“The greatest thing about having written a book is knowing that you have written one. It has emboldened me in many parts of my life in thinking, ‘Well, if I can do this, maybe I can do something else.'” Actor John Cho joins Zibby to discuss his debut middle-grade novel, Troublemaker, which was inspired by his own life. John shares how his memories of the Rodney King Riots feel resonant today, the universal emotions of growing up and trying to find ways to feel like an adult when you’re still a child, and what his anxiety has looked like following the uptick in anti-Asian violence over the past few years. On a lighter note, John tells Zibby what he hopes younger readers will take away from this story and what he’s looking to do with it next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Troublemaker.

John Cho: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Would you mind describing your book a little bit for people who aren’t familiar with it? I’m sorry to put you through this.

John: Not at all.

Zibby: I could try to sum it up for you, but you give it a go.

John: The book follows twelve-year-old Jordan Park, who is a bit of a troublemaker kid. He comes home suspended from school. When he comes home, his parents are home unexpectedly because it’s April 29th, 1992, the day that the Rodney King verdict has been read. They’re in a discussion about what they should do about their store in South Central LA. The dad decides to go board it up in case there’s unrest. When he leaves, his family is watching the news and growing increasingly worried about Dad out there. Jordan makes the ill-advised decision to go into father’s closet, get his dad’s gun, and deliver it to him for protection the first night of the LA riots. That’s what the book is. It’s about a boy trying to get across LA on the worst night of their family’s life.

Zibby: It’s hard to get across LA even when it’s not the worst night. It’s always a challenge getting across. The riots make it — I don’t mean to trivialize it, obviously. It was a horrific night. I remember it well. I was in New York. I’ve read all these interviews that you’ve given. You’ve alluded to your high school career and your younger days of rebel-ness or whatever. Tell me about you growing up and some of the most egregious things you did that you — I know you have a thirteen-year-old. What do you wish you had never done or what are you proud of doing at that time?

John: I wasn’t exactly Marlon Brando in The Wild One or anything. For me, the parallel to the gun in my life — the gun for Jordan is this proxy for adulthood and responsibility and power and protection. It’s very symbolic for him. He doesn’t understand what it does, which is to shoot bullets at people. For me, the thing was the car. I remember when I was — I must have been thirteen or fourteen. I just wanted to drive the car. One night, I put pillows in my bed and snuck out of the house, took the keys, and drove the car. It was a Lincoln Continental. I think it was. No, the Lincoln Mark V. It was a huge boat. I was just this little kid barely looking over the steering wheel. I got a few blocks before a cop arrested me. My parents were woken up in the middle of the night by the police. I feel very bad that I did that. At that age, you’re trying to figure out how to be an adult. It’s so tough. You’re grasping at dumb things. There’s a lot of things happening inside that body at that age. You’re trying to grow up faster than is wise.

Zibby: I have to admit, which I never do, that I once took my parents’ car also, but I didn’t tell them until my second wedding. I was smart enough to have my girlfriend drive it. I just sat in the passenger seat. She was a much better driver than I was. Well, everyone’s a much better driver than I am. We didn’t get caught.

John: Well-done. Well-played.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you. I almost never wanted to tell them. Finally, I came clean.

John: Were you grounded?

Zibby: I know, right? I was a little worried. I’m like, “I know I’m forty years old, but I have to tell you what I did.” I got away with it, it turns out. Wanting to please your parents is another thing, wanting to rebel against them but at the same time, desperately wanting their approval. I feel like the main character in this book really feels that way and really wants his dad to pay attention and is scared of the failure and is scared of confronting them. There are these diametrically opposed forces all the time with what you want from your parents, especially at that age. Tell me about that, the relationship with parents, how you can simultaneously want to please and then also torture them with your behavior.

John: I think parents are gods to children. They created you. They taught you everything. They fed you. You want to be like them. You want their approval. You desperately need them to bless you. Yet at that age, you need to define who you are. To be like them, you need to individuate eventually. It’s an awkward time when they still need care but they want to — now I’m mixing up pronouns. I was I. Now it’s them. I guess I’m being a parent, thinking about it as a parent and being a kid. Boy, it is a difficult time. Also, for Jordan, these things are exacerbated by being immigrants and trying to become “American” also, which is further individuating your parents and alienating them also. It’s a weird time.

Zibby: I love the image of the grandfather on the couch basically not moving and occasionally looking like he understands but being such a fixture. The drama in the kitchen, you painted the whole family dynamic just so spot on. You feel like you’re really a part of all of that, and the older sister and the way she sits with her — what do you call it? — shirt over her knees like a little tent or whatever you called it. I also felt like the breaking glass in the kitchen — the mirror, sorry, on the cabinet at the beginning of the story was just such a foreshadowing, of course, of all the stuff to come. That was a little literary move of you there. Was that intentional?

John: It was, but it also happened to me. My parents, we moved around a lot. There were some very lean years. There were frequent fights about money. One time resulted in the sliding door coming off its hinges. It was a little bit of a mix. In my life, it simply came off the hinges. I kind of mixed two events. The police incident that’s referred to in the book when they came, that was a BB gun that shattered our front sliding glass door. The police came in with their boots on. In the story, it’s a robbery when we see Jordan’s parents’ relationship to police. The image of the thing shattering was kind of in my head and thought it might be useful.

Zibby: We had our front glass shot by a BB gun once. I woke up, and there was — I guess I had a babysitter with a boyfriend with an issue.

John: Really?

Zibby: Yeah. I was a kid. We were out of the city. We were out on Long Island.

John: Wow, that is drama.

Zibby: It was drama.

John: Unwanted drama.

Zibby: I know. Not sure it was worth her Nestle Quik, movie-making babysitting services to have to repair our mirror. I know your main thing is your acting career. That’s been super successful all this time. Now you’ve delved into a whole new field. Were you at all nervous about this? I know you had a cowriter. That’s great. Were you at all worried about tackling the middle-grade novel and trying to figure out what you’d be like as a writer?

John: Absolutely. The cowriter idea came up when I changed course. I was going to do something much lighter. It was the events of 2020 that caused me to change course. That was when I thought, I think I’m going to need someone to talk through things with. The subject matter combined with the audience seemed like there was going to be a lot of landmines. I wanted to navigate that responsibly with someone who had written for that audience before. To answer your question, I was very nervous. Again, I just wanted to do it truthfully but responsibly. We tried our best to make something that mirrored what I was going through in our house, which was to talk about these events plainly but not to scare them. We didn’t want them to feel that the world was unsafe for them. We didn’t want them to feel like they couldn’t walk out of the house. It was a difficult balance. I wanted to bring those same intentions to the book that we were bringing to our own children.

Zibby: That’s lovely. How do you process all of the anti-Asian violence going on right now? How do you come to terms with that? How do you think about it? How do you talk to your kids about it?

John: I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with it very well, very successfully. I’m so naïve. I had hoped that it would’ve been temporary with the onset of the pandemic when we heard kung flu virus and all that stuff. Yet it’s continuing, especially in New York. I’m particularly dismayed that they’re attacking women and the elderly. It seems particularly dark and malicious. It does seem to be this cycle that’s repeated itself in Asian American history, going from the good ones to the scapegoats. The most extreme version is the Japanese being interrogated during World War II and Germans being left alone. The German Americans being left alone, rather. It seems to be history repeating itself. I would say it’s hard to imagine even political forces causing a man to attack a defenseless woman. It’s really mind-boggling. I have trouble even accepting the data, the facts. It almost seems mythological. I read the accounts in the paper and have to read again because it seems so improbable. Yet it’s happening frequently. It’s very sad.

Zibby: I had a housekeeper for my whole life, for thirty years, my mother’s family. She was pushed in front of a subway and killed. She’s Asian. It was awful.

John: Oh, my god. When?

Zibby: This happened 2016, I think. I don’t mean to be flip about it. It’s obviously very upsetting. I recently interviewed Qian Julie Wang who wrote Beautiful Country, which, if you haven’t read it, is amazing. It’s an amazing memoir. I was talking to her about it because it comes up in her book and all of that. She said, “You know, I don’t think it’s happening any more now. I think it’s just finally being reported by the media,” which is even more upsetting.

John: Also, that’s the slipperiness of addressing this issue. Is it being reported? How do we count hate crimes? It’s thorny. I don’t even know how to start addressing it. How do you convince people not to do this darkest thing that you could never conceive of? It’s baffling and exceptionally frustrating.

Zibby: I have to say, one of the ways to combat some of these misperceptions or stereotypes or whatever is being able to put yourself in people’s shoes, which is what fiction does best. Being able to empathize and learn and see what it’s like, putting yourself in someone’s living room — not that, necessarily, people are — that’s one of the tools. I feel like that’s one of the main tools of getting people on the same page, is to write fiction about it, or memoir or whatever. I feel like a book like yours helps people transcend everything. This is what it’s like for this one child and this one experience. Stop and pay attention. This is this family.

John: I hope so. We set this book inside a really pivotal political event. At the heart of it, it’s a love story between a father and a son and a portrait of a Korean American family. I hope that people can empathize. We started from the image that everyone remembers from the LA riots. If there’s a single image of Korean Americans from the LA riots, it’s those men on the rooftops with their guns. The tag for me was, what if we followed that man home? What is his home life like? What are the dynamics there? If people got a sense of who their neighbors might be, their Korean American neighbors, through the book, that would really please me. If they felt a kinship, that would really be amazing.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? Are you going to be the dad?

John: It might be a movie. We’ll see. It could be. I think it could be.

Zibby: I think it should be. I think it’s an important story to digest, personally. I’m sure you agree with me because it’s yours.

John: Yeah, I think it would be a cool movie. I am partial to one-night movies, incidentally. I made one myself, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. That has always been a movie genre that I really like, so I think it might be a good one. There are burgers in my book as well.

Zibby: My husband loved your movie, by the way. He’s such a fan. He thought it was the coolest thing that I was interviewing you. I was like, “He’s an author. This is what I do.” You have a loyal fanbase, as you know. In fact, I was reading how dismayed people were that your last project ended. There were so many, why did this end? What happened?

John: Me too, by the way. I was one of them.

Zibby: You were one of them. You’re just posting about it.

John: Hey, man. My mom was the other one.

Zibby: Most-searched google term by the star. I read, also, that you, like so many of us, had a lot of anxiety about many of the events today, George Floyd and all of the things, and that one resulted in a panic attack. I was wondering if that was accurate and if that was something you struggle with and if you have any tips for managing anxiety, which I would welcome.

John: I was going to ask you for tips. That did happen very recently to me. It was illustrative of how stressful the last few years have been and how sustained it’s been. One day at a time, I guess you can deal with it. Collectively, you start putting those years together, and boy, has it been wearing on us. I hadn’t thought about that day — I was listening to a podcast about the day — was it Lafayette Park? Trump went out with a Bible, and they cleared out the protestors with tear gas and stuff. It was a firsthand account of a man who had an apartment on that block and let the protestors into his apartment. They were taking milk out of the fridge and cleaning out tear gas from the eyes. It was just packed with protestors. There was this friendship that formed between the apartment owner and a protestor. I was just transported back to that day. I don’t know what it was. I can’t really quite explain it. It seemed like me finally looking back and letting the last six years hit me in the chest. I was exercising. I had to stop. I’ve had a couple of panic attacks, but it’s not been something that’s happened often to me. It was really surprising. I had to stop and just breathe for a while. It was tough.

Zibby: I always think about that scene with Jack Nicholson. Did you see As Good as It Gets? I think that’s the one where he has a panic attack and goes to the hospital because he thinks he’s having a heart attack. That’s so common. It’s all the same symptoms. Our bodies trick us.

John: We feel these things. It starts in the brain and goes to the body. It’s a moment of trauma. It’s weird that you can have past trauma and it becomes present-tense trauma. The body and mind are very mysterious.

Zibby: Any other plans for more books?

John: Yes. I don’t know yet what it might be. I got to say, the greatest thing about having written a book is knowing that you have written one. It’s been such a gift to me because my day job, being an actor, you come in for the middle part. You miss the preparation. Then you come in for the hot stuff in the middle. Then you leave. Then they finish the film. Taking it from beginning to end has been so gratifying. It has emboldened me in many parts of my life in thinking, well, if I can do this, maybe I can do something else. It’s been one of the coolest things that I’ve ever done. It hasn’t even come out yet. Just having done it, it feels so great. Most of all, I look forward to kids reading it. I would like to have said it was for my kids, but really, it was for me, for twelve-year-old me. I thought, wow, it would’ve been really cool for twelve-year-old me to walk into a library, because we didn’t go to bookstores, and see this book and see that boy on the cover. I’m just really looking forward to seeing it on a shelf and seeing a kid grab it.

Zibby: Aw, that’s great. I love that. You’ll put little secret cameras in all the stores.

John: I’ll be lurking in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble. I know that sounds terrible.

Zibby: So funny, oh, my gosh, looking around the corner, peeking through the books, your eyes peeking through. Too funny. John, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Congratulations. It’s a huge accomplishment and really powerful story, really, really well-written and captivating and important and all the good things. Congratulations.

John: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

John: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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