Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. An attorney by day, she also co-hosts Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture. Her stories have been included in the Locus Recommended Reading List, as well as TOR.com’s Must Read list. Her work has been published in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Khoreo, Cast of Wonders, and others.
I recently heard Isabel speak about her writing, and I was struck by her approach to building stories, as well as her confidence in the process. Thanks to Isabel for taking the time to answer my questions!
MYNA CHANG: You mentioned you have a group of key elements you try to convey in the first few paragraphs of your stories. Can you tell us more about that?
ISABEL J. KIM: Of course! There’s a specific strategy that I like to use at the beginning of all my fiction in order to drop the reader into the world and make them care in the quickest amount of time possible. I have varying degrees of success, but the essential structure is that in the first two paragraphs I include some combination of: weird but engaging first line, a reason to like the protagonist and their point of view, a small problem that provides an action element, and because I write speculative fiction: the “what’s weird about this story” and “what are we accepting about this setting.” It’s a lot of information to convey really quickly, but if done organically, it primes the reader to understand the rest of the narrative.
It might make more sense with an example. Here’s the breakdown of how this works in the first paragraph of my story “Plausible Realities, Improbable Dreams,” published in Lightspeed:
The multiverse broke last week. (The weird first sentence, the quick introduction of the multiverse as a concept fundamental to the narrative). Broke is perhaps the wrong word (This narrator is fallible, and concerned with specificity). More accurate would be performed a state-change or found new equilibrium (Introducing the idea that the multiverse breaking is a problem, and that it is a problem that is uncertain in multiple ways–all very weird!), but tell that to Catalina Chang, who has been popping aspirin like M&Ms ever since last Thursday, 5:54 PM (Introduces the main character, ties her in with the narrative and gives her a point of sympathy in the headache, reinforces the specificity of the narrator), when the Unspecified Incident in the Lab superimposed all versions of reality together like a flaky scallion pancake (And here’s the main problem! Time to boogie.).
MC: You also mentioned your strategy of including themes or motifs in your stories. How do you approach that?
ISABEL: I’m a big fan of repetition and cycles and a sort of circular storytelling, so when I write I try to weave in a few levels: the plot, the “what the story is about,” and the vehicles for which the plot/meaning are conveyed, aka the themes and motifs. This usually arises pretty organically around the one-third mark of the draft, and I don’t usually plan them out. I’ll write something interesting and realize that it makes sense as a narrative device to convey something else later, and then I’ll start deliberately working it in, and then later when editing I’ll go and shore up the earliest mentions.
I cannot stress enough that I don’t usually plan these too hard. I wrote a sentence about space and starlight in a recent story opening which made me decide the story will have a lot of space and starlight in it, but I also wrote a line about chitin, which made me think about carcinization, so now the two motifs for this story are space and crabs when it is supposed to be a story about the fae courts and law firms. It makes sense in context.
MC: Tell us about your writing background. Where did you learn your craft? Was speculative fiction always your end goal? And how does your speculative work mesh with your career as an attorney?
ISABEL: I was one of those kids who was always reading a book and sometimes got in trouble for it in class, and I was also one of those kids who got a little praise for her creative writing and took it a little too much to heart. I have an undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania and took a lot of writing workshops where I spent a lot of time being very annoying. The funny thing here is that the majority of workshops I took had a hard and fast “no science fiction” rule, because the professor was tired of bad SciFi (which I can’t even blame him for). So in college, I was writing super highbrow literary short fiction, and that was sort of the clean writing style and content that I aspired to, which all went to shit in law school when I went full wizards.
That’s a joke. I went full wizards when I was seven reading Narnia and Redwall and That One Series That Shall Not Be Named By That One Lady, and when I was twelve and reading Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, and when I was fifteen and reading Homestuck and The Wheel of Time, and when I was nineteen and reading Ancillary Justice and The Left Hand of Darkness. I kind of actually always wanted to write speculative fiction novels.
It’s funny because I ended up going to law school partially because of a fantasy novel (Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, which I read at the right time to decide to take the LSAT), so for me, the speculative fiction and the law all work together swimmingly. Being a writer is a nice complement to lawyering, actually, because it can be done in the spare moments between active lawyering stuff. It does sometimes feel like I’m always chained to one computer or another, and I’m currently trying to figure out how to better balance my life.
MC: You’ve done some wonderful interactive pieces, ranging from a choose-your-own-path story, “Kingmaker,” to the “Infinite Artwork Simulator” (reviewed at Hyperallergic), and more. How did those projects get started? Do you plan to do more interactive work?
ISABEL: My other undergrad major was Fine Arts, and I did a thesis in conceptual digital art using appropriated texts and technology as a medium. I used to be really interested in the way semi-randomized systems could create meaning and the use of procedural generation in creating texts, and also in mimicking procedural generation through human action, which is sort of what led to all of my interactive work. I’m a big fan of GPT-3 and other similar projects.
Interactive work isn’t really something I’m actively working on… but I’ve always kind of wanted to write for a video game or something, haha. Hey, if anyone wants to pay me to make something weird and interactive…
MC: Which of your stories is your favorite? Which character? Were you surprised by the way these pieces progressed?
ISABEL: My favorite story is probably the first one that I had published, “Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self”(Clarkesworld). It really accurately does what I intended it to do, and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I manage to do specifically what I intended because it happens so rarely. I also just like all the classics references! I should stretch my classics muscles more, I took six years of Latin.
My favorite characters from my published fiction are probably Christopher and Angelica Mills (“Christopher Mills, Return to Sender,” Fantasy Magazine), because there’s just something really delightful about their dialogue and relationship with each other, and I had a lot of fun writing their banter. They’re weird guys. I might go back to them someday.
I’m always surprised by the way my stories progress! I usually write with an idea of the ending in mind, or a few different endings, but the road to the conclusion isn’t set in stone, and the ending usually changes as I zero in on it. For example—I planned for Chris to die permanently in “Christopher Mills, Return to Sender,” but he and his sister had other ideas. This always happens to me. Nobody in my stories ever listens to me. Terrible children.
MC: How do you envision your work fitting into the SFF canon?
ISABEL: Personally I think I deserve to be king of SFF and everyone should be like “this is great, Iz, this is the best writing we’ve ever seen, please have a crown and a scepter and a Wikipedia page and fifteen awards.”
More realistically, I’d like my work to be thought of in the slipstream super-thought-provoking space, where the speculative elements are a window into big concepts. Or I would like to be Neil Gaiman or Ursula K. Le Guin or Ted Chiang when I grow up, please (Yes, these are all very different authors, I know).
But this is sort of an interesting question in that I’m a Korean-American woman and I mostly grew up reading white male authors (and some white women authors) because that’s the traditional bulk of the “canon” and I think it was only really when I was in late high school/college that started changing in people’s minds.
For the longest time, I kind of felt like there wasn’t room in the genre for me—which I think is a sentiment a lot of non-white authors might feel? Not to speak for anyone else. I also worried that if I were to write, I would be pigeonholed into “Asian woman who writes about Asian woman diaspora fiction” and that’s all that people would want to read from me, rather than “Some guy who writes extremely weird things that blow my mind.” I guess I was afraid of the phenomenon where “Women in STEM” only get invited on “Women in STEM” panels.
So I’m going to go back to my first point and say that I think I should be king of the SFF canon because then little Korean-American girls will assume they are the default. This is my design.
MC: In addition to writing, you also co-host a cool podcast. Wow If True is “a deep-dive podcast into internet culture and viral moments,” co-hosted with Amanda Silberling. How do you curate your content? What would a new listener discover on a first listen?
ISABEL:Amanda would kill me if I turned down an opportunity to talk about our podcast, so here we go. The best way to describe Wow If True would be to say it’s a discussion of current tech/viral/internet issues, hosted by two people who aren’t white straight dudes, that is to say, we’ll explain NFTs to you in a way that’s funny as hell. We talk about a blend of serious internet issues (for example, Elon Musk trying to buy Twitter) and extremely serious internet issues (Brandon Sanderson’s zillion dollar kickstarter). Generally, we find our content because Amanda is a tech journalist and I spend too much time online, and from that knowledge base we figure out what each episode is going to be. Go listen! We’re on Spotify! We’re fun I promise!
MC: What can you tell us about the novel you’re writing?
ISABEL: I can tell you that…it’s about a kid who desperately wants to learn magic and a teacher who desperately doesn’t want to teach him. It’s about losing everything you ever wanted and it’s about the end of the world and it is about an empty house that was supposed to be a home and strangers who were supposed to be family. It’s about alternate universes. It’s about the most supernaturally suspicious man in the universe. It’s about a kid detective. It’s about magic working like bastardized American contract law. It’s about how I think there should be more women who are terrible wizards. It’s about me losing my mind in November and having a quarter-life crisis and deciding I had to write a novel before I turned twenty-six or else what even was it all for? It’s kind of about being twenty-six, and also, about being fourteen. It’s about a teal Mazda. It’s about playing Go Fish five million times with the personification of Death.
It is a very serious story about grief.
ISABEL J. KIM is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s either attempting a legal career or co-hosting Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture—both equally noble pursuits. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the host of Electric Sheep SF. Her work has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton), Best Small Fictions, Best Indie Speculative Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and MicroPodcast’s special science fiction edition. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. Connect with Myna on Twitter @MynaChang.