Writer Mary H.K. Choi on Her Career, Creative Blocks, and Awesome New YA Book
It’s ironic that Mary H.K. Choi hosts a podcast called “Hey, Cool Job,”because she’s spent her entire career bopping from cool job to cool job, always somehow topping her last gig. She writes for magazines. She pens comic books (and DJ Khaled’s bio!). She weighs in on culture for Vice News Tonight on HBO. And now she’s the author of our favorite YA book of 2018, Emergency Contact. See how she does it all here.
What were you like as a teen?
When I was in private school in Hong Kong, I was popular and precocious. Total mean girl. But I was scared of everything—not being accepted, wearing the wrong thing, being socially demoted, confrontation, seeming stupid, seeming too-smart...I was a jerk in desperate need of a hug. But then my parents moved us out to Texas and I calmed down. I discovered the library, binge-watching the Food Network and the pleasures of being an indoor kid.
As an adult, what do you wish you could tell your teenage self now?
Someone said this to me once and it really resonated with me: Treat your self as you would something outside of yourself.
My entire young life and well into my twenties, I was obsessed with the future. I was constantly seeking approval from outside sources and awaiting permission to do things. The lack of agency made things way more complicated than they need to be.
How exactly did you get to where you are now, professionally?
I freaked out when I got a job to move to New York and work at Saks Fifth Avenue. I was supposed to work in their corporate buying department, but decided I’d hate that and started interning at a graffiti magazine called Mass Appeal instead. I worked there for six months for free (which I was in the incredibly privileged position of being able to do since I’d sold my car and had worked through high school). From there I was hired at XXL to be the Editor-In-Chief’s assistant.
From those two jobs I learned everything from payroll, copy-editing, line-editing, to writing and shipping pages. At 26 I launched my own magazine, Missbehave, which was Mass Appeal’s sister publication. I had five pseudonyms, because when we didn’t have budget to pay someone else to write, I had to do myself. Then the recession hit, and Missbehave folded.
I’ve had every odd job you could imagine. While I was writing freelance for the New York Times, The Atlantic, GQ, and eventually landing columns at Wired and Allure, I made sure to stack as many checks as possible. I save everything as if another recession is around the corner. I’ve even ghost-written corporate speeches for random executives.
I prefer working freelance, but every few years I’ll take a permanent job to restore my savings. I worked at MTV, moved to LA, then came back to New York to write DJ Khaled’s biography. Then I realized I could write my own book. I finished rewriting Emergency Contact while I was at Vice News Tonight on HBO as a culture correspondent and then went freelance for Vice once I sold it.
What's one thing you wish had known then that you know now about having a career?
It really doesn’t matter what you major in college. At all. And working with loyal, inspiring people is way more important than staying at a “brand name” place that you put up on a pedestal.
If working in an office makes you miserable, do everything in your power not to work in an office. Be punctual, and any time you have any bit of money, sock it away for your F-you fund.
As a person who writes for a living, what’s your #1 tip for getting yourself out of a creative block?
Take a walk. Do anything to give your brain a reset from mulling over your myriad shortcomings and heightening anxiety cycles. It feels indulgent to get up and leave the work behind, but it’s crucial for me. That said, do at least two or three hours of work a day.
Tell us about selling your novel.
Writing fiction is hard. No one will buy a book until the whole thing is written so write the whole thing even if it makes you feel insane. Your first book, even if it took years, might not be your first book.
Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist even if it feels fraudulent and corny. If there’s no one else out there who’s made it big who looks like you—fantastic! It’s so, so scary but you get to be the first and you’ll make it that much easier for all the lucky people who follow in your brave footsteps. Enjoy the version of yourself that you are. Revel in it. I’m willing to bet you’re incredible.