The January 10th deadline for the gritLIT writing contest is quickly approaching, and, in order to introduce you, our potential entrants, to this year’s contest judges we will be bringing you our new “Five Questions With” feature.
Today we are delighted to present to you the first judge for our 2018 Memoir and Creative Nonfiction contest, Ann Y.K. Choi!
Ann is a Toronto-based author, whose first novel Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety was published in 2016. The novel follows the story of Mary, a Korean-born Canadian, growing up in mid-1980s Toronto. Mary is torn between the expectations her parents have for her, and her own desires for her future.
Ann was a featured author at this year’s gritLIT Festival, and not only is she a wonderful writer, but is also one of the most delightful people you could ever hope to meet.
You can read more about Ann at her website annykchoi.com, learn more about her debut novel at kaysluckycoinvariety.ca, AND settle in to read her answers to our questions for the blog!
- While Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety isn’t exactly autobiographical, some of your experiences growing up in Toronto as a new Canadian helped shape the story. Did you ever find yourself slipping from Mary’s story into your own or vice versa?
I wanted this story to be as “real” as possible because my motivation for writing it was to ensure that my daughter understood what life was like for the Korean immigrants coming to Canada in the mid-70s. Back then, there was very little of the Korean culture or heritage represented. Mary and her best friend Kate are composites of the Korean-Canadian girls and young women I knew growing up in the 70s and 80s. Because I struggled with my mental wellness, a counsellor suggested that I find out what made other Korean-Canadians with variety stores or demanding parental expectations happy. I was an undergrad at the time so I interviewed several Korean-Canadian young women. I found out that we were all struggling and feeling burdened by the pressure to excel at school and to help out with family businesses. When I started to write my novel, I was able to recall our combined voices and use them to guide my writing.
- The variety store is definitely central to the story, and the store itself almost feels like another character at times. It’s comforting and familiar, but it also looms over Mary’s story and her life. How important is it to have a sort of “home base” in this kind of writing? A place for characters to retreat to, or, at times escape from?
I have a complicated relationship with the variety store. Growing up, I felt it was robbing my family of something. It kept us chained to it. The store’s hours were long and demanding. Even when my mother was hospitalized and we thought she was dying, we had to keep the store open because it was our only source of income. This meant missing school. I think that’s why as a teacher today, I really don’t care if student assignments come in late or homework doesn’t always get done – because we don’t know what home life is like for students. My parents had a lot of pride in our store. After coming to Canada with nothing, they had managed to start a business. I used to joke that the variety store was my mother’s fourth child. It was her baby – something she nurtured and protected. I really enjoyed talking with some of our regular customers and feeling part of the community – that’s what made the store feel like home for me. The store in my novel serves multiple purposes: like a character, it complicates relationships amongst other characters and also creates a foundation for the story to unfold.
- Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety was one of my favourite books of last year, so I’m curious to know what you’re working on now. Can you give us any insight as to what’s next for you? Another novel, perhaps? But no pressure of course!
Thank you for reading Kay’s! I’m working on a novel set in 1924 Korea, when the nation was one country under Japanese occupation. Because I’ve never studied Korean history, much of my time over the past few years has been spent on researching. My daughter and I even went to South Korea to visit the places that inspired my setting. She wasn’t happy with me when I tried to re-enact some of the scenes with her. In one case, we found ourselves deep in the mountains which was both lovely and scary. I was trying to imagine my character there, running away to avoid an arranged marriage. I wore flip-flops and a long skirt just as my character would have – which made trekking through the mountain trails extremely challenging. The August heat was oppressive. Then there were the bugs …
- I know you’re a full-time teacher in the York Region District School Board, AND a full-time mom, so I suspect your writing time is precious. Can you give us a little glimpse into your writing process, and when and where you do your writing?
I’ve learned after years of putting “writing” on the bottom of my daily to-do list that I needed to build some sort of accountability for myself. Although I often struggle to get started, I will do almost anything to avoid missing a due date or deadline. Years ago, I took creative writing courses which had built-in deadlines for me to work towards. Now, I have a wonderful writing circle that meets every second Saturday of the month. This means I have monthly writing goals to drive my novel forward. I often work at night, or if I’m working on a personal essay or interview questions for a specific publication/website, I’ll make time wherever I can to meet the tight turnaround times. I love my Blackberry because the physical keyboard allows me to type almost as quickly as I can on my laptop. This is especially useful for writing on the subway or waiting in lines at the supermarket, or cafés.
- Finally, the gritLIT writing contest is looking for short works of creative nonfiction or memoir this year. What advice would you give to writers who plan to enter our contest?
Creative nonfiction, like fiction, includes characters, dialogue, setting, and a storyline. Make use of these elements and literary devices to tell a memorable story. Read writing by authors you admire. What makes their creative nonfiction pieces compelling for you? Some of my favourite nonfiction classics include Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Studying them through a writer’s lens (as opposed to engaging the text as a reader) was one of the most useful exercises I had to do in my creative nonfiction courses. Finally, I think writing from real life can stir many emotions and pose several challenges. Be gentle on yourself, and stay focused on crafting an authentic story only you can tell.
Many, many thanks to Ann for taking the time to provide such thoughtful and inspirational answers to our questions, and for being on board to judge the 2018 writing contest.
Stay tuned for our next Five Questions With…coming soon!