With Sharktini's in hand, we sat down with Gina Chung to discuss her debut novel, Sea Change. We learned about inspirations for the novel, how the story developed, her North Jersey connections, and new projects she's working on. Of course we had to get additional book recommendations to add to our TBR pile too!
*If you have not read Sea Change yet, there will be spoilers below*
OWC: For those that haven’t read Sea Change yet, can you tell us in your own words what this book is and why did you write it?
Chung: This is a story about love, loss, and cephalopods; things that everyone can relate to, but I think of it as a coming-of-age story first and foremost. It's about a 30-year-old Korean American woman named Ro, who is going through loss, heartbreak, and big changes in her life, but not dealing with it in the healthiest of ways. She spends her days drinking a little too much, caring for the animals at the aquarium where she works, ignoring texts from her mom, and she's just been broken up with at the start of the novel, but her boyfriend's not just leaving her, he's leaving the planet to join a privately funded mission to colonize Mars. Her best friend is pulling away as she focuses on her wedding, and Ro feels like she's being left behind on the road to adulthood. The octopus that she cares for at the aquarium, Dolores, is her one joy in life and happens to be her last point of connection with her father, a marine biologist who worked at the aquarium before he disappeared 15 years ago at sea. The inciting incident of the novel is when Ro hears via her best friend, who also works at the aquarium, that Dolores is going to be sold to a private investor. It causes her to spin out and lose her already tenuous control on things, and really forces her to come to terms with things like her childhood trauma, the loss of her father, which she's never fully processed, as well as the role that she's played in all the failed relationships in her life. So in broad strokes, that's what the book is about.
I wrote it in my MFA program, but I didn't come into that program with an idea for a novel. For a long time I didn't think I had a novel in me. It started as a short story that kept getting longer, and there were more and more questions I wanted to unpack. I really wanted to explore the kind of character that Ro is—very endearing in some ways, I like to think, but also very frustrating in other ways. She has this story in her head where she thinks everyone is leaving her all the time, and I think when you are a person like that, you can't help but leave yourself in all these small ways, too. And so, I was really interested in exploring how she might learn, throughout the course of the novel, how to stay for herself and show up for people in her life. I’m Korean American as well; I grew up in the same kind of North Jersey environment that the book is set in and I really wanted to explore what growing up in that community was like, since that was something I hadn't seen reflected in contemporary literature.
OWC: It's interesting that it started as a short story that just kept going. We hadn't realized that; it reads like it was intended to be a novel all along.
Chung: Oh, thank you so much. When I was working on the first chapter, I brought it to a writing group of friends that I made in my MFA program and told them it was a short story that had some wrapping up to do. However, they pointed out that there are all these unanswered questions that get introduced right away, and I had a lot of things to wrap up. Having never written a novel before, I was like, “well, let's give it a shot.” So I'm happy to hear that.
OWC: You talked a little bit about Ro already, and your intentions for her, but at times it could be frustrating to see her make some of the choices she made. We wanted to know a little bit about how her personality developed for you, and if you found it challenging to write a character that was stuck and struggling.
Chung: I get that a lot from various people who've read the book. She's so relatable in some ways and other times you just want to shake her, and that's what I wanted to do with this character. She's obviously self-destructive in so many ways and really can't help herself, until she realizes the full depths to which she's sunk. At the rate she's going, she really will hurt herself or someone else in an irreparable way. As a writer, I tend to start with voice first. As I mentioned, this started as a short story, and it was always in first person. I experimented a little with third person at various points, but ended up feeling like it wasn't working, and I was too distanced from her. So, sticking with that first person voice really gave me access to her psyche as it was developing. I knew that I wanted to write about this person who has been through immense loss and trauma, who is quite distraught as a result of it, but also sees the world in a unique and funny way. Hopefully, that comes across in the voice as well. At times it was a bit of a struggle, because she is so complicit in her own unhappiness and self-destructiveness. I've been in situations like her, I know people like her, I've been her at various points in my life. So it was kind of cathartic to explore that, but also at times frustrating. But as a fiction writer, it's usually more interesting to have your character do the “bad thing,” or the destructive thing, because that's what we're here for, to follow the story.
OWC: And she's teetering on the edge, too, right? Like she hasn’t totally fallen apart, but you're starting to see these patterns emerging- her dependency for alcohol is increasing, she’s withdrawing from those in her life, but there's still a chance. So you're rooting for her. She's not too far gone, but she's careening in a bad direction.
Chung: Yeah, definitely. I just heard this term recently, the “disaster woman trope”. I think in some ways she fits some of that, but hopefully subverts it as well. For all those portrayals that are out there, we have yet to see examples of it specifically for women of color and in this case, for an Asian American woman. There’s this idea, especially for women of color and Asian American women, that we must be perfect, and that creates pressure. I really wanted to have her let go and be teetering on the edge, like you said, because I think it’s quite interesting to watch what happens when a character is just right there. Are they going to make that decision? Are they going to pull themselves back? But at the same time I didn't want it to be a cautionary tale or a punchline, because I think a lot of times with stories that feature self-destructive women, they're often for laughs, which I think could be powerful in its own way, but I did want the reader to understand that there is real pain at the bottom of all these decisions she's making.
OWC: We feel like you developed her well, especially with the use of flashbacks. The reader is always going back to her childhood, but as the flashbacks progress in time, they become more emotionally complex as she becomes more aware of her surroundings. We thought that really made her more complex as we're getting to know her. Was the use of flashbacks always part of the story?
Chung: Yeah, it kind of always was. There was a novel I thought about at the time of writing this, one of my favorites, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett. That book also does an interesting past-present, alternating structure, where you start off with this character, around the same age as Ro, living in her early thirties and then flashing back to parts of her childhood. This character also contends with the legacy of a complicated father. It's always interesting, especially for any depiction of an adult child with parent relationships, to think back, like, how did she get here? How did the choices that her parents make also inform where she is at? So that thinking was always baked into the story.
OWC: Yeah, and it communicates that she's grappling with abandonment issues; you see that through the parallels of her father leaving for his various research trips and her boyfriend, choosing to leave for the Mars Mission. There are even elements that you wove in on a more metaphorical level, of her identifying with different animals that have been abandoned, like the Werner Hertzog documentary. Ultimately, you're rooting for her. You want her to grow. You want her to get out of her own way and find meaning in her life, but at the end of the novel, it's still a bit of an unanswered question if she takes the next step. Do you think she's capable of changing her life, breaking out of her patterns of abuse and breaking this cycle of stagnancy?
Chung: I think that she is. I wanted to believe that she could, because I wanted the ending to be a hopeful note for her, while at the same time being realistic. I always feel a little unsatisfied if a book ends on a note where everything's fine, and they were all great and cured. Obviously, a story can follow its own arc and logic, but I did want the reader to leave with the feeling of hope that she has taken the necessary step of leaving what is ultimately a dead-end job, a job that she was only really attached to because she felt like it brought her closer to her absent father. We also see her taking baby steps towards becoming a better friend, connecting more with her mother, and just trying a little bit more. It was also important to me to not end it on a note of “now she's back with her ex” or “now she is dating someone new”, because I just wasn't interested in having her get back into a relationship. In the end, it's more about her relationship with herself, than it is about her relationship with a romantic partner.
OWC: We really liked that choice, and we appreciated that ending more without having her get with someone. Okay, shifting a little bit. One of the things that we really enjoyed about the experience of reading Sea Change were the many moments when we were uncertain if it was going to branch off into magical realism or science fiction. Did you make a conscious decision to create that possibility to tease the reader or to keep it grounded in reality?
Chung: I think that I wanted to keep it under the large umbrella of speculative fiction, just because it’s near future, and while I didn’t make up anything about octopuses for the book, Dolores is still larger than life and even more fantastical than octopuses already are. Originally, I wanted to leave it a little more unresolved, but I think that having the story revealed as it is, pushes Ro in a direction more oriented towards growth. It was more a signal for the reader that she doesn’t need all the answers to move on. I think I wanted to leave it as open-ended as I could, while also still wrapping it up in a way that felt organic and natural to her eventual growth and development.
OWC: Absolutely, and ultimately the book is very grounded and a very real experience. We didn’t know how the book was going to unfold, and we kind of low-key thought she was going to steal the octopus. Did you explore this ending at all? Or were you like, the octopus I’ve created is too big and must stay in the tank?
Chung: It was something I thought about in early drafting, because I knew I didn’t want her to end up getting sold, so I wanted a way out of that predicament. It would have been fun to have her break her out somehow, but I think it would have ended up becoming a different novel, maybe a little more in the sci-fi realm. I think the priority for me was getting her out of the aquarium as opposed to Dolores. So, while it’s not a zero sum situation, it did cross my mind.
OWC: We also thought the aquarium was an interesting setting. As a group, we read a lot of debut novels and a lot seem to be set in the Midwestern colleges where they’re at an MFA program, so this one is very different. You mentioned you were from the area set in the book, which we assume is the inspiration for the location, but was there anything that inspired you to set it in an aquarium and to write about octopuses?
Chung: When I started writing the story that would become the novel, I just started with the first line “Dolores was blue again” as a writing assignment in class. It came out of nowhere, and I didn’t even know who Dolores was or why she was turning blue. I love writing about animals in the natural world, so I was like “maybe she’s an octopus because I know they change colors.” I’ve always loved octopuses and think they are incredibly fascinating, so I started exploring from there. I started asking myself, who is the person telling us this story and why does Dolores matter to her? Once I decided it was an octopus, I thought “okay we’re in an aquarium because she works there.” I was immersed in trying to describe the day-to-day of the character, but then increasingly, the more time I spent with her the more time I spent researching aquariums and the type of people that work there. I realized it was the perfect type of character that I wanted to write. I mean aquariums themselves are such interesting places, and I think they are full of contradictions. It’s a site that straddles multiple worlds, and it occurred to me while writing that it’s sort of a perfect metaphor for the immigrant experience. Ro is the daughter of immigrants; she grows up straddling multiple worlds where one is the world of her parents, which is quite isolated, and then the Korean American community, as well as the outside world. That was an experience I had while growing up in North Jersey, in a really small, really white town. The world I grew up in was very homogeneous. My family was maybe one of two Asian families in the whole area, so I grew up navigating what felt like a very white world. At the same time, my family was going to a Korean American church, and there were big Koreatowns, like Korean restaurants, groceries, and businesses that were a short drive away. So, I felt like I was always going back and forth between those worlds, which I think is a very common experience for a child of immigrants. The aquarium felt like the perfect setting for exploring those sorts of contradictions. I also really liked the idea of the story being anchored around this octopus, because they are quite solitary. I really wanted to explore a character that was similarly kind of secretive and solitary, and what it would look like to come out of her shell, so to speak.
OWC: We love how this started as an ode to an octopus and we know you love animals, because we read your short about the free-tailed bat. Can we ask, is your next short story or novel going to have another animal?
Chung: I have a short story collection coming out early next year, 2024, and I’m currently working on our visions for that. The title is Green Frog, which is funny because the story itself doesn’t have a frog but has to do with the Korean folktale that becomes a motif in the title story. The folktale is about a frog who doesn’t listen to his mom, and bad things happen as a result, so it’s sort of a play on that. There are definitely animals throughout the collection though, including the bat story you mentioned. So, there’s elements and themes that are common with Sea Change like mother relationships, female bodies, the experience of being a woman living through the world, and also animals in the natural world. I am working a little bit on my next novel, and I don’t think it’ll have as many animals in it, but it involves a beach setting with elements of the ocean, which I can’t seem to get away from.
OWC: We are so excited for both! What are some major writers, or even specific books that have influenced you as an author?
Chung: One of my favorite books of all time, one that really inspired me to take myself more seriously as a writer, was Chemistry by Weike Wang. I’ve always been a big reader and wrote when I could, but from high school to my early twenties, I felt shy about the idea of calling myself a writer and wanted to focus on trying to find a career. Then I came across Chemistry, and I just felt like my life was going to change as a result of it. It’s about a young woman in a chemistry PhD program and because of the pressures of being a woman in the program, she drops out. It sends her into a tailspin about her own life, and it was the first time I saw such a frank exploration of what it’s like to be an Asian American woman in a male-dominated field, dealing with family dynamics and different kinds of dating pressures. I was so inspired by that book. It’s been instrumental for me, not just in writing Sea Change, but my trajectory as a writer. I highly recommend that one! There are two other books that really come to mind, Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. The first came out in 2020 and was one of the first books I could finish at the time because my attention span was all over the place. I loved how intimate and funny, yet deeply sad the book was. It’s also about a disaffected young woman who is going through a lot of major changes, while also navigating the mundane indignities of a job she doesn’t particularly care about. The second is a beautiful, funny, and interesting look at a young woman who’s navigating life while dealing with the news that her father has dementia. She’s saying goodbye to him while also trying to get closer to him and her family, whom she is somewhat estranged from. It’s a beautiful novel. Another book that just came to mind is Severance by Ling Ma. This is a speculative novel, and it’s so good and so beautiful. I think all of these books have this mix of humor, beauty, and melancholy that I was trying to carry through in the writing of my own book.
OWC: We plan way too far ahead, and we have Chemistry and Severance on the docket for May. I believe some of us read Pizza Girl last year, so we basically have a Venn diagram of those books.
Chung: Yea, it’s like the sad, smart girl, extended universe.
OWC: Oh my gosh, we love that so much. We need to use that in some way. Okay, so we’ve talked about a lot, but we have one final question. For anyone who hasn’t read Sea Change, what is your hope for people to get out of it?
Chung: I think the thing I really want people to take away after reading Sea Change, is to feel less alone. That’s why I read, and why I write - to seek connection. I wrote this book in part for my younger self who, like Ro, often felt very unseen and very misunderstood; I felt so angry and disconnected as a result of that. So, this is a book for anyone who has ever felt like Ro, lost and feeling lonely, like no one really gets it. What’s funny is that there are so many people who feel that way, so in effect we’re not actually as alone as we might think we are. That’s something I wanted to leave readers with too. This idea that, even if it’s sort of cheesy to say, we are not really alone. It’s so easy, when you’re in the depths of despair, to think that you are the first and only person who’s experienced this, but you’re not. I wrote this in 2020 when we were all going through it and experiencing a great deal of loneliness. Ultimately, I wanted to write something hopeful. You have support, and there are way more people around you that might understand than you think.
OWC: I think we connected with her on that level too. Oh man, we don’t want this interview to end, it’s been so much fun talking to you!
Chung: Thank you so much, it was great meeting you all and thank you so much for having me.