When David Yoon finally got his first book contract in 2018, the last thing he expected was to be anointed YA’s “next superstar” by Entertainment Weekly. But his 2019 debut, Frankly in Love, which sold in a 10-house auction and was optioned for film before being published, changed all of that. The novel hit the New York Times bestseller list. And it was an APALA Honoree and a Morris Award finalist, earning starred reviews from this magazine, Kirkus, and School Library Journal.
Yoon’s 2020 sophomore effort, Super Fake Love Song, was selected as one of the best YA books that year by Amazon, Kirkus, NPR, and others. A starred Publishers Weekly review noted that “Yoon challenges stereotypes and tackles the age-old theme of being true to oneself, whether that self is a rock star or a nerd.”
These were heady accolades just two books into a long-gestating career. But on May 25, Yoon, 48, starts from the ground up with his adult debut, Version Zero. The novel is a trippy thriller set in a Silicon Valley where data mining and the hierarchies created by a Facebook-like social media conglomerate might just destroy the world.
Version Zero is rooted in Yoon’s own experiences working in tech for nearly two decades. It reveals a worldview that’s wary of life on the web and the very real stratifications it creates. “Most of my tech jobs have been pretty dystopian,” he says with a laugh. “Like soaked in hypocrisy, built on manipulation.”
Taking place in the recent past of 2018 (so Yoon could gracefully pause on incorporating the exponential growth of recent technology), the plot follows a ragtag team of disgruntled tech workers who uncover Silicon Valley’s sinister plot to control the world and decide to reboot the entire internet—and thus, life as we know it. But how do you destroy the machine when you’re but a cog in it?
“These are smart people,” Yoon says of the book’s protagonist, Max, and his crew, who live in a world not far off from our own. “These are good people. Geeks at heart. We just want to make cool stuff. We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing art, we’re making art, ‘This is brilliant, this is genius.’ And then I take a step back and think, ‘This is inherently bad for humanity.’ ”
Though Yoon’s early success was in the YA category, he’s long written adult fiction as well and started developing Version Zero a year before he wrote Frankly in Love. “I was working in tech and really starting to understand how powerful Facebook was,” he says. “This perverse joy we get out of quantifying ourselves, performing for a huge, faceless audience and getting meaningless numbers back. I wondered what it would be like to make the Big Five tech companies atone for their sins against humanity, if that was even possible.”
Given the recent revelations about tech companies’ complicity in election manipulation, Version Zero feels more relevant than ever.
Is this a bleak book for a bleak time? Yoon grimaces. “No pressure—just a pandemic and the implosion of the world as we know it,” he says with a shrug, speaking via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles as his daughter putters around nearby. “Definitely a dramatic shift—but I’m ready, I guess.”
Born in Texas, Yoon grew up in California, living briefly in L.A. before his parents moved him and his brother to Orange County, which he calls “the Florida of California.” He described the upper-crust enclave as “really conservative, really white.” For this reason, he adds, he “retreated into writing as my escape.”
Yoon wrote his first story in third grade—a space-set Captain Underpants–esque clone tale—and read it aloud to cheers from his classmates. His second outing was a Valentine’s Day poem that won a gold medal in a school competition. “My mom framed it,” he says. “And for a Korean mom to be like, ‘I’m proud of you’—that’s a big deal.”
By high school, thriving in his English classes, Yoon’s path was set. He majored in English at UC Berkeley, and after graduating in 1994, he spent three years teaching English in Japan. “It was the first time in my life when I didn’t feel like a minority,” he says. “Only later did I understand it was a way of exploring my Asian-ness without having to confront tougher issues of my Korean identity—without any of the cultural or family baggage. Like an academic exercise.”
The time Yoon spent in Japan opened him up to the country’s art, design, food, and literature. “It changed me from the ground up,” he says. “There’s just this focus on doing things well for the sake of doing things well. It became fundamental to me. Like drawing the perfect circle, or creating the perfect miso soup. The level of craftsmanship in the culture changed me. Simple but profound.”
It would serve Yoon well when he moved to Boston to get his MFA in creative writing at Emerson College, where he met fellow writer (and his future wife) Nicola Yoon. “It was a pretty magical time,” he says, noting he met her in their first workshop doing “contemporary realism then toggling to magical realism and surrealism.”
Yoon graduated from Emerson in 2000 not knowing what to expect from publishing. “We were writing short stories and had no idea how to write novels, for one thing,” he explains. He was also entering the professional publishing landscape nearly a decade before the recent wave of serious discussion and action on the topic of diversity in the business. “I took a screenwriting class and it was like, ‘Why does the character need to be Korean?’ ” he recalls. “You need to have a reason.”
Yoon and Nicola wed and got day jobs—she did data architecture for financial firms, while he worked as a graphic and user experience designer in tech. In what free time they had, they wrote. “We kept writing, because we knew that if we stopped writing, we’d become cranky assholes,” he says.
In 2003, they moved to Los Angeles, then had a kid. Nicola published two novels, 2015’s Everything, Everything and 2016’s National Book Award–nominated The Sun Is Also a Star. Both were adapted into movies. “That was very surreal and unexpected,” Yoon says. He published a few short stories, then began his first novel in 2014—a postapocalyptic thriller he wrote during National Novel Writing Month. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, I can do this! I can write a novel!’ ”
Yoon dug into the world that would become Version Zero, but it was still a “moving target,” he says—an unwieldy mash of ideas. And, of course, publishing had declared “dystopian was dead.” Inspired by his wife’s success with YA, he started working on what was meant to be a fluffy rom-com.
But then life—and death—intervened. “My dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Nikki’s mom was really sick, and I just started thinking about parents and kids and culture,” Yoon says. He folded these themes into what would become Frankly in Love.
The novel is a YA contemporary faux-dating romp that addresses racism and cultural issues head-on. And much comes from Yoon’s own experiences, including a long estrangement he and his parents had after he wed Nicola, who is Black and of Jamaican descent.
“They basically disowned me for like 10 years,” Yoon says. “My dad was going to die, and we all knew it, and it makes you review everything. I was trying to figure him out, you know, before he passed away. I knew that we were probably not going to talk a lot about stuff because he just wasn’t that way. But it felt like—as a parent myself—I could see things from both perspectives all of a sudden, and I wanted to write about a character who actually loves his parents, despite himself and despite all their flaws.”
Yoon’s 2020 follow-up, Super Fake Love Song, continued to set him on a path of publishing success. With Version Zero, which is sure-footed and full of truth bombs, Yoon should meet the high expectations the adult world has of him.
But Yoon also has grander aims. Last year, he and Nicola announced their new venture, an imprint at Random House called Joy Revolution that will focus on telling YA love stories featuring characters of color. “It’s something we always talked about doing, way before we were ever published at all,” he says. “So much of what we see for kids of color is stories of pain. But with this, we’ll get to show the other side of it—of kids falling in love, just being kids. I think we need more of that in the world.”
Sona Charaipotra is a journalist, the cofounder of book packager Cake Literary, the coauthor of the Tiny Pretty Things series, and author of 'Symptoms of a Heartbreak.'