Zibby Owens: Hi.

Nancy Jooyoun Kim: Hi. How are you?

Zibby: Good. How are you?

Nancy: Nice to meet you.

Zibby: Nice to meet you too. How’s everything with you?

Nancy: Good. How about you?

Zibby: Good. I know this is going to sound crazy. I was just at lunch with my dad. He wrote a book called What It Takes, which is a business-type book. It’s being published in multiple languages. He said, “Who’s your podcast with?” I said, “Nancy.” I told him a little bit about your book and your background. He goes, “Oh, my book just came out in Korean.” I was like, “I don’t think she speaks Korean. She’s from LA.” He’s like, “Maybe her parents.” I’m like, “I know her dad passed away.” He’s like, “Maybe her mom.” I was like, “Well, she came here when she was four, but maybe.” Anyway, he just gave me this book. He signed it and he said for me to send it to your mom.

Nancy: That’s so funny. That’s great.

Zibby: It’s in Korean. He didn’t even give me a copy.

Nancy: She’ll be the only one between us who will be able to read that. I can’t read that myself. Thank you so much. That’s so sweet of him. Congratulations to him. That’s huge.

Zibby: Thanks. If you’re interested, just send me where I should mail it to her. She’ll probably be like, what on earth?

Nancy: You can send it to me. I’ll explain it to her. She’ll appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Zibby: No problem. Anyway, thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am really excited to talk about your book and your life and all the rest. Thanks for coming on.

Nancy: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor.

Zibby: Nancy, can you tell people who haven’t read your book yet, which is probably most people because it’s just coming out, what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Nancy: The Last Story of Mina Lee takes place in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. It’s about a complex mother-daughter relationship between a Korean immigrant single mother named Mina and her American-born named Margot. The book begins with a death. Margot discovers her mother’s body in their apartment. The plot unwinds in a dual narrative that alternates between the mother’s point of view in the past and the daughter’s point of view in the present. During this process, Margot not only learns more about her mother’s life, but she learns about her own life and her own self as well.

Zibby: It sounds great. That’s the perfect description, uncertainty, a mystery, mother/daughter. It’s got all the elements. This is right up my alley.

Nancy: I just really wanted to write about the complex interdependence between mothers and daughters, the ways that they need love and sometimes even resent each other. This premise allowed me to explore all the different nuances of being in a mother-daughter relationship and also having the extra — the tensions are heightened by the differences in language because Mina only speaks Korean and a little bit of Spanish while Margot speaks primarily English. As you can imagine, as a teenager as she gets older and she wants to describe her feelings and her motivations to her mother, she hits all these blocks. It became extremely frustrating for her.

Zibby: It’s hard to imagine a relationship without fluid language between two parties. That’s the cornerstone of how you relate to somebody that you love. To have that taken away, especially between a mother-daughter relationship, is for sure worth examining. What’s happens then…?

Nancy: There are lines within the book where Margot says things like, “What would be the point of me learning Korean?” She only thinks that she needs it to speak to one person in her life. Yet it requires her mother’s death for her to finally realize what that exactly means. Suddenly, her mother dies. Her mother is her only connection to family. She becomes kind of untethered in this world, which is quite devastating for her. We watch her pull through. I think the mystery itself of her mother’s death gives her this distraction for her grief.

Zibby: You had a quote in the beginning when Margot is talking to her friend. You say, “Agreeing to the same white lie is what makes family family, he says.” She was like, what about if people agree? What if family agrees to two truths? He’s like, I don’t know, maybe they’re scientists.

Nancy: That was a little nod toward sometimes the fragility of the stories that our families tell ourselves to survive and the ways in which parents and children, sometimes we keep things from each other no matter how much we love each other because we’re attempting to either protect the other person or protect ourselves. That’s a very human impulse, in my opinion. Obviously, Margot has a lot of reasons to be angry at her mother for keeping secrets from her. At the same time, as she gets to know more and more the depth of her mother’s story and how complicated she was, she could see how her mother, in order to survive, literally had to submerge so much of her history and her past just to get through everyday life. I think it’s hard to just be a working-class single mother and imagining how she can work so many hours a day and also attempting to process things with her daughter, explain things to her daughter in a different language, which is almost impossible in a way that’s nuanced and complicated. Through this process, Margot kind of forgives her mother in an interesting way. This book is just the beginning of that relationship in a lot of ways.

Zibby: I was wondering with the book, how much this is tracking your own life. You wrote so beautifully about your father and his tragic death on his way home from a hiking accident and your mother and both of their stories and when they came to the United States. You wrote in Guernica and Los Angeles Review of Books. I felt like I really got to know your whole backstory. Maybe you could share a little more about what it was like, your knowing their stories and also even your father’s reticence to share his past and the pain that he masked in the past and then how he leaving your family affected you.

Nancy: In a lot of immigration stories, there’s so much trauma involved, usually. A lot of times, immigrants are either running from something or running toward something. Even though this novel is not autobiographical, I think that something that I could really relate to are the types of silences that exist within families and how loaded those silences can be and the ways in which daily life won’t allow you to access the truths behind those silences until something as horrifying as what happens to Margot, which is finding her mother’s body in her apartment, happens. Like Margot and Mina, within my own family, my father spoke English, but my mother, she didn’t speak English. A lot of the tensions and the misunderstandings that happen between mother and daughter, that’s something that I could definitely relate to. It’s very difficult to describe unless you’ve experienced it. It seems like, how could you live with somebody under the same roof and not speak the same language? It just almost doesn’t make sense. Growing up, parents and children, the language that they use is typically elementary. It’s things like, did you do your homework? Did you go to school? What did you eat today?

There’s this point where Margot just begins to grow separately from her mother as an adolescent. She sort of begins to abandon her past as she gets closer towards going to college and thinking about what she wants to do with her own life. These are all frustrations and things that I could definitely relate to. Mina never really needs to know English to get by. That’s one of the beauties of ethnic enclaves, places like Koreatown, Chinatown, where people can come to this country and they can survive. They can work and find basic ways of getting by without learning the language. Pretty much, in Koreatown, you have an accountant. You have a bank. You have a post office. Mina works in a mostly Latinx area of LA. She really only needs a little bit of Spanish to communicate with her customers. As Mina’s spending so much time at work and then Margot’s focusing on figuring out how to get out of Koreatown, they really split apart. These are definitely frustrations that I think that I can relate to and a lot of other immigrants and the children of immigrants can relate to.

Zibby: A hundred percent. You also include in the book what it was like growing up looking different. I don’t know if this was your experience growing up in LA or if this was just fictious for Margot’s background, but how she longed to look like all these tall, blond-haired, beautiful, white students. PS, I would also love to look like a tall, blond student myself. I think that’s a common aspiration.

Nancy: What’s interesting is I think the assumption is that if you grow up in diverse places you have exposures to so many different forms of beauty and concepts of beauty. Margot does grow up around a very diverse group of people. At the end of the day, she is very lonely growing up because she has no siblings. Her mother works all day long. She only really sees her mother at night when she’s very tired or over the weekends when she’s helping her mom at her mother’s store in . She spends probably so many hours of her life watching television. I think that so much of children’s formation of how they view the world and how the world is idealized is through TV. I’m imagining Margot growing up in the eighties and nineties. I’m sure there were some forms of diversity on television at that point, but I don’t feel like she had a ton of role models. I don’t think she necessarily saw herself in a lot of the television or the movies that she was seeing.

There’s this sense that there’s a gap between her lived experience and what she’s seeing in this public and social way, like, if I had those things, that is what success looks like. There’s this huge gap, which is actually really sad when you think about it because in many ways Margot’s mother, Mina, even if she doesn’t fit the traditional standards of success in her country, in many ways she is a successful person. She’s a woman who had so little and managed to create a life for herself. She managed to feed her children. She managed to send her children to school. I think being a single mother is a huge accomplishment in and of itself, especially in a country that’s so foreign to her. There’s this huge gap in understanding where Margot sees her mother as representing everything she doesn’t want to be when she grows up. She wants to have a nice at least middle-class life. She wants to have certain nice things in her life. In reality, if she had known more about her mother’s story, I think she would’ve appreciated her a lot more and seen, wow, this woman is actually very heroic.

Zibby: I think it takes a lot for kids to actually get out of their minds and consider their parents to be heroes, especially at a younger age, but even, I would argue, a lot of — I think it’s very hard to be objective sometimes as a child, even an adult child for some people.

Nancy: Right, because our parents will always be the people who are reminding us of what we’re not quite doing, even if you’re in a very loving environment. Obviously, they’re doing that for a specific reason. As children, we can sometimes see our parents as the boss, the person who doesn’t see me for who I am. There’s so many ways that parents and children — I think that’s what makes this book really interesting. It’s interested in the nuances of those emotions, even if some of them are uncomfortable or maybe even, I don’t want to say embarrassing, but I think they’re hard to write about and talk about.

Zibby: Basically, Margot just wants a role on Beverly Hills, 90201. What is she going to do? Instead, she’s going home to Koreatown and whatever. She’s never going to be happy in that environment. That’s tough.

Nancy: Right, exactly. I’m sure she watched 90201.

Zibby: Of course. Who didn’t? Come on. How did you become such a good writer? I really feel like you are a fabulous, fabulous writer. Your nonfiction stories about yourself really read almost like novels and made me so excited to read your actual novel. How did you do this? Tell me about your whole writing history.

Nancy: That’s so sweet of you. I’ve been writing for a really long time. I started probably when I was a kid just playfully, imaginatively. I used to draw these little cartoons and write these little stories. The plants would be characters. The lawnmower was the bad guy. I remember writing these really elementary stories as a kid. Then in junior high and high school, I started writing really bad poetry, which I think a lot of kids at that age write. writing bad poetry or writing really melodramatic songs. I definitely had that streak in me. I’ve had streaks in my life where my work was just too demanding. Writing for me has really just been about practice and discipline and endurance in a lot of ways. I feel like I just put the time in and the hours. I know that’s really hard to do for most people. The way that I was able to really complete this novel after so many years — I graduated from an MFA program in 2006. That was fourteen years ago.

Since then, I’ve written two novels. This is the only one to be published. For me, what worked is to find the story that literally only I could tell. Once I had a sense of purpose to my writing, it made the discipline required a little bit more accessible, I would say. Writing as a discipline is really hard because I think there’s no obvious rewards immediately. Nobody really knows what you’re doing. Everybody’s like, oh, you’re writing a novel. That sounds fun. They don’t really get what’s going on behind the scenes. There’s no real way to explain it very well, also, while you’re working on it. It just sounds like some abstract story. You’re still figuring it out, so you can’t even really talk about it. What helped me was to find the story that I felt only I could tell and to have that sense of purpose behind what I was doing. Once I had that sense of purpose, I was able to muster the discipline that I think I needed to actually complete the book.

Zibby: What was that sense of purpose that you felt? What did you need to get out with this book? What was the driving force?

Nancy: I feel like this book, it’s a story that I had never read before. I feel like it’s something that captured things that I have always wanted to say to either my mother or maybe to other people and that I could not say in real life. That’s the beauty of what fiction can do that I think is really amazing. I remember when I was an undergrad had given a talk. This was many years ago, probably fifteen, sixteen years ago. Somebody in the audience asked her, they loved the dialogue in her novels, and were they based upon real conversations in her family? She said something like, no, they’re conversations that I always wished had happened. The purpose of this novel is in a way to create a kind of impossible conversation that could’ve never happened while Mina was still living between a daughter and a mother. I feel like to have this sense of purpose of having this extraordinarily important conversation and talk between two people who really love each other but can’t quite access each other really focused my attention in a way that narrowed it and made it a lot easier to accomplish as opposed to thinking, I’m going to write about immigration, just to really zero in on something that felt manageable to me. On the way, obviously I would explore all sorts of other things.

Zibby: Wow. Then when you were actually doing the writing in that space where nobody really understands what you’re doing, where did you like to do that? Where did you work? When and where? What did you do the rest of the day when you weren’t writing and all of that?

Nancy: I actually began really focusing on this novel during a point of transition in my life. I was living in Seattle working a full-time job. My husband got a job down in California. It allowed me to start all over because now I had to find a new job. I began to put together freelance editing projects and more project-based work so I could work from home. For me, this novel really was written in the mornings before I had to do my regular day job. I tried to put together at least two to three hours per day working on my book. I tried to work on it about five days a week. That’s very hard for a lot of people to do. It just is, whether it’s because they have children or the demands of their job. I found that working on a book almost every day allowed me to access almost a fluidity or subconscious space where I was returning to something. There’s something kind of meditative about it. I think it’s probably similar to how professional athletes or certain artists have to wake up and it just requires this disciple where you get into it. It’s a little bit easier every time. That was the process for me. I just woke up in the morning, try to get it out of the way first. If I waited until later, life would just take over.

Zibby: That’s how I feel about exercise, which is why I basically never exercise.

Nancy: It’s actually very, very similar. Then for the rest of the day, you feel recharged and you feel like you’ve gotten something done. That was necessary for me.

Zibby: As opposed to maybe not getting out of your pajamas all day in pandemic mode. What has this time been like for you with your book? When we went into the pandemic mode in March or whatever, I’m sure your book release felt so far away. Now suddenly, here we still are and it’s coming out. How has this whole thing been for you?

Nancy: Obviously, there’s aspects of it that are so difficult. Nobody imagines this situation when they’re thinking of, I’ve been writing for this long and I’m finally having my first book out. Now I can’t even go out and celebrate. There’s so much that I can’t do that I would love to do. I can’t go to my bookstore and see my book on the shelf. That’s one of the . At the same time, I try to just remain grateful every single day. I know that this has been such a huge honor to have a book out in the world. I feel like people who will connect with this book will connect with this book. They’ll find a way to it. The story matters to me. Obviously, I want people to read it. Just that this story exists and is out and there’s this possibility of people finding it is really wonderful to me. Every day, I just try to remain grateful for that. I’m actually loving the virtual aspect of things, to be honest, because I feel like I’m able to do a little bit more than I normally would be able to. I’m able to connect with writers in different regions. There’s no travel involved. It’s kind of fun going to online readings because you don’t have to put on shoes. You can turn off your camera. You don’t have to put on anything, pretty much. You can still be a part of this community. I do think that there have been some pluses to it in a way.

Zibby: I love going to book readings. I have four kids. It’s often hard to get to Brooklyn for seven on a Tuesday or something like that, so I felt like I was always missing out. Sometimes I would go to book readings and there would be like ten people there, which is crazy, even though the authors are super amazing and the book was fabulous. It’s hard to get people all to congregate at these appointed times. Now I feel like we can all pop into bookstores across the world if we want. There is a sense of liberation in that.

Nancy: You can have dinner while you’re at a reading, which I know sounds weird, but you can. There’s fewer excuses, almost. I’ve been to some wonderful readings. I really miss the live events. There’s always the hangout afterwards. There’s always the energy of those events. At the same time, I think we’re doing pretty well considering the circumstances.

Zibby: Maybe you shouldn’t actually eat dinner while you’re giving a reading. Maybe if you’re in the audience it would be okay.

Nancy: If you’re in the audience, I mean.

Zibby: Okay, good. I’m picturing you rolling up with —

Nancy: — fold laundry.

Zibby: It’s true. The function of no video always being an option is huge. Who knows what people are doing? I’m sure somebody’s done a funny skit about what people are actually doing behind the black little boxes in the Zoom screens. They’re funnier than I could potentially ever be. Who knows? Have you found it easy or hard to write during this time? Have you been working on a new project? What’s coming next for you?

Nancy: I started working on a new novel which also takes place outside of Los Angeles’s Koreatown. It’s about the separations, the silences within a family after the mysterious death of the mother five years ago. I’m still writing. I’m probably not as productive as I was before the pandemic, obviously, because so much is going on in our world. It’s been a comfort. I love it, just getting back into the pages. This is my favorite stage of the process. I love the early stages when you’re just learning about your characters and you’re like, oh, my gosh. You get this idea just out of nowhere, or you’re in a scene and they say something and it makes you realize, maybe she’s suggesting something about her past. There’s this really interesting part of discovery that I love in this stage. It’s great. I love this part. This is the best part, actually, the beginnings. Once you start revising, it gets so hard.

Zibby: Yeah, because you’re out of that same mental headspace that you referred to before. Now you just have to dip into it in certain parts.

Nancy: That’s when you start getting really sharp about things and you start realizing, oh, there’s this plot line that totally just dropped off. Now I have to remove that and figure out why that was in there in the first place. Right now’s a really good time in terms of where I am with my next book.

Zibby: In terms of this book selling and the publishing journey, if you will, what’s the synopsis of how you sold your book and how that all happened?

Nancy: It really began with an agent finding me. She actually read that Guernica piece that you’re referring to about my father. It’s called “Heaven Lake.”

Zibby: It was so good.

Nancy: Thank you so much. My agent who’s incredible, Amy Elizabeth Bishop, just reached out to me. She said, “Do you have anything?” I was like, “I do, actually. I have this novel that I’ve been working on for about five years.” It was a pretty straightforward experience. I didn’t have the same experience with my first novel that I wrote. It went through over twenty rejections. This was a much more straightforward experience. I think it’s because of what I was talking about earlier, just having that sense of purpose, that really clear sense of purpose. A lot of people wonder, where am I going to find a story that only I can tell? That sounds like some kind of magical thing that drops in your lap. I think it’s more a matter of just finding and being true to what truly keeps you up at night, what truly you want to spend time with, what truly at the end of the day matters to you. For me, it was all about exploring this one complicated relationship between a mother and daughter. The purpose and the clarity was very obvious in the manuscript. That helped it sell, in my opinion.

Zibby: Love it. That’s great. Do you have any other advice? I know that you’ve already given a lot of great advice to aspiring authors. Any other parting tips?

Nancy: Yeah, I do. I’m not particularly wise. I’m still new to all of this. I would say something that has helped me a lot is I’ve surrounded myself with extraordinarily supportive people. Through the years, I’ve had so many relationships that were less functional. This is one of those industries where you need to be surrounded by people who believe in you a hundred percent because there’s so much rejection. It’s such an uphill battle. I think that really surrounding yourself with people who support you and believe in you no matter what is so important. We can’t choose everyone that’s around us. My strategy has always been, I’ve been much more careful about sharing things with those people and really identifying who I can trust and who’s going to support and love me through even the hardest parts of this journey. That has made a huge difference. I couldn’t have survived all of this without my husband who is very supportive and friends who hadn’t even read my book but who just always gave me the sense that they believed in whatever I was working on and that it was important.

Zibby: That is just all-around great life advice. Surround yourself with the right people. It’s true. That really is the secret to the whole thing, is just saying, is this person good for me or not? and figuring out a way to have the strength to say goodbye to the people who aren’t.

Nancy: That is really, really hard. Yes, it’s super hard. It’s something that I’m still learning to do, but I feel like gradually moving in that direction. I am definitely seeing major improvements in me reaching the goals that I need to reach.

Zibby: It’s obviously working because you have a book coming out. You’re a beautiful writer. Your book is getting on the shelves whether you see it or not. It’s like a tree falling in the forest. If my book is on the bookstore shelves and nobody sees it, is it really there? But it is, so congratulations.

Nancy: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such an honor to talk with you.

Zibby: It’s been so fun. Awesome. Thank you so much. Send me your address so I can send you this book.

Nancy: I will. I’m not sure if I have your email, but I guess I’ll send it through Justine, my publicist. Thank you again. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.