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The Write Stuff: Paula Yoo's on a Roll

Audrey Magazine, News feature, Jennifer Oyama Posted: Jun 06, 2009

Paula Yoo is on a roll. Speaking at a training session on young adult literature to a large audience of Los Angeles County librarians, she has commanded their undivided attention for nearly an hour. As she weaves in and out of the audience, talking and gesturing rapidly, she expounds on subjects ranging from young adult publishing trends, to a spam recipe she recently tried at home. “I feel like Oprah,” she gushes at one point.

Barely 5 feet tall, Yoo’s enthusiasm permeates the large conference room with an infectious energy. Towards the end of the lecture, she quickly shifts gears once again, as a serious tome on the injuries of the “model minority” stereotype turns to a lighthearted slideshow of past crushes — namely, the real-life inspiration for the love interest character in her novel, Good Enough (HarperCollins, 2008). “Isn’t he cute?” she pipes.

Publishing novels is but one of the many accomplishments Yoo can add to her résumé these days. A classically trained professional violinist, Yoo’s unique literary voice, most notably in the form of her humorous young adult novel, has received critical acclaim from reviewers and readers alike.

“This novel kind of happened by accident,” she says, when asked how it came into fruition.

Most of her creative writing career, in fact, happened somewhat coincidentally. A former news journalist, Yoo began writing creatively in 2000, when the more aggressive art of news reporting began to take its toll. This led to a TV drama writing opportunity, which was brought to her attention at the suggestion of a friend. One of her many projects during this time involved an initially brief piece about a violin audition. “Before I knew it, it was four in the morning, and I knew it was the start of a novel,” she says.

Her agent, who specializes in young adult and children’s publishing, agreed. However, he believed that her comical voice was best suited for young adult fiction. With the publication and subsequent acclaim for the novel shortly after its release, the former People Weekly correspondent and West Wing staff writer suddenly found herself in a world that she had coveted, but was not entirely prepared for. “My life has been a little upside down,” she admits. “As a first time novelist, you have to do a lot of the publicity yourself.”

She was up for the challenge, however, and took a year to promote the book across the country. The effort paid off, with reviews being largely positive and a nomination for the Best Books for Young Adults award highlighting her up-and-coming status in the growing world of young adult fiction.

With novel writing being high on her list of priorities, I ask Yoo if she has abandoned screenwriting. She assures me that she has not. Nor does she regret the decade-long journalism career she left behind when she decided to get a master’s in Fine Arts (from Warren Wilson College) and focus on creative writing. Conversely, she explains, she feels lucky for having had the experiences, and education, that both styles offered. “Journalism taught me how to write on a deadline, which is extremely important for all types of writing,” she says. “It also made me more assertive. You’ve got to hurt people’s feelings in journalism because it’s about the truth.”

And television screenwriting?

“You’re in a room with about five to 10 really intensely A-personality types … and you’re all trying to talk at the same time, “ she says. “You have to be ready for people to trash your ideas.”

While her clear preference is to write novels, she acknowledges that it’s not the most lucrative way to earn a living. She also admits that it “sucks” to be unemployed as a screenwriter, an industry that has declined with the proliferation of reality shows. She does realize, however, that she has become a writer in the purest, if most unglamorous, sense of the word these days.


In addition to two other published books and a host of new projects in the works, one can be certain that Yoo won’t be disappearing from the literary world any time soon. She cites only one negative aspect to hiding out in her “writing batcave,” as she likes to call it.

“I’m a very social person. … I hate writing because I’m all alone,” she laughs.

One of the ways she copes is by banding together with other writers. She is good friends with novelist Lisa Yee, and a member of Fusion Stories, a coalition of up-and-coming Asian American young adult and children’s authors with published books featuring Asian American characters. The distinction is that their storylines, unlike the more “classic” Asian American storylines, aren’t limited to race issues. “I would say that today’s Asian American literature is fantastic. I think that there’s a great diversity. You have books that actually feature Asian American teen protagonists, but it’s not about race,” says Yoo.

Another goal of the group is to recognize authors that address stereotypes, such as the “model minority” stereotype faced by Good Enough’s central character, Patti Yoon. The larger goal is to disprove the stereotype by focusing on the individual, and the unique experiences of that individual, which may or may not include his or her culture.

Yoo is particularly drawn to the idea of reversing the “model minority” myth. Having experienced this more subtle, but equally damaging, form of discrimination, she cites others’ perceptions of her work ethic, which she feels were attributed by race. “The manager came up to me and she said, ‘You people are really smart,’” Yoo remembers, referencing a job she held at a clothing store while in high school. “It was kind of taken for granted.”

She encountered a similar misperception while working as a reporter at the Detroit News. “My editor started talking about how Korean people were very, very hard working,” she says. “That kind of stereotype affected me when I asked for a raise; even if it’s a positive stereotype, it devalues and trivializes individual achievement.”

Patti Yoon would likely agree. Although she embodies the qualities of the stereotypical “overachiever,” her main desire is to find acceptance at her Connecticut high school, as well as happiness — just like everyone else. Does that make Patti Yoon Yoo’s alter ego?

“She plays the violin better than me,” Yoo quips. “She’s smarter than me.” Yoo is particularly glad to see a departure from the “classic” Asian American literature, a body of work that focused largely on the Asian immigrant experience. Her next book, Shooting Star: The Anna May Wong Story (set to be released in 2009), seems to fall into this category of departure. As one of the first Asian American screen actresses in Hollywood, Wong’s uncommon life was filled not only with conflict, but controversy.

This deep interest in conflict led Yoo to write her first book, published in 2005. Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, chronicled the numerous challenges faced by Lee, the first Asian American to win a gold medal at the Olympics, in 1948.

Yoo acknowledges that while being published is rewarding, it is not the most gratifying aspect of being a writer. At the young adult literature training, her analogy of writing and being published — to dating and getting married — draws a few nervous laughs.

“To be a writer, ultimately, does not mean being published. To be a writer means you just want to write. The analogy would be that, do you want to get married or do you want to be in love?”

Clearly, Yoo would rather be in love — and to keep on writing.

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