Interview with Alexandra Leigh Young

Three young women on a stage with bright lights. Two are with their back to reader. The one in the center is looking out over her shoulder at the reader. She's wearing a headset microphone.

Today we get to visit with the debut author Alexandra Leigh Young. Her book, Idol Gossip, will be released on September 14th and will take you right into the world of K-pop.

Every Friday after school, seventeen-year-old Alice Choy and her little sister, Olivia, head to Myeongdong to sing karaoke. Back in San Francisco, when she still had friends and earthly possessions, Alice took regular singing lessons. But since their diplomat mom moved them to Seoul, her only musical outlet is vamping it up in a private karaoke booth to an audience of one: her loyal sister. Then a scout for Top10 Entertainment, one of the biggest K-pop companies, hears her and offers her a spot at their Star Academy. Can Alice navigate the culture clashes, egos, and extreme training practices of K-pop to lead her group onstage before a stadium of 50,000 chanting fans—and just maybe strike K-pop gold? Not if a certain influential blogger and the anti-fans get their way . . .
This debut novel is about standing out and fitting in, dreaming big and staying true. It will speak to fans of K-pop and to anyone who is trying to take their talents to the next level.

Thanks so much for taking time to share with us. I loved meeting Alice on the page and experiencing K-pop through her eyes. You’ve researched and reported on K-pop celebrities with Radiolab [readers will want to check that out] and now have also written a novel set in that world. Is it simply the music itself or is there more about K-pop that has drawn you?

The music is what first drew me in, but it’s the culture that’s kept me hooked all these years. K-pop fans are so devoted to their idols, and idols to their fans. The relationship between the two makes fan culture incredibly rich and supportive, and surprisingly powerful. V’s blog and fan comments were my attempts to bring that culture to life.

How do you think your previous work in the music industry contributed to your story?

When I worked in the music industry, I was 100% behind the scenes, so I had to do a ton of research in order to write from the artist’s perspective. My music industry experience did come in handy, though, when I wrote scenes that took place backstage and in greenrooms. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in crammed backstage areas, from Saturday Night Live to arenas, and they’re not half as glamorous as you’d think!

Alice comes to K-pop with only a small idea of how much her life will change and what this job will require of her. I kept worrying about her as I imagined the repercussions of her choices. Was it hard to throw so many challenges at your character and what was the process of deciding how bad to let it get for her and those around her?

You know, the sad reality is that so many young people face similar pressures and challenges as Alice does. From athletes, to child-actors, to spelling bee champs, for most of them the pressure is unrelenting, and yet they handle it with remarkable grace and professionalism. Without giving away any spoilers, there is a scandal that Alice and A-list have to endure that still breaks my heart when I think about it. Ultimately, though, I stopped short of much of the sexual abuse and harassment that many women face in the entertainment industry because I didn’t feel prepared to grapple with that through Alice, and as such a novice writer.

The vocal coach working with Alice is impressive. Who would your dream mentor be and what would you be learning from them?

It’s funny, around the time I started my career in journalism, I got hooked on a season of StartUp, a podcast about American Apparel and its owner, Dov Charney. I was so inspired by the teams’ nuanced reporting and fearlessness. I even drafted a love letter outlining all the things I admired about their series, which I don’t think I ever sent. This year, the lead reporter and host of that series, Lisa Chow, became my manager, and now I get to listen to her talk about how to structure and edit stories all day long. She’s definitely the So-ri in my life.

Did you learn anything about yourself as a writer or a person while you wrote Alice’s story?

It turns out what they say about your first book is true—my first protagonist was largely based off of myself. Writing about Alice’s insecurities, her ego, and her defensiveness was like going to therapy; I had to work through a lot of my own issues in order to pinpoint her issues. There are so many times in my life when I wish I would have just said “you’re right, I’m sorry”, and I think Alice taught me that it’s actually not as hard as it may seem.

Does your writing process for fiction look a lot different than for nonfiction?

Yes and no. When we script episodes of the Daily, we typically start with an outline that plots out all the scenes and beats of the story on a very high level. Then we write questions, one-by-one, making sure to hit each beat and drive toward a landing spot. I had a similar process for Idol Gossip. I plotted out all the major scenes and emotional arcs, and then spent the rest of the time filling in the tendons between the meat. However, with non-fiction, we spend a lot of my time asking reporters “what happened next?” When writing fiction, no one can answer that question except myself, I just have to make it all up, which is both terrifying and liberating!

How did you decide that you were ready to put your novel out into the world?

It was really a joint decision between my editor at Candlewick, Susan Van Metre, and me. I credit so much of Idol Gossip to her. The final round of edits was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it needed to happen in order to get my manuscript ready for publication. In that round, Susan asked me to focus on Alice’s emotional arc (among other things), and I don’t think Alice’s journey would have been nearly as satisfying without that extra push.

What is your writing fuel? Foods, drinks, or something else entirely? What keeps you going?

Every time I got stuck in my writing process, I would do a lap around the house and find something to clean or straighten up. It was always just enough to distract me and let my mind wander a bit. It was kind of like looking at one of those magic eye posters—I needed to blur my brain and think about the problem sideways to get to the solution. Oh, and also the countless delicious dinners that my boyfriend, Damiano, plopped in front of me when I hadn’t moved from my computer in hours.

What’s next for you in your writing journey? Can we expect to see more young adult fiction or do you have a different path?

Yes! I am working on another YA novel about the music industry, but this one will be about someone who works behind the scenes.

We’ll definitely be watching for your future work. Thanks again for visiting with us and we wish you well with the book release next week!

To learn more Alexandra Leigh Young and Idol Gossip, you may visit her website or Instagram.

EXTRA: My mini-review of Idol Gossip can be found here.