Lydia Kang is an author of adult and young adult fiction, poetry, and narrative non-fiction. She graduated from Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine, completing her residency and chief residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. She is a practicing physician who has gained a reputation for helping fellow writers achieve medical accuracy in fiction. Her poetry and non-fiction have been published in JAMA, The Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Great Weather for Media. She believes in science and knocking on wood, and currently lives in Omaha with her husband and three children..
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
Where did you grow up? How did your childhood impact the woman and writer you’ve become?
I grew up in Baltimore, MD, in the ‘burbs. My parents are Korean immigrants (dad is a psychiatrist, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom). I was an avid reader as a child and a serial rereader at that. Some of the books I probably read one too many times included books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, L.M. Montgomery, and Roald Dahl. They had ways of encapsulating emotions and experiences that felt so real, as varied as their styles were. I still quote some phrases and bits of dialogue from those books in my head, to this very day.
How did you end up in the mid-West?
I am an East coast girl, born and bred, but after trying the really difficult commuter lifestyle in New York City, we decided to head back to our suburban roots. A job opportunity came up in Omaha, and we jumped at it. My husband and I are both physicians, and the move was worth it. We spend so much more time with our kids now than when we lived in New York.
Favorite writing clothes?
Oh, this is embarrassing, but probably ratty yoga pants and soft, old cotton t-shirts. Comfort is everything when I’m writing. If I’m itchy or cold or hot or hungry or feel strangled by my pants, I can’t write. I’m pretty sure that elastic-waisted pants make the world a happier place.
Favorite time of the day to write?
Whenever it’s quiet. Sometimes it’s when the kids are at school, sometimes it’s late at night once everyone has fallen asleep. I used to write in coffee shops until we got a very co-dependent dog who needs to check my every move.
Favorite place to write?
Right now, it’s a big soft chair in my bedroom. The armrests are huge and I pile my books on there I need for references, and my dog snoozes on the back cushion right near my head.
Is A BEAUTIFUL POISON your first novel for adults? How did writing it compare and contrast with your YA writing (CONTROL, Penguin 2013, CATALYST, Penguin 2015, THE NOVEMBER GIRL, Entangled Teen 2017)? How do you tap into a different voice?
It is! The funny thing is that I originally intended A BEAUTIFUL POISON to be a young adult novel, but it became really clear as I started writing it that the voice was older, and the characters were dealing with adult issues that were not as relevant to teens. So it was kind of an accident. But once I realized it was an adult novel, I ended up changing the plot and ageing the characters up a little more. It was actually quite freeing, after writing YA for a while.
When a story idea comes to you, how do you know if it’s for an adult audience, younger, or possibly even something you’d like to explore the non-fiction side of like the Spanish Influenza?
As you can see above, I didn’t know! But I have a much better feel now for when I’m writing something that needs to be YA or begs an older audience. I have more confidence that I can write adult now, and I’m eager to run through some new ideas. I’m still a metaphorical freshman within the non-fiction world. After QUACKERY releases in October, my co-author Nate Pedersen and I will be exploring more non-fiction ideas.
You’ve said A BEAUTIFUL POISON is “the book of your heart.” How so?
I studied at Bellevue Hospital in New York for medical school, worked there during my residency and chief residency years, as well as the first several years as a young attending physician. Bellevue left an indelible mark on me, as it does with the many physicians who walk its halls. When I started writing, I’d hoped someday to include Bellevue’s history in a book, I just didn’t know how or what I’d do. After reading Deborah Blum’s THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK (a nonfiction book about the birth of forensic medicine in NYC, which focuses a lot on Bellevue hospital), I knew I had my time period and setting decided.
To what extent is the character of Allene, or even Jasper, autobiographical?
Allene and I share a love of chemistry. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned in college, but I adored general chemistry and organic chemistry back then. It was fun to study. At one point, I could do organic chemistry reactions in 3-D in my head. It was wild! But Allene is a lot snootier than I am.
As for Jasper, I really appreciate his ambition. I was bullied a lot as a child, and though I was far from poor, I didn’t have the designer clothes that the popular girls had. I experienced a lot of racism. So I get that feeling of people looking down you you, and the subsequent need to be successful and prove to the world that you’ve done well. But I also understand that ambition can be unhealthy if it’s unchecked.
Birdie’s devotion to her sister is a strong source of forward momentum. Her desperate determination is heartfelt and painful. What did you tap into to write her perspective so well?
It’s a terrible shock, the day when you realize that your family members aren’t immune to being hurt in some way. I don’t remember where I was, or how old I was, but I remember the realization very clearly, and it was terribly painful. I think anyone who’s ever loved deeply has felt this. So it was a very real, human sentiment, to be so fiercely protective of your family. I wish more people realized that this passion is such a unifying force we all have. I really wish there was more empathy in the world. But I digress.
Jasper, Allene, and Birdie share a friendship that is sexual or romantic combined with resentment, fear, need, and love. How did you conceive such a complicated and compelling dynamic? Did you ever feel as you were writing it that you “lost the thread”? Or perhaps you chose to follow the thread?
I knew that these three would have a very complicated, very layered set of emotions towards each other. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, and in the YA world there is a lot of “love triangle” fatigue, but I knew I had to try here. I wasn’t going to ignore sexuality, even when the characters themselves didn’t always understand their own feelings, and I wanted to shed light on these occasionally negative emotions they had towards each other. “Friendship” when you think of it seems all positive, but it’s not always so perfect, and these three were the epitome of imperfect friends.
As a Korean woman or more broadly, as a person of color, do you feel a responsibility to write characters of color? Or write for readers of color? Or teach persons not of color?
I do, and I’m becoming slowly more comfortable with this responsibility. People often turn to me as a voice for writers of color, and the truth is, I’m learning how to do this. I grew up in a very white town, as the only POC girl in my classes for a long, long time. And I did my very best to assimilate in order to survive, and it affected me in profound ways. Many of my future books will feature Asian main characters, but I’m treading slowly and carefully, exploring my own issues with being a Korean-American woman in this country. A writing friend once told me that simply existing as a woman of color is an act of rebellion, in and of itself. I’ll do my best with writing POC characters and teaching POC and non POC readers out there, but I’ll do it slowly, carefully, and at my own pace, eyes and ears open.
What is the premise of your next book, also out this year, THE NOVEMBER GIRL?
Remember what I said just there? The November Girl features a half-Black, half-Korean teen boy who escapes to the deserted Isle Royale on Lake Superior to leave his troubled home life behind him. But on the island, he encounters a girl hiding there too, who’s not quite normal, and not quite human. It’s a nod to a song that haunted me as a kid, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There’s a line in there about this type of vicious November storm that sinks ships—they called the storm the “Witch of November,” and the girl, Anda, is one of them. Havoc ensues. And romance. Not necessarily in that order.
Many people think that once an author reaches a certain point that the rejection ends. Is that true? Have you received rejection? What helped you through it?
Oh, the rejection certainly doesn’t end. It’s not like editors fawn over anything you write, and the door stays wide open. I joke that you get a toe in the door with your first publishing contract, but it doesn’t keep the publishing world from slamming the door on that big toe, repeatedly. Ha. So yes, I’ve had a few manuscripts that did not find a home, sadly. But A BEAUTIFUL POISON and THE NOVEMBER GIRL were both books that took a while to find the right editor in the right publishing house. What helped me through is probably that same tenacity I mentioned before. Once I decide to do something, I would very much like to succeed on my terms. So I never gave up. I wrote another novel, and another, and I branched into non-fiction, and I just keep going. Not every editor is the right fit for your book, and it took some time to learn and adapt to this.
What tips do you have for aspiring authors?
My biggest piece of advice is be humble, and let yourself learn. I went into writing novels with the knowledge that I had a degree in medicine but knew squat about writing fiction. I eagerly inhaled advice from other writers and the blogging community, as well as books on craft. I constantly tried to up my game in plotting, and the quality and economy of my prose. You must learn to be kind to yourself after rejections and negative feedback, weed out the people reading your stuff who are being cruel as opposed to helpful. You’ll know early on who’s cheering for you, and they’ll be the ones who hold you up when you get those inevitable rejections. Later on as your skills increase, you’ll be able to filter feedback into categories of “helpful” and “this is an opinion I can set aside”.
Any tips for writers who are also holding down a day job and/or children? How did you do manage when you started? How do you do it now?
I’m lucky in that I work part-time, which allows for a lot of time to write. However. If you really want to do something, you will find places to carve out little bits of time if you want. For example, Game of Thrones? Netflix? What is that? I watch very little and write instead. And remember that things take time, and everyone writes and publishes at their own pace. You’ll kill your creativity if you compare yourself to someone who writes full time and has the money to support this endeavor. There are a lot of writers who are working full time jobs and have families. Seek them out on FB groups or Twitter. Find your own group to support you, because writing can be really lonely!
Rice or Noodles?
Rice. Although I will not turn down a really good bowl of ramen.
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Chocolate. Unless there is hot caramel involved, then definitely vanilla.
Coffee or Tea?
Depends on the year. I do coffee for years on end, then switch to tea for a year or so. I think the green tea is healthier, so I’m doing that right now. Sweet and light coffee is like a dessert to me, though! Mmm.
Bus or Subway?
When I lived in NYC, bus, but dang it’s slow. The subway was always so stinky. And I like to look at people and buildings passing by. Now in Nebraska, I drive everywhere. I like short distance driving. I’m not a fan of road trips, though! I’m weird like that, I guess.
Thank you, Lydia, so much for talking with us! We support you now and always.
A BEAUTIFUL POISON
Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim..
“With an erudite cast and mystery as morbid as 1918 New York in the grip of plague, A Beautiful Poison is as intoxicating as its title. Smart, compelling, and deliciously addicting. Kang is a deadly wit.” —Tosca Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Progeny and Firstborn
“An absolute gem for murder mystery fans, with a perfect period feel and fascinating forensic detail.” —Lindsay Jayne Ashford, author of The Color of Secrets and The Woman on the Orient Express
“An intriguing blend of history and suspense, A Beautiful Poison kept me guessing until the very end. Lydia Kang masterfully conjures up the world of early twentieth-century New York, and her characters are appealingly complex, making for plenty of satisfying plot twists. Ultimately, this is far more than a murder mystery: it’s a story about friendship, and the intertwined fates of Allene, Jasper, and Birdie will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.” —Elizabeth Blackwell, author of In the Shadow of Lakecrest
“The perfect blend of mystery, history, and science, Lydia Kang’s A Beautiful Poison is an entertaining read from beginning to end. A classic whodunnit with a touch of dark humor, Kang’s first adult novel will hopefully not be her last.” —Jennifer Hillier, author of Creep and The Butcher
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MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and query letter coach, opening pages editor, and overall story analyst as The Query Quill. She oversees WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the chair of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Rising Star Award. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine. When she isn’t working on her work-in-progress PIN UP, you can find her biting her nails over her novel #LOVEIN140 which is currently on submission, belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), screaming herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, or otherwise trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Litsy (@MMF). Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com/queryquill