The PEN Ten: An Interview with Jean Kyoung Frazier
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Skee-Lo’s “I Wish.” I was 10, and my big cousin Andrew was my hero so I was always sneaking onto his computer to see what songs he’d downloaded off of Limewire. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get those opening lines out of my head—“I wish I was a little bit taller / I wish I was a baller / I wish I had a girl who looked good / I would call her.” Swagger, longing, vulnerable, yet still playful, tons of flow, everyday humanity—all in four short sentences.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
Loud music and lots of nervous movement. I’m always awake early as hell, before the sun is completely up, so just picture me at 5:30am pacing a nonsensical route through my living room and kitchen, listening to one of two of my Spotify playlists (“Technology Is Fun” or “Beep Bop,”—both contain bangers only). Sometimes, I might do this anxious walking outside on the sidewalk. If I’m lucky, I can take my roommate’s dog with me, and he makes me look less like the local neighborhood weirdo and more like a nice gal just on a morning stroll with her furry pal.
When I wake up, I just have so much energy that I need to move and tire myself out so that I can comfortably sit still and focus on whatever Word document is at the center of my life. By 9am, I usually feel like I’ve lived an entire day. This is usually when I take my first power nap.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t really have a firm creative process, and I am very much still trying to figure out how to do the three things that I value at once—be productive, write shit that means something to me, and feel at peace. I do have to believe I can do all three, even if the evidence continues to stack against this.
“Just don’t give a fuck. Honestly, things will be so easy for you if you can just truly not give a fuck. . . It’s easy, especially as a young writer, to get sick when thinking about what others’ opinions are of both you and your work, to allow your self-worth to get tangled up in this.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen. You don’t know me, but trust me. Read it.
4. What is your favorite bookstore or library?
All through college, whenever I was bored or restless, I’d hop on my bike and cruise over to the Los Angeles Central Library. I have so many memories from the ages of 18 to 23 doing that same bike ride, sitting at the same table, taking sips of Red Bull whenever security wasn’t looking, and reading, reading, reading. I bet that at least half of the books I’ve read in my adult life were read in that library. I’d often take detours on the bike ride back to my place.
With memories like that, it’s hard not to hold a soft spot for that library.
5. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor. Books on deck are The Margot Affair by Sanae Lemoine (have started and it’s gorgeous), The Lightness by Emily Temple, and Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg.
“As I was writing [Pizza Girl], I was thinking about how easy it is to confuse love with a lot of other feelings. Or rather, how easy it is for love not to be pure. Loving someone just because of who they are as a person is rare, rarer than mainstream media has led us to believe. Often, we’re propelled to love people because they fit, if not perfectly, comfortably, into what we need at that point in our lives.”
6. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
In high school, my first girlfriend’s dad wasn’t a huge fan of mine, so she and I didn’t get to hang out much. Outside of lunch and between bells, we’d only really get to talk over email. I reread those emails a couple years back, and they were long and flowery and nothing like how I write today.
While those emails make me blush, shake my head, and cringe, I definitely wouldn’t take them back. There’s actually a lot I find really incredible about them—my energy; openness; and genuine desire to connect, love, and be loved. I don’t have a lot in common with my high school self these days, and that’s mostly a good thing, but those emails are a sweet reminder that not all of that past me was bullshit. If anything, present-day me could use some of High School Jean’s goofy boldness.
7. What advice do you have for young writers?
Just don’t give a fuck. Honestly, things will be so easy for you if you can just truly not give a fuck.
However, if you’re like me, this will likely be impossible since you give lots of fucks, more than you’d care to admit. If you’re like me, you may sometimes feel crushed under the weight of all these fucks that you give. It’s easy, especially as a young writer, to get sick when thinking about what others’ opinions are of both you and your work, to allow your self-worth to get tangled up in this. Again, I urge you, for the sake of your sanity, to not to give a fuck, but I also know that this advice is so much easier given than taken.
So, I guess all I can say is to do your best to be as kind to yourself as you would a loved one and to remember that there are certainly worse things than being the type of person that gives a fuck about how their work and words affect others. The sting of someone reading and not giving a fuck about your work and the things you care about will never quite go away, but it will become slightly easier to swallow. Because greater than that sting, will be the warmth you feel when your work is read by someone who also gives a fuck—someone who appreciates and is moved by all the time, attention, and care you put into your work.
8. Roughly a quarter of the way into your debut novel, Pizza Girl, the narrator explains the difference between “want” and “need.” Writers sometimes talk about their book as the one they “needed” to write. As a debut novelist, is Pizza Girl the novel you felt you “needed” to write, at least in the moment, as opposed to “wanted” to write? Were you working on anything else at the time, and if so, how did this story overtake your interest?
Yeah, I moved to NYC hoping to write the great basketball novel of America (oh, the ambition of 23-year-old Jean!). The basic concept of that novel was fun, but I couldn’t really visualize the characters, their motivations, their weird quirks and joys and fuckups—all the things that make a story unique and unforgettable to me.
I had delivered pizzas for a summer in college and had the vague idea that it could be interesting to do a story about a delivery driver becoming obsessed with a customer. But when I first had the idea, I was still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality to anyone other than my best friend Albert. If I tried writing that story right when I had the idea, it would’ve been through a male POV, Pizza Boy, and it would’ve been pretty whatever.
Thankfully, I didn’t write that story then. I wrote it at a later point, when I was more comfortable in my own skin, and the basketball novel I was working on lacked momentum and emotion. At that point, I was experimenting with more queer female POVs, voices closer to my own. I had been tooling around with short stories that contained lots of similar themes—addiction, sexual fluidity, young parenthood, Americanization, slackerdom, how we become the people we become, etc.—and I wondered if there was a way I could do a story with a female narrator that explored all these different things. The more I thought about that old delivery driver story idea I had, the more this seemed possible.
So, yeah, I do think Pizza Girl was born out of “need,” written at the exact right time in my life. I honestly don’t know if I could write it now. I don’t feel like I need it now the way I needed it when I was 23 and just starting to figure my life out.
“I’ve never been great at imagining my future self and the things she may want, things that will be good for her, but each year that goes by, I do feel like I get to know myself a little bit better.”
9. The characters in the novel overlap in different ways. Despite what she might want to believe, Pizza Girl resembles her alcoholic and abusive father, and Jenny—who Pizza Girl becomes obsessed with while delivering pickle-covered pizzas to her son—looks at Pizza Girl, her younger counterpart, as “something semi-recognizable.” How do personalities function in regards to relationships in the novel—with another person or with oneself?
As I was writing this, I was thinking about how easy it is to confuse love with a lot of other feelings. Or rather, how easy it is for love not to be pure. Loving someone just because of who they are as a person is rare, rarer than mainstream media has led us to believe. Often, we’re propelled to love people because they fit, if not perfectly, comfortably, into what we need at that point in our lives. We love certain people because they make us feel better about ourselves.
Pizza Girl barely knows anything about Jenny, but she quickly becomes infatuated not just to Jenny’s physicality, but what she represents—an older woman, a mother, who seems to possess the same wild restlessness that Pizza Girl herself feels. There’s comfort for Pizza Girl in being around someone who is perhaps an even greater mess than she is, to be the person who is needed instead of the one needing. For Jenny, Pizza Girl is simply there, a warm body to receive her neurosis.
At the end, they both have a moment where they understand that they used each other and that that’s okay. People need people, and the hope is that in the future, both Pizza Girl and Jenny pick the right people to need.
10. Toward the end of your novel, the narrator’s mother—who immigrated from Korea—says, “This is not where I saw myself when I first immigrated to America.” To me, among other things, this novel is about self-expectations—or lack thereof—for all characters involved, particularly Pizza Girl. Can you speak briefly about subverting expectations, knowing oneself, and finding solace in a life you had not previously imagined, if imagined at all?
I don’t have anything terribly smart or interesting to say about this other than that most of the truly good things in my life have been a surprise. I’ve never been great at imagining my future self and the things she may want, things that will be good for her, but each year that goes by, I do feel like I get to know myself a little bit better. While the future is still cloudy and stressful for me to think about, I’m more confident than ever in my ability to make it through each day and figure shit out as it comes at me, having some fun along the way.
Jean Kyoung Frazier lives in Los Angeles. Pizza Girl is her debut novel.