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Maurene Goo on Writing Relatable Characters and her Enduring Love of K Dramas

by Brendan Dowling on February 28, 2018

Maurene Goo’s effervescent I Believe In A Thing Called Love centers around Desi, a phenomenally talented high school senior whose one weakness is her disastrous interactions with the opposite sex. Determined to have a romantic relationship before she graduates high school, Desi turns to her beloved K Dramas for inspiration. Armed with a list of K Drama tropes to serve as guidance, Desi sets her sights on Luca, the dreamy new transfer student with a mysterious past. What follows is both a hilarious romantic comedy but also a sweet tribute to the powerful bonds high school students have with their friends and parents. I Believe in a Thing Called Love earned starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was named one of The Best Books for Teens 2017 by the New York Public Library. Goo spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on February 15th, 2018.

For readers who might not be familiar with K dramas, can you talk about why they were the ideal engine for your story? 

The easiest comparison people are familiar with are telenovelas. I wouldn’t call K Dramas soap operas—that’s not really accurate—because they have all sorts of different genres. They’re not continuous for years, like soap operas are. They’re serialized, almost like a miniseries, and they have a rich history in Korea of being really melodramatic. So the word drama is the key word for describing K drama.

But K Dramas have definitely evolved—obviously like a lot of different art and entertainment—over time. They’ve become really creative. Although they’ve changed and been updated as far as being a little less tropey and a little less clichéd, they have all these building blocks that are very similar to what they’ve always been. I would say that the common thread is that they’re just highly addictive. They follow this classic romcom/romance trope that you find in all cultures, except that they’re unabashedly embracing it all the time.

I took notes on the tropes and they became the skeleton of my book, but the inspiration was that I grew up watching K dramas with my parents. I always thought they were silly; I was this cynical, critical teenager. As I got older I realized when I was homesick, I felt myself attracted to K dramas. So fast forward many years and I was working on another book, and I just thought there was something I could do with K dramas. It’s such a rich storytelling source of inspiration. I had also been in YA for a little by then and saw the overlap between the two fandoms. There are so many common feelings between YA readers and K drama watchers. It was really fun to bring those two together.

It seems that for fans of K dramas they’re going to love your book in a certain way, but for people who don’t know about them, your book is the perfect gateway for K Dramas.

I’m equally pleased by reactions from both kinds of readers. When people are like, “Oh my God, I recognized every K drama,” because I actually use real titles in there as my kind of Easter Egg for K drama people. I wanted it be fun for fans to know what my reference level is. I also love it when people who have zero interest in K dramas say, “Oh, I was just interested. I don’t really know what K dramas are, but it sounded fun.” And then I get a lot of messages that are like, “Oh great, now I’m obsessed, what have you done?” So it’s really been a great experience to see who gravitates towards the book.

It seems like it would be very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of K Drama, not only with the ones mentioned in your book, but also in your recommended list at the end.

That was fun for me too. I worked with the two ladies who run dramabeans, which is a K drama website. They helped me so much. I just wanted to make sure I got my representations of K drama and the fandom correct. Even though I’ve been watching them my whole life, I’m just not as well versed as to how the new ones are positioned in pop culture. So any time I had questions about certain K dramas, they would answer it, and they helped me think of that starter list too.

Desi’s relationship with her father is one of the highlights of the novel, where she swings between being his best friend to acting like a “helicopter daughter.” What went into creating this relatable and complex relationship?

Because K dramas were my inspiration, it was a given that one of her parents had to be dead. She had to have a tragic background. A lot of times the main women are orphaned or only have one parent. What I‘ve really loved in a few K dramas that I’ve seen in recent times are really strong father daughter relationships. Answer Me, 1997 was one of my favorite K dramas. It’s a coming of age teenage story which I thought was done super well, where the heroine has a very sweet relationship with her dad. The thing with Korean dramas in general I think, is the relationships between parents and kids are so different. Even if they’re sweet, they’re not like, “we’re best friends and we tell each other everything.” It’s always a little fraught. There’s always a lot of yelling, but then it’s all rooted in a lot of love and maybe they don’t know how to show it to each other.

And I relate to it too with my own dad. I figured okay, that’s Desi’s tragic backstory, her mom passed away when she was little. So what kind of relationship would a girl like Desi have with her dad?  She would feel a lot of responsibility because he’s widowed. My first book, Since You Asked, dealt a lot with the angst of kids and their parents with the cultural and generational gap between immigrant parents and their kids. I think that’s a very important story to tell, but I felt like I told that story. In this book I wanted a relationship where the dad and the daughter could really talk to each other and care about each other openly.

Her dad was the easiest character. He just came to me. He’s kind of my dad and a lot of other Korean dads I know mixed with the idea of this awesome, caring, sweet guy. Their relationship was the easiest part of the book. I knew from the beginning what their dynamic was. I feel it’s the heart of the book, more so than her love story with Luca.

Desi operates from a list of common K drama tropes to win over Luca. What were the challenges of writing a character who always tries to manipulate a situation yet not make her appear manipulative?

Right. There’s that fine line between “this is endearing and wacky and loveable” and “oh my gosh, what’s wrong with you?” What’s interesting is for the most part people relate to Desi. I got a note from one of my early readers, a YA writer Kara Thomas, and she said, “I really like Desi but you’ve got to make her undeniable so that you’re with her through these antics, because they’re totally off the wall.”

My first version I was very much focused on the plot and all the wacky things she was going to do. It was almost slapstick. I think it would work in a TV sitcom, but with YA readers, no matter what age they are, they want to relate and connect to the characters. The character doesn’t have to be exactly like them, but as an author you have to give something to the reader that shows the vulnerability and where the character’s coming from. I think that’s’ true with a lot of good fiction, right?  You can have characters do awful things, but you make them relatable or have some kind of backstory that makes their actions, even if it’s not excusable, understandable.

In this case Desi’s not a villain, but you also don’t want her to seem so out there that you can’t follow her or support her on her journey. That was a fine balance. In the end, the big thing was to make her very vulnerable and likable to the reader. So I thought of myself as a teenager and all my insecurities. I wanted her to be this driven, secure, confident girl, but like any teenager going through puberty and figuring yourself out, you have to have this vulnerability. For her, it’s romance, which I feel like a lot of teens can relate to. You watch all these stories and you think you’re supposed to have this great romance, but you’re sixteen and feel like a loser! (laughs) So I really wanted her to have that side, and I think that made people connect to her as well.

From the outside, she has everything going for her and there are a lot of aspects where she is really secure.

I made sure to have people call her out so that it doesn’t seem like she’s living in this fantasy world where people think that whatever she’s doing is okay. Her friends, Fiona and Wes, are constantly checking in, like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Even when Luca finds out, he says, “You are literally insane.” I have a lot of moments where she can see herself from the outside, where she thinks, “What am I doing?” But she keeps doing it because she’s thinks, “I’ve got to finish.” That suits her personality right? “It’s okay, as long as I follow through on this, it’s going to be fine.” That was important too, that the reality of the situation was reiterated to the reader. “Yes, don’t worry, we all know this is nuts.” (laughs)

Desi’s navigates different class systems throughout the novel and at one point she says, “I think the most redeeming part of California is that there’s a spirit of true meritocracy here that’s absent in older parts of the country.” What about California, and Orange County in particular, makes it the perfect setting for your novel?

I was born and raised in LA. I love California so much. I remember looking at that line thinking, “This sounds like a thirtysomething lady, AKA me, suddenly entered Desi’s body.” But I felt that way even as a kid, because I grew up in a very diverse suburb of LA. I felt like I was exposed to all sorts of people growing up. It wasn’t just rich kids and middle class kids, it was all types of kids from all over the world. I felt really lucky.

I don’t think California is perfect by any means. I’m sure there are a lot of people being oppressed here and not getting a fair shake. But I just feel like maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the location on the coast with access to all of Asia coming in and the strong immigrant communities here, that makes it different. For example, you can go to the fanciest restaurant in LA in a sweatshirt. My husband directs movies and he wears shorts and sandals to meetings with producers. I feel like people here are judged on what they do and their ideas. No one cares about your family. I feel like in the East Coast, that’s still a thing in certain classes. That said, there are a lot of wealthy people here in California. There’s definitely segregation and classes in Los Angeles.

Orange County is interesting because it’s very conservative—a lot of people would call it a cookie-cutter, stifling environment. But I have a lot of friends who grew up in Orange County and I think that being a teenager there is very interesting because it’s such a blank canvas of landscape. It’s almost like growing up in a small town anywhere in the U.S.

It just feels like teenagers’ lives become very focused on school and their friends. Some people might think Orange County is glamorous because of Laguna Beach, that old TV show, but the most glamorous things are the beach, people have money, and maybe everybody looks a little healthier. (laughs) It’s pretty much a suburb. I wanted my book to take place where the setting was not actually a big character, where it felt safe and where teenagers could roam around and be free.

My friends who grew up in Orange County had such teenager lives. They hung out in the Del Taco parking lot, they went to the beach in the middle of the night, all of these things that if you set it in New York or LA wouldn’t be possible. I wanted to give the book this teenage freedom feeling and I felt like Orange County would be a good backdrop for that.

Can you talk about the book title? I assume it’s taken from The Darkness song, which doesn’t play a part in the book, but whose lyrics are very evocative of what happens in the story.

I was trying to think of a title that was indicative of Desi’s unwavering belief in herself and her ability to find love in this wacko manner. I also wanted the title to feel a little bit romantic. I wanted the word love in it. The title for this book was a very hard one because at first I really wanted a wacky title that sounded like a K Drama title. K Drama titles are hilarious: It’s Okay, That’s LovePass the Cuter Princess; and Oh My Ghostess. Just these kind of weird, not quite correct English grammar titles.

The Darkness song came to me because it’s just one of my favorite songs. It’s a song that for me is joyous. You feel good when you hear the title, you feel good thinking about the song, and you feel good the second you hear those first notes. I thought it was perfect because I wanted that feeling when people thought of the book.

This is a very happy book. I’m not going to pretend it’s angsty or particularly difficult. It’s really what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a really happy romcom about a Korean American teenage girl who’s really bad with guys. (laughs) The title just suited the mood.

And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?

I grew up in Glendale, California, which is an LA suburb. I didn’t love reading as a teeny kid, but when I was introduced to The Babysitter’s Club in the third grade, I became a voracious reader and read everything.

We didn’t have a ton of money, and my parents certainly never indulged me with toys, but they always indulged me with books. At a certain point I was reading them so quickly, so we would go to the library. Our library in Glendale was huge and it had a wonderful kids section and I’d be like “See you later!” and go upstairs. (laughs) My mom was pretty cool about letting me get as many books as I wanted, because I would finish all of them within two days.

It was also where I hung out as a teenager because it was one of the places my mom didn’t hate me hanging out with my friends. If we said we’re hanging out at the library, it was our safe space. The library was very cool with teenagers spending hours there after school and we would spread out and work.

It was also where I discovered a lot of books that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I would peruse all of these adult books that I wouldn’t have checked out at a bookstore because I felt this freedom of “I can try out things.” I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye when I was so young, and I probably shouldn’t have! (laughs) But I remember librarians were never judgmental of my selections; they were happy that I was reading. I’m sure they thought, “Okay, The Bluest Eye. Good luck with that!” (laughs)

I also discovered romance novels, which I was too embarrassed to ever buy or tell people I was getting at the time. Until recently, I never gave credit to the role of romance novels in my life. I studied literature and went to grad school for publishing. I’ve read all the stuff that literary snobs read, and I love it, but at the same time I ignore the fact that since I was in high school, I’ve always had romance novels somewhere.

I write YA now, and I have these kids fall in love, where do you think I learned how to write a good love story? It was K Dramas and romance novels. It’s not from reading Richard Yates. (laughs) He helped me in other ways, but my stories have their heart from the Judith McNaught books I read when I was young. I always think of how the libraries opened up all these books that I wouldn’t have had access or exposure to.

As I’ve grown older, I still love buying books, but I always get a library card even if I don’t end up going to the library that much. It’s the first thing I do when I move somewhere. Suddenly you’re part of a community, and that little part of the community is connected to this bigger thing that’s universal to me, which is reading. It’s just really wonderful.

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