Former Tulsan Grace K. Shim didn’t want to become a novelist.
“I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve had teachers who were very complimentary and encouraging about the work I’ve done,” Shim said. “But it just didn’t seem like a viable profession. I just thought it would be something that would come in handy in any career I pursue.
Shim, who now lives in California, worked in the entertainment industry for several years before earning a master’s degree in early childhood education and becoming a teacher.
“When we were expecting our first child, I made the decision to quit to be a full-time mom,” Shim said. “I thought the best thing for my kids was to be there for them.”
But soon after the birth of her third child, Shim decided the time was right for her to “do something for me”, she said. “I couldn’t go back to school or work full time, so I started typing on the computer keyboard.”
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Earlier this month, Shim’s debut novel, “The Noh Family,” was published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Aimed at young adult readers, the novel tells the story of a Korean-American teenager named Chloe Chang, who lives in Tulsa with her widowed mother, who works as a nurse at a local hospital.
Chloe dreams of becoming a fashion designer, although her mother has decided that Chloe should go to the local community college to study something practical, like nursing.
When Chloe’s friends present her with a DNA kit from one such company that offers to trace her lineage, she sees it as something of a joke. But after getting her results, she begins to receive messages from someone claiming to be a cousin, revealing that Chloe has a whole family she knows next to nothing about – a family that could shed some light on the life of her long-dead father. .
When the Noh family invites Chloe to visit them in Korea, Chloe’s mother tries to talk her out of it. But Chloe is determined to leave – and once she arrives, she soon realizes that her father’s family is one of the wealthiest in the country and is willing to help make Chloe’s dreams come true.
But dreams come true usually come at a high price. And some family secrets could be consigned to the past.
Shim is from Tulsa, whose parents immigrated from South Korea before he was born. Her father was in the oil business, eventually running his own drilling business, while her mother worked for American Airlines.
She attended preschool at Holland Hall before transferring to Jenks East, which she attended until seventh grade.
“I was one of two Korean-American students in the whole school,” Shim said. “My sister was the other. And while I have many fond memories of my time there, I also felt very much like a fish out of water in the place where I was born and raised. It wasn’t that I was being treated badly, or that people were mean, or anything like that. It was just how I felt.
It got to the point that when Shim was 16 and her parents wanted to transfer her to Holland Hall, she asked her parents to send her either to a special international school in Seoul or to a boarding school in California in the South.
“That was how unhappy I was,” Shim said. “I really wanted to go to Seoul, because I thought it would be relatively easy to assimilate there. But it required a parent to come with me, so I went to school in California, because we had family there.
This feeling of dislocation was something that Shim exploited for “The Noh Family”, as its main character grapples with questions about her own identity and place in the world, and the feelings of isolation that many teenagers experience. , but which in Chloe’s case is exacerbated due to her heritage.
“My family’s attitude was, ‘This is where we live now, so this is how we’re going to live,’” Shim said. “We spoke English at home. We ate American food, because there weren’t many Asian or Korean markets in Tulsa back then.
“Growing up, I felt like everyone else,” she said. “I led a life very similar to that of all my friends. It was just that my outward appearance was out of step with how I felt on the inside.
When creating Chloe’s story, Shim said one of his inspirations was Meg Cabot’s popular “Princess Diaries” series. While the Noh family who claim Chloe as their own may not be royalty, the retail empire they oversee is successful enough to make them one of the wealthiest families – and so the most powerful – in the country.
And if such a setup lends itself to a few plot twists that wouldn’t be out of place on one of the Korean soap operas, or “K-dramas,” that Chloe and her friends obsessively watch, so much the better.
“I hope readers will immerse themselves in the experience, suspend reality for a while, and enjoy this journey that Chloe is on,” Shim said. “Just as I was able to draw on my memories of Tulsa for this book, I was also able to draw on my experiences visiting Korea. I have an aunt there who is quite wealthy – she’s not one of the 1% people who control most of the wealth in Korea, but it’s kind of adjacent to them, so I got to get a little insight into the wealthy lifestyle that Chloe finds herself in.
While “The Noh Family” is Shim’s first published novel, it is the fifth she has written. The first two were “workout novels that taught me all the things I was doing wrong,” she laughed. Her third novel caught the eye of a mentorship program made up of fellow Korean-American writers.
“My first three novels didn’t have Korean characters, because I thought there was no interest in Korean characters and stories,” Shim said. “But at a writing retreat, I was talking with an agent and mentioned wanting to write about my experiences at boarding school, and she said that was the kind of story she would want to read. It was then that I began to realize that I could write about myself and tell my stories.
Shim is finishing her boarding school novel for possible publication in 2023, but she’s not finished with “The Noh Family” yet. She recently signed an option with a major production company that wants to adapt the novel as a limited series.
“It’s far from a done deal, but this company has been doing some really high-end shows, so that’s pretty exciting,” Shim said.
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