What has nine tails, super speed, and an appetite for men's souls? Meet the gumiho, the nine-tailed fox found throughout Korean mythology – and the main character in Kat Cho's debut YA novel, Wicked Fox, out June 25.
As a gumiho, Miyoung must suck out a man's soul every full moon or she'll wither away (totally rad, no?) She tries to select only "deserving" victims — but still, perpetuating a cycle of violence weighs on her.
Essentially, she wants to be a normal 18-year-old girl in Seoul, not a ruthless killer without any meaningful relationships like her centuries-old mother. After meeting a sweet mortal boy named Jihoon, can Miyoung defy her nature (which until now was her destiny) and form a real connection?
As part of a broader YA trend of culturally specific fantasies, Wicked Fox weaves ancient Korean lore with the bustle of modern-day Seoul — and sets it all to the pace of a soap opera. Cho, who is Korean-American, visited Seoul while writing the book to make sure each setting was as vivid (and authentic) as possible. While dealing with the mythological, the novel also delves into big questions. What do we owe our parents? Is one individual strong enough to defy a generational cycle? Are gumiho way cooler than vampires?
Ahead of her debut's release, we spoke to Kat Cho about writing a novel, pleasing family, and how K-dramas and K-pop are taking over the world. Here's a bit of what she had to say.
On why she chose to focus on the gumiho:
"A lot of the tales that the gumiho are involved with travel throughout history, and I liked traveling with this figure as the country changed. Also, there was familiarity with the gumiho as an immortal paranormal creature that preys on man is similar to the Western mythology of the werewolf (also connected to the moon) and also the vampire. I liked that dichotomy."
On her connection to Miyoung:
"Miyoung has these moments in the book where she says, 'I don't fit into Jihoon's world but I don't fit into my mother's world.' I realized it wasn't just her talking about two people she loved. She was talking about two completely different communities that she felt those people represented.
"I definitely grew up thinking things like that. You go home and you have your parents, who are representative of your [Korean] culture. Contrast that with going to school in Orlando, Florida where people joke around about your Asianness in really inaccurate ways. I enjoyed being with my friends who were very American, but every once in a while, someone would mention my Asianness in a derogatory way and it would kill the mood. You can't have fun anymore because you're reminded that even though you have fun with these kids, you're not like them."
On writing culturally specific fantasy:
"It's interesting to write fantasy from an author of color's perspective. It's a way to discuss our identity without, for lack of a better word, being a bummer. Sometimes when you talk about race, people don't want to listen to you. The book has all these extra layers — people will see different meanings in the book."
On how K-dramas influenced her debut:
"There's a huge intersection between YA and K-dramas because they're so character driven. I wanted to put easter eggs for K-drama fans into Wicked Fox. The scene when Miyoung and Jihoon are in the rain when the umbrella is too small and she almost gets hit by a car and he protects her – that's all from K-dramas."
On how her writing career started with a dream:
"I gave up on writing when I went to college because I did pre-med track, and ended up going into clinical research. Then my mom passed away, and it was this time when I didn't want to do anything, didn't want to see anyone. I just went to work, went home, and saw my family.
"But I kept having these vivid dreams about my family. They'd be in different situations. I'd have this vivid dream — this sounds fake — that they were ancient Korean warriors, and my grandmother was the elder. She got to choose the people who would be accepted as trainees. I begged her to let my boyfriend be in the program, and she said, 'He's too weak.' Then she finally let him in — and he died. I woke up sobbing. I called my cousin, who was actively pursuing publication. She said, 'I came up with this amazing story idea.' She said, 'It's your dream. You should write it.'
"I wrote it in 19 days, the whole book. I had no idea what good writing was. But it reintroduced me to how much I loved writing. I decided I wanted to write an actual book that I purposefully wrote for publication. Wicked Fox was the book I always wanted to write because it wouldn't let go of me. Even though I was scared of it."
On her parents' role in the book:
"I explore parental relationships in my books a lot now. My mom passed away, and unfortunately, a few years later, my dad passed away. They were both important in my life, and they were amazing parents. After that happened, I realized the absence of parents is just as important to explore as the presence of parents. How a character or a person reacts to that experience in their life is meaningful in who they will become afterward. You're never in stasis. There's always going to be something that happens to you that changes how you live your life, and that happened to me after my parents passed away. Exploring who I was without them in my life has been difficult, but it's also opened up certain parts of me."Yena is both present and absent in Miyoung's life. She's a great mom, but she does things that are not great. That's something that I'm always interested in. She's a person. I think it's important to treat parents and adults in YA as people, too."