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Zan Romanoff | Longreads | September 2019 | 15 minutes (4,099 words)
Mary H.K. Choi has been writing on the internet basically forever, covering everything from music to fashion to the best in snacks for publications like The New York Times, Vice and GQ. So it should be no surprise that her writing about the internet is so good: thoughtful and funny, antic and empathetic, and deeply and consistently searching.
Her debut novel, 2018’s Emergency Contact, traces a relationship that develops over text message between a hipster coffee shop barista, Sam, and hyper-anxious college freshman named Penny; it’s a refreshingly chilled out look at the way the digital can actually help create intimacy, instead of just impeding it.
Choi’s follow up, Permanent Record, is oriented in the opposite direction: it looks out at the selves social media allow us to project into the world. When pop star Leanna Smart stumbles into the bodega where college dropout Pablo Neruda Rind works, they hit it off instantly. Leanna — or Lee, as Pablo calls her — makes Pab’s life exciting, but hanging out with her also allows him to avoid the very unglamorous problems — debt, stasis, and uncertainty — that will be familiar to anyone who’s lived through their twenties in the twenty-first century.
As befits two people who grew up on the internet, Choi and I conducted this interview over GChat on a Monday afternoon in early August, both of us burning Palo Santo and wearing our sloppiest freelancer outfits. (My second pair of leggings in one day; her “hideous” sweatshorts from American Apparel.) The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zan Romanoff: So I’ve never done an interview like this before, but it seemed relevant, given that we both write so much about living digitally vs. IRL.
Mary H.K. Choi: Me neither, but I think it’s genius — zero apps have mastered the cell calling recorder, so taping a call is so nerve wracking! I never trust that weird bloopy dial tone that signals that it’s recording. I have definitely rocked up to interviews with like three things taping, because I just found everything else terrifying and unreliable.
Actually, should we burn Palo Santo? I might do it real quick. I get so nervous.
Please go ahead! I have some I can burn too — I mean, I live in LA. It’s almost a residency requirement.
This also leads in to the first thing I wanted to ask you, which is about your anxiety around publishing a book, which you’ve been very open about on Twitter. You’ve done this once before — does it feel different this time? Do you feel more prepared, or just even more terrified?
I’m still incredulous that people do this repeatedly. The second book thing is so real. There’s so much baggage: you want to believe that there’s zero expectation, and no greed, and not even the slightest hint of entitlement, but when a first book does well, you preemptively feel like a colossal failure if you don’t at least do as well the second time.
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I’ve also noticed — and this is blowing my mind — that I truly believe that the arrival of my second book signals the death of my first.
What do you mean, death? Like, it’s no longer your only child? I definitely have watched friends having their second babies mourning what they’re doing to their first ones, feeling like they’re abandoning them…
I felt grief and I didn’t know why, but I think that’s what I believe. Or else I believed it until I said it out loud, and heard how preposterous that scarcity mentality is. I think it’s that I feel like you only ever get to have the one thing to be in love with, and that you can implore people to care about.
Everything’s really zero sum with me. Why on earth would I ever get to have more than one thing? I’m so embarrassed by it. That I can’t deal with abundance. ’
Having a book come out is a trip, for sure. I started medicating my anxiety right around when my first book came out, in part because I realized that if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to be able to be present for this huge thing that I’d wanted forever. It really forced me to make huge changes in my life to cope with all of the stress.
Right after my first book came out I got sober. I started going to a different therapist. And I went into Twelve Step for my eating disorder. It’s almost like an exorcism: you can either have some agency and awareness, or you can accept that you’ll probably implode, and there won’t be a black box, and you’ll have zero memories around it. Because what’s a more vulnerable position than this mass invitation for people to love you and your art?
And not just love you, but also, like, see you.
It’s humiliating, the admission of this caliber of neediness: PLEASE UNDERSTAND MEEEEE.
Are you glad you pushed yourself into this position, though? Do you feel like it’s ultimately been good for you, even though it’s been — and continues to be — so hard?
I think all of this is what reality actually is: fostering a tolerance for uncertainty,
and building a neutrality around outcome so that I can continue to work with some modicum of peace and autotelic joy.
But it’s almost impossible when so much of the work and how well it does is predicated on marketing and social media, and telegraphing an idealized version of what it means to be an author. I think maybe that’s the unhealthiest, hardest part, is having to flit in and out of being your own audience. Being inside of yourself in order to make the work without glitching, and being outside of yourself and worrying about how it’ll land, and then the transition to the version of yourself that’s basically a marketing-friendly social media avatar.
I think maybe that’s what’s so striking about your social media presence, is that it seems more like access to Mary the writer than to Mary the avatar of the published author.
Self-branding corkscrews my guts. And that’s new, I think. If you asked anyone who knew me solely from the magazine writing days, they’d tell you that I seem different.
When did that start?
Definitely with the book writing. I mean I literally used to have a full face of makeup and five-inch heels for everything, and if I wasn’t presentable no one would get to see me. I’d be high and drunk and binging with my curtains drawn for weeks, and then resurfacing with a horrible emotional hangover and wondering why I was so lonely.
Someone told me something that reframed everything for me: asking for help engenders intimacy. Most people are benevolent if you respect their boundaries. I never understood that. I would be roiling in discomfort and shame asking anyone for anything.
And man, writing and publishing a book is the biggest ask.
Everything used to be so transactive for me — there was so much fear that I’d be asked to do something for someone else. But I’ve actually learned that self-esteem comes from estimable acts, and that being of service is really helpful for my anxiety.
Look at our world. Look at our news. Look at the GoFundMes. Asking someone to press pause on everything to read a several-hundred page book of made-up stakes is a huge ask. But we take turns to care about the things we care about. That’s humanity. That’s certainly what I tell myself: making art is a radical insurrection against mortality.
So then I want to link this to something in Permanent Record, which is Lee’s ambition as an artist. Because in a different book, I think she might just sort of uncomplicatedly hate what she does, but it feels like there’s something there that keeps her committed to being a celebrity, despite its costs.
Lee’s relationship to stardom is complicated: there are things she really wants there, and also things she really, really doesn’t. The thing is with someone like Lee, who is so masterful when it comes to self-possession and perception, is that she also knows that being selectively transparent about her unease with stardom is a credibility move. That sounds so callous or cynical, but if you watch any celebrity who really dominates in this space (any of your Kardashian-Jenners), they know the value of doing the dance.
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So while you can empathize with Lee, I always wanted that steely resolve to be the backbone of it, too. That despite her age and her complicated feelings for her schedule and what of her life truly belongs to her, she fucking knows what she’s doing.
She knows she has a shelf life, and she’s going for broke, and I love that about her. There are manipulative people in her life, but it’s not a book about how she’s just their victim. She’s playing the game as best she can; she has survived, and she will move forward. And she knows that not only will she be stronger for it, she will be perceived as stronger for it.
There’s also such great, specific stuff about her body — like when she reveals herself to Pab with these really specific physical gestures: taking out the ‘chicken cutlets’ she wears in her bra, or taking off her hair extensions. It’s always revealing when you sleep with someone for the first time, but she sort of literally has to deconstruct the body he’s expecting, that he’s seen everywhere. Was it weird to write a woman’s body sort of lustfully, from a man’s point of view?
I really do think of a pop star in terms of those butcher’s diagrams with perforated demarcation lines that dictate the cut of meat.
But also, she’s so famous that lust is secondary: the first thing is just the pressure of seeing a demigod. It’s the very disorienting prospect of having seen so much of her body blown up in ads or videos and billboards and then being able to touch her. There’s a moment of hesitation of, is this going to alter me in some way?
Pablo’s like everyone in the world: he’s thinking about how she’s in a bikini in that first swimming scene, but what he’s really worried about is his own body. People are so hilariously egocentric, and I love that in the face of ultra-stardom, you’re still worried about the most pedestrian concerns, of a total mortal civilian scale.
And then to turn it around, and realize that Lee is mortified that she has to contend with peeling back her own filters. Who can’t relate to that? Showing up in your makeup-free face in the cold light of the morning. Those moments of vulnerability are so evergreen and universal. You can turn the volume all the way up on what you think the stakes are, but the feelings of insecurity are all the same.
And they go away the moment you’re accepted and loved! That squelches my heart: the relief of being accepted and seen, and the recharging sensation of pressing your chest up against someone. This planet sucks and consumerism is trash and capitalism is the devil, but there’s this weird thing that humans can do with each other. It’s not a consolation; it’s not apples to apples. But it’s cool.
Speaking of making connections, I’m thinking about your books and about social media and phones, and how people tend to lump all of that stuff together as one thing. But Emergency Contact is all about the digital creating real intimacy, and so much of Permanent Record is about using the tools of social media to project personalities, personas, lifestyles, etc. It’s nice to read someone who’s doing really specific work with our digital lives in that way, who understands that it has a lot of nuances.
Emergency Contact is definitely about safe spaces and the intimacy that comes with being able to shed visual cues, status symbols or even good hair/skin/anxiety days. Permanent Record is about the work that your holograms and digital envoys do for you while you do other things, and the inaccuracies and projections inherent in the latter.
I’m fascinated by that dissonance: how it seems seamless, but how so much of your own moods and feelings dictate the interpretation of other people’s social media. There’s a pat or stock intent to IG posts — #ihateit #bestlife #todaysoffice #takemeback — but depending on where you are, you really feel as though someone is living AT you. It really has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with you. And we know that intellectually, but our hearts don’t at all.
So then I’m curious about how this book came together for you. I know it’s the most stock question, but I’m always thinking about how people take these abstract thoughts and work them into a narrative, with characters. It’s one thing to be like, I want to write a book about people’s relationships to digital avatars, their own and other people’s, and it’s another to be like, it’s going to be about this guy, and this girl, in this situation.
Honestly Permanent Record was a weird swirl of a few divergent ideas. I was doing work for Vice News Tonight on HBO and doing a piece on this YouTube dude, Jake Paul, for his Christmas pop up in New York.
I loved everything about his particular fiefdom of fame. There were so many kids screaming his name on this one city block, but none of their parents knew who he was. I have never heard so many people stop, ask who he was, and then when I told them, keep it moving. But only after they took a selfie of themselves in the scene.
When you actually talk to his fans, it was all about how he was a great entrepreneur and how badly they wanted to be him. He’s singularly talented at being this one person in this one sliver of time, but all of his fans genuinely thought they could eventually be him if they dedicated themselves in a similar way.
I think fame seeming accessible because of this level of voyeurism is a really new thing. It used to be influence by proxy, but this is so different, and it’s such an understandable responsible to for-profit college systems and the breakdown of most industries and rampant capitalism.
And the ending of Notting Hill always bothered me. But I can definitely say the book has nothing to do with Pete Davidson.
I was wondering if we were gonna talk about Notting Hill!!
Do you remember when Barry Jenkins watched it on a flight and live tweeted it?
I loved his exclamations and the exuberance, but it also reminded me of how ridiculous that movie is, and how different fame is now. I’d already written the book but wanted to revisit the movie, and I was so glad that the two had so little in common ultimately.
So then how does Pablo fit into all of this? Because it makes sense in the narrative, but in some ways, he’s a very different idea than Lee is. So how did the two come together?
I had a really clear idea of who Pablo was, and what his relationship to his friends was. That probably came first: I’m a huge fan of Desus & Mero and Chillin Island, and the way New Yorkers talk to each other when they’re talking shit but also about their feelings.
You can’t hide your shit in New York: there’s not enough space, and we all scrabble for such finite resources that it takes constant negotiating and asking for help and receiving help. You need your support system, because it’s terrifying to be here. Even for a kid like Pablo whose parents live here, New York is scary. You constantly feel, like, two dumb moves from being homeless. That was hugely informative for my early adulthood, and I knew I wanted to explore that.
Yeah! One of the things I really liked about the book is that, to the extent that YA ever deal with class, it’s usually inherited class and money stuff, whereas Pablo’s issues with money and debt are significantly of his own making.
Which is so relatable when everything is so predatory! And when you’re constantly comparing yourself to the 5 % because that’s what you see so often both on IG, and also IRL in certain parts of New York.
Actually, I should have asked, is this book YA? Do you think about publishing category when you’re writing?
Not at all! When I wrote Emergency Contact, I had no idea what I was doing. The manuscript sat in a drawer for 8 months before it got any movement; I was convinced I’d have to publish it in dribs and drabs on Wattpad or Tumblr or something. And then I switched agents and then it just went.
But people were like whoa whoa whoa you set it in college? Some editors were like, ’this is great, just age everyone down.’ I’m so grateful that Simon & Schuster lets me cook in this weird in-between space where everyone is exactly 20.
Why does exactly 20 feel like the right age for characters to you?
Your twenties are terrifying in different ways from your teens. When you’re a teen there’s still some expectation that you’re still figuring things out — like with high school, the goal is to get through it and get into college. And then in college, especially early college, when you’re away from your parents for the first time, it’s almost that last scene in The Graduate on the bus where you’re like, fuuuuuh, what now?
You’re expected to know so much by dint of BEING IN YOUR TWENTIES. But you know so little, and there’s so much imposter syndrome, and looking around frantically to see if anyone near you has the answers. It’s reconciling what you thought you’d know, what you do know, and having enough trust in yourself to admit that you need help.
I want to ask another question about bodies — it’s a little intimate, so you decide how you want to take it. But the book is obsessed with food — Pablo and Lee first bond over her snack selection, and Pablo is forever making these late night meals, what he calls Hot Snacks TM, for his roommates. You mentioned earlier being in recovery for an eating disorder, so I’m curious how it felt to write about that stuff.
It was hugely restorative in a sense; I love food and am completely obsessed with it, even outside of all the maddening arithmetic that went into nurturing an eating disorder for thirty years. My parents are both restaurateurs and there is nothing more soothing than the knowledge that tacos are in my future. Also, I’m good at food: I’m really obsessive about snacks, and where to get Nutella M&Ms, and how there are regional girl scout cookies and that you don’t have to look further than a Cost Plus World Market for seasonal Ritter Sport flavors.
I was super sad that I’d have to say goodbye to all of this once I sought recovery.
But this book was proof to me that I could talk about foods that I love without having to eat them or self-soothe with them. I didn’t know I could do that until I tried.
To be honest, I have really messy days, foodwise, where I eat meals at erratic times, or scarf an alarming number of breath mints because of anxiety; when I wrote this I was pretty triggered. But I’m no longer in a place where I’m bitter that other people can eat the way I used to without blacking out. It’s super hard when the anxiety is up, but I love food, and people who love food are my family. I feel such a kinship. I still think it defines me in a sense, but in a different way.
For whatever it’s worth, the food in the book felt genuinely lovingly described to me. A lot of times people use food like a brand name, just to indicate a character trait quickly (he likes tacos = he’s chill, etc.), but you could feel the genuine, built-in affection that Pablo has for food, and feeding people, and eating.
Lee and Pablo embody parts of me that I really love. I love that food is Pablo’s love language; I think that’s beautiful. And it’s such a salve for him, because he spends so much of the book feeling as though he’s lacking, that he owes so much, that he’s in the red in ways he can never compensate for. But he can feed people, and that gives him such succor.
I love that about your early twenties, too: the profound act of having just enough to feed people. Some of my favorite memories are having people over and sharing what little you have, and having the best time.
For Pablo, food is also a love letter to his mother and his father when he can’t speak to them in real life, or confront complicated feelings about his expectations of them, and what he feels are their expectations of him. It’s also the most uncomplicated way he explores his mixed identity.
His relationship with his parents is so interesting and difficult. There’s this moment where Pablo and his mom are talking, and he wonders what would happen if they said the things they don’t say to each other. The book doesn’t fully answer that question, but just asking it is so powerful.
I think that about my own mom all the time. I think it’s more powerful to ask than to answer, because the answer is a lifetime, not a novel.
But also, it’s interesting to me what you were saying about being in your 20’s and having just enough to feed people, because at the very beginning of this conversation you were saying you don’t know how to handle abundance. And it feels like that’s a big part of the book, is moving Pablo into a place where he feels less lack, where he can see what he has more.
Yes, but also it’s: these things can be simultaneous. Nothing about growth is linear — what you learn is to acknowledge what is already there, and running concurrent.
So then this feels like an absurd question, because it’s so huge, but I’m wondering if you can talk more about what scares you about abundance.
Ahahahaha! I love this talk so much. It’s so therapy.
I have this bit of hardwiring that I’m trying to separate myself from, which is that I think it’s unlucky or inauspicious to admit what you care about and what you hope for. It’s one thing to set an intention; it’s another to tell people about it.
With abundance it’s the same thing; if you have it, it means it can be taken away. Again, I don’t know where this zero sum thing comes from, but it’s totally ground zero for the eating disorder, too: that there’s never enough.
I’m trying to come to terms with how nothing is yours to keep: that you just enjoy the experience, and that it ends.
Which I feel like is so contrary to the mindset of being a writer: always trying to determine, collect, define and keep experiences.
Writers are hilarious. We’re in the moment already trying to fast forward to the future when we’re talking about it in the past. Living in the past makes you depressed, and living in the future makes you anxious. Ta-da! Namaste.
I keep trying to explain to my therapist that being a writer is fully deranged and I’ll never be healthy as long as I am one, but she insists that as far as coping mechanisms go it’s pretty decent. But it’s like, you can’t hold onto anything, except the things you’re going to obsessively refine into a book that will come out in two years, while you’re trying to finish writing the next one.
Because when your next book drops and it tanks you’ll never write again, so the one after BETTER BE FINISHED. Why are we like this?
If I had an answer I wouldn’t be doing it!
We would though. We would be doing it anyway.
Unfortunately, you are right.
* * *
Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER, out now, as well as LOOK, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in spring 2020. She lives and writes in LA.
Editor: Dana Snitzky