MY INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR STEPHAN LEE
A peek into the world of the K-Pop Confidential
If I could give this book six stars, I'd do it. How about 7? You know what? I'm just going to fling out a thousand happy stars to this gem of a book that got me and my five-year-old son hooked on BlackPink.
I first came across this book on Instagram (where I see books and buy them because I'm a trash human being with no self-control) and promptly ordered it. I knew from the K-pop vibes it was giving off as I opened the Amazon box that I would have to drop all planned reads for this one. The pull was so strong. My hands shook. My body shivered with the expectation. The world tilted on its axis. I was ready.
This book follows Candace, a simple Korean-American from Jersey who enters a K-pop talent call and much to her surprise, is chosen to attend a training camp in Seoul, South Korea. She enters the competitive and grueling world of K-pop Bootcamp where the food is scarce, the boys are walled, and the girls are fierce. She quickly learns how much she wants to debut, and what she's willing to sacrifice to get there.
So, I don't know much K-pop other than BTS because I see those dolls at Barnes and Noble whenever I go buy books to quell my depression. I quickly began looking up the songs and groups referenced and now I am a BlackPink superfan and even began to Etsy some fan stickers and I am not ashamed. I am a 38-year-old American and I AM NOT ASHAMED.
Anyhow, this book was super fun. We get a glimpse into the world of K-pop and what fans and trainees really do go through. It's eye-opening and inspirational and heartbreaking all in one. I really do wish Mr. Lee continues the story, with an ending like that! But I would be satisfied even if he didn't. I loved this book so much. I hope you all enjoy it too!
So, get this, you guys: I took a giant leap and contacted Mr. Lee for an interview, and he responded so graciously. I had the best time reading K-Pop Confidential, and I was seriously fangirling when he agreed to my newbie blog! Make sure to check out his debut book, and follow him on Instagram for all the updates! Enjoy!
ME: Can you tell us what your main inspirations were for the book?
STEPHAN: My main book inspirations for K-POP CONFIDENTIAL are ones you might not expect at first. First of all, I always thought a YA novel about the K-pop world would have some similarities to The Hunger Games ... the intense training, the authoritarian rules these kids have to follow, and the sense of being watched by the entire world. But the main difference would be that K-pop isn’t dystopian, it’s real life! But I think both books share some themes … they both depict a generational battle (in K-POP CONFIDENTIAL, it’s the execs at the K-pop company vs. the young artists and trainees) and a metaphorical battle to the death, since for some of the trainees, debuting in a girl group means everything for their future.
I was also inspired by The Wizard of Oz or any novel or film that feels like a “hero’s journey” … Candace is on a deeply personal quest to discover her own voice and decide her own future, and the “Assessments” she has to face as a K-pop trainee are almost like the enemies she must slay on the way.
And lastly, the work of Becky Albertalli, who’s one of my idols … I just love the heart and sense of humor Becky brings to her MCs, and I wanted Candace’s narration to be able to balance both the heartfelt and funny moments. I have to say, I still remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out Becky agreed to give the cover blurb for K-POP CONFIDENTIAL. It was one of the best moments of my entire book debut! A total dream come true.
ME: You explored some controversial topics in the book, including eating disorders, and body dysmorphia. Do you believe the K-Pop culture is leaning in the right direction with changing their strict rules, and what do you think of it now and then? (loaded question, I know. I had to throw in a challenge ;) )
STEPHAN: I absolutely think it’s changing, and that’s thanks to the artists speaking up and also fans around the world making it clear to the companies that they care about the artists’ wellbeing and don’t want them to be these perfect illusions. Of course, change is slow, but it’s definitely moving in a better direction, especially as K-pop fans have become such a powerful force for good on so many issues. There have been so many positive conversations recently about mental health, body image, and more inclusion in the industry. We need to keep these conversations going and put them into action.
One thing I wanted to make clear in K-POP CONFIDENTIAL: K-pop is not the only entertainment industry with big problems. Any environment in which adults are imposing overly strict rules and creating unrealistic standards for young people need to change. Just look at elite competitive sports and college admissions … those areas all need sweeping reform, and since older generations aren’t fixing the problems, it’s unfortunately up to young people to speak up and rewrite the rules. I wanted K-POP CONFIDENTIAL to be relatable to any young person, anywhere around the world, who has to face these impossible odds on the way to achieving their dreams. Young people's dreams and talents are not an unlimited resource for adults to use for profit.
Also, I don't want K-POP CONFIDENTIAL to read like an exposé about the industry. Ultimately, it's a love letter to K-pop and the incredible Korean spirit. Ultimately, it's a resilient, innovative, and FUN world that brings joy and hope to millions of people.
ME: Let’s lighten the mood. What do you drink and munch on while writing?
STEPHAN: Tons of water, coffee, and matcha boba! I love gummy candies and Pepero. I also ate a lot of Candace’s favorite foods, such as Korean fried chicken and jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles). One of Candace’s favorite foods is jokbal (pig trotters), but I’m actually not a big fan in real life!
Me: I have to step in here and wave my hands around like a mad woman because I love ALL OF THAT. I get the best jjajangmyeon from my local Korean restaurant here in WA. I have not tried pig trotters yet, but I'm willing to try anything once.
ME: You stated that you wrote this book in three months in your acknowledgments. What advice do you have for writers and learning to focus and make time for their writing?
STEPHAN: It’s funny — before I started writing K-POP CONFIDENTIAL, I’d been working on an adult novel for ten years, starting from when I was still in school. I thought I was a “slow writer,” but it turns out if you have a tight deadline, you can turn yourself into a fast writer!
I’m going to give some counterintuitive advice: Don’t give yourself too much time to write, especially when you’re first starting out. Giving yourself an entire eight-hour block on a Sunday isn’t always that helpful—you might just spend that time forcing yourself to write uninspired stuff or beating yourself up for not being more productive. Let yourself write whenever you have a tiny pocket of time, and don’t edit too much until you have a full draft. I wrote K-POP CONFIDENTIAL while holding down a full-time job, and most of the first draft got done in the five-minute spaces between meetings or half-hour sprints at the coffee shop right next to my office. Once you get into the rhythm of the book or you have a draft finished, THEN give yourself those eight-hour blocks on the weekends. By that point, writing the book gets way easier and more pleasurable, I promise!
Lastly, this sounds really silly, but I think it’s important to make yourself feel as happy, healthy, and cared-for as possible as you write, which isn’t always possible, but it’s necessary to try. Eat good food, get some exercise, get time on the calendar with your friends, and if you need it, get therapy and whatever else you need to support your mental health! It's a myth that authors need to be tortured to write.
ME: I agree with all of that. Having the kiddo home since April, I don't have much time to write. I fit in tiny blocks here and there when I can. I'm currently doing NaNoWriMo, and I am way behind! But the story is good, and I'm taking my time with it even if I get to 50k by the end of the month or not. Don't stress out, writers. You got this!
ME: To expand on that topic, how long did it take you to write the first draft?
STEPHAN: Well, I had three months to write the draft, but I honestly really started writing in that last month. The first two months were me freaking out or writing random scenes trying to figure out how to write a YA novel about K-pop. But I have to say, in retrospect, I realize that I was actually being productive in those first two months! I was doing a lot of thinking, reading, and pacing around my apartment. It’s amazing—once you're emotionally committed to a project, everything you hear and experience suddenly becomes inspiration, even though nothing in my real life resembles what happens in K-POP CONFIDENTIAL! So all three of those months were productive, even though I only looked productive in that last month. :)
ME: Do you have any plans for a sophomore release? If it’s super secret, I totally get it. Maybe a little hint? :D
STEPHAN: The second book, tentatively titled K-POP REVOLUTION, follows the girl group formed in K-POP CONFIDENTIAL during their Rookie year. If the first book is about gaining the courage to speak out for what’s right, K-POP REVOLUTION is about putting those words into action, even if it might cost you everything.
ME: Last but not least, who is your favorite K-Pop group?
STEPHAN: OMG, I can’t just say one, but I’ll limit it to girl groups and I'll name my bias in each one! BLACKPINK (Rosé), TWICE (Dahyun), Red Velvet (Seulgi), Mamamoo (Hwasa), (G)I-DLE (Soyeon), ITZY (Lia), Dreamcatcher (Gahyeon), Everglow (Yiren), 2NE1 (Park Bom), Girls' Generation (Tiffany Young). Soloists: Ailee and IU! There are so, so many more I stan!
ABOUT STEPHAN LEE
Stephan is a YA lover, ardent K-pop fan, and journalist. He currently works as Senior Editor at Bustle after a five-year stretch covering books and movies at Entertainment Weekly. At EW, he traveled to Seoul for three weeks to write a feature about Korean entertainment’s world domination, interviewing K-pop idols and Korean filmmakers. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing at The New School.
MY FIRST OFFICIAL AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT
I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of this book, and it blew me away. If you haven't read my review, head on over to the blog and check it out!
I got a chance to ask Marlena a bit about her process and what is next for her career. She's an auto-buy author for me and a wonderful human being so, I hope you all get to experience her amazing stories as I have. Also, check out the link below to buy The Seeking and learn more about the author!
What inspired The Seeking?
The inspiration for this book came from a vivid nightmare. There was a celebration going on, but something was wrong. Creatures were watching from the woods and I could tell that something terrible was about to happen. There’s a scene in The Seeking that was directly inspired from that nightmare, and the dream continued all the way through the climax of that scene.
After I woke up, I immediately wrote down the details in my journal. I was curious to know more about the girl who I was in the dream, the creatures in the woods, and what could have led to that moment. Slowly, as I fleshed out the characters and the world, I discovered what led to that moment and to the horrific scene as a whole.
It’s a wonderful feeling when you tap into that kind of inspiration, and it doesn’t happen often for me. When it does, it’s like my brain just clicks and I get excited to pursue it.
What was your favorite part to write?
There’s a part where Dahlia is getting chased and she has to rely on a location to hide that she used to use in childhood. I really love the atmosphere and the tension of that scene. You feel for Dahlia and really every character in that moment, and the tables quickly turn. That was a lot of fun to write and as a storyteller, I love pulling the rug out from my readers occasionally. There’s plenty of warning ahead of time, but when that moment happens, it still shocks and lingers. At least, I hope it does!
If you were in The Seeking, where would you hide?
I probably wouldn’t be as brave as Dahlia is to find a hiding place for myself. I’m just not that adventurous. I would probably have to rely on friends who would help me but also do it in secret so that nobody else would know. It would be a tough line to walk, but that would probably be my only chance!
What is your writing process like?
I start with figuring out my characters. Who are they, what personality do they have, what are their family/friends like, what do they want? Then I figure out the world they live in, whether it’s modern or someplace else. Sometimes the character determines the environment and vice versa. From there the storyline and the plot kind of fall into place. I’ll work toward a particular scene at first, and then work to the next. I let the characters make the decisions as the story progresses, whether that includes making big mistakes or being spontaneously brave. I let the story come organically as I go.
Normally I have an idea of how I want a book or a series to end, but I’m not dedicated to it. If the characters evolve beyond that ending, I’ll change it. Generally, it’s like herding cats toward the end goal, or the plot point I want to hit, or the climax of a book or a scene. Sometimes the characters don’t want to behave!
What do you wish for readers to come away with after reading?
I hope they come away from the book with a fresh perspective on the world. I love to read dystopian books. They make me appreciate the world we live in more, but they also put a mirror up to all the ugliness too. I’m always drawn to blighted worlds like Carra in The Seeking because underneath the corruption, the lies and deceit, there is usually a kernel of hope or, at the very least, change.
Family ties are also very important in The Seeking. Siblings have to work together and they disagree on things. They have to watch out for each other and protect each other when things get bad. I’ve always had a close connection with my family due to the struggles we’ve endured over the years. I wanted to reflect how pain can make people come together just much as it can tear people apart. The best way to survive is through working together.
What’s next for you?
I have Chosen, the 3rd and final book of the Stolen trilogy, coming out March 23, 2021! It’s bittersweet because I’ve been living in the world for eight years and I’m going to miss it so much. I love the characters and the world, so I’m going to have a hard time letting go of it completely.
Right now, I’m working on the sequel to The She-Wolf of Kanta, my dystopian steampunk werewolf novella. I’m going to tackle that over November’s NaNoWriMo challenge. I’m going old school and writing the whole book by hand. Unlike book one, this is planned to be a full novel. It’s coming along well so far!
Finally, I’m putting together a short story anthology very slowly. This is going to be a mixture of dark fantasy and horror tales, some of which I’ve published over the years and some that haven’t been published yet. I’m only on the early planning stages of this project so far, but I’m excited about it! It’s the first solo anthology I’ve done!