Zibby sits down with acclaimed author Angie Kim to discuss her latest sensation, Happiness Falls. Angie reveals the inspiration behind her riveting tale, touching on her personal experiences as an immigrant. She highlights her involvement with I-ASC, an organization that aids nonspeaking individuals. She also recalls her personal journey into fiction writing, providing invaluable advice for aspiring authors. Her insights into character development and the power of authentic storytelling offer a refreshing perspective.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Angie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Happiness Falls, your novel, the huge sensation this fall, picked for everything imaginable. You must be freaking out. Oh, my gosh.

Angie Kim: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I can’t thank you enough for all of the support that you have shown this book. I am so grateful. I am so excited to be going to Zibby’s in just a month, something like that. I am so excited.

Zibby: I am so excited too. I saw your books are already there in our upcoming events section at the bookstore.

Angie: Yay!

Zibby: Sorry I won’t be there myself, but thrilled that you’ll be there. I know all the Santa Monica people will be thrilled as well. Wonderful.

Angie: I can’t wait.

Zibby: I have to say, Leigh Haber, who is consulting with us on a bunch of things, a couple months ago, was like, “Zibby, I really think you’re going to like this book, Happiness Falls.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I bet I will.” She kept being like, “Have you read it yet? What do you think? Have you read it yet?” I was like, “I just haven’t gotten to it. I’m going to get to it.” Then I started it, and I was like, oh, my gosh, why did it take me so long?

Angie: I’m so glad to hear that. That’s amazing. Thank you.

Zibby: First of all, how do you feel about all this publicity and selection and all of that? Second, I want you to just tell listeners about your book. We’ll talk about the book and stuff. First, how are you doing with everything?

Angie: Yesterday was actually four weeks into the publication journey. I was remembering that yesterday was actually my original pub day before the GMA selection, which moved it up to September 5, and then the B&N club selection, which moved it further by a week. I was just remembering all of that sort of stuff and thinking — I have a lot of stuff in the book about happiness and about your baseline and setting your expectations. I was just remembering back to my original baseline as a writer, which really is when you start a story and you have no idea if you’re going to be able to finish it, let alone get an agent, have an editor, and sell the book and have it come out in the world and be a real book that’s being read and talked by people. Just really remembering back to that baseline for me and thinking how much that original baseline writer me would have killed for all the stuff that’s happening now and getting really teary-eyed about it. It’s been amazing. It’s been an amazing journey.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, congratulations. First, tell listeners who have not read Happiness Falls yet what it’s about, please.

Angie: Absolutely. Happiness Falls is a story about a family in crisis. It opens when the father of this biracial Korean American family goes missing. The only person who might know what happened to him is fourteen-year-old Eugene, the baby of the family, who cannot speak because he has a rare genetic condition called Angelman syndrome along with a dual diagnosis of autism. The family has to really come together and truly try to connect and communicate with each other, especially Eugene, not only to find the father, but also to protect Eugene from the police and their suspicions. That is in a nutshell. There is a missing-person mystery at the core, but I like to think of it as almost a trojan horse, a way to pull the readers in and get them turning the pages. While you’re there, we’re discussing things like disability justice and racism and what it’s like to be biracial in the society today and language and linguistics and philosophy and all sorts of things.

Zibby: You really packed it all in. Well done. Amazing. There are so many different parts of the story that I found fascinating. One part that emotionally resonated with me was when the police or child protective services, whoever came first, when they were there and wanted to take Eugene away from his mom. The mom was going to do whatever she could. That fierce mama bear instinct came out to protect him and just to be like, you don’t understand him. You can’t treat him this way. My heart was outside of my chest in that scene, the lengths parents will go to protect their kids, to make sure they’re okay, to set them up for success, and the fear that, what if we actually can’t protect them?

Angie: That is such a hard thing as parents to do. It was a hard thing for me to do as the writer who’s writing these characters. I actually fought it for a really long. I write organically. I don’t write with an outline. When that happened and the police were being really harsh with Eugene and they put handcuffs on him — it is a really, really horrible moment. I was writing it, and I was like, I don’t want to do this. I don’t understand why this is happening. It was one of these things. It does bring out the instinct not only for the mother, but also for the siblings nearby who are watching. The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Mia, who likes to think she’s cool and who likes to think she knows everything, who likes to think she’s a cynic and doesn’t really have those pesky little things called emotions getting in her way. Yet in that moment, she freaks out. The whole family is freaking out because they have this need to fiercely protect him. That really comes out. That was a hard scene for me too because I love that family. This family has been with me for so long.

Zibby: Take me back now. Where did this family come from? Where did this book come from? Also, just describe your life as you’re — where were you living? Just give me some context for where the book intersected with the regular you.

Angie: I started writing in my forties. Being a writer is actually my fifth career.

Zibby: You don’t even look like you’re in your forties. I am shocked that just came out of your mouth, honestly.

Angie: No, no. I am fifty-something. I started writing then. One of the first short stories I ever wrote —

Zibby: — Wait, back up. What were the other four careers?

Angie: I was a litigator first. Then I decided right away that I hated that, except for the courtroom part, which is five percent of your life. I left in my twenties. Then I became a management consultant. Then I was a dotcom entrepreneur. Then I was a stay-at-home mom as soon as my first son was born. He is now twenty-two, so it was twenty-two years ago. Then all three of my kids — they’re all fine now, but they all had medical issues as babies and as preschoolers, toddlers, and all different ones, completely different things. They were all medical mystery-type things. We had to go to the hospital and be like, does he have Wilson’s disease? Why does he have hearing loss? Is it genetic? All of these things that were going on. Out of sheer frustration — I had always been an avid reader but never had written in my life. I was actually a theater person, so I did a lot of character work, but still, in improv, not writing. I started writing one day, just essays about what it’s like. I found so much catharsis in it. It was amazing. My husband said, “You know, these aren’t really your stories you’re telling. They’re our family’s stories. They’re our children’s stories too. There’s issues of medical privacy.” He’s a lawyer too. “Also, you don’t really have their consent because they’re so little, about their stories being told in this way.” He said, “Why not try fiction?” I was like, “Fiction? I don’t know how to write fiction.”

I started taking classes. In going from job to job, career to career, I had been trying to find something that fulfills me on a day-to-day basis as well as makes me satisfied on a macro level, and I found that with writing these stories. I started with short stories. I fell in love with the form. One of the first short stories that I wrote was about this family written in the voice of Mia, who is the same narrator that we have, except she was fourteen, so younger at that time. They were dealing with their youngest brother, their baby brother. They were living in Seoul. They really felt responsible for the fact that he was a nonspeaker, that he couldn’t talk because they did something, a prank gone wrong when the mom was pregnant with Eugene. They were actually literally trying to find his voice in the graveyard where the prank gone wrong had happened when she was pregnant with him using what they think is a haunted stethoscope. It’s a funny story. This family has been with me ever since then. Then I wrote my debut novel, Miracle Creek, which really delves into some of the same issues as Happiness Falls, except from the parents’ perspective, the extreme parenting sacrifices that we make.

Then in writing Happiness Falls, I really came back to this family, which had never left me, and this voice by Mia, which had never left me. When my own kids were going through college application process and things like that, I would be wondering, oh, John and Mia, who are twins, I wonder where they’re applying to school. I wonder if Mia is writing about that incident in Korea in her college essay. Just thinking about them as if they were real people because they had stayed with me. They stuck with me, and they wouldn’t let go. That’s how this story came to be, with me hearing about some therapies and then actually seeing these therapies of nonspeaking autistic kids who were learning to communicate by pointing to letters on a board word by word and spelling words out painstakingly. When that happened, these kids who had been assumed their entire lives to be cognitively deficient were coming up with the most amazing, gorgeous things to say. Then I got so moved by that. I started volunteering at a nearby therapy center that does this work and started teaching creative writing to these kids. I just couldn’t let this go. I thought, I wonder what’s happening with Eugene. I wonder if this family is trying this with Eugene.

Zibby: Wow, that’s crazy. That’s just wild. As you were talking, I’m thinking to myself, all these characters, not just in your book, but in all these novels that I’m reading, the characters are so real to the authors. Then they get into our heads. It’s like, maybe they’re real somewhere because they come fully formed, and then they do things on their own. All fiction writers are like, and then this happened, I couldn’t quite believe it. Where is this all coming from? Who’s to say these people don’t just exist somewhere? I don’t know. I’m just throwing it out to the universe.

Angie: I love that idea. I feel like that could be an amazing novel in and of itself. That could be a great story. Can I steal that from you? That’s amazing. I love that idea. You should write that. You should write that.

Zibby: Um, okay.

Angie: There are all these characters in this world. Maybe we as writers, what we’re doing is we’re actually being allowed in this Matrix-type world. We’re being allowed to connect with and download these stories that are being fed to us. It’s almost like an experiment to see what we do with these stories.

Zibby: That’s true. It could be that way. What I really wanted to do is do a novel where characters from different books got together and interacted. I would like Mia to meet — I don’t know. What else am I reading? I just — well, that’s a memoir, so that doesn’t count. Just a character in another book I was reading. There was one point I actually connected two authors. I was like, “I really think your main characters would be friends. They should go to lunch.” They were like, “Okay.” I’m like, “You should write that together.”

Angie: Absolutely. Well, writing together, I don’t think too well on that. I have done that. I have actually met authors of books that I love and been like, “I really wanted to go to drinks with your main character. Since I can’t do that, at least I can go grab drinks with you. Can I please buy you a drink?” Then they were like, okay, you’re a little weird, but I guess so, since you like my character.

Zibby: Then sometimes it’s really not the same. My mom would tell me when I was a little girl, I would be like, “You should be best friends with so-and-so’s mom because she’s so amazing.” She’s like, “I love so-and-so, but that doesn’t mean I’ll love her mom.” Just because you love the book doesn’t necessarily mean you love the author. They’re not the same people, obviously. Anyway, I’m sounding ridiculous.

Angie: No, not at all. I love this idea. I have these thought experiments all the time about it. I feel like Mia, if she were listening in on this conversation, would write a really cool footnote about it and then do all this research on all the novels that have been written about characters from different places intersecting and interacting and all that kind of stuff. I feel like she would totally do that.

Zibby: You know what? You take the idea. I don’t want this idea. You run with it. You can take it. Do a short story. Do whatever you want. I’m not going to write this. You do it. Then I’ll understand more having read yours.

Angie: Okay, great. You’re funny.

Zibby: I think part of this whole assuming what’s in people’s minds, whether you’re autistic or you’re just really shy and you’re not talking — there are all these assumptions people make when people can’t clearly communicate what they’re thinking. Then you think so differently, all these shortcuts. It’s just a constant shortchanging of people who aren’t verbally — I don’t know.

Angie: Gifted, proficient, absolutely. It comes from my own experience as a Korean immigrant. I came from Korea to the US when I was eleven in middle school. That’s such a hard time to be getting used to something anyway. I went from feeling like a pretty smart, sassy, gregarious kind of girl, outgoing, all that kind of stuff, and then overnight — I couldn’t speak English, and so I was kind of shut down. There was that frustration with not speaking the language, of course, but it went beyond that. I was embarrassed. It was a deep shame because I felt stupid. I was treated as stupid. I could tell that people sort of were looking at me in that way. Then once I started speaking English to the point where I could understand but I still couldn’t speak it very well, then I really did get that people were making fun of me right in front of me. It was just such a humiliating, awful experience. It’s something that really affects me even to this day. That’s why I think it really did a number on me.

It was the first time I realized that our society, and not just the American society, but the world over, we equate oral fluency with intelligence. When I lost that, I felt stupid. I just don’t understand why we have this assumption. It’s in me too. It’s in all of us. We see people who stutter who write beautifully. We know that they’re brilliant, people who have aphasia or who have some kind of medical condition, people who are deaf. For the longest time, we in our society have had this ableist assumption that if you can’t speak fluently, even if there’s a really good reason for it, like you speak another language really fluently — Hannah, the mom here, she’s a PhD in linguistics. She speaks with an accent, so her kids kind of look down on her a little bit. Then they’re surprised when she’s able to deal with situations in a really competent way. I think we have that. We carry that around with us. I don’t understand why we do that. I’d really like to challenge that and challenge all of us to think through those assumptions and not make those shortcuts.

Zibby: It’s so true. I went through a period of time when I was a teenager when I just could not talk. I just couldn’t talk. I was so shy in certain situations, in group situations. People would make fun of me a lot.

Angie: Oh, wow. I didn’t realize because you’re so at the center of so many things. I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.

Zibby: It’s true. I was actually going through some diaries recently. I was literally writing — this summer program, I could not talk. I was like, I cannot talk. People are like, why are you just sitting there? Come on, don’t you have anything to say? I had a million things to say. I just couldn’t say them. I was thinking them. I think this is why, also, I’m attracted to, A, books like yours, but also stories like The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly or things like that where you find a way to write, and then all of a sudden, you can communicate. It’s mind-blowing.

Angie: It is. It’s mind-blowing. One of the most amazing things about this whole experience, this publication month in September, for me, has been when GMA came down to Virginia, which is where I live with my family. Juju Chang was with me the whole day, with these kids that I teach creative writing to. We actually got to speak in that classroom. She got to talk to the kids, have conversations with them. When they were pointing to letters, she actually scribed for them. She was writing down, letter by letter, what they were pointing to. It was just so meaningful because that’s the kind of thing that a fiction writer doesn’t usually get the chance to do, really get to not only talk about my book and what inspired it, but really get to show the world in this huge way. That was really meaningful to me. I think that was my favorite part of this entire process.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Have you become this advocate? Are you involved in nonprofits? How are you helping on a — I can’t imagine you’re just sitting with this. You seem like such a doer.

Angie: This association that happens to be near me, that happens to be local to me is such a gift. It’s I-ASC, International Association for Spelling as Communication. It’s a global organization. I’m very involved with it. They were showcased in this piece in GMA. I am continuing to work with them on telling their stories. That’s what I really want to do. I want to enable the gifted writers that I have come in contact with who are nonspeakers to tell their own stories. That would be just so meaningful.

Zibby: I feel like you should do an anthology of their stories.

Angie: I know. Wouldn’t that be amazing? That would be so, so amazing. That’s a great idea, Zibby. We should talk.

Zibby: Look at all these projects I have lined up for you.

Angie: I know. My editor is going to be like, you can’t talk to Zibby anymore because you have to work on your next book.

Zibby: Excellent segue. What is your next book?

Angie: My next book, I’m not really completely sure that I have it down to the point where I can really talk about the premise yet because I’m still exploring. I am really excited that it’s a little more on the dystopian side. It’s dystopian. It’s got little flavors of sci-fi kind of stuff there. It’s also going to be in the form of linked stories, which is my favorite form of storytelling. I’m really excited about that. It’s about people who are going through a society-level change and how they cope with it, with the loss of connection.

Zibby: That sounds amazing.

Angie: Thank you.

Zibby: You don’t have to tell me, but do you have a working title that you like?

Angie: I don’t, actually. It’s funny because for Happiness Falls, my working title was Happiness Quotient, about the whole idea of your relativity of happiness and happiness being really relative to your expectations and to your baseline and all of that sort of stuff. Then everybody told me that’s not the most selling title. You have to think of something else. I’ve kind of given up on titles. Same thing happened with Miracle Creek. My working title for that was Miracle Submarine, which I thought was a kickass title. They were like, no. People hate it. People are saying that it’s the worst title they’ve ever heard in their lives.

Zibby: Who are these people?

Angie: They’re people in sales and retailer world, whatever. We changed it to the name of the town that it was set in, Miracle Creek. I actually joke that because of Miracle Creek, Happiness Falls, the next one is going to be Love Ocean or something like that. Love Lake.

Zibby: Totally. A few more syllables, though. Amorous Lake or something.

Angie: Ooh, that’s taking it in a different direction.

Zibby: You never know.

Angie: Love it.

Zibby: Having taught yourself fiction at an older age, what advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers who feel like this is a tough nut to crack?

Angie: I was just listening not that long ago to Ashley Audrain’s podcast with you. I feel like she was on several months ago, so I can repeat a similar advice that she gave, which is to really let go and not worry about the fact that you are actually writing something for an audience. Even as I’m in my writing closet here — it’s a literal closet that I write in. I’m looking over the screen at something that I posted up on the wall. It says in big letters, this is not a novel. It’s something that I put up there when I started working on Miracle Creek. It was my first book. I had always understood from author friends that your first book, you finish, and then you put away in a drawer. Then you get really started on your real first book. It’s a practice book. I told myself, it’s a practice book. It’s okay. It’s not going to see the light of day. I can put anything in it, all the shameful thoughts that I’ve had, that I know my friends have had, that my characters have had. I can put that in without worry. It’s okay that I’m doing weird things like starting a murder mystery without having any idea who did it or how or why and all of that. I had seven different POV characters, which is very ambitious for a first novel especially. I was like, it’s okay. All of these things are okay because it’s not a novel. I really feel like that sign helped me to take risks and tell the stories that I wanted to tell and just get it out there. I had the same sign up. My husband walked in when I was writing Happiness Falls. He was like, “Honey, I hate to tell you this, but that sign has to go because it is a novel. It has to be a novel. You have a contract. You’ve been paid. You have an editor. You have a deadline that is waiting for it.”

I wrote a little, handwritten in, this is not a missing-person novel. I did that as a way to remind myself that — I was writing the story from the perspective of Mia in first person. When I write, because of my theater background, I write in this way that I called method writing where I really try to get in the character’s head and really inhabit them, like method acting. I was trying to remind myself that from that perspective, it’s not a novel that I’m writing. It’s not a missing-person novel that I’m writing. This is a real thing that Mia is going through. Are the twists illuminating? Are there twists to begin with? All of these things, those don’t matter. What matters is how she’s feeling, how the family’s feeling, how the mom is feeling. Certainly, they want to find out what happened to the father, but actually, what becomes most important is really protecting Eugene, and so really thinking about the story from that perspective, from the characters, and trying to stay true to that instead of worrying about, are people going to get annoyed with this? Are people going to be satisfied with this plot twist or lack thereof or whatever? Really reminding myself of that, that’s the best advice that I can give to people. Don’t try to write to what you think that some imaginary reader out there is going to be or what the market is. Really try to write what you want to write that’s true to what the characters in your stories would want.

Zibby: I love that. That is such good advice. I really, really love it. When I started my memoir after I had a contract, I could not do it. Finally, in big all caps, huge font, I was like, no one will read this but me. Sometimes you have to do these tricks just to get over the hump and get to where you need to be emotionally or something.

Angie: Exactly. Absolutely. I love that. I feel like what we did is so similar.

Zibby: Same kind of thing.

Angie: Same thing. Totally. Love that.

Zibby: Amazing. Angie, I could talk to you all day. Hopefully, I’ll talk to you again in some other context or something and I’ll see you in person. Thank you so much. What a great book. I’m so impressed with all of it. Great to meet you.

Angie: Thank you so much. I am just thrilled to meet you. I know it’s by Zoom, but I feel like we have such a great connection. I can’t wait to meet you in person. That would be great. I would love that.

Zibby: You too. That would be great. More soon. Bye, Angie.

Angie: Bye.


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