Jung Yun’s long and unlikely path to publication, from Fargo to NYC and beyond

              

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I attended the session with Jung Yun, whose debut novel, Shelter, impressed me (and seemingly everyone else who has read it). Yun’s path to publication is a long and unlikely one. She immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea at age 4, following her father, who came a year earlier to scout out a place in Chicago. Finding it too expensive, he was considering alternatives when someone told him that Fargo, North Dakota was a nice place to live and quite affordable. Yun laughed as she told us, “He visited in the summer!” Her father liked it, despite the fact that there was no Korean-American community there. You can imagine the family’s culture shock when they arrived in November.

Yun was slow to learn English, so she spent a great deal of time watching people, particularly how they addressed each other, an important element of communication in Korean. She began writing early and developed other interests common to the smart, solitary person: reading, painting, and playing music. Her artistic sensibility did not fit her parents’ ideas of what constituted worthwhile activities and career goals. Yun explained, “My parents had left everyone and everything for their children, and my achievements were material evidence of the value of their sacrifice.” The more pragmatic and academically successful she became, the more she lost her artistic interests and activities.

She attended Vassar College and the University of Pennsylvania and before long was working as the assistant to the president at the New York Public Library. Even though her parents would have preferred Yun to study something other than English and to enter a profession, she said, “I knew that it meant the world to my parents to visit me there,” in the iconic building with the statues of lions at the entrance and the impressive Rose Reading Room. Yun was both frustrated and inspired by the sight of writers like Gore Vidal and Francine Prose working in the Reading Room.

Walter Mosley spoke to her one day and when she said she was a writer, too, he immediately asked, “What are you working on?” His interest and acceptance in her as a fellow writer validated her. But when she said she wasn’t writing much because of the demands of her job (including working 15 hours a day), he replied, “Something has to give.” She needed to write. Unhappy with work, she enrolled in a community writing workshop in Tribeca. It was the source the greatest happiness in her life. “I never missed class, no matter how crazy my day was. Sometimes I raced down there for class and then went back to the library to work into the night.”

After the events of 9/11, she decided to leave New York. Within nine months, she quit her job, sold her apartment, got a divorce, and moved to Amherst to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts. It all seemed so drastic that her boss at the NYPL asked her, “Are you OK?” So, in 2002 she found herself living in Amherst with a cow for a neighbor. “That was the first thing I saw every morning.” She found the MFA program “a trying experience, I wanted to quit the entire time.” But she earned her MFA and continued to write while working as an administrator at UMass.

The inspiration for Shelter came in 2004. Her parents were getting older and talking about retirement, something she struggled to grasp, as they were such hard-working people. She knew they were going to need her and her sister more. This change of circumstances inspired scenes and conflicts that eventually led to the novel. But she shelved the idea until 2007, when she read about a violent home invasion in Connecticut, which only the father survived. She followed the case obsessively. In time, she connected one of the early scenes from the book – of the mother wandering around the backyard naked – with this crime. Yun became intrigued by the question of what would happen to a family with a history of violence in their lives.

Yun started writing Shelter in 2010 and finished in 2013. Having turned 40 during its writing and receiving no response from agents, she began to feel discouraged about the likelihood of being published. “But I knew I couldn’t return to life in New York, so I kept writing and revising, trying to turn the character of Kyung [the young husband and father at the center of the novel] into a person.”

Yun concluded the story of her long path to publication by telling the audience, “I was 42 when an agent took Shelter on, 43 when I got a publishing contract [with Picador], and 44 when it was published [last year].”

Jung Yun lives in Baltimore with her husband and serves as an assistant professor of English at the George Washington University. Shelter was a finalist for the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and the Good Reads Best Fiction Book of the Year, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. It was also an Indie Next selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover spring 2016 selection, an Amazon Best Books of March 2016 selection, an iBooks Best Books of March 2016 selection, and one of Google Play’s Best Books of Spring 2016.

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

Photo of Jung Yun by Stephanie Craig

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney shares the story of her late success at Pasadena Festival of Women Authors

   

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I’ll be posting articles about five of the authors’ presentations (the four main speakers and Jung Yun; I was unable to attend the McKenzie or Thorpe breakout sessions), starting with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

D’Aprix Sweeney opened the festival with an engaging explanation of her decades-long path to “overnight success” with her debut novel, The Nest. After graduating college with a journalism degree in 1986, D’Aprix Sweeney moved to New York City to work in corporate communications. A few years later, she was in grad school but really “wanted to write fiction and sleep.” She sent a letter to friends and family announcing her intention “to be a serious writer in the style of Jay McInerny.” Even now, she can’t help but laugh and roll her eyes at her younger self’s naivete. She bought a Tandy 1000 computer (“which was really just a word processor”) and mostly played solitaire on it.

Working at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as a night operator, she tried to write during the day. She kept working and writing, but she remained disappointed in her writing. She “read like a maniac,” hoping it would “light something on fire in my brain or heart” and then she would sit down to write. She realized she “loved fiction as a reader, but not as a writer.” So she became a freelance magazine writer for the next ten years.

When, in her 40s, she moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn, she met writers and “got the itch again.” But she felt like there was a writers’ club with a sign that read “Keep Out, Middle-Aged Lady.” She was “a good literary citizen for [her] writer friends” but was not writing her own fiction. In 2005, she read an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert in the New York Times Magazine’s “True Life Tales” feature; inspired, she wrote one and submitted it. It was rejected, but the editor told her, “We all agree you are a very fine writer.”

She began to write again, mostly “essays about myself.” When a writer friend read one of her essays, she told D’Aprix Sweeney she should turn it into a short story, but she demurred, saying she didn’t know how to write fiction. Her friend’s advice: “Write the essay, put it in third person, and you get to add things you make up.” So, at age 48, she attempted fiction again. She applied to the Bennington MFA program and was accepted. She tossed her first manuscript, saying she liked only two paragraphs of it. Eventually, she realized, “You have to write the pages you hate to get to the pages you love.” Eventually, she wrote a story that would become “The Nest.” Her thesis adviser, Bret Anthony Johnston (Remember Me Like This) thought there was a novel in it, and in time that’s what it became.

D’Aprix Sweeney ultimately signed a seven-figure contract with Ecco Books. The Nest went on to become a massive New York Times bestseller and has been translated into two dozen languages. D’Aprix Sweeney described the experience of the past year as “like being hit by a rogue wave and trying to swim back to shore.”  The book is being made into a movie for Amazon Films by producer Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent.”

The recent passing of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott reminded D’Aprix Sweeney of one of his best-known poems, “Love After Love,” which she feels captures her perspective at success age 55.

“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

D’Aprix Sweeney explained that, after many years, she now has compassion for her younger self and is able to love the stranger she was. “She hung around for 30 years to share in my overnight success.”

During a brief Q&A session following her speech, she was asked how she liked living in Los Angeles after spending most of her life in New York. “I love L.A. and I love N.Y. They’re two totally different places, and my heart is big enough for both of them.”

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

All finalists for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” fiction award are women

the-lightkeepers  Homegoing  shelter

Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press), Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Knopf), and Jung Yun’s Shelter (Picador) were today named the finalists in the fiction category of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

The nonfiction category included Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir about her life as a botanist, as well as Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond and Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips.

Books are nominated by Barnes & Noble booksellers, and the finalists and winners are chosen by a committee of six distinguished writers.

In The Lightkeepers, according to the B&N announcement, “a young woman finds herself surrounded by an unreliable cast of characters on a remote archipelago–and caught in a murder mystery. Abby Geni’s sense of place and haunting narrative voice reminded us of Eowyn Ivey’s bestselling Discover pick The Snow Child and 2014 Discover Award Winner (Fiction), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.”

The Lightkeepers was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was praised by Francine Prose in the New York Times Book Review.

Homegoing “follows two branches of a family—one in America and the other in Africa–over 300 years, and the writing is so assured that it’s hard to believe this is a debut. This heartbreaking, beautiful book reminded us of Toni Morrison’s exquisite novels and an earlier Discover pick, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.”

Gyasi’s debut novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard First Book Prize, was named Debut Novel of the Year by NPR, and was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize. It was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book, one of Oprah’s 10 Favorite Books of 2016, and one of  Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016.

Regarding Shelter, B&N said, “Our jaws dropped as we read the shocking opening, and we couldn’t stop turning pages as a young father is forced to face his past – and his parents – in order to save his family’s future. This is a must-read for anyone who compulsively read Celeste Ng’s bestseller Everything I Never Told You.”

Shelter was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2016 First Novel Prize, named one of the most anticipated books of the year by The Millions, and was the #1 Most Buzzed About Book of the Year in Buzz Feed. It received positive reviews in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago TribuneEntertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and Library Journal (starred review).