David Yoon’s debut, Frankly in Love, which was published just over a year ago, garnered multiple starred reviews, was a finalist for the William C. Morris Award, and won a YA Honor for the Asian/Pacific American Award. His sophomore effort, Super Fake Love Song, hits shelves today and, similarly, explores themes of identity and familial expectation. Yoon spoke with PW about his new book, the beats that repeat across his stories, and the launch of his imprint.
What inspired the premise of your new novel?
This book is about a super nerdy kid named Sunny, who is into Dungeons & Dragons and cosplay. I love writing about nerds. The main character in Frankly in Love was a more confident kind of nerd, but Sunny is the kind that’s always sort of hiding away in his own fantasy world. He meets this girl, Cirrus, who is a friend of the family and the opposite of him: worldly and super cool. He’s so starstruck, that, in a moment of absolute fear when they wander into his older brother’s room—who happens to be a musician—Sunny lets her believe that he’s the rockstar. The problem is, she believes him, so he has to follow through on the lie. It’s a romantic comedy with emphasis on the comedy; it’s funny and light.
I’ve been working on this book for a while; it took longer than Frankly. I had to work to get it boiled down to the conceit: faking it ’til you make it. Sunny is a third-generation immigrant, so his parents are sort of next-level faking it; they’ve reached a certain level of success and now they want to push it even further. They live in this exclusive, expensive neighborhood, so their level of keeping up with the Joneses is in a different stratum. Sunny is always pretending to be someone else and, when he pretends to be his own brother, who is a real rockstar, he’s revealing that he misses his brother, whom he used to be very close with. This comes somewhat from my own experience; I have an older brother and I always thought he was cooler than me. I still do, years later. We used to play a lot of D&D in high school and I was also into music, playing in a silly metal band with my friends. All of that blended when writing this book; I created a character who was sort of like who I used to be, but way more insecure, which was inspired by books like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and those awkward characters that are so sweet that you just have to root for them.
So you’re a musician yourself. Are there any songs or musicians that inspire you as a writer, or inspired this book?
Music has a big influence on my writing. I play piano, and the thing about playing an instrument is that it makes you hyper-aware of details and patterns, which then spills over into everything. It shows up in my writing: I’ll pick a theme or exact phrase and repeat it. I love that kind of stuff. It makes things feel circular, whole, and satisfying.
For this book, I did listen to a lot of music while writing. I started with the ’80s and the guitar gods, then I moved on to that era where there was Korn and System of a Down and Disturbed. From there I went more modern rock, like The Strokes and Jimmy Eat World. I miss the simplicity of rock. The thing about rock is that, if you were really into it as a kid, you can easily get a used instrument and figure out how to play. Nowadays your typical pop song is tough to replicate on your own and rock is on pause, so I mined my old playlists in the meantime. But I have a producer friend who says rock is making a big comeback, so I’m waiting!
Both of your books for teenagers involve characters who misrepresent the truth. What about this conceit appeals to you?
In my adult book, Version Zero, there’s also a lot of misrepresenting the truth! I think it’s a running theme because, when you’re a kid of immigrants like me, you’re always code switching. You’re literally a different person at home than you are outside of the home. I developed a sense for that early on, so much so that I learned to do different accents and voices—mostly to make my parents laugh—only later realizing that I was trying to figure out how to navigate this world where I was not Korean enough for the Koreans and not American enough for white Americans. I was code switching constantly and it makes you wonder: if you’re code switching constantly with whomever you happen to be with, who is your true self? It’s an interesting question and there’s no real answer, but it’s worth asking.
Version Zero, which is your first book for adults, will publish next May. Do you find yourself exploring similar themes across age brackets, or do you have different goals depending on audience?
It depends on the audience. I think writing a young adult story is all about hope and potential. Generally, YA deals with what we as society have decided is worth our time and concern. On the adult side, the stories tend to be darker and more mysterious because we’re dealing with stuff we haven’t come to any conclusions about. With Version Zero, it’s all about the internet and whether it’s good or bad. It’s murky; the jury is still out on that. In YA, questions of inclusivity and diversity are well-established; just be nice to each other and respect each other’s identities. We can build a case for hope against that. Both scratch a different itch in my brain.
When I was doing my MFA at Emerson College, our thesis project was short stories. I wrote and wrote and then realized that almost all my stories featured what would be considered a middle grade protagonist. Those stories were darker because I was trying to figure out my childhood through metaphor.
Are you interested in exploring the middle grade space?
I would love to, absolutely, because it is this amazing age where you’re not quite your own person, but you’re starting to see figures of authority as human beings. I love Dog Man and Captain Underpants because you see the teacher in his underpants. He’s this figure of authority who you can’t really control, but he’s in his underwear! He’s not just this iconic figurehead, but a regular person with a depressing, empty home who is sort of lovelorn and lonely. Readers aren’t questioning him yet—questioning authority is where YA comes in—but they’re starting to see everyday things in a whole new light.
You’ve recently announced your new imprint, Joy Revolution, which you’re heading with your wife, Nicola Yoon, and editor Wendy Loggia. How does this project fit into your mission as an artist and storyteller?
Joy Revolution is a dream come true for [Nicola and me] because, since the beginning of our relationship, we talked about how we grew up without any role models in media that were people falling in love. We never saw Black girls falling in love and we certainly never saw Asian guys in romantic leads. For me, I saw dudes in “the triad” or doing kung fu and, in Nicola’s case, it was sassy bus drivers or someone enduring the horrors of slavery; there was never a humanized portrait of someone who looked like us. So, to have an imprint that features the stories of POC and explores the full depth of their humanity and love is a dream. I know there are writers out there who are dying to share these stories and we want to share them with the world! The logo will be announced soon; the concept behind it is a shelter—a safe space—for POC readers to just be people first. Our goal is to have our first books come out in 2022.
You also dabble in many other creative pursuits, including illustrating, creating the Sorta adaptive notebinder, designing iPhone games, and more. Is there a thread that ties these projects together?
I worked as a graphic designer, then in interactive app design, then as a user experience expert. User experience can be applied to anything from physical products to an app and the experiential stuff is fascinating. I’d have to inhabit different personas (speaking of fake it ’til you make it!), then decide if that persona would like or hate a product. You’ll love one fruit peeler and hate another but won’t be able to explain why: I like to figure out why you hate it, getting into the nitty gritty details, like the shape and curve of the handle, and then express that in a way that is useful.
The Sorta notebinder was me thinking that I wanted a notebook that was like a three-ring binder, but without the rings and smaller. I had this unfulfillable urge, so I invented it.
When I have down time, I like to design games, but I don’t really care if people play them. It comes from my mom getting us an Atari computer as kids. The first thing I did with it was make games!
What kind of virtual events or promotions are planned around this release?
My virtual book launch is today, November 17, and is hosted by Vroman’s ! My buddy Adam Silvera will be joining me. I’m also doing an in-conversation event with the Korea Society on November 18 and another with Leah Johnson, who wrote You Should See Me in a Crown, on November 19 as part of the Portland Book Festival. I miss seeing everyone in real life, though.
Have you been receiving letters or messages that allow you to connect with readers, too?
Fortunately, yes, and I feel really lucky. I get these amazing letters from readers telling me that they feel seen, sometimes for the first time, and not just from Korean Americans. I got a letter from a kid in India who shared that his parents are strict, too, so he saw so much of himself in Frank. I receive a lot of letters from immigrant kids, who say that Frank’s parents could be theirs, except that Frank’s parents speak Korean. It always reminds me that a specific story can be universal; everyone can learn from someone else and everything else is window dressing. It’s been magical for me.
What’s next for you?
I’m finalizing an adult novel that’s a weird apocalypse story, but it still needs some work. Nicola and I might be working on something together, too.... But we’re constantly writing something; in the Yoon household, we’re always talking about stories, even my daughter, who is eight.
Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon. Putnam, $18.99 Nov. 17 ISBN 978-1-984812-23-0