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Emergency Contact is a dreamy YA love story told through texts

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Mary H.K. Choi on romance, iMessage, and making her phone ugly

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mary choi Photo by Aaron Richter

Penny, the college freshman heroine of Emergency Contact, is really good at texting with a sad barista boy named Sam. He’s really good at texting her back! They want to be artists and find love and make money and follow their dreams, but their typical conversation goes like this:

“What if this is our one thing?”

“Lol. What like texting?”

“Yeah. Maybe this is what we’re good at. I’m not mad”

“Phones rule. Humans drool”

“lol”

“We’re the best. This is the best”

That’s it, that’s the premise of Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel.

A writer with a sharp sense of humor and a knack for getting inside the heads of young people, Choi has reported on emoji and Instagram for Wired, written comic books for Marvel, published an autobiographical book about leaving New York, and blogged about other people’s baffling fashion choices. Emergency Contact is her first foray into writing YA fiction, one that uses her established internet voice as a springboard into a conversational and modern look at teen neuroticism.

Emergency Contact is little more than a sweet, breezy, epistolary romance by design. The first people Choi shared the draft with suggested that she give it a bigger, more challenging plot to make the emotional stakes higher. She refused. Instead, she wrote a book about two characters who could be trusted to treat each other kindly, who struggle with vulnerability and communication like nearly everyone else alive. It’s an unexpectedly generous book that gives people the benefit of the doubt, one that feels both airy and nutritious, like when your dessert is angel food cake and whole strawberries.

It gives serious consideration to a coming-of-age question that’s specific to this moment in time: can some suburban 18- to 24-year-olds experience true intimacy when their relationship is primarily mediated by their iPhones? The most obvious companion read for Emergency Contact is Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (published almost exactly a year ago), which asked a similar series of questions about falling in love over email in the mid-‘90s. It was a devastating roast of Ivy League teen pretension and an exhilarating excavation of the morality of narrativizing your own life, a book acclaimed by critics for its craft but devoured by so many 30-somethings largely because it was that buzzword: relatable.

For all of us — or at least, for me and everyone I know — it is tempting to think that our interiority is so special and advanced that we are in fact the first people to develop an infatuation with someone’s mind via a digital conduit. This is wildly untrue, and any book that debunks this solipsistic fiction is both useful and shakily uncomfortable. So, recently, I called Choi to talk about beautiful devices, young love, and a subgenre that should expand forever.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It was so funny to me that the reader’s introduction to Penny is just her talking about how beautiful her iPhone is. What’s your relationship like with your Apple devices?

Well, right now I’m grayscale because my phone is so beautiful that I have to make it look ugly. My screen and my wallpaper and everything is grayscale. And I also have the triple tap so it darkens. I have all of the things to make it less attractive to me because, apparently, I’m a horrible magpie when it comes to my phone. I’m going through the most traumatic experience of two of my very close friends getting Pixels. They jumped to team green bubble without any preamble, and that was a really challenging and traumatizing time.

Especially for Penny, this is her first phone that was new when she got it. This was, for her, kind of a rite of passage. And when you do get your first iPhone, there’s something about the matteness of the box, once you rip off the cellophane part. It’s almost like when you open a brand-new journal that’s perfect bound, the smell of the paper, just huffing that. It’s almost a tactile sensation.

Remember [Vertu], that phone that was so, so expensive, and it was supposed to be the Centurion black card but of cellphones? Basically the Cartier Love bracelet of phones, so expensive. The iPhone is exorbitantly expensive as well, but there is an equalizing aspect to it. If you’re holding your iPhone, and it’s the newest iteration of it, you’re like, “Oh, famous people have my phone. Captains of industry have my phone.” And that can be an intoxicating experience for someone who is going off to college for the first time. It’s almost like, not a portal, but kind of a portal, for someone like Penny whose interiority is a big deal. Her phone signified more to her than her car. In fact, I think her car was kind of embarrassing for her, because it’s supposed to feel like a gateway to freedom, and for her, it just was another reminder of how she’s failing at certain aspects of socializing.

This is your first YA novel. What made you want to try this, to write a novel that has so much texting in it?

[The epistolary format] is a really, really good — I loathe to use the word “device” because it sounds manipulative — but it’s a good conduit. Letters or journal entries or texts speak to a type of narrator who maybe is not so good at showing versus telling. Similarly, for me personally, coming from a nonfiction background, it’s probably a crutch. Because in the kind of work that I do, I’m not used to making things up. It’s basically a crutch for how not good at world-building I am yet. It’s also a deep and sincere reflection of how most of my relationships are. I’m definitely an indoor kid who’s turned into an inside person.

I think everyone has been in one of these situations where you text all the time and develop an inflated, false intimacy and then you hang out and you don’t know each other at all. How did you develop the texting voices of the characters, which are so distinct from how they speak out loud to each other?

Yeah, there’s this huge seismic lag when you’re kind of waiting for the meatspace to catch up with the intimacy you have when you’re just texting with each other. Sam and Penny definitely have that in the harrowing instances where they have to interact in real life, where they’re like, “Oh my god, I wish I could just text you. Phone you, little Tamagotchi you, knows exactly what I’m thinking.”

I definitely wanted a huge difference between their meat-suit selves and their texting selves. And so I knew that those would be different, and the distinctness comes from the fact that we’re almost kind of shitty at self-editing. People say all the time that texting is really hard to deduce meaning from because it has no intonation and it has no nuance. But to a certain degree, I disagree with that, because for them, it’s almost like sodium pentothal, it’s like truth serum.

The brain-thumb barrier is really, really thin sometimes, especially depending on what time of day, what time of night, or if you literally eat through an entire battery texting this person. It’s not like “en vino veritas,” (with wine there’s truth), it’s like “with crappy seven-hour text brain there’s truth.” You peel back all this stuff, and you find yourself saying these things that you’ve never articulated before. [Penny and Sam] kind of confess to each other the types of artists that they want to become, and how humiliating that is. But once you have the kiddie pool cul-de-sac safe space to do it in, it’s not solely you telling another person, it’s definitely you telling yourself.

In one of Sam’s chapters, he says he “couldn’t imagine the space Penny would take up in his life if she sprang out of his phone.” And then she describes him as an “irresistible computer algorithm.” When I was reading it, I thought, “Oh no, this is going to end in disaster. They’re going to be so mean to each other.” Because there’s something dark there. I thought about it a lot when I was reading The Idiot, also — whether there is something inherently bad or evil about wanting someone to exist for you only in a digital space.

You read about things like how Instagram’s juking the numbers so they withhold your likes so it’s that much more addictive. With Twitter, you have “Things you may have missed.” Or Instagram Stories, the way they loop together, the urgency of Instagram being like, “Fire sale on these stories, they’re going away now!” There are so many things that make your phone more addicting and we know that, and even before knowing that, we suspected that.

When something feels too seductive — which is the way Penny feels about Sam — you do get worried. Part of it is [the fear of] catfishing, but part of it is just the incredible suspension of disbelief it requires for someone to love — or to let themselves become infatuated or beguiled or glamoured by — this one open tab. This one app. While knowing that all the other apps are kind of trying to kill you or fuck you up.

And a lot of times the phone version of you, especially if your text game is savage, that’s a good aspect of you to project. So then to be like, “I also chew and poop,” all of that other bummer, biological shit that you don’t have to ever think about becomes this thing. I’m in love with this person, but this person can never have something as simple as spinach in her teeth because this person doesn’t have teeth. That’s a great, tremendous boon. Not only do you not have to consider that, they don’t have to consider that. That’s kind of rad.

And so with two people who have social anxiety, or who are going through some issues in their lives, or feel entirely unpresentable... being able to jettison this parcel that’s a really good version of themselves and just project only that, it feels really good. Remembering that you’re doing that, conversely, just feels jarring and a little bad.

That’s a good way to put it. There’s a part in The Idiot where they go to lunch, and the main character thinks something like, She couldn’t believe that he had eaten every day of his life and that he was going to do it now.”

Yes! Penny has a moment when they’re making out, where she’s like, “Oh my god, you can see out of your eyes.” And she does it earlier when Sam’s kind of passing out, where she’s like, gasp, unfettered access to your physicality with my eyes, when your eyes are closed, is so awesome. But when your eyes are open, and I realize that you’re looking at me, too, that freaks me out. Personally, I really relate to that. It’s such a trip. I think we get that all the time. Bodies are so weird, and reliance on bodies is almost at cross-purposes to where we are technologically speaking.

I want to talk about the title. The conversation where they become “emergency contacts” is one of my favorites because it captures this joking, playful way that people designate each other as important now. It’s hard to tell where the joke ends. Like, “Is this real? Do we matter to each other? I can’t tell. We’re just joking.”

A lot of conversations like that don’t happen anymore. Who’s ever gonna be like, “Will you be my best friend?” No, someone just declaratively calls you their bestie, which imbues that much more ambiguity in the “ie.” But I did want “Ahh! Emergency contact!” And then at the end, solemnly anchoring that with, “Yeah, I guess this is why you need an emergency contact.” I am deploying you as my emergency contact. I am breaking in case of emergency, and this is my moment to do it. I think that that is a really cool thing to do and something that I’ve only sort of arrived at in my 30s, of really leaning on your friends and formalizing it a little bit. I’m going to do this to you, on you, and you can also do this to me, on me.

Do you want to write more YA, or is Emergency Contact just an experiment?

I’m going to write coming-of-age novels... I’m just going to write whatever I’m going to write, and whatever shelf or section they end up on at the bookstore is just going to be that, and I’ll let the marketing people pull their hair out and worry about it.

I am definitely writing more YA. The thing that drew me to it in the first place is I like talking to people who read. Sometimes a huge work of literary fiction is a big deal and becomes this pop cultural juggernaut, and everyone will read it, but with YA — and science fiction is the same way — the people you’re talking to will read a bunch. That’s a nurturing and amazing space to go into. Fiction is very new for me, but this feels like a rad place in which to learn more about how to write, as part of a conversation with the readers who live here.

I read a lot of YA as an adult because I think there are things you can do — like the texting in this book — that would come off as gimmicks in more traditional literary fiction. But if you’re writing for a specific audience, maybe they’ll go there with you.

There’s a really generous readership with YA. It’s trickle down. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are some really dynamite editors and great publishers and everyone was so amped about this book. I think it really matters when you have an industry of people who put the fans first. I definitely can say that with YA, as far as my personal experience with that.

Going back to literary fiction, it’s almost positioned as this type of pop culture homework, where it’s like, “If I don’t watch this season of Game of Thrones, I can’t have dinner outside with other humans.” And certain books kind of carry that with them. In YA, you do have heavy hitters — I read Turtles All the Way Down like everyone else, as soon as it was available — but a lot of people are just going toward what they’re naturally drawn to and reading things in whatever order feels right to them. It isn’t dictated by SEO. It’s dictated by genuine inquisitiveness.

One book that really influenced this one was obviously [Rainbow Rowell’s] Eleanor & Park. There were definitely earlier versions of this book where everyone was in a snarky-off, and the pacing was very like, Amy Sherman-Palladino or Gossip Girl and The OC. Where’s it like on, on, on, on, on. Everyone was... not mean to each other, but a little pointier. I really wanted this book to be sweet. I definitely got some criticism about it, in early reads, from people who were just weren’t the people I should have gone to for early reads, where it was like, “This is such a small story, can you make it more conceptual.” Or, “Can you make it more harrowing?” “Can you antagonize these people a little more?” “Can you make them have more friction between them?” It didn’t feel true to the characters, and it ultimately didn’t feel true to the book that I wanted.

I did want a happy ending, as unrealistic as that is, and as ambiguous as this one particularly is. I kind of wanted to make a book that felt like a safe space but still had a lot going on. I wanted people to come away from it being like, “Oh shit, maybe I’m an artist.” Or like, “Oh shit, maybe I need to stop posturing for 1,000 people and just find one person.”

Emergency Contact will be available March 27th through Simon & Schuster.