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Personal Essay: Debut authors know what it takes to write a book, but then what, asks Ann Y.K. Choi

JuneFrontmatter_Kays-Lucky-Coin-Variety_AuthorIn the beginning, it was quiet.

I used to write once my daughter, Claire, then seven years old, went to bed. The entire first draft of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, my debut novel, was written in semi-darkness. Somehow it felt safer to delve into the psyche of an immigrant Korean family that way. The five years that it took to complete a rough first draft passed in relative peace.

Then I met Phyllis Bruce and signed a contract with Simon & Schuster Canada, something that sent my excitement and anxiety levels soaring. I had taken courses with names like Insider’s Guide to Publishing, and had received advice and instruction on how to use social media to promote a book, but all of that came before I had signed any deal; the lessons I gleaned were entirely hypothetical. I quickly discovered there was a lot to learn, everything from how to apply for an individual taxpayer identification number, which is issued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, to how to comb through a 17-page book contract.

As aspiring writers, I think we fantasize about the moment we become published authors. But that moment can be a scary one. I have compared the move from my quiet, safe writing space into the larger literary world to my immigration to Canada from Korea. Both were filled with the challenges of unknown territories. This realization helps me understand why I feel the way I do, but does little to alleviate the ongoing anxieties.

Searching for advice, I turned to Google and raided public libraries and bookstores, looking for information on how to market my book. It became clear that I needed to start thinking like an entrepreneur and step far out of my comfort zone. My happy-go-lucky daughter – now 16 years old – saw all the wonderful possibilities that Twitter, Facebook, and a website had to offer. “They’re great ways for you to connect with your readers!” she said. She was genuinely thrilled. The students I worked with as a guidance counsellor in a Markham, Ontario, high school joined in with their ideas. As guidance counsellors, we’re trained not to share details about our private lives. How would my students react to my writing?

That I now had real readers was, for me, a happy yet daunting realization. My thoughts turned to everyone I knew: images of curious friends and family wondering if I had written about my own life – or worse, about theirs. Like many first novels, mine mirrored much of my own experiences, and my protagonist continued to leave me feeling exposed.

As well, the thought of using social media – a world practically owned by young people – to talk about myself and my work suddenly felt not only intimidating but dangerous. As teachers with the public school boards, we are constantly cautioned by the College of Teachers and our unions about the use of social media. I’ve known teachers who have had their Facebook accounts hacked and photos they’ve posted online Photoshopped by disgruntled or bored students. But now I had no choice.

Simon & Schuster Canada’s team does an incredible job of connecting its authors with marketing and promotional opportunities. I discovered that this meant everything from presenting my novel at publisher’s lunches to signing advance reader copies at conferences. Yet, for someone who is quiet and private by nature, this kind of hands-on promotion comes as a huge challenge. At the Ontario Library Association conference, I was surprised (and deeply appreciative) to find people willing to wait in line for me to sign ARCs. Some even wanted to take photos with me. But rather than enjoy these moments, I secretly worried about how my hair might look, and, yes, I thought about how Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram might spread those images to places far beyond my reach and control.

Adria Iwasutiak, my patient and just plain awesome publicist, regularly prompts me to send out tweets: “You should tell them you’re honoured and thankful,” she advises. Yes, I say, still acclimatizing to my new surroundings. My daughter suggested I Google other authors, to find out how they manage. “Talk to them,” she said, “You’re one of them now.” Good advice. Connecting with authors and hearing about their writing journeys – often filled with fears and anxieties similar to my own – has been vital to my mental health. And connecting with readers, who often share their personal histories and their love of books, is immensely gratifying. I’m reminded during these moments of why I wrote long into the night, and why I’ll continue to do so.


ANN Y.K. CHOI immigrated to Canada in 1975. She won the Marina Nemat Award from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is published by Simon & Schuster Canada.