Crystal Hana Kim on Writing as a Mother, the Korean Diaspora, and How to Structure a Page-Turner

I first met Crystal Hana Kim at Women and Children First Bookstore in Chicago in 2017 for a book event, just after she won the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She greeted me with warm enthusiasm and we spoke about Korean history.

Her debut novel, If You Leave Me, set in Korea in the 1950s, was published the following year. She was a Five Under Thirty-five recipient from the National Book Foundation in 2022. She now lives in New York City, she grew up, and has just published her much anticipated second novel.

The Stone Home is about a little-known community of Koreans forced into a government reformatory in the 1980s. Years later in 2011 a survivor of this institution is confronted by a young Korean American woman from the United States who is searching for answers to secrets her father never shared.

I had a chance to meet Kim over Zoom as she balanced caring for her young family and preparing for her book tour. We talked about her initial doubts, the themes she’s drawn to, and the writing process that keeps her excited about her work.

Jimin Han


Jimin Han: The existence of an institution like the Stone Home is such a hidden piece of Korean history. What were your initial feelings about writing about it?

Crystal Hana Kim: As a writer who has strong ties to Korea, who grew up going to Korea a lot to visit family, there’s still a distance that’s not only geographic, but cultural too. My first novel was set during the Korean War, which I did not experience, but which I had heard about all my life from family members. With my second, I thought I would inch closer to the present, to an experience that’s more similar to my own as a Korean American.

As a part of the diaspora, I want to carefully think about how I’m engaging with subject matter, especially when it comes to real-life atrocities.

But I’ve found that as a writer, I enjoy looking back at history in order to understand our present condition. As a part of the diaspora, I want to carefully think about how I’m engaging with subject matter, especially when it comes to real-life atrocities.

JH: So you have Narae at the start of the book, the character who grows up in the United States, asking about her family origins.

CHK:  Yes, Narae’s of the diaspora, so she’s a way into the novel for us. Through her narrative, which is set in 2011, I could show the repercussions of these institutions. She’s able to examine the larger political landscape in a way that the characters within it can’t.

Originally, my first draft had two alternating narrators: Sangchul in 1980 and Narae in 2011. Narae’s whole narrative was just her quest to learn more about her father, but I realized that she needed to have a smaller role, which is why I relegated her to the frame of the novel. I needed a foil within the Stone Home to be on a parallel but diverging track from Sangchul. That’s how I came up with Eunju who really, to me, is the heart of the novel.

JH: Eunju and Sangchul are such complex characters. As young teenagers, they both felt so much responsibility and had to maneuver through all sorts of alliances.

CHK: This question of alliance, and how we hold onto the ones we love was something I wanted to explore in this book. My first novel examines the limits of romantic love. For my second novel, I wanted to explore sibling love, friendship love, love for your community, and how they can carry you through.

JH: Another way that the book was a page-turner for me was the structure. You’ve got short chapters, you utilize first person and third person point of views, and two timelines. How did you make decisions about that?

CHK: The Stone Home is looking at such an important part of not only Korean history, but our universal history. I wanted to help the reader look at and learn about and consider these characters’ lives, even with its difficult subject matter. Super short chapters was a way to keep the reader engaged. The alternating first and third perspectives were really important to me. Another theme that I’m always interested in, and that comes up in both my books, is this idea of storytelling, how there can be multiple truths based on who is telling the story.

JH: Yes, I love that. Totally comes through. In terms of how Sangchul and Eunju and everyone in the home were treated–the brutality was so harrowing. I was so surprised that there weren’t more security guards to enforce the rules that kept them captive in the Stone Home.

Between the first book and the second, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, which I think changed everyone’s relationship to time and health. I also had two kids.

CH: Something that I thought was really interesting was that not only in these institutions in Korea, but in other instances of this sort of oppression, in Nazi concentration camps or in First Nations boarding schools or the Dozier School for Boys, these institutions create a culture where it benefits the imprisoned to turn against one another, to oppress their peers. I wanted to examine our human compulsion to protect ourselves. I also wanted to contrast it with characters who form community and find strength in collective stability.

JH: Let’s talk about your title. It’s so inviting, that word “home,” but it’s a shocking contrast to what the place actually was in your book. How did you come up with it? Was it always going to be “The Stone Home?”

CHK: No, I find titles so difficult. That’s always the last thing I come up with. I wanted to play with this idea of home. What is home? Where and who do we call home? In the novel itself I wanted to mirror the name of the Brothers Home, which is the real-life institution in South Korea my novel’s institution is based on.

It always struck me as interesting that a place of such brutality had the word “home” in its name. I wanted to contrast that false comfort with the idea of stone, which is something that evokes hardness, coldness, but can also be something that endures.

JH: I was on a panel at the last AWP Conference on the challenges of the second novel. How was it for you to write a second book?

CHK: The sophomore novel can feel daunting. My life, personally, has changed so much. Between the first book and the second, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, which I think changed everyone’s relationship to time and health. I also had two kids. The time I can devote to writing feels even more precious and important to my mental and emotional well-being.

In the end though, with this second book, I knew no matter how difficult it was, no matter how far away a full draft felt, no matter how hazy the path forward, I had a sense in my gut that I would be able to finish a book I would be proud of one day. So, even though the daily writing was difficult, and I had new constraints as a mother, I felt in my core that I would reach this point.

JH: Was your process the same in how you wrote both novels?

CHK: The first and second book were similar in that I had to write my way to find the form. My first drafts are quite exploratory, I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to write, because I’m writing to figure out basic questions like: Is this the right narrator? There are a lot of pages that have to be tossed out. Sometimes I wish I was a planner, an outliner, because it would make that initial drafting process easier.

JH: I’m like you, I have to write a lot to find my way. Those planners are lucky. The name of that AWP panel was “Unlearning What We Learned Just Now.” With The Stone Home, was there anything that you had to unlearn to write it?

CHK: I would say my relationship to time had to be unlearned. I had a good amount of it in graduate school and then after graduate school, I got a nonprofit job, which I enjoyed, but my main focus was the book. That was what I did on the weekends and evenings, and that was the great propeller of my life.

Then, with the second book, I had one kid in the summer of 2020, when we were all shut down with the pandemic, and another kid in 2023. So my sense of time that I have for myself definitely changed. I had to unlearn some habits.

For example, with my first book I thought I needed long stretches of time. I needed a candle lit, I needed my crystals, I thought I needed specific conditions to write. With my second novel, I realized I didn’t need any of that. I just needed a laptop, and maybe like an hour, you know? I learned how to focus with smaller amounts of time.

JH: Yes, I can see that. It’s amazing though that you were still able to write a second book with so much change in your life. You’ve also received numerous awards and recognition for your work while all this was going on. How have they impacted your relationship to writing?

CHK:  You know, when I’m writing, I really try not to think of outside expectations. I’m more focused on my relationship to the characters, and how I can make it the best possible story it can be. If I was thinking about audience expectation, that would really stymie me.

As a writer, I want to continually become better at my craft. I want to challenge myself. With my first book, the timeline spanned sixteen years. There were five narrators, and it was kind of sprawling in that way. For the second book, I wanted to confine the story to one year and keep the narrative mostly in one location, within the institution, so I could build up pressure.

I try to create these craft challenges to make the writing interesting to me. We can’t control the whims of the publishing industry, right? But I can control the quality of my work.

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