Some of the most passionate, vigorous, honest conversations I’ve ever had have been in late-night texting bursts, and I know I'm not alone. In her YA book Emergency Contact, Mary H.K. Choi doesn’t just acknowledge this aspect of modern communication, and move on to glorify “in real life” bonding. She celebrates love, as it’s created now — phone pings and all. The book's alternating narrators, Penny, a gloomy Korean American college freshman with dreams of becoming a writer, and Sam, a tattooed college dropout who works in a bakery, get to know each other over text and on the phone before finally, gloriously, awkwardly crossing over to IRL.
Choi, a journalist and Vice correspondent, is uniquely suited to tell the story of Penny and Sam and life as it's lived now. In 2016, after she’d already completed the first draft of Emergency Contact, Choi took a deep dive into how teens really interact with social media for a blockbuster Wired article. That experience, paired with a texting romance of her own, prompted Choi to radically revise the book, and incorporate the texting excerpts that make Emergency Contact so acutely relatable.
I spoke to Choi about technology, the state of young adult literature – and the adorable reason why Sam is named Sam. A warning: You will swoon.
We watch Penny and Sam engage with many different version of each other. They get to know each other texting, then over the phone, then in personal. We all have so many different selves now. How do you think we find our real self — and is one medium more true than others?
In this book, I didn’t want to introduce a notion when there’s a hierarchy, when IRL is superior, and texting is trash. I do think texting is incredible intimate. My group chats hold me down but Twitter makes me crazy. These are very, very real things that we negotiate on a day-to-day basis. I was in a long distance relationship for a while, and it reminded me of middle school and high school, where you talked to someone on the phone and it was like a freakin’ party. You were divulging your soul to each other. I was in this long distance thing and we were texting so hard that even with my Mophie pack on my phone, I’d run through two batteries laughing with this person and creating inside jokes. This is the headiest and most intimate thing. It was sort of an experience I wanted to write about.
What your book does so well is catch up to modern courtship in a way that a lot of pop culture hasn’t. You don’t just glorify in-person chemistry. There’s texting chemistry, too. And that’s a very real thing.
You actually assume this level of sophistication for text chemistry. There is a pressure if someone says something very meaningful, even if it takes you a second to think of a response that matches that mood, you’ll take the time to do that. You’ll be thoughtful about it. It does create a certain degree of pressure.
I liked playing with Penny and Sam on all these different platforms and interfaces. It’s kind of like when you’re reading a word and you don’t need the vowels. The human mind is capable of filling in so many spaces. I like the phenomenon of Penny and Sam plugging in all the pixels and creating an immersive 360 world of this other person. The more compiling they do, the more puzzle pieces they have. The more monomers. They can create a more ornate tapestry of their understanding of another person. Everyone’s always saying that there are too many distractions, and everyone has ADD, there’s not attention span, everything’s very surface and glossy and very flat. Definitely there is a part of that. But there is something wonderful in the synaptic nimbleness with which people nowadays can plug in all these holes and create a pretty accurate whole other person.
The book was not a cynical look at the way we interact with our phones.
It’s actually an elegant phenomenon. To fall in love with the portal of your phone. But there are parts of it that really, really suck. Your browser can be an instrument for self harm in a big way. When Penny and Sam are apart and the portal closes, and Penny is left wondering about Sam, social media becomes a thing of hell.
There’s a big difference in the book between interpersonal communication through texting and and the way characters interact with social media, which is quite the opposite — inferring and extrapolating, not communicating.
Totally. And speaking of interpreting — there is no hell more special and nuanced and designed to torment you specifically than the Instagram Discover page of any given topic: 'This is what fries should look like. This is what love should look like. This is what sunsets should look like. This is what vacation should look like.’ Once you have that very — and this point, highly stylised ideal – you start pitting yourself against that. Lorraine [Sam’s highly Instagrammable ex-girlfriend] is a mess, and she’s selfish, and she's clearly very wounded. But Penny doesn’t think about that when she’s lurking on her. She’s just like, let me just keep bludgeoning myself with the myriad ways that I fall short of this person, who I don’t know.
Penny seems like the kind of girl who’d be above Instagram, but none of us are.
Exactly. I grew up at a time when magazine retouching was a scandal. This was very early in my formative years. Now we know that a certain amount of suspension of disbelief happens for this image to be what it is. We all know about Facetuning, we all know about filters. Even just angles. Back in the day, you just said prune and stand with your arm on your hip with a three quarter turn. That was the trick, and that was on the only thing we had. Now there are so many bells and whistles. While Penny knows about all these things intellectually, it’s still emotionally terrible.
I loved the cadence of Penny and Sam’s texts. I wonder if you were trying to create texts the way young people talk, or the way you’re more familiar with. Is there a distinction between the way 18-year-olds text and older people do?
There’s a huge distinction. My greatest fear is that someone was going to look at that texting dialogue and say oh, this is so washed, because it doesn’t use abbreviations. That was a deliberate thing on my part. Kind of like the way technology looks ridiculous in sci-fi movies by the time it comes out — ‘LOL, that brick cell phone, or LOL that’s not an operating system that anyone would use.’ I didn’t want to make technology that was really to the moment.
The Faustian Bargain was: I had to ask my audience to forgive me for being old as hell. I was going to make this snappy and glossy, and not the way teens speak. Because that would be so embarrassing and awkward.
Did you always foresee being a novelist?
It’s always been a dream of mine, but it’s been a quiet dream. I always hedged my bets. In college, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I majored in textiles and apparel for merchandising because it was dream adjacent. In the same way, I always loved magazines very very much, and I’ve been an editor and a magazine writer for most of my career.
I think I was waiting for someone to anoint me with the agency to write the novel. I’d had some invitations based on some op-eds to do a nonfiction book, but the fiction thing felt so elusive to me, and I felt like it ran parallel to the path that I was on, and I couldn’t close the gap until I just sat down and wrote the entire thing. It required so much faith. I’ve been a freelance journalist for a long time too. When you can enumerate the amount of time that you’re not getting paid on anything because you’re doing all this work on spec, that was so hard. I really didn’t believe in myself nearly enough to finish a novel and I don’t know what that testifies too. I’ve always been really responsible and I’ve always had a very high savings ratio. I’ve been a sellsword in terms of the jobs I’d take. I took a break for three months for the second rewrite of this book and that was really, really scary. I don’t know if I’d be able to do it if I was any younger. It really took me my entire life to get here, despite knowing I’d wanted to be a novelist my whole life.
So you felt empowered to become novelist now, not only because you felt like you had the capabilities, but because you could take the leap of faith in terms of putting your life and finances on hold?
I had to choose this thing that felt nebulous and completely delusional the whole time. With your first novel, once you get the first draft down, it becomes evidence. The proof of burden that you can write a first book lies entirely with you and the way you spend your time. It took a lot. There are so many distractions that you’d rather be doing than sitting in the dark, doing the Running Man by yourself, based on this completely asinine premise that you have a deep-rooted suspicion, apropos of nothing, that you’re an author, but secretly. It makes you feel insane. As someone who spent their whole career judging other people, now I’m like, anyone who makes anything ever is a genius and I respect you and your parents did a great job. I have so much respect for everyone right now.
Your role as a reporter has changed now that you’re an author as well.
Absolutely. I talked with another writer who’s also a critic, and we were talking about that. I do think that it’s a different experience for everyone, and a different lesson for everyone. I’m loathe to deploy the word journey, but I think that’s the thing about writing this book that has been really illuminating. How humbling it is. This is the best I was capable of at a certain time. Hopefully I’ll get better. Hopefully my output and my taste level will join at some point. Maybe when I’m like 65. But like, the fact that I’m putting my name in the hat and throwing down the gauntlet that I want to edge towards being better in this field feels like a crazy thing to do.
The other day you tweeted that you love writing about Asians. What was it like switching back between Penny and 23-year-old white guy with a sleeve? What mental acrobatics did that require?
It was a pleasure to write from the inside of a Korean girl. One of the priorities for me was to make Celeste, her mother, not a tiger mom. I wanted her to be the statistics you read about how all Asian kids are doing ecstasy, and how they’re all nightmares at Coachella. Kind of like Jason in The Good Place. Jason and Celeste are a team.
In terms of flitting back and forth between Sam and Penny. I’ve had people be like, I always forget that Sam is white. And I think that is really interesting and awesome. At the end of the day, in the same way representation on screen and in the writers room and all these perspectives create a more well rounded world and nuanced characters, you’ve got these one trick ponies who are in all the writers rooms and they write Black women a certain way, they write Asian women a certain way — but they also write white guys a certain way. White guys can be such stock character types. Especially when they’re written by the same dudes, basically, writing about what they know. I really like that as an Asian woman writing this German Polish kid in Texas — I love being able to do that. It wasn’t challenging for me to flip back and forth between the two of them. I think that’s the point. I’m just writing two people. And not to be like, I don’t see creed or color, but their flesh suits are pretty incidental. Not only because of the texting nature of their relationship. But because of this moment in time when they’re at. That’s incredibly privileged.
Writing an Asian person who’s writing Asian people is really interesting, too. Penny originally was half white. And I was like: Why did I do that? Don’t do that. She’s full Korean, and she’s raised by her mother, and her dad’s a deadbeat, and guess what? He’s also Korean. Koreans come in deadbeat flavours also. I loved being inside of Penny as she was figuring out whether or not she was allowed to write about Asian people.
I spoke to another YA author who said that growing up, all of her characters were half black, or white, because she never read YA books with characters who looked like her. It seems like YA has come a long way — I’d never read a book like Emergency Contact when I was a kid.
That’s why YA fucking rules. The leaps and bounds people are making within this particular field — even just the conversations happening with young people about the importance of sensitivity reading. Just now, being in this space through the lens of someone who understands this space a little bit better, there are some languages and turns of phrases that make me say, I need to be better about that. Or, this is pretty ableist. [In the book] I blithely mention how Sam looks depressive and it’s kind of hot cause he’s brooding. Now I’m like — woah, depression really sucks, and I’ve grappled with it myself. It’s a pretty throwaway way to describe someone as attractive, and that’s lazy. There are things that I’m learning in this space, too. I’m grateful for that. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility to talk to young people and I don’t sit there thinking that only 18-year-olds will read me. I know there are a lot of different kinds of audiences. But I know it’s an enormous privilege to speak with younger people.
How did you name the characters?
Penelope Lee has always been Penelope Lee. It’s euphonic to me.
This is really, really messed up, but Sam is the name of my ‘person.’ The long distance relationship that was happening when I was doing the rewrite. His name is Sam. It was a placeholder name for a long time, and then I imprinted on this other Sam to the point when I couldn’t dream of calling the character anything else. It felt so fraudulent. To think of him as Sam the whole time I was writing it, and thinking I would change the name at the end like a find word function, and replace it with Fred. I can’t even think of a guy’s name.
Are you still dating him?
So is Sam your Sam?
They’re super different. But of course, because we’re carpet bagging gremlins, I did sniff off a lock of hair and a double helix of DNA and peppered it through the book’s Sam.
What a good twist.
He’s the best. There are times when I read this book, and it’s so imbued with so much love I have for the Sam in my life that — sometimes I’ll cry.
A double love story.
It really is. It’s a love story on all the levels. It’s millennial pink, and it’s meta. Basically, I’m the grossest human being in the world.