Frances Cha has been perfecting her writing for what seems like her whole life. She spent her youth, in which she travelled between the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea, devouring novels, then studied English Literature and Asian Studies in university and creative writing for her MFA. She wrote for The Atlantic and The Believer, and was a travel and culture editor for CNN. Even now, on the cusp of the release of her much-anticipated debut novel, Cha spends her spare time dissecting the sentences of the books she loves to better see how they work.
Her lifetime of experience shows in If I Had Your Face, a sharply observed novel from the perspectives of four Korean women in Seoul undergoing the complex pressures of transcending the tribulations of daily life. Ahead of its release this week, we asked Cha about her literary lifetime, and she responded with stories of Agatha Christie’s deft love scenes, awards shows in waterparks, and the book that made her fall off the couch laughing.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
This always changes, but the past year, I would say Elizabeth Strout. The first ten times I read her books, I just enjoyed them, and now I’m really trying to dissect them. Her sentences are so beautiful, I could stare at them forever. I got into her with Olive Kitteridge, and then I went back and read all of her backlist. With My Name Is Lucy Barton and Olive, Again, she just blew me away.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I used to work at a children’s science museum in college, and I would just stuff mailers and stick stamps on them for hours and hours and hours. The second one, I worked as a reporter, like a television reporter for a K-pop awards show, in Seoul, that was in a waterpark. Those are the top two!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
This is more of a collection, but whenever I go home to Korea for the summer, I reread my entire Agatha Christie collection, which is about 65 of her books. I think she wrote 80. I read her for her humour. Since I know who the murderer is already, since I’m reading them for the 17th time, I just enjoy reading her funny sense of humour.
She also does love scenes really well, in a way that’s not cloying or cliched. I love getting inspiration from her books in way that maybe most of her readers do. I look for advice on craft from her. She does pain from love really well, but it’s always interspersed with her wry humour.
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
In Ann Patchett’s book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, she has a part about writing. I think that has always been my go-to; I reread that essay over and over. There are three main takeaways. The first is don’t be precious with your work. It’s about how freelance writing really helped her get over herself. When an editor cuts your best lines, it’s very painful, but I’ve also been in the daily news industry, and they always cut your best lines, so I’m very used to that. It still stings, but I get over it faster.
That applies in fiction, too. I’m not precious about cutting. I cut an entire narrator [from If I Had Your Face]; there are four narrators now, who have equal weight in the book, and there were five. I cut out a fifth of the book with my editor after reading Ann Patchett.
Her second piece of advice that I love to follow is not to jump around in time when you’re writing. Just write it in the order that the book will be read. When I jump around, I always mess up. I’ve already set out my plot, and I’m going to mess it up if I try to change it as I go along. Finally, the third is: time applied equals work completed. So much of writing is actually just being in despair about writing, not actually writing. Just write your crap and accept it!
What makes you most happy?
Travelling without children.
What’s your biggest regret?
That I don’t have videos or letters or emails saved from my late father. He died before smartphones were a thing.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
A sunny, silent room with a view of a river or the sea. It has to be stocked with lots of books, food, tea and coffee.
...and your ideal reading one?
This is more wishful thinking, but my happy place is an island in the Maldives. I went there once, and whenever my kids are screaming in my ear, or I’m despairing about my writing, I close my eyes and go “I’m in the Maldives without you.” I’m curled up in the shade, just listening to the waves, and I’ve got a book next to me.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Love Poems for Married People by John Kenney. Every single poem made me laugh so hard I fell off the couch. I had my camera ready when I gave it to my husband to read, and when he fell off the couch laughing so hard, I took a photo. He has another one coming out called Love Poems for Anxious People, and I can’t wait. He’s so funny.
What inspired you to write your book?
Growing up, I didn’t expect or even want… I had no concept of a book about people like me. By me I mean an Asian in Asia, written in English. The closest I got was The Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans, and they were both Chinese, and I’m Korean. But I would just read both books to absolute tatters.
As I grew older, I wanted to write a book set in Korea. I just felt like a lot of the Western world have a very fixed view of Korea, and if you asked, ‘Who are the most famous Koreans?’ to someone in America, for example, it would probably be Kim Jong-Un. I’ve done this many times, and Kim Jong-Un isn’t even South Korean, he’s North Korean. The second would Choo Shin-soo, who’s a baseball player in the States, and the third would be Moon Sun Myung, this crazy cult leader I hadn’t even heard of until I was in the States, and people were talking about ‘Moonies’.
That’s such a weird set of facts to know about Korea, and it doesn’t reflect anything of the life I know. When I started working for CNN in Korea, and I would cover culture, it was always very interesting to me that Western readers would respond to it with such fascination, because Korea’s such a futuristic country. The way they responded to the coronavirus shows the futuristic way they think, as a country. I really wanted to set a book there, and delve into characters who could only be from the modern landscape of Seoul. That was my inspiration.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is out now.