Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s Shake It Up. Lee previously published humor essay collections and middle-grade novels before writing her debut YA novel Anna K followed by its sequel, Anna K Away. The new book follows fallen socialite Anna as she travels to South Korea to connect with her family over the summer while the rest of the gang in the U.S. navigate their way through love and new relationships. PW spoke with Lee about her process of writing for a YA audience, the challenges that arose while crafting a novel during the pandemic, which K-pop groups she stans, and what’s next for her.
How has being a television writer and producer helped you as a novelist?
It really helped me with Anna K because I had the idea for doing a modern adaptation or retelling in 2012 after I saw the Keira Knightley version of the movie [Anna Karenina]. I had a brainstorm while I was in New York city and thought, “Oh, it’s really a book about first love” and if you did it in modern times, the characters would all have to be younger, in high school. I thought this would be a great YA novel. I had told my book agent at the time and she said, “Write it now; it’s a great idea.” And now, five years later, here we are.
I tried a couple times because Tolstoy’s novel is so unwieldy. Everyone thinks Anna K has a lot of characters; the original has so many more and takes place over years and is an expansive book. But when I wrote it in the spring of 2018, I had minor surgery and I watched Game of Thrones while I was recovering. And then I started reading the books because I loved it. The show was exactly like the books, at least season one is. And being a TV writer, I knew this was how I needed to structure my book. And then I was able to compare it to writing for TV, working with a large cast of characters all the time, and that was how I began writing short chapters as if they were scenes. That unlocked everything for me and I immediately started writing. I just did one crazy first draft that was like 530 pages! And then it really needed trims and cuts. I’ve always written long. Short and succinct is very difficult. It’s definitely a skillset to be able to crystalize things, but I always take the expansive approach.
Did you find anything tricky about writing your first novel compared to now?
Anna K was one of my best writing experiences as an author. Once I figured it out it was fun to draft that first novel. But the second book, especially writing it during a global pandemic, was hell on Earth for me. I never really understood how hard it would be to write a sequel. I was a little bit cocky; I thought since I already knew the characters it was going to be easier than the first one. I was very wrong. I didn’t want to disappoint fans because they loved these characters. I was very stressed out. It was one of the most difficult writing experiences I’ve ever had to deal with. I’m lucky enough to have a husband who’s a great editor, because both his parents were English teachers. If it wasn’t for him I don’t think we’d be doing this interview because the book still might not be done!
When I wrote the first one there were no plans to write a sequel. Maybe it was brought up because I got a two-book deal. The second book was for an unlinked YA. But because Anna K was getting good early buzz before publication, my editors brought up the idea. I jumped at the chance because I loved the characters so much and I was curious to see where they were all going. I was 75% done with the sequel when the pandemic started. And then I froze. It was so terrible and shocking. Because of the pandemic I think it’s very hard to be creative. Everything was getting canceled. I told my editors I didn’t know if we should do the sequel because I didn’t know what the world was going to be like. So we took a pause. I stopped in my tracks for four months. Then I thought that because of the pandemic, people needed a way to escape it.
I thought maybe I should continue the sequel right after book one ends, in the summer of 2019. And because I was referencing real events, they actually go to Coachella in 2019. Then because of what was going on, I decided to throw out half of what I had written and start over. There were so many drafts and so many stories. I wanted a different tone. I wanted to concentrate on loss and grief, especially because everyone kept saying the word “unprecedented” with the pandemic. Obviously, people have experienced loss as a teenager, but for Anna, when the love of her life gets hit by a train in front of her to save her life, it was unprecedented in her world. But my editors were like “oh Anna’s so sad” meaning she was a bit of a bummer. I understood that, but at the same time there was no way I was giving her a love story or a love interest at all. I refused to do that. We can’t believe that she really loved Vronsky and then two months later she’s hooking up. But I knew I wanted the book to still be about love. Then I thought maybe Anna could be involved in someone else’s love story. That was when I finally decided on the story of her helping the K-pop star. It was also fun to talk about Beatrice because she was a smaller character in book one. I really wanted to tackle a different angle with her being bisexual or pansexual because she was the most sexually active, always bragging about it in the first book. I really wanted Beatrice to have her first love story when she falls in love with Tiare.
There are some K-pop influences (and even a character who is in a K-pop group) in your sequel. Do you have a favorite group? And was there any music you listened to while writing, to get you into the mood?
BLACKPINK. I love them, I saw them at Coachella. It was crazy. It was my first time ever going and we scored VIP artist passes, so we did it right. BLACKPINK was a really incredible experience because it’s the first K-pop band to ever play at Coachella. We were very close to the stage when they were playing. Seeing how big the crowd was, I was shocked when everyone started singing the songs in Korean. I talked to someone next to me, asking how they knew all the words. They said they learned it phonetically and I thought that was incredible. But BLACKPINK is my favorite for sure. I love a lot of K-pop. I especially love their videos; they’re so fun and crazy and colorful, like BTS. I’ve watched every single one of their videos.
Was there a character that you really enjoyed writing?
It was very important for me, first and foremost, to make sure all the female characters got their due. They all have their own story and emotional arc. I was like, girls before the boys. But then as I was working on it, I really loved Dustin’s character. He’s the moral center of the whole show and I liked his outsider perspective. I was a little bit wary because in a way it’s fun to write about super rich kids, but with today’s climate I wanted to be careful and mindful of the times that we’re living. I wanted Dustin to have that ability to call people out and for him to say, “You have no idea how privileged or entitled you are.”
In Seoul, Anna rediscovers a part of herself and immerses herself in her Korean culture. As an Asian American, was there any inspiration from your own experiences?
It’s tricky. I’ve only been to Korea once. I’m second generation. I was born in Nashville, and both my parents are Korean. And at that point in time it was about assimilating into American culture. I can’t even speak Korean. My parents can speak it, but I didn’t learn. They were like, “We are American now.” It was sort of funny because Jenna Ushkowitz, the narrator of the audiobooks, is Korean but she’s adopted and wasn’t raised by Korean parents. Because there are several Korean words in the book, she texted me asking for the pronunciations. And I couldn’t provide that. I had to ask one of my Korean friends who knew how to pronounce the words correctly. They recorded the words for me so I could then pass them along to Jenna.
I drew from a combination of my own background about Korea and a lot of research on modern-day Korea. It is very true about the generational divide. And it’s still also very patriarchal. There was an article in the New York Times in maybe 2019: birth rates were falling and the government was encouraging women to have more kids. They put out suggestions on the government website that was like “ways to recover after pregnancy,” such as “hang up a slim dress so you can see it and you won’t take that extra bite; then you can look nice for your husband.” It was crazy and sexist. In all the ways to prepare when you have a kid, which involved making meals for your husband, there was no mention of health. And there was a huge backlash. There’s definitely been a small growing feminist movement, but it’s hard there because the gender lines are very culturally set—what the men can do and what is proper for women. I really wanted to comment on it, without criticizing another culture that I don’t live in.
I wanted to show with Anna that even though she loves being Korean and she’s proud of her heritage, that she could still be like, “This isn’t right.” I wanted some cultural specificity but at the same time show the parts of her [that are the results of her upbringing in America]. And some of it is individual choice because in the beginning of the book, she just didn’t know differently. She’s used to being the perfect daughter and that was very much like me in high school. My parents weren’t interested in me being a writer and I’ve always wanted to be one. I was only interested in English and they were like, “This is not what you do as a second-generation child.” You become a lawyer, you go to an Ivy League school, you work really hard. Art is for someone else.
What’s next? Can we expect any more YA novels from you, or have you thought of delving into another age range?
One day I want to write an adult novel for sure. I think that’s always been the original goal and I’m slowly working up to it. Before Anna K, I wrote two middle grade books. Those were technically my first novels because my books before then were humor essays. But I’ve always had a young teen girl’s taste. I’m interested in pop culture and whatever is occurring. I love K-pop, and before the pandemic I was set to go to Taylor Swift’s L.A. concert. I love that song “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo. It’s so good! I don’t watch the new High School Musical series, but I might because I’m curious about the whole love triangle. And I wrote on Shake It Up and Young & Hungry, which are both very young shows.
I was lucky enough to have a lot of publishers interested in Anna K originally. But a lot of them were like, “There’s too much sex and drugs in this book.” When I was writing it I didn’t think, “I’m writing for the teen audience.” I was writing the book I wanted to write and the characters happened to be teenagers. I skirted the line and didn’t want to make it cleaner just because it was for a younger audience. Because the teens I know, maybe they don’t act that way in front of their parents, but they do all sorts of things. I wanted it to be accurate. I think I had a lot of crossover [readers]. I feel like probably more people who aren’t teenagers have read Anna K, especially because of Book of the Month Club. That’s definitely an audience that’s much older.
It’s not definite that there’s going to be a book three for Anna K, but I definitely want to write one because I want to do her senior year. Who doesn’t want to see Anna rise back up in New York City from the place that she came from? And I feel like Anna, Beatrice, and Molly could really take over the town. So that’s sort of my plan. I want see her go through a wild phase a little bit too, after she recovers. My worry is because it was 2019, technically their senior year, the pandemic would hit and I don’t know if I want to write the pandemic in. I certainly don’t want to read about it and we’re still not out of it. So I don’t know. That might just be an artistic license choice to not include it. I keep flip-flopping and it’s not even decided as of now. I haven’t even discussed it with the publisher, but I would love to write a third book.
Anna K Away by Jenny Lee. Flatiron, $18.99 Apr. 27 ISBN 978-1-250-23646-3