New School Book Club: In Conversation with Author and Alumni Stephan Lee

Earlier this year, we launched the New School Book Club. In a time filled with separation and uncertainty, we wanted to find a way to get our community on the same page — literally — and what way to do that than through reading?

Our most recent Book Club pick was K-Pop Confidential by New School Alumni Stephan Lee, MFA Creative Writing ’18. Published on Sept. 15, 2020, K-Pop Confidential follows a teen’s journey from New Jersey to Seoul, South Korea, to compete for a spot in the most hyped K-Pop girl group of all time. An inside-look at the world of K-Pop, the book is about identity, self worth, and, ultimately, finding the courage to speak out against injustice — even if it means putting your dream at risk.

After reading the book, we had the opportunity to gather questions for Stephan from our community, and he answered them over video.

“The K-pop training world is legendary for being very difficult, demanding; kind of like a real life Hunger Games.” — Stephan Lee

@TheNewSchool: Who is your K-pop Ultimate Bias? What are a few of your favorite K-Pop bands?
Stephan Lee: I have so many K-pop groups that i’m obsessed with, but my Ultimate Bias is Black Pink. They’re, of course, killing it right now. But I also think there are so many other girl groups that need a lot more attention especially in the west, so some of them are (G)I-dle, who I love, Twice, Red Velvet, Dream Catcher, Ever Glow, Itzy — so many of them have completely different vibes and there’s so much to explore. I also have an official K-Pop Confidential playlist on Spotify, so I highly recommend you checking that out.

@whitney_mouse: Who was your favorite character to write?
SL: My favorite character to write would probably have to be Candace, my main character, because she goes on such a journey from that well behaved Korean-American girl to someone who really learns how to stick up for herself and say what she really wants. But I also have a soft spot for Helena, Candace’s main rival, and I love the juicy scenes between them because they’re not always the nicest to each other. It’s fun to write those arguments that they have. But Helana also goes on a big journey too and she might have a few surprises in store. So I really like writing her.

@justin.sherwood: How much did you know about K-Pop Idol training before writing K-Pop Confidential? The sections on the book that took place inside the training are so detailed and riveting, I can’t imagine how you came up with them! What kind of research did you do?
SL: The K-pop training world is legendary for being very difficult, demanding, kind of like a real life Hunger Games, so I did as much research as I could on what the day to day life is for K-pop trainees, and life is pretty insane for them. Their schedules are insane, their diets can be a bit restrictive, and there’s a lot of scrutiny and a lot of rules. I did as much research as I could watching every documentary and reading every article, but I also talked to a friend of mine who went through the trainee program. I can’t say who they are or what company they were with, but I got a lot of insight from them. Aside from that, I used my imagination because I didn’t want to model the K-pop company in my book after a real life K-pop company. I also just really tapped into what it would feel like to be that age and have all my dreams on the line and have so little control over it. So it was a big mix of research and just imagination.

@izziebella023: What are you going to be for Halloween?
SL: Okay, this is a fun question. I never do Halloween and there’s probably even less of a likelihood of me doing Halloween this year, but if I were to, I would dress as my cover star Candace Park. I would wear a purple wig and, generally, just be very K-pop.

@m00rekristen: There were a lot of intense and exciting scenes throughout the book, which was your favorite scene to write?
SL: My favorite scenes to write were Candace’s assessments. The way this whole process works to be chosen for this girl group was all the trainees are put into teams of five, but everyone is competing individually for a spot in the final team of five at the end. Each of the trainees has to go through an assessment where they perform in front of the executives of this company. They’re really scrutinized, and I loved writing those assessments because I thought of this book almost like a hero’s journey with Candace going through each assessment as a trial by fire. She learns something new with each one. Plus, those scenes seem to be a little explosive, so they’re definitely my favorite to write.

@sebassaad: The competition between the idols throughout the book is so cut throat, yet, despite it all, there is still a lot of compassion for each character in your writing. I can imagine that’s a tough balance.
SL: I did enjoy writing the scenes about bonding and sisterhood, even more than I did the scenes about rivalries. There was a lot of love for the sub genre of ‘enemies into lovers,’ and I kind of did the platonic friend version of that a bunch of times throughout the book because these idol trainees want the same dream so badly that one person’s success might be seen as another person’s downfall, but there are moments where they can’t help but see each other as human beings and can’t help but notice they’re in the same boat, so I really loved writing the friendships.

My favorite friendships were Binna and Candace and JinJoo and Candace, they’re just two of the most lovable characters, and I know I created them, but I just love them so much as if I didn’t just make them up.

@girlfriendsnyc: What’s been the most difficult part of publishing a book during a pandemic?
SL: Umm, everything. I had this whole idea of what it would look like to put out my first book, I thought there’d be a lot more media and in-person visits to bookstores and libraries and schools but obviously none of that happened. But I have to say some of it’s been kind of nice because I bought myself a ring light, something I would have never done, and I got a lot less shy about DMing authors who are in the same boat, even if I’d never met them before. It’s amazing kind of building that community online, and in some ways it may have been harder without the pandemic because there’s that expectation that we’re all in the same boat, so we’re more likely to reply. There are fewer steps to connection, so that’s been really nice. But in general, yea, it’s been rough. I really try to stop myself from wondering “Would sales be bigger?” or “Would it have had more of an impact if I were able to move around normally?” but it’s actually not that hard to take that out of your mind, because it’s just not the situation we’re in.

“The New School taught me that I can write, start, and finish a book — that what I write is worth reading — and having that kind of confidence made all the difference.” — Stephan Lee

@kelly.stewart15: How did finishing you MFA at The New School help you in writing K-Pop Confidential?
SL: The MFA (Creative Writing Program) just made everything possible. I really can’t stress this enough just how valuable it was because I had to write K-Pop Confidential in a very short amount of time, three months. So doing an MFA was hugely important in this whole process. I was working on a different novel for 10 years before I got to The New School, and it just taught me that I can write, start, and finish a book — that what I write is worth reading — and just having that kind of confidence made all the difference. I don’t think I could have written this book in three months if I hadn’t had the program and everything I learned there; it just gives you a big toolkit of strategies. I really feel armed with so many tools and a lot of confidence, that’s what the New School MFA was so amazing for.

@briar_queen: Will there be a sequel?!
SL: Yes there will be! The announcement will be coming very, very, very soon.

“Own your own voice and don’t only try to emulate what’s already out there.” — Stephan Lee

@kelly.stewart15: What advice would you give to young writers who are just getting started and want to tell stories similar to K-Pop Confidential?
SL: My advice is: Don’t try and fit the model of something you’ve already read. It’s fine to be inspired and to try and emulate the authors you admire the most, but what I struggled with first starting out was if what I was writing didn’t feel like what’s on the shelves right now, there must be something wrong with it. That’s not true. Just really hone your own voice and if it is different from everything else you’re seeing, people might say that’s a bad thing, but just know that it’s not. It’s a sign you have something special and something unique and that’s really your value as a writer. So don’t try to fit every mold.

I’d also say don’t try to think too much about categories. Is this YA, is this not YA? Am I a fantasy writer or am I a contemporary writer? Don’t try to limit yourself before you start, try a bit of everything. I plan to write books that are very very different from K-Pop Confidential in the future, so own your own voice and don’t only try to emulate what’s already out there.

Please stay safe, wear a mask, and VOTE!

Stephan Lee is a YA enthusiast, ardent K-Pop fan and journalist. He currently works as an Associate Director at Bustle after a five-year stretch at Entertainment Weekly. At EW, he wrote features and reviews and once traveled to Seoul to write a feature about Korean entertainment’s world domination. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. K-Pop Confidential is his first novel.

Thank you, Stephan, for taking part in New School Book Club!

Stay tuned for the next New School Book Club pick coming this winter!

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