Angie Kim‘s journey from a young Korean girl to a trial lawyer in America is already a story worth exploring. Then she shifted gears and wrote one one of this year’s best debuts, Miracle Creek.
The author used her experience in the courtroom as well as her skillfully crafted writing (that has appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Salon, and Slate) to write a page turning mystery about a small Virginia town and the secrets family members and neighbors keep from each other. Fans of Celeste Ng and Liane Moriarty would do well by picking up Miracle Creek.
I corresponded with Kim about growing up in Korea, becoming a trial lawyer, winning a 2012 Glamour essay contest about her childhood, and finally becoming a debut author.
I want to start with your childhood in Korea. How did that time shape and influence your writing and reading?
My family was very poor in Korea, living in one room (shared by three of us—my parents and me) with no indoor plumbing and limited electricity. I was also an only child. Most of my free time was taken up with reading. I was an avid reader, and lacking the money to buy books (and I don’t remember any libraries growing up), I read whatever was around, the same thing over and over again. I think this set me on a path for appreciating a huge variety of genres rather than focusing on one narrow genre. To this day, I love all kinds of books and don’t really have a particular favorite type of book. So many reviewers have said Miracle Creek is a blend of many different genres, and that doesn’t surprise me at all, given my reading foundation.
What was the hardest part of adjusting to America once you and your family immigrated?
Probably the hardest thing was that we didn’t speak English. I was 11 when we moved from Seoul to Baltimore, and I didn’t speak any English at all. I went from feeling like a confident and smart girl to feeling stupid, deaf, and mute. I couldn’t understand or say anything. And even though I knew, intellectually, that there was an understandable reason for that, that didn’t make it feel any less embarrassing. I felt a deep sense of inferiority, and I could see in others that they thought less of me. At some point, I became fluent in English, at a point when my parents were still struggling with it. The shame transferred to them at that point, and blame, too—I blamed my parents for their inability to pick up English more quickly and for bringing us to a place that made me feel this way about them. I think people think of language difficulties as just a logistical issue that immigrants have to deal with, when it’s so much more than that. It goes to your fundamental view of who you are.
Was there any literature or other media that you used as comfort or educational tools to learn American culture/social norms?
Definitely! (But I think you’re going to laugh at my answer.) Books were huge for me. I lived with my aunt (and uncle and cousin) when we first came to America, and she told me that she improved her vocabulary by reading books and writing down all the words she didn’t know and memorizing them. So I borrowed one of her books, Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon. (She was a huge Sidney Sheldon fan.) I used my Korean-English dictionary to write down all the words I didn’t know, and I memorized certain phrases I thought would come in handy in talking to my middle school classmates. If you know Sidney Sheldon books, you might guess that those phrases were not in any way appropriate for middle school, which made for a very painful experience (but a very funny (I hope!) essay years later when I started writing). As for other media, as an only child with no friends and parents who worked 18 hours a day, I watched a lot of TV and tried to pick up on American culture and slang that way. The Brady Bunch and Different Strokes were two of my favorites; I loved the idea of a large family, of outsiders fitting in and belonging to one close-knit family unit.
Flashing forward: you become a trial lawyer. Was that always the path you were on?
I think so. I mentioned Rage of Angels before. The protagonist in that novel is Jennifer Parker, a beautiful trial lawyer who’s a total badass in the courtroom. I loved her and wanted to be her. In high school, I went to a boarding arts school (Interlochen Arts Academy) and actually majored in theater. I decided that it would be impractical to actually go into acting, as there were so few Asian roles at that time. (Also, I wasn’t all that great.) Being a trial lawyer seemed like the next best thing, as there’s a certain performance element to being in the courtroom. It’s funny, though, because my favorite subject (and one I was probably best at) was math in school. But I hated the idea of going into a field that confirmed the Asian-math stereotype, so to rebel against that, I decided to go into a liberal arts field.
You eventually left law and moved to business. Were you writing at the time, or did that come later?
I didn’t write until way after all that. I was a lawyer, then a management consultant at McKinsey, then a tech entrepreneur, then a full-time stay-at-home mom. Of course, I had always written (academic, legal, and business writing), but it wasn’t until about 9-10 years ago that I tried my hand at creative writing. I started with personal essays about parenting and immigration, and then moved to short stories, learning the craft through writing classes, workshops, and writing groups. After I published a handful of essays and stories in literary journals and magazines, I started working on a full-length novel about 6-7 years ago.
This book relies heavily on the courtroom as the structure. How early did you know you wanted to lean on your background while writing the book?
For the first six months or so of working on this novel, I only did freewriting by hand, writing stream-of-consciousness first-person diary-style entries from the different characters’ perspectives to learn their voices and to explore their backgrounds and relationships. When I finally fired up my laptop to start drafting the novel in earnest, the foundational element I first considered was how to structure the novel. I considered starting with the characters meeting each other and ending with the explosion, or placing the explosion midway, or maybe starting with the tragedy (similar to Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter). Once I decided on this last option, it seemed natural to explore both the consequences of the tragedy on the characters’ lives and the mystery of how the fire started through a murder trial, given my familiarity with courtroom procedures.
Thematically, did you know what you wanted to explore from the beginning? Or how did you land the essence of the story?
I didn’t, and I don’t think I realized what my novel’s themes were until I was done and getting feedback from my early readers. I knew what types of characters I wanted to explore and what arcs they would go through, but things like plot points (including the answer to who set the fire, how, and why) and the themes evolved as I wrote the novel. The thing I knew for sure about the story was that it would be anchored by Miracle Submarine, the experimental medical chamber that explodes and catches fire at the beginning of the novel (which is what causes the deaths that are the subject of the murder trial), and that a Korean immigrant family and families of children with special needs and chronic illnesses would be connected to this chamber. I have personal experience with immigration and with this experimental “submarine” therapy with one of my kids, so that’s why I chose to incorporate these elements into my first novel, but when I first starting writing, I didn’t realize the thematic connections between these two groups of families. As I explored more and more of their lives, I realized that both groups feature extreme parental sacrifice and have been displaced from so-called “normal” lives and are desperate for connection with others who are like them (because they are different from mainstream families in their communities).
Looking forward, what’s next? Not necessarily what the next book is, but what more do you want to explore?
The thing I most want to explore in my next novel is the role of speech in our relationships with each other and our own sense of self. I moved to the US as a preteen, so I attended middle school not knowing how to speak English at all. So I went from someone who was pretty smart, doing well in school with many friends, to someone who couldn’t understand or say anything. I can’t overstate what a profound impact this had on my sense of self-worth, how enveloped I became by insecurity and shame. I knew, and I knew that everyone else knew, that there was a good reason for my inability to speak English, and that it didn’t mean that I was stupid, and yet, stupid was exactly how I felt. It was so frustrating, knowing that I had thoughts and ideas within me that I couldn’t express, and realizing that others thought less of me for it (even though they knew, intellectually, why I couldn’t speak English). Years later, after I became a parent, through the “submarine” therapy, I got to know some children who are nonverbal (due to autism and/or cerebral palsy). Some of these children are now, through typing devices and therapies, communicating fluently, and we are realizing that they’ve been desperate to communicate all along but couldn’t, that their voices were buried. It’s something that really affects me, and I want to explore this world further in my next novel.