Musician and author Michelle Zauner sat down for an online Illinois Libraries Present event Thursday in conversation with music critic, producer and author Jessica Hopper.
Zauner discussed her bestselling memoir, “Crying in H Mart” as well as her career as an indie singer and guitarist under the name Japanese Breakfast.
The first-time author’s book about losing her mother and forging her own identity as a Korean American, which came out 2021, has spent 49 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers List.
Zauner said she has been working on the screenplay for the feature film adaptation of her story. Reshaping her experiences from her into a more music-focused angle for the screen has been the greatest challenge, she said.
“In the book, I really shied away from writing about my life as a musician,” Zauner said. “But then I came to realize toward the end that my creative life actually had so much to do with (my mother and I’s) relationship and so much of the friction between us stemmed from this creative life I wanted so desperately for myself.”
Back in college, Zauner never anticipated nonfiction writing being part of her career, she said, as her mixed-race background never felt accessible to write about in the literary world because of a lack of representation.
When her mother passed away, though, Zauner discovered nonfiction writing as a therapeutic outlet to explore what had happened in a way that music could not.
“So much of my disinterest in writing nonfiction was largely because I never felt like I could see myself as a main character, and it finally feels like I’m allowed to be,” Zauner said.
Before the book could reach critical acclaim, Zauner and her editor set a goal of writing 80,000 words for the first draft. Much of her writing process involved writing 1,000 words a day while on tour, which she said resulted in a “knowingly sloppy first draft.”
Later on, Zauner said, she reflected on how the first version of her book was “extremely angry at everyone in my life” and how she learned to think about her memoir more critically in later drafts.
“The virtue of memoir is that you have to be fair and as honest as possible,” Zauner said. “It really forces you to have more perspective and compassion for everyone involved.”
The added layer of nuance resonated with readers and listeners at the event.
Hopper described how she initially couldn’t read the book because she was acting as a caretaker for her father after his surgeries. For her, reading the book later on became a visceral experience in Zauner’s descriptions of food and death.
“One of the things I really valued was that realness of death and your presence with it,” Hopper said. “It isn’t like the movie where the person just closes their eyes and everyone cries and pats their hand. It’s very intense.”
Listeners also resonated with Zauner’s experiences and healing journey. Hearing that others shared similar perspectives at the intersection of culture and grief showed Zauner she wasn’t alone.
One such listener wrote in the Zoom chat during the event that she lost both of her parents in her late teens more than 40 years ago.
“Reading your book helped me come to terms with some of my sadness and guilt that I still hold onto,” she wrote. “So….for that…thank you.”
When asked how songwriting influenced her book-writing process, Zauner said she likes to observe closely around her for inspiration, both for “Crying in H Mart” and for her music.
She recalled how she wrote a song about a heavy hand in reference to wearing her mother’s wedding ring and watching her dad throwing corn husks across the lawn every summer.
“I’m interested in the ordinary and mundane and finding and sharing what is extraordinary about those things,” Zauner said. “I’m just deeply moved by really mundane human interaction and experience, and I think that my work in both music and writing is to call attention to those moments.”
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