Angie Kim’s debut novel, Miracle Creek has been described as a “gripping page turner” by Time and “a quick-paced murder mystery that plumbs the power and perils of community” by Oprah Magazine. Kim’s trial attorney experience came into play as this mesmerizing novel takes readers through a courtroom showdown of lies and the urgent need to find the truth.
Sometimes the truth is ugly. Sometimes we as humans can be ugly, full of hate, envy, loneliness and fury. Kim delves into such timely yet intricate themes with great care and delicacy, from how the immigrant experience can take a toll on a family unit to the complex emotions a mother feels when trying to care for her autistic or disabled child. Ableism, racism, sexism, and the exploration of justice are also examined as each chapter reveals the perceptive of a different character.
I was very excited to speak with Angie and discuss the ideas that sparked the creation of Miracle Creek, HBOT therapy in real life, her writing journey and what gave her the confidence and drive to pursue writing full time.
Kailey Brennan: With so many complicated themes woven throughout Miracle Creek, I’m curious about what sparked the initial idea for the story.
Angie Kim: The heart of the novel and the idea for the novel was the HBOT setting; the idea that something terrible could happen in this setting. I've experienced HBOT in real life, with one of my kids, in this group setting where you are sealed in there with other families. We talked intensely and intimately about our lives with each other, and I thought that that crucible feel of it was really interesting to explore in the novel. When I did HBOT, I wasn’t yet a writer.
When I started writing later and wrote personal and short stories that got published, I wanted to start tackling a novel. I immediately thought of HBOT as one of my primary ideas, being in a group setting and then something terrible happens, resulting in injuries and deaths, things like that.
So that was one idea. I had a different idea for a different novel, which I was going to call something like "The Silent Grocer". It was a novel that sort of took off from my time as a recent Korean immigrant with my parents working in downtown Baltimore in a grocery store. My idea was that we would start the novel with this Korean grocer holding a gun over a dead body or maybe an injured body or something like that. And then he, partly because of the language barriers, wasn't speaking to anyone about what happened. So there was that mystery angle. I was describing these two ideas to a writer friend of mine who is in my writing group, and he said why don't you combine the two stories and have the Korean immigrant family be the owners and the operators of this HBOT thing. I thought, is that too many things in one story? Can I make that happen? And the more I thought about it, I got very intrigued about the idea of doing that. So that was what sparked the beginning of Miracle Creek. I had these two different separate novel ideas that sort of combined into one at the suggestion of a friend.
KB: I find that inspiring because I feel like for myself, and I'm sure a lot of other writers feel this way — we get so many little ideas and then think, okay, I'll have to write a novel that explores this theme and then my next novel has to be about this other idea. It feels overwhelming to try to figure out what to explore. When I was reading your book, I noticed a lot was going on but it works. I enjoyed that and now hearing your thought process, it feels like a kind of freedom to be able to explore a lot of things in one story.
AK: It's funny because I didn’t set out to explore any particular theme or idea. I just thought of the situation for both of these stories. But then my friend who was listening to my ideas could sort of see the themes that I would end up exploring. He was the one who as an outsider, who wasn't into my mindset of, well, this is what the story is about from a plot perspective. He could think more broadly about what is this novel going to end up being about. He was able to say, parenting in immigration, immigrant families, and the sacrifices that you have to make and the extremes you can go to, special needs parenting when exploring HBOT— all of these themes are going to end up being explored in the novel and they all go together well.
It's funny because I didn't really set out to explore that, but then put it that way, it did dawn on me that there are similarities and that it would be really interesting to have those characters talk to each other and put their experiences side by side. It's really interesting how other people can objectively look at our ideas and work and find stuff there that you didn't even realize would exist in those threads.
KB: Absolutely. It’s great to have other writers in your life. Did you find success in your HBOT experience?
AK: It's hard to know because it's not a controlled study. It's not double-blind, placebo-controlled or anything like that. We did it for my son’s ulcerative colitis. I don't know if we can attribute it all or even a little bit to the HBOT or it could have been a synergistic effect, but by the end of the summer, while doing the HBOT sessions, he did outgrow the ulcerative colitis. So it ended up being great from our perspective. But again, it’s hard to know if it was because of the HVAC therapy that we did or for example, just having done the gluten-free diet for his celiac disease for so long that by the time we were doing HBOT that it sort of all of a sudden kicked in.
But the one thing I think did work—which is interesting because we didn't even do it for this— the same kid was also born deaf in one ear and it was an auditory neuropathy. Towards the end of the summer, we did a hearing test just to make sure that the hearing in his good ear was not being harmed in any way by the constant pressurization and depressurization on the eardrums. That was something that we were concerned about. When we did the testing the audiologist said that he had gained some hearing in his previously deaf ear, which was so miraculous and weird.
We thought, how is this possible? It must be a coincidence because HBOT isn't indicated for that. But there must be a connection because the timing was so bizarre. Ten years later, so several years ago, when I was updating my research on HBOT for this novel, I saw that one of the more recent new uses of HBOT is for sudden deafness. Then my cousin sent me an article a few weeks ago letting me know that the American College of Otolaryngologists, put into their standard treatment protocol HBOT for certain forms of hearing loss. That was exciting to me.
KB: I thought you tapped into the complicated emotions of being a mother, especially being a mother of a child with an illness or disability, honestly and beautifully. Did you get any kind of backlash for some of the more ugly truths, particularly with Elizabeth’s character, who exhibits abuse?
AK: The book has many Goodreads reviews now and I do try to go on and read them from time to time. I think just a few have been critical of the fact that all perspectives are written from the perspective of the mothers rather than the children. So there have been some people I think who have said, why isn't there more about the joys of parenting rather than the heartaches of parenting. Or this makes it seem if you're the parent of a child with a chronic illness, it's all pain. I've seen just a few comments like that.
On the other hand, most of the comments, the majority of people who have direct experience with this, are grateful that they're seeing this sort of honest account. A lot more people have reached out to me or emailed me or posted on social media, talking about how they have experienced a family member or their children or someone who is actually on the spectrum or have a chronic illness themselves and have now talked to their mothers about it after reading this book. Some have said this book made them feel less alone or it helped them to understand their relationship with their mother better, and helped them to understand what their family members are going through. So it's been really, really meaningful to me.
KB: I wanted to ask about Mary’s character. I know you came to the USA with your parents from South Korea when you were around her age.
AK: Yes. I came at 11, which is when I think Mary came too.
KB: I was wondering if you had a similar kind of experience that Mary did as far as struggling to belong.
AK: Yeah. I would say that Mary is the character who is the closest to me. They're fictional characters and they have elements of different people, but the one person who is sort of based on my real life is Mary for sure. The context in which she moved and a lot of the emotions that she experienced being a new immigrant to America, not speaking the language, feeling, foreign, and the isolation and loneliness.
And also being bratty and acting out and rebelling against my parents, especially my mother. That is all true to life and something that I put my parents through. In a way, it was great sharing this book with my parents because it served as an apology of sorts for the way that I acted.
KB: I’m curious about your writing journey. When did you start to pursue writing?
AK: I wrote an essay, a little bit about the very beginnings of my writing journey for the Washington Post. It starts with how I cried in Whole Foods. I did writing as a lawyer but I never really want it to be a writer. I never did any sort of creative writing or anything like that.
The first time I even thought about writing was after I became a mother when all three of my kids were having issues that required a lot of hospital visits. All of these issues have since been resolved thankfully. But when I was going through that, I needed some sort of catharsis.
I found myself writing, just very personal stuff, almost like a diary. I started with some personal essay about having gone through that experience and what that's like. I realized that I couldn't publish or submit them for publication because I didn't want such personal things with medical issues about my kids out there. But by this time, I was hooked on writing and creative writing.
So I did two things. I started writing personal essays about my own experience as an immigrant, sort of memoir type stuff about all of that. These were some of the first pieces that I submitted to literary journals and got published. My husband had the brilliant idea suggesting I write fiction for the parenting things I wanted to explore.
I’d never written fiction before so that's when I started taking classes. I took classes at The Writer’s Center which is sort of like Grub Street in Boston but in the DC area in Bethesda, Maryland. I also took some online writing classes about writing short stories. Then I got my writing group in gear. Little by little, I revised the short stories that I was working on and submitted them to journals and literary magazines that pay you by giving you a complimentary copy of the issue that you're writing appears. I also did some contests.
I think both gave me the self-confidence to feel like, okay, I not only enjoy writing, but I have the chops to maybe pursue this more seriously. And that's when I started writing more and more stories and gravitating more towards fiction. I felt like it was so rich and allowed me to mine experiences that I've had, but to go beyond that. I love many different genres. I love mysteries. I love fantasy. I love genre-bending work, things that mix the literary with different genres and try to do something a little bit different from the standard tropes. I decided to explore that and I started writing almost full time.
KB: That’s great to hear that entering contests and submitting to magazines gave you that confidence.
AK: Not only the confidence but also a writing resume that I could list when I was going to query agents. I do think that it's important to not just focus on the novel, but the act of revising, editing or refining and perfecting a piece of work and submitting it out there and getting feedback by rejections and being able to live through and survive that. I think that's so important as a writer. When people ask me, how do you become a novelist, or how do you get your novel sold, I encourage and emphasize this early aspect of working on short stories and getting those submitted and published. Just to get some feedback from the marketplace on your writing and your quality of writing.
I also think that it's important that when you're querying agents that you be able to say, hey, my writing has been published here and here and there. It’s fine if they're little literary journals because we're all in the publishing community. Agents submit their clients writing to literary journals to so they know how hard it is. I think that just signals to them that you're a serious writer. You're a writer in the community of other writers, which is very important.
Angie Kim is the debut author of the national bestseller Miracle Creek, a literary courtroom drama that has been named an IndieNext and LibraryReads pick, a Best Book of 2019 So Far by Time Magazine and Amazon, a Washington Post Summer Reads selection, and a Top 10 AppleBooksDebuts of 2019. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Slate, and numerous literary journals. She moved from Seoul, Korea, to Baltimore as a preteen, and attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three sons.