Vulnerable Swagger and Everyday Longing: A Conversation with Jean Kyoung Frazier

You ever have that flutter of expectation when you come across something so seemingly made for you that you almost don’t want to dive into it? The dreamy haze of expectation is so thick that you don’t want it to dissipate, because once the smoke clears, what’s left can’t possibly live up to the blur-ry version. I was apprehensive when I first came across Pizza Girl. Reason being: my name is Gene, I’m Korean-American, and I love pizza so much I average a free pizza through Domino’s Rewards program once every three weeks, even during the pandemic. The writer of Pizza Girl is named Jean, she’s a bi-racial Korean-American, and she wrote a whole book about a bi-racial, Korean-American, eighteen-year-old who delivers pizza, and she called it Pizza Girl. You can see my dilemma.

The mostly unnamed pizza girl at the center of Pizza Girl is feeling adrift, even though she has a nucleus of a support system around her in her loving Korean mother, who cashiers at Kmart, and her almost suffocatingly protective boyfriend, Billy, who has big Golden-Retriever energy. She’s also dealing with the ache of missing her dead father, who she had a conflicted relationship with as he was both abusive and coping with addiction. During her pizza delivery job, one day, she comes across Jenny Hauser. Jenny Hauser. Jenny Hauser. The girl in the movie who comes onscreen and the record scratches and everything goes slow-mo, except she’s a married woman with a child, although one who has a ponytail that’s the “longest [Pizza Girl’d] ever seen on a woman her age” and Pizza Girl is simply her pizza girl. Only Pizza Girl can’t stop thinking about Jenny Hauser. She makes excuses to sneak by her house. Visits a support group for struggling mothers with her. Does borderline illegal things to be near her. And Pizza Girl as far as Pizza Girl knows has never really had this type of de-sire for another woman, minus Becky Rivas from U.S. History, and even that was different. The book careens between joy, loneliness, and obsession as Pizza Girl makes bad decision after bad decision, which makes you want to blaze through its slim, just under 200 pages in a single sitting. Not unlike finishing a large pizza solo in one go, which in hindsight is often better meted out over time. Also, Jean Kyoung Frazier imbues the novel with wit and one-liners. Jenny’s son, Adam, has “three stuffed animals he [is] on speaking terms with—Mr. Fuzzmister, King Cotton Candy, and Eric.” One of the people Pizza Girl delivers to is a woman with “long knotted hair, a bandage over her left eye, [and] wearing a t-shirt that claimed there was no place like Omaha.” At a meeting for struggling mothers, a woman says she has “a new baby, an old beagle, and a boyfriend who’s bad at wiping—there’s shit everywhere.”

When I finished the book, I was in awe. It exceeded the hype. There was only one way to celebrate. Order Domino’s. The tracker said Gabe was putting my pie in the oven.

We conducted this interview via e-mail in May.

Gene Kwak: Since this is your debut, can you talk a little bit about how writing made its way into your life? Did you know you wanted to be a writer from an early age? Back into it accidentally?

Jean Kyoung Frazier: I can’t remember exactly when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I do remember feeling deep pleas-ure the first time I listened to Skee-lo’s “I Wish.” I was ten years old and my big cousin Andrew was the coolest person on the planet, so I was constantly sneaking onto his computer to see what songs he’d downloaded off of Limewire. Those opening lines remain some of my favorites to this day—“I wish I was a little bit taller / I wish I was a baller / I wish I had a girl who looked good / I would call her.”

Of course at ten, I wasn’t thinking much about those lines beyond, “Hell yeah!” Looking back now, though, it makes sense that they hit for me. They contain a lot of what I try put into my own fiction. Longing, vulnerability, but still playful, a little swagger, lots of flow, everyday humanity—all of this evoked in four short sentences.

I have a lot of early memories like that—reading or hearing a line and not being able to get it out of my head. In high school, I started writing lines of my own. Nothing serious, just some goofy poems to pass the time. There’s one I still like about growing up and owning a McDonald’s in Miami. In college, I majored in Business for no reasons other than that I wanted to make enough money to buy a tight house and have a pair of Jordans for every day of the week. I still only really viewed writing as a kind of nervous tic, something I couldn’t seem to stop myself from doing.

It wasn’t until the summer before my Junior year that I started thinking about writing differently. I was working three jobs and taking an online class, so I had like no free time. Yet, I was reading and writing more than ever. I was stretching every spare moment I had to consume and create stories. It was the first time that writing ever felt necessary to me. I have a funny memory of finishing Bluets by Maggie Nelson in the parking lot before work and having to call out sick because I felt so emotionally spent.

That fall, I changed my major to English and I’m really glad I did.

GK: When I first heard about your book, I remember thinking, what the hell is Pizza Girl and how do I get my hands on it? And then I did some searching to find a really rough synopsis and that was it. No older stories of yours. No real internet writing presence. But it felt kind of amazing to not know anything about a writer and then suddenly read this fully-formed thing. So, is Pizza Girl your “first” first novel? Or did you have other drafts of novel-type things on your hard drive that didn’t quite feel right? And at what point did you know Pizza Girl was the one?

JKF: Yeah, I’m shy about my work and on bad days, that shyness can harden into self-doubt, fear that I don’t really have anything worth saying. So, I never even tried to get a short story or anything published before Pizza Girl.

However, Pizza Girl wasn’t my first attempt at a novel. Over the past few years, I’ve written a lot of ten to fifteen page short stories and prayed I could expand one of them. I’ve also always had the vague ambition of writing the great basketball novel of America. For so long, Pizza Girl was just another one of my half-baked ideas. At first, Pizza Girl wasn’t even Pizza Girl, it was Pizza Boy. At the time that I had the idea that maybe a pizza delivery novel could be fun, I was still uncomfortable speaking openly about my sexuality. I was writing a lot through male POV simply because it felt like the only digestible way I could write about my attraction / romantic feelings towards women.

So, yeah, Pizza Girl wasn’t my first “first” novel and I’m so thankful that it wasn’t. I think a lot about how I wrote it at the exact right time in my life, how it took time for me to be ready to write it. It took time for me grow more at ease with myself and my sexuality. As that ease grew, so did my desire to write more female POV stories, more voices closer to my own. I needed distance from my eighteen-year-old self and with that distance came an urgency to create an honest rendering of that strange, delicate age. In that time, I also wrote a lot of stories that while not quite right, weren’t fully wrong. They explored a lot of the same things—addiction, young parenthood, Americanization, slacker mentality, the choices that form our future selves, etc. I wondered if there was a way I could pack all this into one cohesive story. I changed the title from Pizza Boy to Pizza Girl and gave it a shot.

I knew it was “the one” when I started thinking about the characters even when I wasn’t writing or thinking about writing. I’d be going about my boring daily life and something would happen, or someone would say something, and I’d wonder, “What would Pizza Girl think about that?”

GK: One thing I love about this book is that the narrator’s mother, who is a Korean immigrant, doesn’t fit that stereotype at all. Do you think consciously or subconsciously you were fighting against writing a “type” of Asian or Korean mother we’ve seen depicted, especially in American media?

JKF: It was a very conscious choice. I’ve always been annoyed that in so much of Western media, “Asian” is used as like a personality trait. At best, stereotypes are lazy, the result of someone not wanting to put in any effort into considering a viewpoint outside their own. At worst, they’re founded in hate, employed with the intention of being harmful. I think what people don’t always consider is that they can still be harmful even if they’re just being lazy.

While writing, I thought a lot about my own mom. How yes, she’s Korean, but that’s not what makes her one of the most interesting, unique women I know. Writing the mom’s dialogue in the book was one of my favorite parts, a chance to showcase personality and energy that hasn’t been typically given to Asian moms in mainstream media.

GK: I read a novel years ago, the title escapes me, but I remember discussing it with one of my buddies and he said, “It’s a book full of protagonists.” And he wasn’t saying that as a knock. And that’s kind of how I felt about your novel. No one is easily drawn or put into these boxes. In fact, the main character is surrounded by loving people in her immediate orbit; did you have to go back-and-forth with trying to calibrate that?

JKF: “Book full of protagonists,”—I dig that.

It was difficult in that I knew by having the narrator push back against such kind and loving people that it could rub the reader the wrong way, their frustration building each time she pushes away a caring hand. But I also knew that there was no way to tell the story that I wanted to tell without frustrating the reader.

Like so many people, myself included, Pizza Girl is her own worst enemy, so many of her problems are ones of her own making. There’s something heartbreaking—and yes, very frustrating—about someone that has everything they need to be happy, yet can’t seem to be. I also wanted the reader to feel how frustrated the narrator is with herself. She’s very aware that her mom, her boyfriend, even her co-worker, care for her and want to help her, but she just begin to imagine unpacking all the shit that she’s been carrying around. Their kindness only makes her feel uglier and angrier for being unable to accept and reciprocate.

GK: One thing I kept thinking about was loneliness. So many of the characters are decent people and they’re surrounded by other decent people and yet they all seem so lonely. I particularly think of the scene where Darryl, the protagonist’s co-worker, tries to reach out to her, but she rebuffs him. There were a few scenes in there where the voice in my head was screaming for the characters to connect, but then things would get blunted by fear, ego, circumstances, etc. Can you take me through the crafting of those scenes?

JKF: I was thinking a lot about “tragedy.” It’s a heavy word. While I don’t disagree with the basic dictionary definition of tragedy, I also think that beyond big singular events, there are so many small things that happen on the day to day, quiet tragedies.

To me, one of the biggest quiet tragedies is lack of communication. It’s so easy to not talk, to just go about your day to day, only speaking when spoken to, saying things that won’t raise eyebrows or require much in return. And even if you’re what’s considered a fun and social person, someone who never stops talking, it’s funny how in terms of having real and honest moments of connection, you can have the exact same number of those moments as someone who barely speaks all day.

Throughout the novel, so many of the problems that plague the characters exist because they’re not talking about what’s actually bothering them. Even when given opportunities to talk, they’re swallowing their words and letting their worries and stresses fester inside of them. There’s something so tragic about how a lot of the pain and hurt in the story could’ve been avoided if the characters just opened their mouths.

GK: Another thing that kept popping into my head while reading was how dead-on the narrator’s voice and way of navigating through the world was. Even during some of the most intense moments, especially during the biggest one between Jenny and her, she tends to daydream or exist outside of the moment. It totally makes sense that people, especially young people growing up in this overstimulated world, would use that as a coping mechanism just to get by. Can you talk about how you approached that and were there times where you had to pull back on those fleeting thoughts?

JKF: Once I felt comfortable with the voice, I didn’t think too hard about it, mostly because I knew if I did, I might get tripped up and tinker with it so much that it would lose it’s natural, genuine flow. I really just thought a lot about how memory works and the ways that thoughts can be triggered by surroundings. It also just made a lot of sense with Pizza Girl’s character, her age, and her bleak reality that her mind would be constantly searching for something, anything, to latch onto. The only thing keeping her from an utter mental collapse is her mind’s Herculean efforts to direct her away from all the shit that’s eating at her.

GK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the main character’s name (which I don’t want to give away here) isn’t even uttered at all in the book until the last couple of pages, right? When Jenny says her name in the parking lot. But the narrator doesn’t actually say outright whether Jenny is right. Why did you want to leave some ambiguity around the name?

JKF: Yeah, the name isn’t brought up until the last few pages. It’s easy to feel nameless, almost robotic, as a service industry worker and it felt important that that be a subtle part of the story.

In terms of her actual name, I liked the idea that whether Jenny got Pizza Girl’s name right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. They’re probably never going to see or speak to each other again. That being said, I think that whether Jenny got the name right or wrong, Pizza Girl also understood then that even though they both used each other, that doesn’t mean that everything that happened between them was bullshit. It’s this quietly big moment where she realizes that people need people and the only thing she can really do is try and pick the right people to need.

GK: We have to get some pizza questions out of the way. Favorite pizza place when you were in New York? Favorite pizza place in California? Favorite style of pizza and toppings? Also, your bio says that you delivered pizzas at one point. Was there anything about the job that was surprising to you?

JKF: I’ve been dreading this question. I wish I had a better answer, but I’m a garbage monster and like literally all pizza. In LA, especially where there’s not a huge pizza culture, I’m so unpicky. There’s a Little Caesar’s by my apartment that so often hits the spot. Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Roundtable, I fuck with all of them!

In NYC, I upped my game a little bit. The two places I went to the most were Patsy’s in Harlem and Freddy and Pepper’s in the Upper West Side. I’d either use Patsy’s as one of my running destinations (workout and reward after) or I’d go to Freddy and Pepper’s before I’d see a movie, sneak it into the theater. I miss the days of MoviePass.

As for my actual pizza delivering experience, the most surprising parts were always the people I delivered to. I did enjoy whenever a customer would open their door and I would get a quick look into their homes. The job itself was rarely surprising, but that’s what I loved most about it. It didn’t require too much thought or effort. It was the perfect job for twenty-year-old Jean. She got to drive around and listen to music, make a little money and eat a little pizza.

GK: What are you working on next?

JKF: Never thought I would say this, but currently two things at once!

One is the novel I always thought I would do—centered around women’s basketball, sex, the Midwest, and giving up on your dreams. The other is perhaps the silliest thing I’ve allowed myself to do—a literary, queer Harold and Kumar-type novel. I love stoner comedies, but I’ve always thought there is something inherently depressing about them. So many of the jokes in those movies are centered around the characters’ shitiness, their inability to grow up and the stagnance of their lives. While I obviously think Pineapple Express is a great LOL, I think it definitely had pure the potential to be a pure Drama. Basically, I think there needs to be a stoner tragedy genre.  

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