Expect the unexpected from Soon Wiley’s highly anticipated debut book, When We Fell Apart

Cold Tea Collective spoke with Wiley Soon, author of When We Fell Apart about the process of writing his debut book, teaching, and the weirdness of writing.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL STORY

Author and teacher Soon Wiley is aware that his debut novel is unusual.

“There’s an irony of a biracial author writing a character that doesn’t fit into categories in a book that also doesn’t fit categories,” he said.

His debut novel, When We Fell Apart, zips between two different voices connected but separated by death. While toggling between timelines and characters, the novel blends aspects of a mystery novel with literary fiction influences. And in doing so, it’s caught the attention of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, as well as praise from the literary community.

Set mostly in the vibrant city of Seoul, the two lead characters Min and Yu-jin’s perspectives weave together into an entertaining yet introspective ride. Cold Tea Collective spoke with Wiley about the process of writing the book, teaching, and the weirdness of writing.

PULLING FROM TEACHING

“At my job, for a while, I didn’t tell anyone that I was writing a book,” Wiley admitted. 

During the seven years of working on When We Fell Apart, Wiley worked (and still does) as an English teacher. Now with the novel finally hitting the bookshelves, he feels weird about his students learning about the book.

“I didn’t feel like an author; I felt like a teacher,” he said. But being an English teacher has its quirks. While in Washington DC, Wiley taught the same texts from the Western literary canon. But over the years, he picked up elements from the texts as a writer rather than a reader. 

Wiley adapted some of these traits into his own writing. The blend of his voice along with what he pulled from his teaching material caught the literary world’s attention. Critically acclaimed author Alexander Chee praised When We Fell Apart as “the most compelling debut novel I’ve read in years.”

But Wiley wasn’t always set to be a writer.

See also: Defining identity beyond a passport and ethnicity

WHAT MAKES A WRITER?

“I feel like I was in denial of wanting to write,” Wiley admitted. He traced the beginning of his writing journey from high school study hall to beating boredom while studying abroad in Germany. He started writing (subjectively) later, only taking a creative writing class in his senior year of undergraduate studies. Afterwards, Wiley pursued a Master’s in Fine Arts.

Still, even after finishing his second degree, Wiley didn’t feel like a writer. He partly thinks it’s because the days of being only a writer are gone. For Wiley, his main job is being a high school English teacher, and it’s more instinctive to introduce himself with his main 9-5 occupation title. 

But there are some things that he feels are universal for writers. 

“Most writers feel weird for whatever reason,” he said. “Almost every writer talks about being on the outside looking in. I happened to be biracial and with a weird name, and that was my introduction to not being like everyone else.” 

Soon Wiley

And it wasn’t just standing out; he also didn’t see characters like him in books. None of the books from his Master’s of Fine Arts days featured an Asian character–not to mention biracial characters. And before writing When We Fell Apart, his characters were predominantly straight and white, and he didn’t like them. More specifically, they didn’t feel particularly honest. 

But it’s a nuanced space to navigate. Must Wiley only write biracial characters? That also felt limiting to confine an author to their experiences and background. For a while, he pushed against the expectation of writing about himself until he read a quote from Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

With that writing approach in mind, Wiley began a new story that became When We Fell Apart, which led him to create Min, a character with whom he shared the most similar experiences.

See also: Celebrating Korean diaspora joy with Made In Korea author Sarah Suk 

WORKING BACKWARDS: THE PROCESS

Wiley quickly admitted that he isn’t an avid mystery reader or writer. The final version of When We Fell Apart came only after literally pulling the story apart several times and several iterations. He recalled being at a writing residency with the pages printed out and trying to fit the chapters and dual perspectives together. 

“It felt like stuffing an octopus into a box,” he said with a laugh. 

At first, Wiley was obsessed with the idea of someone losing a partner that they’re romantically involved with–but not in love with. From there, he set the story in Seoul, a city he previously lived in, five years before he started writing When We Fell Apart

Sinchon at night time

He then needed a character who would see the vibrant city through a unique lens and landed on Min, a biracial character who’s literally in between cultures. In the trenches of book writing, Wiley plowed on, whipping up a plot, a cast of characters that aren’t what they seem, and a handful of potent secrets.

When We Fell Apart whisks readers from business meetings with bizarre presentations to pojangmachas (food tents) and hidden chaotic areas of Seoul. Its colourful cast of misfits wrestles with questions of belonging, home, and identity while simultaneously trying to unearth the truth behind Yu-jin’s death. 

Only afterwards, at a crucial scene towards the end, Wiley realized that there was a diaspora angle to his story. He didn’t set out to write a book that explored themes like identity and home, but as he followed his characters, the themes repeatedly came up. Wiley wrote through them frankly and clearly, not avoiding potentially awkward topics as the characters tried to understand themselves and each other. 

The result was a book that is a mystery, a coming-of-age story, and a diaspora story, or something like that. Like the main character Min, the author, doesn’t fit into clear categories either. “The book has become a metaphor for me,” Soon Wiley says, amused as he reflects on When We Fell Apart

Get a copy of When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley here (US) and here (CA). Soon Wiley is also on tour in the United States.

Feature image from soonwiley.com.

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