For his debut book, Bustle editor Stephan Lee delved into the world of music with his young adult novel, “K-Pop Confidential” (Point, $9.99). “I interviewed friends of friends who’d gone through the K-pop trainee system, watched documentaries and read first-hand accounts,” said Lee, who had previously been an editor at Entertainment Weekly. “I used the research, but I also used my imagination to round out the world and put myself in the trainees’ shoes. Western media often exoticizes the K-pop trainee system. But I think there’s something universal about young people being put in extremely competitive environments, no matter where they’re from. Reading stories about competitive cheerleaders or Olympic athletes or kids in academic cram schools were actually very helpful in putting me in that intense mindset.” The New York-based author stays in touch with readers via Twitter (@stephanmlee) and Instagram (@stepephan).
Q: On one of your trips to Seoul, you interviewed filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who would later win several Academy Awards for “Parasite.” Did that trip help with background material for “K-Pop Confidential”?
A: I was able to use so much of that (trip’s) research for this book. Entertainment Weekly sent me on a three-week trip to research the rise of Korean entertainment. Often at EW, all it takes to get an American A-lister to do an interview is a quick email, but for this article, EW bought my plane ticket and said, “Good luck!” as far as finding interview subjects. It was a challenge, but I ended up interviewing some amazing singers, actors, writers, executives and, of course, Bong Joon-Ho.
Q: Your novel’s teenage protagonist, Candace, is full of dreams. Where do you think she would want to travel to and why?
A: Before going to Korea to train, Candace had never been out of the (United States), because her parents are saving every extra dollar for college. But she’s seen a lot of rom-coms and probably wants to visit classically romantic cities like London and Paris. After Seoul, she definitely wants to visit Tokyo and Singapore.
Q: What was the first trip you took as a child?
A: I’m from Atlanta and we were a big road trip family. I have so many memories of being stared at as the only Asian people in Cracker Barrels all over Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee. My first international trip was when I was 10. My family hosted the officials of the Korean Women’s Handball Team at our house during the 1996 Olympics. We used that money to go on one of those Globus bus tours across Europe, through London, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. I remember being cranky through most of it — everyone else on that tour bus was elderly and I was too young to fully appreciate the sights. But in retrospect, I’m so grateful I had that experience early on.
Q: Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
A: I love group trips to Rhinebeck and Asbury Park, which is so kitschy and chill. I love the Pinball Museum and Madame Marie’s on the Boardwalk. I also love a spontaneous solo writing weekend in a city that’s only a short flight away, like Columbus, Charlotte or Fort Lauderdale. Changing your scenery, even for a few days, can really jumpstart your writing.
Q: Do you speak any foreign languages?
A: Spanish was always my best subject in school. Tooting my own horn, I always won the departmental awards. I’m legit embarrassed that I’m still proud of this.
Q: What are your five favorite cities?
A: Seoul, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Madrid.
Q: Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?
A: Mexico City, which is one of the trips I had to cancel due to the pandemic! Hope to eat at Pujol and go to the Museum of Anthropology, for sure!
Q: When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?
A: Umbrella, a device loaded with an entire season of a Netflix series and big carry-on luggage. I like packing my clothes perfectly, Marie Kondo-style.
Q: What is your guilty pleasure when you're on the road?
A: Bad movies. I’m an entertainment junkie, so whenever I’m on a plane, it’s almost like I’m in a race against myself to see if I can watch two airplane movies in the course of a three-hour flight.
Q: What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?
A: When I was 22 and broke, I went to Paris by myself. I booked a terrible hostel and almost missed my flight. But my first night there, I met a guy named Sacha at the Open Cafe. I promptly canceled my hostel and stayed with him in his apartment overlooking the Louvre for the whole week and saw all of Paris from the back of his scooter. On my last night, Sacha and his friends gave me a goodbye dinner. It’s a trip I’d never tell my mother about, but it was the most movie-perfect trip I’ve ever had! Worst (was when) I went to Rio de Janeiro with a few friends. The city was incredible, but nothing went right. On our last day, we got carsick while winding through tight roads while we were looking for a secluded beach, which we never found, so we went to a touristy beach instead. There was a strong breeze and a beach umbrella snapped in half and thwacked me right in the face. I came home with a long, pole-shaped bruise from my cheekbone down to my neck. I don’t trust beach umbrellas to this day.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at www.jaehakim.com. You may also follow “Go Away With…” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)
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