Mary H.K. Choi is the culture correspondent for Vice News Tonight on HBO. She has contributed to such outlets as GQ, the Atlantic, Wired, and more. Choi’s fiction debut, a YA novel titled Emergency Contact, is due out from Simon & Schuster in March. Richard Lawson, the film critic at Vanity Fair, has also written for a number of magazines, including Vanity Fair, Gawker, and Out. His debut novel, All We Can Do Is Wait, also for teens, hits shelves next month from Razorbill. We asked Choi and Lawson to interview each other about the process of writing their contemporary YA debuts, working across multiple media platforms, and the evolving landscape of digital communication.
Choi: Hi, Richard. You wrote an entire book, congratulations.
Lawson: Mary, congratulations to you too. We did it!
Somehow I’m glad I can share this experience with you, because I’ve been a fan of your writing for so long. I feel like we kinda came up together.
Choi: Oh, same. Completely. I’m such a fan of all your writing. So, question: How bananas do you feel as the film critic of Vanity Fair trying to juggle your book release right in the middle of awards season?
Lawson: The timing of this is, yes, a little nuts, as it’s a busy season for my day job. But in a way, that kind of just makes it all the more exciting. New York is miserable in the winter, so it’s nice to have things to look forward to.
Choi: So when did you start writing this book and how did it all come together?
Lawson: I started writing two years ago around this same time, and had to dredge up—or discover—a monastic focus that I previously didn’t know I had. I was able to sustain it for the four or so months it took to write the first draft, working on the book all weekend and then heading back into the movie mines on Monday morning. It was exhausting, but also oddly exhilarating, to put a lot of silly life stuff on hold and just dig in.
How was your experience? Emergency Contact—which is just so funny and sharp and human—was born out of some of your “day job” work, specifically a piece you wrote for Wired, right? Did it help to have that basis going in? When did you decide you wanted to turn your reporting into a novel about young love in the time of texting?
Choi: OMG. Sorry, I can’t really focus on anything over the lambs screaming—you wrote this book in four months?—that’s incredible. Other people in media are going to hate you.
My story was always about Sam and Penny but in earlier versions they were infinitely less neurotic or else different in their flavors of crazy. As I was finishing up the Wired reporting, I realized making the viewfinder smaller created tension in their respective interiorities, so I began world-building in their phones. I also happened to fall tail-over-teakettle in love with someone long-distance at the time. I was going cross-eyed texting this person, so it informed the storytelling as well.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing fiction for you? Like, hi, your day job is being a movie critic. Did you find it tricky toggling back-and-forth between your critical, “I’m going to dismantle this finished product into components and inspect each one” brain and the part of you that is making something up entirely?
Lawson: It was just the first draft that took four months. After that came a lot of revisions and adding on and all that. Plus it’s a short book!
But is it a good book? That was the critical brain stuff that I kinda had to turn off during the writing process, because thinking of it in those terms as I went would have driven me insane. All I could do, really, was wait. Ha ha, no. All I could do was read back what I’d written that day and determine if I liked it, if the rhythm sounded right (I read aloud a lot, something that continually alarmed/annoyed my roommate). That was really all the assessment that I could do then.
The critical eye, and the worry about the critical eyes of others, came later. I’ve read a few less-than-positive things on Goodreads (the great frenemy of us all?) and it stung and I felt indignant. But then I remembered what I do for a living and where I’m coming from when I give something a less-than-positive review—it’s rarely animosity or anything like that—and I figured if I can dish hopefully measured criticism, I can take it. Well, I say that now. Talk to me when the book is actually out and people are tweeting mean things at me.
Choi: What you say about rhythm is fascinating. It’s one of my favorite things about the way you write. Your brain is so fast and it’s so pleasurable when you get riled up and super impassioned in your own voice, so it makes sense that your dialogue is killer. Plus, the way you decide to switch narrators right when I’ve imprinted one to check in with another is deft and artful. And, of course, your fights. I love the way everyone argues.
Lawson: I’m so glad you liked the fights! Those were tricky to write, because you want them to be these outpourings of long-held angst or whatever, but they can’t sound canned or rehearsed, and they still have to sound like kids. It’s really nice to have those zeroed in on in such a nice way.
Something I found really daring, and rewarding, about Emergency Contact is that it’s very much a story about writing. Obviously Penny is an aspiring writer, so there’s all of that. But there’s also a particularly great and pivotal email from Sam, and of course all this clever, yearning, banter-y texting. Oftentimes writing about writing, or writing that includes writing, can feel off. Remember how on that show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, about an SNL-type series, they made the crucial error of showing comedy sketches that were supposed to be good and funny but instead were terrible? It’s that kind of thing: trying to write characters’ writing that’s supposed to be good is really hard. And yet you more than pull it off. How did you approach all that writing-within-the-writing? And am I making any sense?
Choi: What you said about rhythm and reading aloud absolutely applies here. My prose structure is already peripatetic and dense and then to be like, “and for my next trick, sit through this chunk of other writing” is a lot to ask. Penny’s writing was the hardest part and wasn’t nailed down until almost at the end of proofs. Reading aloud afforded me the objectivity to cut about 60%. I also threw myself at the mercy of a few early listeners who were merciless. Reading aloud to other people is wonderful, if you have people who will suffer it. It’s like slam poetry raised to the power of flash mob, but it’s enormously helpful.
For the texts, I studied a lot of my own texts and texting habits. At the outset, I had to eliminate how much abbreviating I would do since it’s hideous on the page, and so I addressed that with Penny’s nitpicky personality. Kind of the way that your character Luke loves himself a throwback voicemail, and that’s so him. (I love him.)
But a lot of it is less writerly-writing and more intuitive formatting. Who’s justified left and right and when I would add timestamps and names and when I wouldn’t. All of that has to be like eating Doritos—it has to feel a bit mindless. The second you’re made aware that you’re reading texts, you’re out of the moment.
Lawson: I could write volumes about what I like about Emergency Contact. But the chief thing that’s reverberating in my head at the moment is just the pure energy of the book. It’s fast and considered, interior and gregarious, and just brimming with so many wonderful well-observed details, about Texas, about what is privately funny between two people, about why certain boys are cute. I love how elastic and youthful its tone is, and yet it also has this wisdom to it—both from you, its omniscient creator, and from the young people at the center of the story, birthing themselves into a new phase of consciousness and self-awareness. I’m dying to ask you how you sustained that energy throughout, but is that just a trite cousin of “where do you get your ideas?” (Where do you get your ideas?)
Choi: Ha. I wish I had a TED Talk logline or else something despicably mysterious like, “Oh, it’s all in my dream journal,” but mostly it’s lists. Words I enjoy, flashes of memory, overheard snippets—I hoover it all and write it down. I’m constantly cataloguing. I get permission to steal things if the anecdote belongs to someone else, but if I’m stumped on where my characters are and what they’re doing, I list-rummage to see if I can get a spark.
Back to your role as a critic, though, I’m curious: Do you feel more tenderness and, well, emo-ness to movies or books now that you’ve made something and put it out into the world? Do you find that you’ve become a different sort of critic? Not any less impartial, but perhaps more insightful in a sense?
Lawson: Now that I am of the creator class rather than merely commenting on it, I think I feel a little differently about it all, yeah. Probably the biggest shift is that I’m less eager to infer intent from a filmmaker. There will always be some value in that, but now that I have a better grasp of how sometimes entirely arbitrary the creation process can be, I know that I’ll probably never be able to understand the exact circumstances of the work someone else produces, unless they expressly tell me. I’m not sure how exactly this new outlook has manifested itself in my reviews yet, but I think it’s there.
Choi: Yes, yes, yes! “Entirely arbitrary” feels absolutely right. It really is the whole “how does a dog wear pants” argument. Everyone is such a mystery, yet we chug along so much of the time presuming we’re all on the same page.
Lawson: So there’s a line in your book that’s small but, I think, kinda big. One character says to another, “I know we’re basically just a collection of text messages.” (Forgive me if that’s not the exact line.) It really stuck out to me, and poked at something I’ve often mulled over in my life. Sometimes I’ll be enjoying some kind of texting relationship, or at least a good texting rapport, with a guy I’ve started dating, and I’ll say to friends, “Yeah, but it’s just texts, it doesn’t really mean anything.” Lately I’ve been feeling a bit of that stigma melting away, but it’s still there. That might just be generational. Either way, it was heartening to see that notion stated in your book, and then grappled with, analyzed, all of its dimensions considered.
Where do you fall down on it now? Is there a hierarchy of communication? You present all kinds in Emergency Contact—text, email, phone, IRL—and give them each their due. But did your own mind change, personally, on these matters in writing Penny and Sam’s story? Are you a texting advocate now?
Choi: I’ve always been a texting advocate. To me, from least intimate to most, it goes: Instagram DMs, Twitter DMs, email, texts, phone calls, FaceTime, and then IRL. But that line specifically is in the context of texting while expecting never to see your person in the flesh ever again, which is a whole other thing. It’s almost like vaportexts, you’re constantly unsure if they count, which is always a source of anxiety, but it’s shot through with a frisson of anticipation.
OK, so you’re a movie guy. Will this become a movie? TELL ME THIS WILL BECOME A MOVIE! Also, tell me who you’d cast. It doesn’t have to be everyone but had you your druthers who would you go with? Living or dead. And it can be like whatever actor from this film however many years ago. GO!
Lawson: Oh boy. There are no plans for a movie or anything else at this point. But it would be fun if someone wanted to do it! I think I’d probably prefer the cast to be unknowns, rather than, like, Disney Channel expats. But it’d be fun to have Pleasantville-era Joan Allen play Jason and Alexa’s mom. And, sure, maybe Basketball Diaries-era DiCaprio for Kyle. He played gay in that era, so maybe he’d be willing!
Do you see Emergency Contact in any cinematic form? I think it could be a great limited series. Are you listening, Netflix?
Choi: Yessss. Joan Allen circa Pleasantville is perfect. Who’s better at saying everything without saying anything? And yes, True Peak Leo. I feel like there’s Hollywood Peak, where he’s in all the Important Movies, and True Peak of My Heart, which is B-ball and Baz Luhrmann Romeo Leo. And fingers crossed re: limited series. I think you’re absolutely right that there’s something about it that lends itself to a Netflix (AHEM produced by Selena Gomez or some such)-type situation. I think I’d want something extra dreamy for the writing-within-the-writing bits, and experimenting with animation would be fun.
Man, and speaking of friendship and words, I feel so much closer to you right now. This was so great and super reassuring, and I can’t wait to cape for you and your book all over the internet when it’s out!
All We Can Do Is Wait by Richard Lawson. Razorbill, $17.99 Feb. 6 ISBN 978-0-448-49411-1
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Mar. 27 ISBN 978-1-5344-0896-8