“I just wanted to publish one book,” Lyla Lee said.
Lee writes books that center on stories of Korean American protagonists. Though she now has a movie deal for her Young Adult (YA) debut and a Middle Grade (MG) series under her belt, Lee didn’t consider writing as a career until later in her life.
Cold Tea Collective got a chance to catch up with Lee during her YA debut with I’ll Be the One to talk about her journey as an author and the heart behind her books.
PSYCHOLOGY AND TUTORING FEEDING INTO WRITING
By the time she was in college, Lee already wrote five books, but just for fun. “Writing was just something I did,” she said, simply. In college, she geared up to either work in Hollywood or get a PhD in clinical psychology.
At the urging of her professors, she decided to have a gap year to earn ‘life experience’. But the gap year ended up opening up a new possibility for Lee; that summer, she signed with a publishing agent. And two years later, she sold her first book.
During those two years, Lee was a private tutor. She continues to tutor today, and her experience with students shapes her writing.
Lee’s students range from elementary students to high school and working with them has helped her toggle between the voice of a second grader and a high schooler. Her students keep her in the loop for how Mindy Kim and Skye Shin, the protagonist of I’ll Be the One, would be.
In fact, on the cover of the first book of the Mindy Kim series, Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business, Mindy’s Crocs with animal pics are inspired by one of her students.
Lee’s psychology background also informs her writing. In college, she worked in psychology labs on topics like adolescent communication behavior and mental health of people of color. In fact, before switching lanes to be an author, she considered going to grad school to help Asian Americans.
Now as a writer, she weaves mental health into her stories, to show how her characters deal with and overcome — Mindy’s dad goes through grief and depression from her mother’s passing and Skye deals with anxiety from her mother’s constant criticism.
“Through my books, I tell people it’s okay to not be okay,” she said.
A PERSONAL TOUCH
When Lee moved at a young age and was one of the only Asian kids at school, she actually started a Korean dried seaweed business, like Mindy did. And similar to Skye, Lee was fat shamed growing up and is bisexual.
Having these personal connections guided her on what stories to write. But it also meant that as an Own Voices author, she faced many rejections, saying that her stories weren’t “relatable”.
Lee is grateful to have books that are Own Voices that got published, as it’s rare. Own Voices authors are authors from a marginalized background, whether of ethnicity, sexuality, or disability, who write characters from the same background. Katie Zhao’s book The Dragon Warrior as well as Angie Thomas’ book The Hate U Give are examples of Own Voices books.
Besides being Own Voices books, Lee wrote her books in part for different versions of herself.
Growing up and constantly being the new kid, Lee made friends by connecting with other students who were fans of book series, such as The Magic Tree House series. She hopes that the Mindy Kim series will also be a bridge to connect new kids to friends.
“Mindy Kim is the friend that welcomes you at a new school, because wherever a kid goes, even if they move around a lot, Mindy will always be there at the library,” she said.
While Mindy Kim was written for elementary school Lyla, I’ll be the One was written for her high school self.
“I wrote I’ll be the One for myself, for teen Lyla. It’s a book that I would have really loved growing up, when I was going through these things,” she said.
KPOP: TO REPRESENT AND BE REPRESENTED
“Kpop was a constant presence in my life,” Lee said. “It was my way to step back into Korean culture.”
Lee always had curious ties to Kpop. In middle school, Lee’s uncle won a Korean music competition. Later, her family friend won another Kpop competition and is still currently a singer. She interviewed him to write her scenes about the competition in I’ll Be the One.
Growing up, Kpop was a soundtrack to her life. Whether it was Shinhwa in the 90’s to DBSK videos on Youtube to BTS in college, Kpop was there in the background. It made being Korean cool.
Lee also made sure that I’ll Be the One touched all parts of Kpop. It shows the diversity within Kpop fans, with a nod to Black Kpop fans, who have complex, often painful experiences in Kpop fandom spaces and also touched on people fetishizing Korean culture.
THE ASIAN LGBTQ EXPERIENCE
“I never thought there was a possibility that I was queer,” she said. She recalls in high school driving with her family past the San Francisco Pride festival and noting that it was all white people. Only in college she realized that she was bisexual and after college attended the festival herself.
Skye in I’ll Be the One already knows that she’s bi, but similar to Lee, doesn’t know anyone else who is Asian and LGBTQ, until she meets Tiffany and Lana, who are Korean lesbians.
It was important to Lee to highlight the Asian LGBTQ experience. Even as she wrote the book, she felt discouraged as there were conversations that coming out stories were too cliche.
“But then I realized that even though [they’re] common for white people, they’re not common for Asian teens and Asian characters,” she said.
FROM BOOK TO SCREEN
“When it sold in a week and at auction with publishers that formerly rejected my other books, it was wild,” she said.
But it didn’t end there. The book went on to be picked up by Nahnantchka Khan, the producer of Fresh Off the Boat and Always Be My Maybe, to be turned into a movie at HBO Max.
“I would say it’s a dream come true, but it’s not, because it wasn’t even a dream I had,” she said. And working with Khan was especially meaningful to Lee, as Fresh Off the Boat was a key inspiration for the Mindy Kim series.
Lee was part of an Asian Pacific American organization in college and watched Fresh Off the Boat with her peers, realizing that the show was monumental. Watching the show and witnessing its popularity gave Lee inspiration; if a show about an Asian American family could become popular, why not a book series?
Lee also pushed to have an Asian American screenwriter for the movie adaptation. The company had a white writer in mind, but personally knowing how hard it was for Asian Americans to rise in Hollywood, she requested that they go with an Asian writer.
As for the adaptation itself, she’s pretty lenient, especially having worked on projects that were book to movie adaptations. “As long as it captures the spirit of my book and portrays the Korean American experience, I’ll be happy with whatever they make,” she said.
Something Lee’s more excited about the book? “I’m honestly waiting for the memes to come, I want a meme page,” she said with a laugh.
The age of COVID 19 is not an ideal time to debut as an author. Without the pandemic, Lee would have been in Korea, doing research for her second book, which is set in Seoul. But now, she has several events and panels cancelled in light of the virus.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to meet a reader face to face,” Lee said.
She encourages readers to support independent bookstores during this time. She cites her independent bookstore as an example. In October, Intera Bang was hit by a tornado, then rebuilt, only to have COVID 19 put business on pause once again. Lee encourages readers to order books through options like Intera Bang rather than Amazon.
Moving forward, Lee will continue to write Mindy Kim books, as four come out per year. And her next YA book, set to come out in 2022, will be set in Seoul, this time focused on Korean dramas. It will be in the same universe of I’ll Be the One, as in having the same TV network and will feature two girls falling in love.
You can follow Lee on instagram @literarylyla and visit her website to learn more about her books. Featured image by CJ Lee on instagram @bijela.kava.photography.
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