Isle McElroy Asks Jean Kyoung Frazier “What Comes Next?”
A new quarterly interview series about debut authors working on their next book
Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel, Pizza Girl, appeared in June 2020, at a time when authors were still learning how best to reach readers in the midst of a pandemic. Despite those difficulties, the novel quickly became a critical success and a fan favorite, and a feature film based on the book is currently being produced.
Over the past two years, Frazier has built for herself the kind of career that many authors aspire to, moving from novels to screenwriting. She was a writer on A24 and Netflix’s upcoming series Beef and the new Bob Odenkirk show for AMC. Currently, she’s working on an Adult Swim animated series for Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. Before screenwriting, Frazier tended to keep her in-progress work to herself during the drafting process, but joining writing rooms has helped her bring a great sense of openness and levity to the page. She’s been working on embracing humor, on drafting fiction in a manner that feels akin to a writing room–asking herself the questions she might ask of a colleague in a writers’ room. Frazier is early into her second novel, but her intentions appear clear: a book that moves beyond the themes in Pizza Girl, that embraces lightness in humor rather than shying away in the service of producing serious art, a book that, Frazier admits, she cannot help but write.
Over Zoom, we talked about writing against past expectations, the thrill of literary equilibrium, the seriousness of humor in fiction, and the sickos who have read every single one of their Goodreads reviews (Frazier and I count ourselves among this elite class of writers).
Isle McElroy: Can you talk a little bit about what got you into writing? How’d you get there?
Jean Kyoung Frazier: Like a lot of people I started off just as a casual reader. Books were the only things my mom would buy me no questions asked. Although after a bit of begging and some subterfuge, I did manage to convince her to buy me Grand Theft Auto III for my 10th birthday. But yeah, I’ve just had books around my whole life. One of my earliest memories is sobbing in a corner as I read The Giving Tree.
I didn’t really get into fiction writing until college. The way I was raised, writing felt like a frivolous pursuit, so a big part of my journey as a writer has really just been learning to take both writing and my creativity seriously.
IM: When did you start to really take it seriously?
JKF: I think I took it seriously once I had no choice but to, once all my attempts at being a Serious Person failed. I went to college wanting to impress my mom and make lots of money, so I majored in Business. People who I meet now seem to get a kick out of the idea of me as a Business major.
IM: I’m imagining you with a little briefcase.
JKF: I did not have a little briefcase, but a lot of my classmates did! I looked so wildly out of place in all my classes. Picture me at 8 AM in PJ pants and a sweatshirt with coffee stains on my collar and Hot Cheeto dust on my sleeves as I sat down next to people in full suits who smelled amazing. This is all to say that the major was not a good fit for me and I quickly became miserable trying to make it fit.
I dropped out for a semester and during that time, genuinely considered not returning to college. During that time though, I also thought about how narrow my ideas of Success were, how up to that point, I’d just mindlessly taken already trod paths in order to spare myself pain, in order to escape loneliness and alienation. So, I didn’t drop out. I went back to college to define things on my own terms, to say fuck it to “seriousness.” As corny as it sounds, I soon found comfort in creative writing workshops.
IM: Were you writing fiction at that point or essays?
JKF: I was writing fiction. It should be noted I tried journalism in high school, and was terrible at it. My Senior year I only wrote one article. It was a 100 word review of that animated bird movie Rio, which I still have not seen to this day.
IM: What were you working on in those first fiction classes? Did it connect to the ideas you’re still obsessed with today?
JKF: In a way, yes. I’ve talked about this a little bit before. In early college, I was in the closet and completely comfortable with that. I’ve always been a private person and I just figured why does anyone need to know who I’m hooking up with? What does that have to do with my personhood? But through workshop, I was forced to see through the stories I was writing (i.e. mainly male POV) that for all my talk, there was a part of me that was ashamed with who I was. It sounds goofy, but I do think that becoming an English major helped me come out and in hindsight, it’s not shocking that coming out and being a more emotionally open person improved my fiction. After that, towards the end of my time in college, I started writing more with the intent I have today–exploring and dissecting the shit that keeps me up at night.
IM: In talking about Pizza Girl, you’ve discussed the role of withholding and how a lot of the characters are moving through what they cannot say to each other. Is that something that you’re still refining in your new work?
JKF: In theory, yes. But it’s kind of hard to say since right now, at the beginning of working on my second novel, I feel like I’m re-learning how to write. I feel none of the confidence of having a book out, but all of the baggage. The whole process of writing Pizza Girl is kind of a blur. But ultimately, that’s okay since I don’t want to write Pizza Girl again. And that requires asking different questions, I guess. Maybe that’s why I feel so newborn and fragile.
IM: I absolutely get that. I wanted my second book to be so different and when I look at the two of them, I’m like, Oh, they’re cousins. They’re not that different. But you’re still relatively early in your career, and I wonder what it looks like to write something new or try to separate yourself from earlier versions of yourself when you’re still building your voice?
JKF: I’ve been asking myself, What did I accomplish with Pizza Girl? And more importantly, what didn’t I accomplish with it and how can I remedy that with the next book?
I’m always trying to identify trends and then ask myself why that trend exists. If I had to categorize my debut, I would say it fits in with the trend of the sad young, millennial literary woman, and while I’m delighted that enough books of this kind have been published in the past several years to make this a meaty and growing genre of literature, instinctually, I always want to move away from clear, hard lines. What does that look like in practice? Still figuring it out.
Part of that for me has been leaning into the funny a bit more, embracing lightness. There’s so many miserable, friendless narrators in fiction, which makes total sense, but I don’t know, I want to see if it’s possible to write a novel rife with dramatic tension through the voice of a mostly happy, well adjusted person.
IM: You’ve talked about your surprise that people find Pizza Girl funny. And maybe what that shows is that whether or not you want to, your book is going to be funny.
JKF: Unfortunately, true. I have accepted that I’m a drama writer trapped in a comedy writer’s body. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever.
IM: You say that your first book was in the genre of sad young millennial literary woman, and that is partially decided by you but largely decided by readers and publishing. How do you continue to write beyond a genre that you seem to both willfully and unwillingly find yourself in?
JKF: Do I feel that expectation on me? Yes, I do, but I find that expectation exciting instead of limiting. If people expect one clear thing from me, great, then I already have an easy way I can surprise them in the next thing by simply doing the opposite of that.
I think in the past couple years I’ve just had to get over my personal aversion to being Funny. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to you about this, but I was named Class Clown my Senior year in high school, and even then, I was so depressed with how delighted that award made me. My esteem was so low when I was younger and my humor was intricately tied to those bad feelings–“If I can’t make people laugh, why would they want to have me around?” So, I think for a while, it was key for me to pivot away from Funny as a way to extricate my self-worth from it.
Writing Pizza Girl, I deluded myself into thinking I wasn’t going to make the book funny at all. I was serious about writing it and the serious themes within. But ultimately, I can’t help but find things funny, especially in the most serious of circumstances. One could call it a coping mechanism or the act of wrapping a Kraft single around your medication. If that’s your worldview, it’s hard to not have that infect your writing. I’ve come to terms with that for the most part and I’m just trying to enjoy myself more with this one.
IM: Maybe one of the bigger questions is why do we think that something funny is also not serious? What is the ostensible clash? And how has that been imposed on you? Is that the bigger problem–that people assume if you’re writing something funny it can’t be taken seriously?
JKF: I don’t know why that’s true and I guess right now, I’m trying not to think so deeply about that question. A more interesting question for me is why do I want so badly to be taken seriously.
IM: It could be that in literature and art there is frequently a belief that if something hurts that means it’s good. There’s an assumption that time, pain, intensity are markers of quality. That’s really not true. However, it is true that it’s difficult to write something funny on the page.
You also do screenwriting, so how does your relationship to humor appear there? There are more funny shows than there are funny books. Is it just that timing is a bit easier to pull off? How does your sense of humor shape the writing that you do outside of fiction?
JKF: Maybe jumping into screenwriting has made me more comfortable embracing humor in my fiction. The past two writing rooms I’ve been in have been comedy rooms. So it’s a lot of joke pitching and trying to create absurd scenarios.
But really, the most useful lesson I’ve gotten from a writer’s room came from one of my bosses on a Drama. He would sometimes dismiss a pitch outright because they were inherently too comedic. And to me, I always wanted to push against this and I realized it’s because I believe that deep down I could make basically anything funny. I have to believe that I could write a scene about stubbing your toe that you would make you laugh and I also have to believe that I could write that same scene and rip your fucking heart out. That mindset has been really helpful for my writing.
IM: I want to talk a little bit more about what got you into screenwriting. I know you sold the rights to Pizza Girl. Was that your access point to screenwriting?
JKF: Not exactly. In early 2019, I had just sold my book and I was moving back to L.A. for a little bit to help my mom out with her business and my agent was like, “What are you planning on doing when you get to L.A. other than helping your mom with her business?” And I told him that I was thinking of picking up a bartending job. And he was like, “You could do that, but have you ever thought about writing for TV?”
From there, I wrote a sample pilot and eventually got staffed and after having a few jobs under my belt, people were more open to the idea of letting me adapt Pizza Girl myself.
IM: Is it that there’s more air in screenwriting and that you’re talking about it with other people? Because fiction is so isolating, too. We sit in our little rooms at our desks, of course our characters are sad, they’re not seeing anybody.
JKF: That’s what makes fiction difficult, but it’s also what’s lovely about it. I’ve really enjoyed being in writers rooms, getting to bounce ideas off of other people and feeding off others’ energy, but I do miss sitting alone at my little desk.
I try not to romanticize too much, but I do genuinely think that the summer I wrote Pizza Girl was one of the best times of my life and I do believe I still would feel that way now even if the book had never been published. I had no idea how it would all turn out, but I was working on something I wholly believe in. There was just something so gorgeous and full about that summer, about bartending nights, still waking up early, seeing friends, but mostly just writing my book until I had to go back to work again. I felt net neutral. Do you know what I’m saying? Have you ever had that feeling? That you’re not taking any more than you need and you’re giving exactly what you should be giving.
IM: The closest I felt to that was before grad school when I was working a waiter job and wasn’t working as late as you but would still wake up pretty early, like 6 or 7 to write for a little bit, and then I would have a lunch shift or a dinner shift and read between them. There was a kind of equilibrium during that time. At that time in your life, did the book feel like it was totally yours? Did you talk about it while bartending or did it feel like you were living two lives?
JKF: Totally mine with absolutely no talking about it while bartending. It was definitely leading two lives, but in the most pleasurable way. I was just out of grad school so after two years of talking, talking, talking about fiction, there was something nice about being in a space where it didn’t matter who I was, only that I could do the tasks that were demanded of me.
IM: What are your superstitions around protecting your work? I haven’t been in a writing room, but I imagine it requires a different relationship to your ideas. Like you have an idea and it has to come out. I know you’re working on the second book, do you feel like it needs to be hidden?
JKF: Maybe that’s why screenwriting has been such a joy for me. I feel that protective impulse with my second book, yes. I don’t share my work with anyone until I’m done. It’s just that I’m so sensitive about my work that I feel like one bad comment would send me in a spiral and I can’t deal with that while I’m in the early stages of creating.
With TV writing I don’t feel that way because it’s really collaborative and staffing on a show is not about you, but about helping another artist achieve their vision. It’s almost like problem-solving, coming up with solutions to make that vision as sharp as possible. There’s pleasure in that, feeling almost nameless, that it’s only about the Idea. In a good room, you’re not idea counting and you feel like you’re a part of a hive mind.
IM: I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but one time we bonded over reading every single one of our Goodreads reviews. I’m curious about what led you to do that? You don’t like to share your work in process, but post-process you’re very willing to look for some feedback. Again, I’m the same way, so there’s no judgment here. We’re in this together. We both know what Linda from Cincinnati thinks of our books.
JKF: Yes, I truly care deeply about what Linda thinks.
IM: Sometimes you read Linda’s review and you’re like, She’s right!
JKF: Linda’s got some points! Maybe it comes from years of playing competitive sports, but I crave feedback Good or bad, I need to hear it. Because alone in my head, I will just make it worse.
IM: How does it shape your process moving forward? That is the scary thing, why people don’t read reviews, because it might make them nervous for the next book. But for me, there have been Goodreads reviews where I think, Yes, Linda, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about and something I wish that book would have done that I didn’t know how to do yet.
JKF: It’s similar to what I found useful about workshops in grad school, that it tests your ability to decide what you think is valuable and don’t think is valuable. There are reviews that make a good point and others I read and while I respect where they’re coming from, I just don’t agree. Being able to decide that in a near non-emotional way, I find very useful. It forces me to reevaluate my creative vision. But I’m not a saint–there are reviews that have made my blood boil. And that’s fine, that’s natural. I try to just focus on how cool it is that my book prompts discussion of any kind and also remember that the fun of consuming art is being able to talk about it. I simply chose to do so over a beer or in the privacy of a group chat, but to each their own.
Totally respect writers that don’t do it, but at least for me, it’s important that I’m constantly asking what I’m committed to artistically while also considering how an audience might react. Because vision aside, I think my writing would suffer if I lost sight of people and their feelings.
IM: That’s really important to recognize–a comment that might be right for this person could easily miss the mark on my vision for this book. But it’s something that you could incorporate if your vision should change. How have you been able to maintain that vision moving forward? Do you feel like you’ve been able to protect it for this new book?
JKF: I think I needed a break to be able to protect it, to remind myself why I want to protect it to begin with. Any time you start profiting off your creative work, you’re gonna go through a dark night of the soul moment. The idea that you can be read by anyone anywhere is beautiful, but it’s also deeply strange and exposing and then, throw money into that mix? Yeah, it fucked me up a bit.
At the end of the day though, Could I bear to not do another book? The answer for me, at least right now, is No, I couldn’t bear that. No, I could not bear Pizza Girl being the only thing that I wrote. Maybe it’s because I associate writing with personal evolution and I’d like to have a lot more personal evolution before I die.
IM: Those are the two questions that are always at play: Could I bear to write this or could I bear to not write this? Because it’s not fun to write it. No matter how great it was to work on the book while bartending, it’s still difficult to be up until 5 and wake up after only a few hours of sleep to write. That’s a lot of work.
You mentioned personal evolution–do you feel like your evolution as a person is tied to your evolution as a writer? Not in an autofiction way, but more broadly?
JKF: I’m definitely much more mentally healthy now than when I was writing Pizza Girl. In a good way, I don’t feel a rush to get the second book out. I want to be ready and I want to know exactly what I want to say. I think if you would’ve asked me, when I was eighteen, what I would do to be successful, I would’ve said, Anything. And it’s been nice to get older and find that that’s actually not true. I don’t want to win in certain ways. I want to win the way I want to win.
I think a lot about how I am more than a writer, even if I feel this compulsion to be really dedicated to my work. But I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, a partner, and I’m trying to balance all those things at once in a way that I never have before. And it feels good. So maybe that’s where the lack of rush has come from, too, and if that’s the case, I’m cool with that.