“Fiction is really about imagining and putting yourself in the shoes of characters that you really have nothing in common with.” Zibby is joined by author Soon Wiley to talk about his debut novel, When We Fell Apart, which he has been writing for the last seven years. Soon shares how although he and his protagonist have a lot in common, he enjoyed writing from the book’s female perspective much more. The two also discuss Soon’s journey to publication, which non-mystery stories inspired this project, and what he’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Soon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When We Fell Apart.

Soon Wiley: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: The answer to this for me is every single day, but that’s okay. Every morning before eight.

Soon: It could be present tense or just Continuously Falling Apart.

Zibby: Yes. Mine would be When We Fall Apart. Can you tell listeners a little about what this book is about and your inspiration for it?

Soon: The story follows our protagonist, Min, who’s a Korean American. He’s also biracial. He’s recently graduated from college. The book begins set in Seoul. He’s decided to move to Seoul in the hopes of finding a sense of belonging in terms of his identity, but also in terms of his career. A few years before this, he’s graduated. He doesn’t really love his job, so he decides to take a job in Seoul, in Korea. The book actually opens with the death of his girlfriend, Yu-jin. The police are adamant that it’s a suicide, but Min has his suspicions. The novel opens with the announcement of her death. We actually get her perspective as well. For Min’s chapters, he’s searching for answers in the present of the novel trying to figure out what exactly happened, if she did take her own life. If she did, why? Yu-jin’s chapters, we also get her perspective. Those begin well before she’s actually even met Min. Those begin when she’s in high school. Her chapters, at some point, they cross. In the middle of the novel, eventually, her timeline catches up to his while he’s searching. Her sections unravel the mystery of exactly why she might have done what she did. There’s this back-and-forth. We do hear from both of them. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Zibby: When he finds out about her death, the scene that you have where he’s like, “This is impossible because I just saw her,” there is that sense of, when someone dies suddenly, that you’re just like, it couldn’t possibly happen like that because I have proof that this person was alive because it was just a few hours ago. It’s somehow so hard to wrap your mind around the instant — there’s just this second that you go from being — this is sounding ridiculous. You captured it very well, his complete shock and initial unwillingness to accept what’s happened given what he knows of recent events.

Soon: It’s funny. That scene where the detective is explaining to him what’s happened, to be honest, that chapter took the longest to write, even though it’s one of the earliest ones. I wanted to capture that sense of — I think we’ve all experienced that sense of disbelief of death in general. It feels so immediate. It feels so sudden. Then especially in the case of someone taking their own life, that adds another layer of disbelief, especially if this is someone who showed no signs of any kind of distress, which is something that adds another layer of doubt for Min. He can’t even really comprehend that this is what’s happening.

Zibby: By the way, it does not open with that. It opens with this excruciating shoulder injury on the rugby field. It’s so funny with books because you never know exactly what you’re going to get when you open up a book. Then here I am just sitting trying to read. The next thing you know, I’m in the midst of a rugby field with my shoulder hurting. Do you know what I mean, how you can just totally lose yourself in these characters? I was thinking to myself, it’s very rare to open — maybe it’s the books I read, mostly. I don’t know. I feel like it’s very rare to open mid-athletic event, which is silly because athletic events and competition and physical — those are some of the most edge-of-your-seat events and things that can happen around. Why isn’t that an opening scene more often?

Soon: I’m setting the trend. Now we’re going to see, all new novels are going to be opening mid-athletic injury, event. Totally.

Zibby: I’m rewriting my next book. No, I’m kidding. It was a great opening scene. Tell me if this is actually true. If it is, then I am just totally ignorant. So be it. I wouldn’t be surprised. Do they really pause all the things in Seoul for these exams? Is that a true thing?

Soon: Yeah, that’s a real thing. I lived in Seoul for a year teaching English as a foreign language. This is well before I was thinking about writing a book or anything. I remember the day quite well. Everyone knew about the day. It’s essentially almost like a national holiday or a bank holiday where the country pretty much shuts down. I think you could look at it as a positive and also a negative. It’s a positive in the sense of, the country comes together and collectively makes it easier for kids to get to school on this really important day where they have to take exams. Then there’s also this immense national collective pressure because you’re aware of the fact that everyone knows that this is the day. That experience of taking that test for high schoolers, a little bit different than when I took my SATs or my GRE, which I remember just being a total disaster.

Zibby: I was in this terrible high school situation that I’ve never been in before. Oh, my gosh. Anyway, whatever. My SATs, it doesn’t matter. It was a long, long time ago. Tell me about the dual points of view. Sometimes there’s controversy of whether different genders can inhabit different characters’ roles and all of that. I know you focus on this identity as being, and which you’ve written about — in the book club guide, you wrote really interestingly about growing up where people didn’t know your ethnicity and would always ask and make guesses. You never felt like inhabiting anything. Tell me about that and ownership of identity and the ability to write about it. Just go off on that tangent.

Soon: George Saunders, he had a book — his most recent book is Swim — it’s a really complicated title. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I think. He talks a lot about writing from different perspectives. I think in general, it’s really important for writers — the whole point of writing fiction is to inhabit characters that aren’t you. That is the act of fiction. You sit there. You imagine deeply. You enter this headspace where you’re in an imaginary character. I think most books would be pretty bad if writers only inhabited characters that were like themselves. At least, that doesn’t really sound that fun to me. Saunders, in one of the essays in that book, talks about sometimes when that can go wrong or when readers feel as if, okay, this is now bordering on offensive. We’ve got a writer of a certain identity writing about something that isn’t a shared experience for them. Something happens where the reader maybe feels as if, I don’t know if I’m still on board with this knowing what I know about the writer. Saunders actually just says, which I quite like, it might just be that the writing is bad, and that’s what offends you. It’s not that the writer is a bigot or that they have specific offensive ideas about this person that they’re characterizing. It might just be that the writing is bad. I kind of like that explanation. For me, Min is a character who, we have a lot of shared experiences. We’re both biracial. We’re both Korean. We both went and lived in Korea for some time. For a lot of debut novelists, I think — this is painting with broad strokes — their first book is close to them in some way. That was an avenue in for me, at least into his character.

The funny thing is that when I first wrote the book, it was only from his perspective. Then I finished a draft of it. I thought, this is okay. It got me an agent, which I was thankful for. I knew that there were some things lacking. It felt odd to me that we are going to follow this male character who then finds himself through the death of his girlfriend who we never get to hear from. It just felt a little bit odd. Boy meets girl. Girl dies. Boy finds himself and is happy. It felt a little bit odd not to hear from her. I put his sections aside. Then I actually wrote her point of view. I said to myself, what would her voice sound like? She was already a character in the book. She was already fully formed. She had lines of dialogue, but we just never got her perspective. I started writing her chapters from the first-person perspective. Those chapters are more fun to write. They were actually easier to write than Min’s. If I could aggregate time spent, it was sixty percent, seventy percent on Min’s chapters. The rest was on Yu-jin’s chapters. For some reason, her character, her voice, and her experience, which obviously have nothing to do with anything that I experienced, were far easier to write, which kind of speaks to what your initial question was about. Fiction is really about imagining and putting yourself in the shoes of characters that you really have nothing in common with. The characters that you’re actually closer to personally and that you do have shared experience with, sometimes those are harder to write because I think you’re then bringing all sorts of personal baggage, which isn’t always that helpful. In some ways, it is. In some ways, it isn’t.

Zibby: That is very interesting. See, this is what you never know. I would never have thought that her chapters were not part of this initial thing because that feels so integral to the whole story. There you go. This is why these conversations are so interesting, to me at least.

Soon: It’s a good thing, too, because it certainly makes the book better, I hope.

Zibby: I was totally rooting for her in her success to get out when her parents were like, we’re going to come move to Seoul too. We’re going to come move in with you for college. She was like, please don’t.

Soon: I know. I’m sure some kids, depending on what age they’re reading it, are going, god, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.

Zibby: Although, I kind of get it as a parent. I’m like, how great, let’s pretend my kid went to Santa Barbara. That would be nice to live in Santa — .

Soon: We’ll move the family for four years.

Zibby: Exactly. Real estate, college, perfect. This was your first novel. Tell me about getting into fiction writing at all at this point, what you’ve been doing alongside it.

Soon: I first started writing when I was in college. I was trying things out. I didn’t consider myself a writer. I was an English major. I don’t even think we could major in creative writing at the school I went to. On a whim, I entered this short story contest at my college. I didn’t win first place, but I shared first place with one of my good college friends. There’s a writing teacher there named Blanche Boyd. She emailed me. She was like, “Who are you? Why don’t I know who you are? Why aren’t you in my class?” I ended up taking one creative writing class with her my last year, basically, in college. She was very adamant, she said, “Don’t get your MFA. Just go live your life. You can always go to school later.” I did that. I went to Korea. Then I ended up applying to MFA programs two years after that. I was predominantly working on short stories. I think a lot of writers feel like this. I didn’t feel like a writer. When your friends are all doing normal jobs making money, actually living their lives in the real world, going to graduate school is a very bizarre thing, especially for creative writing because you don’t actually need a degree to write creatively. It already feels kind of stupid. I was doing that. That was actually in Kansas, funnily enough. They gave me the most money, so I just went there. I was writing creative writing stories.

Then I kind of saw the writing on the wall in terms of jobs, and so I ended up becoming a high school English teacher. I got a great gig teaching English in DC. I worked there for seven years. Pretty much when I started my job there, I started working on this book. It was my first novel. I didn’t know what it was or what was going to happen. It felt good to write something that I knew I didn’t have to workshop. In graduate school, you have to workshop everything. You have to get feedback. The book basically took me seven years, so from the time I started that job in DC and then — I live in Connecticut now. I worked at that job in DC for seven years. Basically, from start to finish, that’s how long it took me to get everything written, revised, agents, editors, that whole thing. It’s kind of wild because some parts of the book, I wrote seven years ago, and then other parts, I wrote a year ago. It’s very odd to think about. You know this. You’re a different person. You’re different, and you’re the same. Then it’s weird that the book is this single entity. There’s this magic trick. As a writer, you kind of have to inhabit this weird book space that isn’t reliant on time or anything like that just so that it can be a single entity that makes sense.

Zibby: Totally. Plus, maybe you’re getting better as a writer as the years go on.

Soon: I hope. I think that’s true also. That’s also the concern. If I’m getting better as a writer, which you hope, does that mean that the beginning of the book is crap and the end of the book is really good? Then you have to go back. Then I also think one of the things I was really paranoid about is, okay, I’ve revised the first eighty pages of the book probably a hundred times. Those are the pages that you’re working on the most. Those are the pages maybe you’re submitting to agents or editors. Also, if you’re editing, you usually start from the beginning. At least, I do. Then the end of the book, I probably didn’t revise nearly as much as the first. Maybe that’s actually how it works, is that you’re better by the end, so you don’t have to revise as much. That’s why you’ve had to revise so much in the beginning. I’m not sure how it works.

Zibby: Maybe everybody should read our books backwards.

Soon: I kind of like that idea, actually.

Zibby: The sample chapter out there should not be at the beginning. It should definitely be a later chapter. That’s funny. Are you working on a new project now?

Soon: Yes. I was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal, so I am working on something, which also is a very weird process. When I was working on the first book, I didn’t know that it was going to be published. There was a certain kind of freedom to that, freedom and anxiety. I’m working on this thing for seven years. It might never get published. That’s scary. Now I’m working on something, and I’m like, this is definitely going to get published. That’s actually scarier. Again, to work on something for seven years, I feel like the time spent on it has made it a strong fiction effort. To then write a book in — I don’t know. I can’t be seven years. That’s for sure. It’s going to be interesting. I think the process will be really different.

Zibby: You can’t say anything about that topic?

Soon: I think it will be in the same vein as — in When We Fell Apart, I was very interested in trying to write, successfully, hopefully, a mystery and a literary book. Those are the kind of books that I really enjoy. I’m working on something in a similar vein of a mystery at the center of it, but hopefully, something with some kind of literary aspirations.

Zibby: What are some of those books that you love that are in that genre?

Soon: It’s so funny. A book that I didn’t read until — Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, I was working on my book, and that book came out. I had a friend mention it to me. I was like, “I can’t read this book right now.” Sometimes when you read stuff that is a little bit too close to home, it can be a little bit demoralizing. Well, she’s done it, so I might as well just pack it in now. I did eventually read that. That, to me, is a really fantastic example of a mystery but with real meaty questions and big questions to discuss. I don’t think Sally Rooney’s Normal People is billed as a mystery at all, but there is real mystery there. The characters are mystery. What’s going on at home? What’s the deal with the families and the family dynamics there? That’s one of my favorites as well. Then I’m also a huge Haruki Murakami fan, the Japanese author. He’s always got some mystery bubbling beneath the surface, even if it’s really something dumb, like, this green little monster showed up in my backyard, and I don’t know how to get rid of it. I think that’s how one of his short stories begins. Then the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, his most recent book, Klara and the Sun. Again, those aren’t really traditional mystery novels, but I think they always have some kind of narrative thread that’s pulling us through that we want to know, even if it’s as vague as, don’t really know what’s going on here, so I’m going to keep reading to find out.

Zibby: I have to admit I did not read Klara and the Sun. Although, I knew all about it and wish I had done so. I did get to see him accept an award at, I think it was the Poets & Writers or Center for Fiction.

Soon: Center for Fiction, I think, was last year or two years ago.

Zibby: Center for Fiction, yes. I feel like now I got to know him a little bit. He was so humble and yet so well-spoken. It’s on my list. It’s on the never-ending list.

Soon: For me, Remains of the Day, which is also an amazing movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson — I probably shouldn’t plug the movie. That’s sacrilegious. That book is phenomenal. It’s one of my favorite books and very much has a mystery to it.

Zibby: If only there were more time.

Soon: I know. I know. You need a lot more time because you’ve got a lot of books to read, a lot more books than I have to read.

Zibby: I should start another podcast of just books I’ve missed, books I wish I’d read in the past but hadn’t.

Soon: Or just listing books that you need to read.

Zibby: I could do that. Then it’s embarrassing to me. Then people can see how many holes I have in my reading repertoire. Let’s not call attention to that.

Soon: It’s a Herculean effort, though. For people that don’t know the publishing industry, once — I’ve had a few friends say, “I can’t believe how many books come out every week.” It’s this machine. It’s endless. There are more books released than Netflix shows. It’s endless. I think you should be commended regardless of your number of books read.

Zibby: Thank you. It is impossible. I think a lot about this, but this is a whole separate conversation, the supply and demand of the publishing industry. Is there enough time? Are there enough readers to justify how many books are always coming out? Does it make sense? Should there be some more limits? I don’t know. I feel like there’s an imbalance.

Soon: I totally agree. Again, this is probably content that no one wants to hear tuning into this podcast. I was thinking about — I haven’t seen Top Gun yet. That harkens back to a time when there were three or four summer movies. It was like, okay, Top Gun, let’s go see the one summer movie that’s out. I do wonder about that in terms of books where it does seem like there can’t possibly be this many people that want to read this many books. It’s interesting to see what will happen in the future.

Zibby: I think that is why I felt so relieved seeing the new Top Gun. I was like, oh, there are still big movies that keep me riveted. My attention span for movies and TV has declined as I read more. I’m just like, great, we’re all going to see this movie. How nice. We can talk about the same thing. I think that’s why there’s now this over-reliance on book club picks.

Soon: Right. Just tell me what to read.

Zibby: Which I’m kind of trying to do with this podcast, curation. Yet I have 365 episodes a year, so it’s not totally curated. I’m hoping people find at least — honestly, even picking this many is winnowing it down from the bazillions that could be read.

Soon: I think in ten years, we’re going to have a podcast that aggregates the podcasts that you should listen to. That’s kind of where we’re at. We’ve got so many podcasts that we’re going to need someone to tell us which podcasts to listen to and also which book club picks to pick.

Zibby: Maybe we can do that. There is something called Goodpods where you can follow recommendations of your friends.

Soon: Okay, got it. See, it’s already happening.

Zibby: You’re behind already. I’m sorry. Good luck. Last question. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Soon: I’m a big believer in, just keep writing. I think that’s what separates people that succeed and people that don’t. If you’re willing to, at whatever stage you’re at, to keep writing regardless of setbacks and regardless of time spent — I think we have a very warped perception of years spent working on something and the kind of payoff. If you’re okay with working on something for ten years, which, again, sounds crazy — then I think in novel years, ten years actually isn’t that long, which is also scary to think about. Just keep writing no matter what. I think that’s really what separates the people that find success and the people that maybe tap out. It’s not for me. I’m out of the game.

Zibby: I wonder what other art forms or whatever take so long. Then to read doesn’t take that long at all. I spent almost eighteen years on this memoir, on and off. People are like, I read it in three hours. I’m like, that’s great. All that time for me, then they put it down. Onto the next. It’s like, okay.

Soon: I completely agree with that sentiment. I’ve experienced that as well when people say, I read it one night. It’s like, I’m so happy that you did, but also, how is that possible that you consumed something in a single night? I agree, also, to your point about, the worst part about writing is that you can’t even show people what you’ve been working on. At least if you’re a sculptor, you could be like, look, I’ve been carving this piece of rock for eighteen years. Here’s what it was before. Here’s what it is now. You’re painting. You’re writing music, you can play someone a sample. When you’re writing, it’s like, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. I’m working on something. It exists. You can’t see it. I don’t want anyone to look at it. I don’t want to talk about it. Yet I’m going to spend a decade working on it.

Zibby: Especially because — sorry, we should go. I’m thinking, obviously, movies take a long time. There’s so much incubation, but there are so many people who work on those movies. You could have hundreds of people.

Soon: True. It’s a team.

Zibby: Writing is just like, okay, I’m going to change this sentence again. Anyway, not to discourage.

Soon: The struggle is real.

Zibby: But the payoff is great. Then you get these fabulous books. It’s amazing. Congratulations. Thanks for the chat.

Soon: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Soon: Thanks so much, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.



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