talk about, with my book is being exposed to the culture as if they were, you know, like through Chloe's eyes as a tourist, you know, and, and seeing it in hopefully  a non troupy way I'm not painting a really accurate portrayal of the country and not characterizing it was really important to me, and I think that when every time somebody brings it up, I feel like I contributed something to you know, that landscape of not fetishizing the Korean culture, I think it was it's a mix of emotions, but I you know, ultimately we're happy that there's More space because there wasn't before. We feel very blessed to be a part of that movement.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. And if people are interested in more podcasts about that we we did have Axie Oh many moons ago on the podcast and she's written tons of well now tons of YA books that have gotten great press and also, this last season, we talked to Andrea Wang, who wrote Watercress.

    Grace Shim 

    Yes, yeah.

    Georgia  

    It's so good. But yeah, so so there's more if you want to listen to more on our podcast, but there's great conversations with them. And Axie Oh is Korean American, Andrea's Chinese American, to be clear. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about your book. This has been great.

    Grace Shim 

    I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me and for talking with me.

    Georgia  

    Grace K. Shim's debut is The Noh Family. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter and learn more about her on her website. The links will all be in the show notes and we'll also have a link to the transcript of our discussion which is on the episode page. If you liked this episode, check out our interview with New York Times bestselling author Axie Oh and with Andrea Wang, those links will also be in the show notes