Food for Thought with Michelle Zauner

When I pitched Vogue an interview with Michelle Zauner about her beautiful memoir, Crying in H Mart, I knew to ask a lot of food-focused questions because it would be under the Living vertical. But while I had Michelle on the phone, I had to know more about her writing background, her writing and editing process, and how the momentum from The New Yorker helped her to actually finish the thing. Because these questions are too good to waste, I thought I’d post some of what was cut. 

I’ve heard Michelle say in another interview that she works hard as if to make someone proud — though she’s not sure who that is since her own late mother would never know, and her father’s estranged. I think it’s safe to say she makes Korean-American millennials and boomer-aged immigrant parents proud. 

When did you start writing longform?

I studied creative writing at Bryn Mawr and that would probably be the first time I had seriously considered being a writer. I had this professor, Daniel Torday, who taught me so much about writing and reading and editing and everything. I took every single one of his courses that he offered except for nonfiction because I never thought I would ever write nonfiction. 

I feel like a lot of the reason was because I didn’t know any writers that looked like me or had my life experience. And I felt like I would never write nonfiction because my experiences were far too niche to ever be relatable. So it’s pretty ironic that my first book is a memoir and the first pieces of published writing I wrote were nonfiction essays. 

But a lot of it came just out of a real necessity I felt to tell this story. I think that it came out of a very real desire to just try to sort through what I was going through. I didn’t have any real expectation at all of anyone or care about anyone relating to it. I just wanted to explore the topic for myself.

I was really lucky that I randomly ended up winning the Glamour essay contest [in 2016], but about two thirds of it had to get cut to fit in the magazine. It was quite long. So I feel that kind of created this new desire to tell a much larger story. And I started getting more interest from agents who would tell me, “It feels like more is there.” So, then I took that experience and kept the writing that got cut and started thinking casually about, if I were to write a book, what that would be like.

And when I went on tour and we ended in Korea, I stayed for six weeks writing towards that idea. And then a few months after that, someone at my label connected me to Michael Agger at The New Yorker [about pitching an] interactive website [for Japanese Breakfast].

He was like, I don’t know about the interactive website but if you want to submit writing, I’ll read it. And so the label pitched this weird idea and he wasn’t really into it, but I took his invite as an opportunity to say, Well, I have this essay that might be the first chapter of a book. Can I just send you that? And that’s sort of how that happened.

I spent the next week or so editing what ended up being the first chapter of the book, which is “Crying in H Mart.” It was simultaneously a very short and long experience of it coming together. And getting these confidence boosts of like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I do know what I’m doing.”

What was the editing process like?

It was a very short editing process. I thought that it was going to be really grueling, especially [because I thought] New Yorker [would be] very, very particular. I felt like I was going to really get it handed to me. And when it came back, it was like, “We feel like the ending could be better.” And so I just literally deleted the last line. I had something very stupid like, “And now, since then, I cry.” Like, “I cry at H Mart.” Pretty stupid. And it was one of those brilliant edits where it’s like, “Yeah, why don’t I just take that out?” 

So after that happened they said they were going to publish it in a couple weeks. But there was some kind of legal limbo that we were in for about six or seven months [so we had to wait] to get that figured out. I don’t even know what it was…I think [it had something to do with] things getting protected in case we wanted to include this as the first chapter of a book. I don’t know exactly. 

And then it blew up. I know it blew up because my dad doesn’t read The New Yorker and even he sent me your essay.

Oh my God, what did he think of it?

He was like, you should read this essay. And I was like, “Dad, I already read it. Thanks.” 

Oh my God. I love that.

It was like, OK, this is a big deal if my immigrant parents are circulating your essay. What was it like getting the responses and attention that it did?

It was wild. I had written the essay so long ago that I almost forgot about it in a way. When it finally went up I was actually playing a festival in Portugal. I feel like there’s so much more to interpret in music. It’s so much more abstract and there’s a lot that gets kind of lost in translation with music. Even though I feel like my music is really personal and has a story and it’s very linked to my life, it’s not quite as explicitly stated as it is in nonfiction writing. So it was really overwhelming to get that kind of response. Plus, it’s The New Yorker, it felt so prestigious, such an honor to have it in that magazine. It felt like a very big moment in my life, for sure.

I want to ask you about the actual writing of your memoir. Did you write in between music stuff?

For a long time, at least in the beginning, I tried to write 1,000 words every day, just complete garbage. And I feel it’s the same kind of strategy I have for writing music. Sometimes it’s like if I am too precious with stuff, nothing really gets done. But if I commit to writing 1,000 words, just completely garbage words come out and then I go back and sift through the crap for some goals. It’s the process that works for me. 

When I was on tour, I would be in the van on the way to a show, like a four-hour drive from Atlanta to North Carolina or whatever. And I would be in the backseat writing 1,000 words before I got to the venue. I tried to write 1,000 words every day until I hit 90,000. And then I spent a very long time editing it down to 60,000 and then writing another 10,000 words and whittling that down. It was a really long process. And then there were a couple of retreats in Korea that I took, including a tour that ended in Korea and I stayed there for another three or four weeks. It feels like it was a very haphazard process that was never ending.

Read: Crying in H Mart, available at Bookshop (or wherever you get books)
Listen: Japanese Breakfast, wherever you get your music records
Follow: @Jbrekkie on Twitter and @jbrekkie on Instagram