Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.

Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.

7.15.2018   UT graduate Mary H. K. Choi chats about her YA hit EMERGENCY CONTACT


Mary H. K. Choi’s debut novel has been excerpted in Entertainment Weekly, has received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and has prompted think pieces in the New York Times and the Atlantic, among other outlets.

       Emergency Contact has been described as a compulsively readable novel that shows young love in all its awkward glory. The author talked with us (appropriately via email) for today’s Lone Star Listens. When you’re done snapping up her interview, check out her website at the deliciously named choitotheworld.com.

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Mary, where were you born, where did you grow up, and how would you describe those days?

MARY H. K. CHOI: I was born in Seoul, Korea, but moved with my family to Hong Kong when I was eleven months old. From there I moved to San Antonio, Texas, the summer before my fourteenth birthday. Moving to Texas was such a trip. I’d never seen such an expanse of sky before in my life! Coming from a city that was always lit up with neon lights and skyscrapers, I’d never experienced such all-encompassing thunderstorms and I’d never seen a shooting star. That’s the biggest thing that struck me about Texas, the heaviness of the sky on my shoulders. Still, I missed the public transportation of Hong Kong and walking around everywhere, so I moved to New York right after college and I’ve been there ever since.

You graduated from UT Austin and went to New York and pretty much tapped into every possible medium while lassoing the zietgeist — including stints as a columnist for Wired, as an editor for MTV Style, and as a contributing writer for Allure. You have also written for the New York Times, New York, The Atlantic, Billboard, and The Fader. What was your first big break as a writer?

My first big break in New York came when I became the editorial assistant for an art and lifestyle magazine called Mass Appeal in Brooklyn. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I hit refresh on that intern call-out. They’d had an ad position open, so I kept my fingers crossed for an editorial position, and sure enough I was the first to apply. Working for an independent, pirate-ship style magazine was a wonderful experience. You get to try on all the hats, and so I fact-checked and helped editors and lent a hand on photo shoots and I got my first byline reviewing the twentieth anniversary edition of a Magazine book. I was lucky enough for work for some unbelievably generous and talented editors who kept me in the loop and referred me for other jobs. Still, it took being an assistant to an editor — managing travel, doing expenses and scheduling for almost four years — before I got my truly big break writing as much as I wanted, for a magazine I founded as editor-in-chief of Missbehave magazine.

You seem to have developed a special understanding of teenagers in the era of Snapchat et al. How are current teens different than you were as a teenager?

I reported on this for a lengthy feature in Wired because there was so much fanfare about how social media was the downfall of civilization and how it was irrevocably corrupting young minds. And while there is definitely a tie between social anxiety, depression, and how obsessively you check your feeds I’ve found that when you actually go talk to a real-life teen, there share a lot of the concerns and insecurities that I did when I was their age. The main difference is that the same deluge of headlines we’re buried under now in 2018 is readily accessible to young people as well. The thing is, teens are a lot more dialed in to current events. I guess if you were being reductive you could say they’re more “woke” or whatever, but it’s also that many of them are forced to be extremely realistic about their lives. College is staggeringly, demoralizingly expensive; the job market changes at a velocity that’s scary. There’s rampant nationalism, school shootings and police violence that they read about all the time. But the fundamental stuff — do I get along with my parents, do my friends like me, what college am I going to get into — all of that is very familiar since time immemorial.

Your debut book — fittingly, a YA novel — has been excerpted on EW.com, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and prompted an interview in the New York Times, and has generated a heckuva lot of buzz in publications that are too hip for me to know. Can you tell us about the book? What inspired the novel and what would you like our readers to know about it?

I love the way technology bridges these liminal spaces of intimacy. It’s incredible that through emoji I can be more emotive with my father, who’s been a scary patriarch my whole life but is not above sending me an emoji with the heart eyes. I love that. I also love the way that texting is sometimes seen as “less than” or a throwaway as far as the hierarchy of communication goes, but that it can also be everything. I wanted to explore how a romance would play out with this kind of amazing elasticity of meaning and import. I fell wildly, maddeningly in love with someone over text. It was magical. But it’s like those trompe-l’oeil images of: Is it a vase or two faces in profile? It was an awesome experience but it so easily could have been also been a one hundred percent Catfish heartbreak.

Do you prefer short-form journalism, essays, columns, think pieces, or long-form writing as in novels?

I’m fully in long-form mode right now. I love the vigor of it. The pace. The scariness of falling into the void. It’s such a heady space to know that you have to commit 80,000 words to a single effort. The thing that I don’t miss (and I’ll probably regret saying this when I need the checks again) is that I don’t miss writing reviews or critiquing a project based on an hour sitting across from a person who’s in it. Now that I’ve crossed into the creating space the thought of levying a “verdict” on a work is discomfiting to me.

Did you always want to be a writer? What kinds of books did you read growing up?

I don’t know that I necessarily wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers growing up, so it wasn’t something that I thought I could be. That’s why representation is so important. It grants you permission to dream in all directions. That said, I’ve always loved stories so much. I was mad over fables and fairy tales like Hans Christian Andersen and Korean folklore. I also loved coming-of-age books of any kind. Judy Blume books galore like Deenie, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Tiger Eyes. I also loved The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Flossie Teacake’s Fur Coat. I also went through a huge VC Andrews phase.

In interviews you talk a lot about love and art and how they influence each other. What have you learned about that phenomenon in your almost four decades on the planet? Have you read any books on these kinds of topics that have influenced you or that you'd suggest?

This is such a huge question so I’m going to answer a different one. I think you have to love your art. That’s what I can say about it. It can’t be a white-knuckled, slavish dedication forever. I feel like there has to be an intrinsic curiosity and a joy that comes with unlocking aspects of the work that you can feel okay dedicating the rest of your life to. Not to say that it’s not grueling. It’s just that the finite, end result can’t be the only goal. There has to be some pleasure and fascination in getting there.

Are you working on a new project, and can you tell us about it?

Yes! My editor and publisher have my next book and part of the one after that. All I’ll reveal (which isn’t revealing too much) is that they’re both contemporaries and the first one involves social media a ton.

As someone whose adolescence was spent in Texas, you must remember and/or miss something about the state?

The way it smells before a storm. Real queso. The bark on a well-executed brisket. I miss my family the most, but I got to say stopping by a Buc-ee’s is a close second. I miss my friends too.

Last question: What's in your To Be Read pile on your nightstand?

It’s not on my nightstand. It’s long since migrated to a teetering pile on the floor—A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, From Twinkle With Love by Sandhya Menon, Lauren Groff’s Florida, Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Tommy Orange’s There There, The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk, and so many more. Plus, I just finished I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race and Other Reasons I Put My Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arceneux (also from Texas—Houston stand up!). And I’m so greedy that even with this huge pile I’m positively bereft that I have to wait until October to add Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of the Sea.

* * * * *

Praise for Mary H. K. Choi’s EMERGENCY CONTACT

“Mary H.K Choi’s Emergency Contact is one of the best debuts of the year and one of the first YA novels to really capture the depth and complexities of a text-based relationship.” —Globe and Mail

“Choi sensitively shows the evolution of two lonely, complicated people who slowly emerge from their shells to risk an intimate relationship. Her sharp wit and skillful character development...ensure that readers will feel that they know Penny and Sam inside and out before the gratifying conclusion.”
Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

“Smart and funny, with characters so real and vulnerable, you want to send them care packages. I loved this book.” —Rainbow Rowell, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Fangirl

“Choi creates an up-to-date and realistic contemporary romance by upending the love story trope....A highly recommended purchase for the teens who enjoy realistic relationship fiction. Recommended for fans of Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park.”
School Library Journal, starred review

“Readers will swoon over Emergency Contact. Choi has a knack for creating relatable characters, and this quirky, socially awkward love story will keep your cheeks rosy with every page.... Emergency Contact is the perfect book for those who root for the underdog and believe that broken people can heal together.”
—RT Book Reviews

“Blushingly tender and piquant...Choi... inserts timely issues like sexual assault, cultural appropriation and even DACA into her characters’ intimate conversations, but it is her examination of digital vs. F2F communication that feels the most immediate.” —New York Times Book Review

“Readers who enjoyed the unorthodox evolution of romance in Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything (2015) will like this debut novel.”
—Booklist

“Penny somehow broke down all my walls. Her tech became incidental and her voice endearing, and just like that, I was hooked. Even the texts feel very natural and elegantly woven into the narration. There is much more to both Sam and Penny than quirky character traits and witty repartee....While the story does traffic in the heart flutter of romance that is tantalizingly out of reach, its emotional core goes deep.”
—NPR

“Whip-smart, hilarious and poignant...Choi's prose is to be savored....Along with the biting wit and sharp observations, Choi's marvelous novel offers a perceptive exercise on the divide between digital and in-person communication — and how daunting it can be to ‘escalate’ to that face to face encounter.” —Buffalo News

“A tender, texting-based teen romance.” —Entertainment Weekly

* * * * *