Q&A with alumna Angie Kim, author of "Miracle Creek"
The award-winning author reflects on her own life experiences that shaped her debut novel.
Interlochen alumna Angie Kim (IAA 1984-87) didn’t set out to be an author. Yet, her 2019 debut novel Miracle Creek rocked the literary world. It was named a “Best Book of the Year “ by TIME, The Washington Post, Kirkus, and The Today Show, among others. It won the ITW Thriller Award, the Strand Critics’ Award, and the Pinckley Prize. Kim herself was named one of Variety Magazine’s “10 Storytellers to Watch.”
“I gave a masterclass at Interlochen and I was laughing with the creative writing teachers because I never took a creative writing class at Interlochen! I didn’t consider myself a writer,” said Kim. “I was always an avid reader, but I didn't even start with creative writing until I was in my 40s.”
It was her own personal experiences as a Korean immigrant and a mom struggling with rare medical diagnoses that led her to creative writing.
We were able to chat with Kim in the midst of working on her second novel, due out in 2024.
What was your path to Interlochen?
I was a Korean immigrant. I came to the Baltimore area as a middle schooler. I'm an only child and had a really hard time in middle school due to not speaking the language and feeling like an outsider. So when I was a high school freshman, I really wanted to go somewhere that I could actually do the things that I love. I wanted a fresh start. It was the idea of remaking yourself when you've had a traumatic experience, as all of middle school was for me. I just started researching performing arts schools because I was really taken with the idea of going to a school like Fame. It was one of my favorite TV shows. My parents didn't even know about my application; I actually forged their signature on the application form. I put an audition tape together, sent it in, and I got a scholarship. I presented it to my parents as a fait accompli. They refused to let me go at first, but I did come as a sophomore.
You stayed at Interlochen for three years, graduating as a three-year senior. Did your parents’ opinion of Interlochen change over the course of that time?
They never saw Interlochen until my graduation, but they loved the idea of it and they loved that I became a much happier person.
You went on to attend Stanford, Harvard Law School, and you are a former trial attorney. What was your path to creative writing?
I was a lawyer, and I left that pretty quickly. I realized that I hated law; the only part that I really loved was being in the courtroom, and it’s not very often that you get to do that. I think I went into law because I was a drama major at Interlochen and I really wanted to do theatre. This was in the 80s, and at that time, Asians didn’t have many opportunities in acting. From a practical perspective, I was told it may be better to pursue something like academics. So I thought okay, a trial lawyer in a courtroom. You make all these points to the judge and to the jury. I thought the performative aspects of that were similar to acting.
I think that's what led me to be a lawyer, but I quickly realized that was not for me—so I went into business. I became a management consultant, a Dot-Com entrepreneur, and then a stay-at-home mom. Being a writer is actually my fifth career.
I started writing in my 40s because I had medical experiences with all three of my boys. They are all healthy now, but all three had really bizarre, mysterious ailments as babies. I did a lot of things like going to hospitals and dealing with insurance companies, and it was a really emotionally difficult time. I felt a need for catharsis, and I found writing to be an avenue for that. I also started writing about my experiences about being an immigrant. I wrote a lot of personal essays, which I started publishing—and then my husband pointed something out. He said the problem with publishing essays about our kids and their medical issues is that it's really their story as well as mine, and I didn’t have permission from them in some ways. He said, “Why not try fiction?” So I took some classes, and it was revelatory. It was what I had been looking for all along. It took all of my experiences and all of my strengths and my need for creativity; I felt like it was a gift.
How does Miracle Creek reflect your own life?
Miracle Creek is a literary courtroom drama about a young mother who's on trial for killing her eight-year-old son with autism. A group of people goes into a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber. There's an explosion at the beginning and some people are killed, including the defendant’s son. It's a who-done-it (or why or how), as we try to figure out who could have done such a horrific thing and why.
The people who own this hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber are a Korean immigrant family that's very similar to mine. Their teenage daughter is sort of a version of me (without having been at Interlochen). It touches on their parenting sacrifices for their daughter; what it cost them to give up their language and their country, to give up a community of people who have the same culture.
That’s juxtaposed against the parents of these patients. The parents have kids with autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD, and a variety of things for which hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used as an experimental treatment. These parents also feel like outsiders in a medical sense. I did this treatment with one of my sons for his ulcerative colitis, so I met parents like these during my own experience, and a lot of that is reflected in this novel.
The courtroom drama goes back to my first career as an attorney, and the part of the career that I loved. Writing those scenes was so fun because it was like being back in the courtroom, except I could control exactly what the witnesses said.
The story centers on a group of mothers whose kids have autism. Tell me about this community and what messages you were trying to convey in the portrayal of these families.
I was one of these parents in a sense because I did hyperbaric oxygen therapy for my son. You get to know the other families really well; many of them are now my best friends. The story reflects that community, which on the one hand is so close and so intimate, but at the same time very competitive because the stakes are so high.
One of the big things that I wanted to explore was the shameful thoughts we all have as parents, especially as mothers, when we are not enjoying every single moment of being a mom and being a full-time caretaker. How we're taught by society that we are supposed to love everything, and we feel so shameful even to admit that there are times as parents when we don’t, and we feel like outsiders.
Miracle Creek touches on the identity crisis among migrants in the United States. Talk about how that reflects your own experiences as an immigrant.
The story takes place in the late 2000s, so it’s more current than my own experience, but it talks about being in a rural setting where you’re the only family that is Yellow or Brown. Also, it touches on the difficulties of not speaking the same language as everyone else and the psychological difficulty of that from a self-esteem perspective.
The family members in the story have this very visceral reaction when they go from a place where they are smart people who are well educated, to all of a sudden being thrust into a society where they don't understand the language. And when the daughter picks up English more quickly than her parents, she is burdened with the responsibility of becoming the translator for the adults. That’s definitely something I’ve experienced myself.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
My advice is to read, read, read, read everything—regardless of genre. I believe in starting with short stories, workshopping them, getting lots and lots of feedback, taking classes, and learning about the craft of story structure and writing at the sentence level. Then learn about the submission process, send out your stories, get those inevitable rejection letters, learn to revise, and have persistence.