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10 Questions for Kayla Min Andrews

I'm home from work, reading in bed, when Mom calls to tell me. It’s six in the evening. My boyfriend’s out with some friends of his I find exhausting. He’s often out, while I stay in. We’ve been together for almost a decade, our rituals of avoidance calcified into habit. 

I live in New Orleans. Mom lives in Asheville, North Carolina. We talk several times a week. Ususally she makes me laugh with her sparkling anger at a co-worker, a hilarious gaffe she made with a student, juicy details of a power struggle either in her own romantic life or a friend's. Usually when she asks how I'm doing, I deflect. I say something quick—oh, pretty good—and try to get her talking again. 

This time, her voice trembles. Her latest scan came back. She's had cancer for over a year. But now it has spread from breast to lung. From manageable to terminal. She's fifty-seven. The doctors say she has eighteen months. 
from "Go Until Failure," Volume 65, Issue 1 (Spring 2024)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was a child, I wrote what I didn’t know at the time was called “fan fiction.” I thought it was more like imaginative plagiarism. I’d take characters and situations from chapter books I was reading, but make the characters aliens instead of people, or replace the happy ending with a sad one, or give one of the characters an unexpected all-consuming hobby like marathon-running. I wrote by hand in notebooks, didn’t show what I wrote to anyone, and didn’t overthink why I was doing it.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The four book series that starts with My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. Another Country by James Baldwin. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I like how these works explore friendship with nuance, both revealing a lot psychologically and, somehow, preserving the characters’ unknowability. I like when protagonists find unconventional ways to live, ways that suit them better than what society prescribes.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. I’m struck by how much intimacy we get with the protagonist, and yet the way she still maintains her mystery. I love how the language is so elegant and beautiful and packs a punch, yet also it’s unobtrusive, so the focus is still on the content not the expression. This was also the first time I read a book by and about a woman of mixed Asian and white background like me, and I related to how race dips in and out of significance in the main character’s life.

I wish I could write like Don Lee, the way he mixes humor and sadness and yearning and social commentary in his short stories. The way he starts with what seems like a quiet character study, but then the plot ends up becoming suspenseful and explosive (and often hilarious). His collections Yellow and The Partition made a huge impression on me.

Finally, I just swoon when I read the restrained, resigned, well-behaved, unreliable narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro—especially in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Unlike many fictional characters, these narrators just don’t dare to live fully or go after what their heart wants. They make themselves suffer. They never even realize how much. The way he captures this feels so human, so beautiful, so sad. The narrators aren’t dumb, but through their first-person narration, we understand so much that they themselves don’t. I’m fascinated by this.

What other professions have you worked in?
Let’s see…
I was an English teaching assistant in middle schools in rural France. (Turns out small towns are not super fun places to be when you’re twenty-two, even when they’re in France…)

I worked at an office of capital defense investigators (like Erin Brokovich but trying to help poor defendants avoid the death penalty). It involved a lot of filing, but also sometimes visiting the State Penitentiary to interview clients, going to schools and hospitals to try to track down records, etc. I was too dreamy and not detail-oriented enough for that job. The worst part was, in order to get paid, we had to write down what we did hour by hour for each day. My hours never added up right and it gave me existential angst.

Three jobs in the service industry in New Orleans, two waitressing, one hostessing. Surprisingly, I kind of loved the rush of adrenaline when things got busy, and the communal aspect of many different kinds of people working together in an intense way. The work was physically taxing, almost like a sporting event. I’d come home sweaty and aching. These jobs helped me A LOT in terms of how to be social around other humans, which I was terrible at when I moved to New Orleans. Also, one of the restaurants was super fancy and I saw or personally seated the following diners there: Oprah, Amy Schumer, John Malkovich.

Desk work for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, plus I got to roam around the festival with a walkie-talkie and a self-important squint.

Teaching English to international students at the University of New Orleans.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A Supreme Court justice or a diplomat. My parents were both creative writers, so I thought I didn’t want to be one. But I did want to dazzle people with my use of words and wisdom and powers of perception.

What inspired you to write this piece?
At first, I wanted to explore the fact that I started exercising regularly for the first time in my life when Mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exercise always struck me as something hopeful, earnest people did, and as a vulnerable thing to do. Somehow, knowing Mom had a terminal illness forced me to be more earnest and hopeful. There was an unlikely movement in me, inspired by tragedy, from closed-off to open. I felt so very vulnerable those first few weeks in the gym. Maybe that’s when I first personally understood the Brene Brown thing of vulnerability being strength.

The more I wrote about this, the more other things came up, and I remember one day—in the gym, appropriately!—I realized in a flash that the piece should also include Mom’s death and the fact that I started writing again (after a ten year hiatus) in the wake of it.

I wrote this piece over several years, on and off, but finished it before I knew that Mom’s novel The Fetishist would be published posthumously in January 2024. It’s interesting to me now to see how the period of time described in this piece (the late 2010s) turned out to be just the first chapter in a larger ongoing story. Mom continues to inspire great transformation and connection and beauty, in my life and many other people’s. First it was through her life, then the way she faced her death, now the release of her groundbreaking novel The Fetishist. I see her influence (on me, on her other friends and family and colleagues and students, on readers and the literary world) as a force that keeps gathering strength, even though she’s dead.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Hmm, I’d like to say Paris or New Orleans, since these are the cities I’ve loved most. Living in New Orleans has definitely influenced my writing and outlook in many ways—like reminding me to have some fun before I die, and to lean into my eccentricities. But also, I have to say, the fact that I grew up in a small town in central New Hampshire influences my writing a lot. Part of my writing self is always in touch with the loneliness I felt there.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t listen to music when I write or edit. I listen to upbeat Zumba-type music when I need to clear my head, when the writing or editing gets too emotionally heavy.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I usually write first drafts by hand in a notebook (perhaps a holdover from my childhood self). I wait until I have a good chunk of uninterrupted time to type up what’s in the notebook, because this process is where I do a lot of decision-making about what to include or expand and what isn’t worth transcribing. The piece gets a lot of its shape during the typing-up part of the process.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I’m lucky to have a handful of writer-friends who I trust for this. And recently I started a low-residency MFA program at Randolph, so my mentor there looks at new work from me every month.

What are you reading right now?
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts, a short story collection by Caroline Kim. So far, the stories take place in the U.S. and Korea, throughout history, and deeply explore the question of what it means to be Korean American. One story, “Arirang,” brought tears to my eyes. So much beautiful heartbreaking restraint, and resignation, like I admire in Ishiguro. Just extraordinary.


KAYLA MIN ANDREWS is a biracial, Korean American writer living in New Orleans. She has been published in Cagibi for fiction, Halfway Down the Stairs for nonfiction, and Asymptote for literary translation. Her flash essay “Old Kleenex” was nominated for a Best of the Net 2020. She was a finalist in the Tennessee Williams and New Orleans Literary Festival’s Very Short Fiction Contest in 2023. Kayla assisted Putnam on the posthumous publication of her mother’s novel The Fetishist (2024), including editing the manuscript. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Randolph and is working on a novel.

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