10 Questions with Karen Mok
- By Edward Clifford
Mimi herself wasn't on great terms with the ancestors. Her altar was stuffed in the corner next to the laundry hamper, a sweat-stained sports bra thrown hastily over the incense sticks. She hadn't made a chicken thigh or alcohol offering since Po Po's diagnosis three years ago. And she certainly would never risk burning paper money in her circa-1900s apartment building—the smoke alarm had a vendetta against her.
—from "The Ancestors," Vol. 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
This is actually the second short story I’ve ever written! This piece wouldn’t be where it is today without Morgan Talty, whose mentorship shaped how I understand the short story as a form. I don’t have a traditional writing background, and I’m learning to be proud that I came into writing later in life, to overcome the imposter syndrome and internalized ageism, to still write as if everything is possible. Writing this short story made me feel all of that.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The television show Friday Night Lights will always be my North Star for rendering characters with humanity, for creating a sense of place. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe is an enormous influence on how and why to write speculative fiction. I return to James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room constantly for lessons on writing intimacy and tenderness. Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow gives me the confidence to write the intricacies of relationships, particularly friendships, over time.
What other professions have you worked in?
My first job was a cashier at Publix, this grocery store in the South that’s still one of my favorite places in the world. I think my interest in people, in understanding how we inhabit the world, began with observing what groceries people buy.
Most recently, I was the co-founder of a mental health company with a mission to increase access to care for the Asian American community. Inclusive, universal access to mental health care is an issue I care deeply about, and I continue to advocate for policy change at the city level in New York.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted a thousand lives in one life, and I think part of me still yearns for that, if only to understand a bit of what it means to be human, to be alive. Writing is very much a manifestation of this urge; I can create characters who do a thousand different things. I get to research and imagine what their lives would be like.
But I definitely wanted to be a marine biologist. The South Carolina Aquarium touch tank really got me!
What inspired you to write this piece?
My PoPo died from COVID, early on in the pandemic, before we had vaccines. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her. I didn’t know how to grieve. Did anyone?
This piece is about the loss of that relationship, told from the perspective of a woman who is afraid to grieve. I inserted many real details about my PoPo into the story -- her fabulous clothes, her basket weave hair. She was definitely a socialite of the Bensonhurst Cantonese immigrant community, staying out all night playing mah jong. Whenever we’d go out, all the neighborhood PoPos would come up to her and gossip, and I’d just stand off to the side like, who is she? My grandmother? She was larger than life, and then she was gone. I didn’t know what to do with that, so I wrote.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Every place I’ve lived finds a way into my writing. I set part of THE ANCESTORS in Atlantic City. I grew up going to casinos there with my PoPo, and I went back for this story. I played blackjack, I lost $100, I won back $50, I felt the scintillating high, the crushing emptiness. Method writing?
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I wish everything I wrote sounded like The XX, but I’m realistic.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I always drink an espresso, and then another. But I try to listen to my body. Do I feel like writing today? Do I have something to say? I don’t write everyday, I don’t write to word counts, I don’t have a strict writing routine. I’m convinced my best writing lives in my Notes app, the two-sentence vignettes I jot down riding the subway or noticing how the light falls on a couple outside a bar in the West Village or gazing into a brightly lit apartment window next to the Brooklyn Bridge. I write best when I’m fully present in the world around me, and I try really hard to commit to that.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Contemporary dance. I go to classes at Alvin Ailey in Manhattan. Dance is such a felt experience, the body making art, being art, and it’s shown me how to more fully inhabit my characters and their feelings. Last year, I danced in a piece choreographed by Levi Marsman titled A/Part, and it was about the feeling of being okay on your own but simultaneously craving connection. How do you convey that with just bodies and musicality? He choreographed the entire piece from scratch, just observing how our group moved and interacted with one another, in just four weeks. Dance is a feeling, he would say, and then I’d leave the studio and get shoved into this highly modern at times abrasive city that can feel so hostile to genuine, deep emotion. Dance reminds me that feeling is being human, feeling is being alive, feeling is crucial to my art.
What are you working on currently?
Two speculative short stories, a screenplay, a novel. Yesterday, procrastinating on said novel, I wrote a flash piece about the end of a summer love, and summer hasn’t even started. Recently, I went back to an essay I wrote about growing up in the American South years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a few salvageable paragraphs.
I was just at the American Short Fiction Summer Workshop, and I’m grateful to have worked with T Kira Māhealani Madden and Marisa Crane, just brilliant, generous people who shared there are no rules! Write across forms! I’m trying to embody that.
KAREN MOK is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer, born and raised in Charleston, SC. She identifies as a child of immigrants.