In “Miracle Creek,” the debut novel by Angie Kim, we meet the Yoo family. Soon after, tragedy strikes, followed by a dramatic court trial. Along the way, we confront the depths of the parent-child relationship and just how far we are willing to go for our family.
At this year’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., Lily Lit Club interviewed Kim about the novel, which is Lily Lit Club’s September pick.
Are you reading “Miracle Creek”? Follow along on the Lily Lit Club’s Instagram.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Neema Roshania Patel: I really loved the opening line of “Miracle Creek” — “My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first. It was such a small thing, what he wanted.” I found this so captivating. We move from that opening line very quickly into a tragedy and then very quickly into a dramatic courtroom trial. Why did you decide to format the novel as a trial?
Angie Kim: It was actually one of the earliest decisions I had to make in writing my novel. I knew I wanted it to be about this tragic accident that happens. I had to really think about the different structure options. Once I decided to go the route of starting with a tragedy, it was easy for me to format it around a trial, because I used to be a trial lawyer. It was the one aspect of being a lawyer I actually liked was actually being in the courtroom, so I decided that should be the center of the novel.
NRP: The HBOT — hyperbaric oxygen therapy — is really at the center of this novel and so much of what happens throughout the book really comes back to the choices that our characters made to engage in this therapy. I know you have some personal experience with HBOT. Can you talk about that and why you chose to make that part of this piece?
AK: HBOT is standard treatment in hospitals for burns and lots of other things, but it is experimental therapy for certain conditions. I have three boys and my three boys are 11, 16 and 17 now but one of them, when he was 4 years old, had this horrible case of ulcerative colitis that just wouldn’t respond to any treatment. And it’s just one of these things, where you do all these things that the doctors are telling you to and you still have this kid who is not gaining weight, who is throwing up every day, who is in pain and you sort of get to this point where you are willing to try anything as long as it’s not too risky. We found out about HBOT through a friend whose son is on the autism spectrum. Once that happened, I talked to my son’s doctors, and they gave a reluctant blessing. We knew it could be a waste of time and money but we were desperate. When we did try it, I discovered this intimate world. You have to crawl into the machine and it’s dark. You can’t bring anything in. Nothing you can use to pass the time. So we were forced to talk to each other, an hour at a time. We had all these kids with a range of abilities and disabilities and there was a lot of comparison of our lives. It just became this confessional feel — very intimate, very intense. I wasn’t a writer at the time, but as soon as I started thinking about writing a novel, I knew it had to be in this setting.
NRP: When you talk about HBOT — both in the novel and its role in your personal life — it really touches on the lengths parents will go to for their children. Was that something you were specifically trying to get across as a theme in your novel?
AK: I was just thinking about the characters and their world. Writing a novel seemed like such an intimidating thing to me, and it seemed like a big behemoth. I think the themes just developed, because they were what was inherent to this setting. Another aspect to this novel is immigration, which also has to do with the extremes of parental sacrifice.
NRP: The Yoo family really embodies this immigrant family experience throughout the novel. Why was that an important thread for you to have in the book?
AK: The Yoos — the immigrant family — who are at the core of this novel, are basically my family. I came to the United States from Seoul when I was 11 and I am an only child and I came with my parents, similar to Mary, who is one of the central characters. They ran an 18-hour-a-day shift at the Korean grocery store and I was separated from them because they didn’t want me anywhere near the store so they had me stay with another family. There was a lot of resentment on my part, which really wasn’t pleasant for any of us. I tried to bring a lot of that experience into the novel. One of the parts of that experience that is most poignant for me is just the pain of not speaking the language and being made to feel inferior or less than, just because communication and fluency is so central to our idea of what constitutes intelligence. So it’s natural to feel embarrassed. The parent-child relationship can kind of flip when the child gains that fluency, and the shame and embarrassment that can accompany that is central to the novel and the Yoo family’s dynamic.
NRP: The novel is told from the perspective of seven different people. Why go with that format?
AK: I love stories when the writers do an amazing job of inhabiting different characters and different voices. I wanted to challenge myself and try to inhabit different characters. Especially with this being a mystery, you are trying to figure out what happened here and how all these pieces fit together to produce this tragedy, and I think when you are trying to find that out, it really does help to get little bits of information from lots of different people. It was important to me to get a window in the lives of these characters. I wanted to explore what it was like to be part of an immigrant family, to be the mother of a special-needs child.
NRP: We see the mothers in this novel all exist in different circumstances, and they all deal with it in different ways. We see tension around this at different points throughout the novel as well. What were you getting at when you were showing these varying experiences of motherhood?
AK: For me, my son, at the time we were doing HBOT, he was 4. Until that time, I had felt pretty unlucky and unfortunate as a family. He was going through all sorts of things. My two other boys also had medical challenges. They are all fine now, thankfully, but I was feeling like we are the most unlucky family. I was feeling very sorry for myself. And then we get into this HBOT chamber, and it made me really think about how I hadn’t really focused on all the ways we were lucky. Those types of things make you think about the relativity of happiness and it made me feel ashamed and guilty. I think a lot of those threads are in this novel.
NRP: What’s next for you?
AK: I am working on my second novel. It’s called “The Happiness Quotient,” and it is about a 10-year-old boy who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum. And he goes on a walk with his father, who is his caregiver, and only he returns. The father doesn’t return. So it’s about trying to figure out what happened because the son can’t communicate.