Eva Chen and Mary H.K. Choi have a lot in common: They’ve both authored multiple books for younger audiences; they both come from Asian American immigrant families; they both share a love of fashion and have worked in magazines; they’re both New Yorkers. But until recently, they’d never met.
That’s where we came in. We thought it was a perfect time to introduce the two, seeing as they’re in the throes of book releases. Chen’s forthcoming children’s book, illustrated by Derek Desierto, “Juno Valentine: The Fantastic Fashion Adventure,” will publish at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Choi’s second young adult novel, “Permanent Record,” hit shelves a few weeks ago.
Of course, they’re different, too. Choi is a full-time writer; Chen is head of fashion partnerships at Instagram. (She has over a million followers on the platform, where she regularly shares snippets of her life with her daughter, Ren, her son, Tao, and her husband, Tom.)
Although we couldn’t get Chen and Choi in the same room — Chen was at the airport, en route to Paris for Fashion Week — we did introduce them over the phone. They discussed everything from female pirates to their writing processes. Read their conversation below.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Eva Chen: Hello, this is Eva.
Mary H.K. Choi: Hi Eva, this is Mary. How are you?
Eva Chen: I’m at an airport lounge, so you’ll be able to hear ambient noise and random announcements, I’m sure, throughout the call. For which I apologize.
Mary H.K. Choi: No worries, I’m sure it’s a very real, very pervasive part of your life.
Eva Chen: You know, it is. And it’s not ideal. I wish we had high-speed trains, but that’s a whole other conversation we could be having.
Mary H.K. Choi: That sounds like a whimsical enough concept for another book from you. I’m really, really excited to talk about your books.
Eva Chen: And yours, that’s so exciting.
Mary H.K. Choi: It has been very exciting. It’s only been three weeks, which is pretty brain-scrambling, because I can’t believe how tired I am. But yeah, it’s been really fun and really edifying.
I think there’s always a little bit of fear when your first book [in Choi’s case, “Emergency Contact”] does well. It sounds so ungrateful to be like, “Oh, I have existential dread because my first book did well.” But it does make the second one — you want to do well when you’ve seen your readers’ faces.
Eva Chen: I feel like being a writer has so much existential dread in general, because writers oftentimes are introverts who then are able to shift to being extroverts for book tours. And of course they’ve put their life and soul into it. Then to have to go out and talk about it to all kinds of people, you feel like you’re putting a little bit of your heart out on the line every time.
I remember with my first one, “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes,” I couldn’t sleep for the three weeks before the book came out.
I would wake up from my sleep — and with two young kids, I’m usually such a complete zombie sleeper that I could sleep with a freight train coming through the apartment.
But I was waking up anxious, and I reached out to a few author friends of mine, and now I’ll start reaching out to you, too, to be like, “I have a feeling this is book-related, but is this normal?” And I think it was Jenny Han [author of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”] … who said, “This is standard. With every book, you get fear every time.”
Mary H.K. Choi: I was just on a panel with Jenny — I’m a huge fan, I love her to pieces. ... There’s something so charming and so delightful about your books, and the timing of them is super masterful. I’m curious about that — how do you know when to turn the page so that the dramatic tension is still there?
Eva Chen: Having read thousands of children’s books with my daughter — even though she hasn’t learned to read yet, we’ve always surrounded her with books. I’ve found the books that Ren likes the most are when there’s almost like a Dan Brown-esque level of suspense when you’re turning the page. Not to make a parallel to “The Da Vinci Code,” but remember when everyone was reading “The Da Vinci Code,” and it would always end on a cliffhanger? I don’t remember the main guy’s name [in the book] — but Tom Hanks [in the movie], okay?
Mary H.K. Choi: Tom Hanks in a jacket.
Eva Chen: [Laughs] Yes, Tom Hanks in a tweedy jacket. But something was always about to happen. And you would turn the page. Children’s books are similar, and Ren has done this with some books, where she turns the page so hard that it then rips because she wants to figure out what happens next. With “Juno,” I wanted to have surprise and delight on every spread.
I’m curious: For you, what was the process like?
Mary H.K. Choi: It’s really different. For much of my life, I was writing things that you could draft out in three days. So getting my arms around the entirety of a 400-page novel — you also have paralysis by analysis when you’re literally making things up.
I can only work in the morning. I don’t know why that is, but I only really have two hours of writing in me on any given day. Usually I’m done writing by lunch, which sounds luxurious, but it means I have to be really dedicated about how I spend my mornings, because by the time the afternoon rolls around, my opportunity to get inside that story is closed a little.
I’m in the very privileged position where I do this full-time now, so it’s just the mornings. How about you?
Eva Chen: I have a full-time job working at Instagram, so I did most of my writing at night, after the kids went to bed — so like 9 to 11, that period of time. [Illustrator Derek Desierto] and I would be FaceTiming, we’d be texting, we’d be emailing back and forth.
Mary H.K. Choi: It sounds like there’s a real intimacy between the two of you. I mean, it’s no coincidence that you’re continuing to work together. There’s so much consistency with what now becomes your voice because of the way you work together. I’m looking at “A Is for Awesome,” and it’s beautiful. It feels related to “Juno,” but also it’s so different.
Eva Chen: Yeah, it’s meant to be kind of a companion book.
I use the word “sheroe,” because it’s kind of goofy, but there are so many sheroes. I learned about this pirate, Grace O’Malley. She was this amazing pirate queen who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I and is generally awesome, so putting someone like her in the book, who’s lesser known, alongside Audrey Hepburn or Simone Biles — I watched hours of her doing all of her amazing record-setting acrobatic feats of nature.
It was really fun to research this, especially with a young daughter, who’d be like, “Who’s that, mommy?” And I’d be like, “Just wait, she’s amazing, she’s going to make it into the book.”
Mary H.K. Choi: I love how much cultural specificity there is in here. I love that there’s an Alexander McQueen armadillo shoe, circa Lady Gaga, in your book. … There’s sometimes such a boon to the fact that you’ve had other careers and you’re bringing that and all your interests to children’s books. I get asked a lot: Why YA? And I’m like, it’s just another medium, but in a lot of ways, it uses everything else I’ve learned. Do you feel the same way?
Eva Chen: I definitely think there’s fashion in this book, there’s feminism — I went to an all-girls school growing up, and I think that shaped me as a person the most. And [the book is] a little bit goofy, which I definitely am.
Mary H.K. Choi: And there’s a lot of representation.
Eva Chen: I hope so. I was super deliberate about it. I wanted a lot of different types of women represented in the book. And then in “Juno Valentine: The Fantastic Fashion Adventure,” there are allies as well. I just wanted it to feel inclusive and celebratory, because kids — and I’m sure you get this in YA, which I’m obsessed with, so we’re going to have to do a whole separate column about YA.
But I remember reading books like “The Baby-Sitters Club” growing up, and that entrepreneurial streak that was in there — four young girls creating, well, we’d call it a startup these days.
Mary H.K. Choi: [Laughs] They’re disrupting babysitting.
Eva Chen: Exactly, they’re disrupting babysitting, they’re creating the Uber of babysitters. But that’s the thing when you’re reading it and you’re 10 years old: You’re like, I could do that. That’s so important.
Did you grow up with traditional Asian notions of what your career should be?
Mary H.K. Choi: I moved to America when I was 14, and I lived in Hong Kong prior to that. I went to British school. But my parents are both in the service industry, so I never knew of a writer. I didn’t know anyone who wrote.
Eva Chen: It was definitely the same for me, too. It just doesn’t seem like it’s an option. For book-obsessed people, doesn’t it seem like books are something from Hogwarts where they just magically appear? It’s the power of books. And that’s why I think it’s so important to expose young people to writers and to the arts, so they can see that it’s a career.
Mary H.K. Choi: To that point, I do think it’s part of my immigrant experience, and I don’t know if you share it, but there is something about these cultural art-based artifacts where we’re just like, do people pay for that?
I could never reconcile the schism between wanting to write a book, writing a book, and then having money appear because of the book and being able to support yourself.
Eva Chen: Doctor, banker, lawyer, engineer. Those are the standard, prescribed careers. But I do think we’re at a turning point now. … What we’re talking about is disseminating ideas. Kids are internalizing things so young.
Mary H.K. Choi: Totally. It’s important to invite people into these places, and let them know that they didn’t even need an invitation.
What is it like meeting your fans on book tour? I’m picturing something so adorable.
Eva Chen: Kids? Oh, it’s so adorable. I often tear up during these readings, because (a) I miss my kids and I’m really tired, and (b) you really see the hope and optimism of the kids.
But the Q&A is where all the craziness hits, because kids don’t understand the difference between a question and a statement. So the moderator will ask, “Any questions for the author?” And literally kids raise their hands and are like, “I had Cheetos for lunch today.”
Mary H.K. Choi: That sounds really cute. I wanted to ask, insofar as you working with Derek, when you see the sketches, are you like this is perfect? Or what level of note-giving do you do?
Eva Chen: Oh, he’s pretty amazing. … I would say we often talk through illustrations before, and having been an editor, I give very specific references and links to images. There would be some back and forth sometimes, but most of the time he’d just hit it out of the ballpark.
Mary H.K. Choi: I can’t tell if we’re the ideal collaborators or the worst. Did you know this, that a lot of YA authors don’t get a say in what their covers look like?
Eva Chen: What? No, no, no. So then what was your process like?
Mary H.K. Choi: Well, it sounds like we’re both editors and nightmares, because I sent Pinterest board after Pinterest board of just hair for my first one, tons of photo references. It was like mood-boarding. ... I feel really lucky to be part of that process.
But can you imagine if someone tried to give you your book and was like, “Hey Eva, this is your book”?
Eva Chen: I imagine if and when I write an adult book, I’d be like, “This is the cover I want.”
Mary H.K. Choi: And are you going to be writing a different kind of book?
Eva Chen: I’ve promised my book editor, Kate, really for almost a decade that I’d write a book of funny essays about my life as a former magazine editor — everything from beauty to raising kids. I haven’t started that yet, which is why I was so curious about your writing process.
Mary H.K. Choi: [Laughs] Set an intention.
Eva Chen: I’m going to set an intention in The Washington Post. Casual. It’s going to happen.
Mary H.K. Choi: I believe in you. You’ve done a lot; it sounds to me like you have a great capacity for taking on quite a bit.
Eva Chen: We’ll see, we’ll see. With the books, you just don’t know what’s going to happen when you put something out there. On Instagram for instance, people follow me for fashion or whatever it is they follow me for, and I just didn’t know if books would be something they would support.
But the best thing is over the weekend, on the playground, when I meet someone and they’re like, “My daughter or son loves your book.” I freak them out because I start crying. Tom is always like, “You need to stop crying when someone tells you they like your book.” I can’t help it. … It’s literally the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt. When you write for a magazine, the publication is still kind of the accountable one if people don’t like it. But if someone doesn’t like your book, it’s like your soul.
Mary H.K. Choi: Right.
But I also do love the irony — like, you’re pretty famous for the shoe selfie. People can like your shoes all day long on Instagram and you don’t bat an eyelash. But the second someone likes your book shoes in real life, you’re in tears. I think that’s so amazing.
I’m sure there will be many more opportunities for you to cry in the future with this second “Juno” book. Have a really great time in Paris, and thank you for talking.
Eva Chen: Oh my gosh, thanks so much. You’re on Instagram, right? I’m going to DM you.