how i get it done

Mary H.K. Choi Is Jealous Her Fictional Characters Can Hang Out

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

In 2018, Mary H.K. Choi — an accomplished journalist, comic-book writer, and host of the podcast Hey, Cool Job! — published her first young-adult novel, Emergency Contact, which quickly became a national best seller. She followed that book with 2019’s Permanent Record (also a best seller), and her third novel, Yolk, will be published on March 2, 2021. She lives in New York. She talked to the Cut about email management, writing versus selling a book, and variations on breakfast. Here’s how she gets it done.

On not being a morning person
I typically get up anywhere from like 7:30 to 8:00, usually without an alarm. I have the tremendous luxury of not having to set one. The first thing I do every morning is get to a window and sit in front of it. There is a prayerful aspect to it, but it’s not like, genuflecting in front of a dogmatic deity. I just put my face near the sky and remind myself that there is a world outside of my room. I try to think about anything that’s coming up that day that I might need help around, and I just leave it there.

Then I drink some magnesium and some water, and put the kettle on. All of these things are done in such a bleary eyed state. It’s totally muscle memory. If someone moved the kettle even a few inches in one direction, I would be completely thwarted. I don’t drink caffeine because it feels like I’m just anxious faster. The self-criticism gets really gnarly. So I have a decaf Irish tea in a giant, urn-size trough. I usually do some writing — I have a journal practice where I process my day and see if there’s anything that I’m worried about. Then I do a unit of movement — and I call it that because I just get so frickin’ ambitious for no reason. I’m just like quick, quick, do the most meniscus-exploding high-intensity interval training! I’m trying to migrate away from that. I live in an apartment and I just cannot afford to have people living below me absolutely hate my guts. So I usually relegate that sort of movement to half an hour, and have it be gentle, and have it be something I genuinely want, not something punitive or corrective.

On having (and writing about) an eating disorder
I have the same breakfast every day. I definitely identify as someone who has an eating disorder, and even though I’m not in some of those behaviors, I still have really disordered thoughts around food. So I tend to have meals at around the same time each day, and a meal for me is a protein, a carb, and some fruit or vegetable. For breakfast I have an English muffin that I toast in my convection oven, which is just an air fryer, with some almond butter or ricotta, and a piece of fruit. Then I’ll usually have a 12-step meeting.

Eating disorders are a theme in Yolk. Jayne, one of the main characters, has bulimia, which is what I have. With bulimia, you just don’t want any decision to be made permanently. It’s like this huge eraser for every decision.

On the tyranny of email 
I don’t have email on my phone. It’s something I realize other people can’t do, but as someone who’s been very deliberate about not having a corporate job at this point in their career, that’s just something I give myself. If I start doing email stuff at 7:30 in the morning, my day will be derailed. Instead of doing the maybe five things I’m capable of doing in a day, I’ll do 20 to 30 really spectacularly shoddy things that will need to be redone. That’s just my personal output metabolism. Sometimes a response to an email will take me like three days — not because I’m procrastinating, but because you’ve asked me a question that I actually don’t have data around. I just want to save someone else’s inbox three to four emails.

On bringing a book to life
I only do two to three hours of work a day. I cannot do more than that. I’ve really tried, and it’s just not taking. I have so many aphorisms and affirmations peppered throughout my working space, because I need to remember that I’m a person and a body. I had to just write on a Post-it this morning “I can wait for me.” With Yolk coming out, there are more logistics than I’m usually comfortable with.

I’m going into a virtual tour, and I just don’t know what that feels like somatically, and I don’t know how emotionally expensive that is. The rational mind is like, this seems like a freaking dream. It should be a breeze. You could do it in your sweat pants, conceivably. But I suspect that those things can be just as draining as talking to people in meatspace. In writing the book, you can allow yourself to be so feral and weird. It’s having these repetitive little conversations with people that you made up, and they just chatter at you all day. Then you distill it, and it becomes a book. After that, when you’re sort of like blinking into the sunlight, someone’s like, “Now you’re for sale!” It’s so wild, and I have so much resentment around it, actually. I have to actually tell myself, selling a book is 50 percent of the job. That’s what your primary objective becomes. You have to sell yourself as this incredible seismic, iconoclastic thing in order to even get people to notice you.

On writing fiction as playing God
There is something about working on a book that centralizes health care and mortality and family that is really difficult. There were whole weeks and months where I was just jealous of my protagonists for being able to hang out with each other. I was like, I miss my sibling, I miss places, how dare you just willy-nilly go to each other’s houses and mouth kiss? It’s an affront. My mom got sick during the pandemic. She was diagnosed with cancer, and I was writing a book about cancer. It felt unlucky, and I felt responsible. As someone with an eating disorder, your entire existence is predicated upon this one moment in the future when you will be perfect enough to earn things, and more people will treat you differently, and your life truly actually begins. Over this past year, and working on this book, I’ve had time to realize: this is really it. The reason why I talk about moms so much is because I’m fanfic-ing conversations I wish I could have with my own mother. It’s overwhelming to think about. In the way that fiction authors sort of play a mini-God, it makes it impossible to not think about life and death on a near daily basis.

On subjectivity
Every single person who’s ever made a thing remembers the bad reviews. The good reviews never penetrate. And if it does penetrate, it’s incredibly fleeting. Sometimes I’ll read Amazon reviews, and sometimes people don’t like the book because it arrived late. Some people don’t like a book because nothing really happened. I think that was a criticism I got a lot about Emergency Contact, because nothing really happened. That’s not an indictment. That’s actually just an observation. There is such a binary around criticism where things are either lauded and vaunted. But a book, at the end of the day, is just an opinion. It’s my opinion.

On short bursts of cultural influence
Something I did recently was get a MOMA membership. I’ll go to a museum for like, 20 minutes. Obviously, right now, I don’t want to be in the world that long. Every museum that’s open here [in New York] is ticketed and timed. But I do love to be physically in a place to look at something. I just saw the last day of the Donald Judd exhibit. It was so decadent to go to one exhibit in such a huge, vast museum and let that be the one activity I was doing that day.

I’m struggling with TV right now as a unit of content. There’s something very scroll-feeling about it. I’m trying not to do things that auto-play into the next thing.  I’ve been watching a lot of movies. I got the Kanopy app through a library membership, and they have a really amazing array of films. It’s really nice to revisit movies where no conversations around them are happening. That feels so good. I can’t personally watch a whole movie in one sitting, so I do a half-feature, and then I go to bed.

Mary H.K. Choi Is Jealous Her Book Characters Can Hang Out