Emergency Contact is a dreamy YA love story told through iMessage

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Penny, the first-year heroine of Emergency Contact University, is very good at sending text messages with a sad barista boy named Sam. He is very good at sending you a text message! They want to be artists and find love and earn money and follow their dreams, but their typical conversation is as follows:

"What happens if this is our only thing?"
"Lol. What's wrong with text messages?"
"Yes. Maybe this is what we're good at. I'm not crazy."
"Telephones rule, humans drool"
"LOL"
"We are the best, this is the best"

That's all, that's the premise of Mary H.K. Choi's debut novel.
Writer with a keen sense of humor and a gift to get into the heads of young people, Choi has published emoji and Instagram for Wired, has written comics for Marvel, has published an autobiographical book about his departure from New York and has written about other people. puzzling fashion options. Emergency Contact is his first foray into fiction writing YA, one that uses his established voice on the Internet as a springboard for conversation and a modern look at adolescent neuroticism.

Emergency Contact is little more than a sweet, breezy and epistolary romance by design. The first people with whom Choi shared the draft suggested that she give him a bigger and more challenging argument to make emotional bets higher. She rejected it. Instead, she wrote a book about two characters who could be trusted to be treated kindly, who struggle with vulnerability and communication like almost everyone else alive. It is an unexpectedly generous book that gives people the benefit of the doubt, a sensation that feels both ventilated and nourishing, like when your dessert is angel cake and whole strawberries.
Consider seriously a question about the specific maturity of this moment: can some suburban youth between 18 and 24 years experience true intimacy when their relationship is mediated mainly by their iPhones? The most obvious companion read for Emergency Contact is The Idiot of Elif Batuman (published almost exactly a year ago), who made a similar series of questions about falling in love with email in the mid-1990s. It was a devastating roast of teenage pretense of the Ivy League and an exhilarating dig of the morality of narrating your own life, a book acclaimed by critics for its art but devoured by thirty-somethings in large part because it was that buzzword: relatable.
For all of us, or at least for myself and everyone I know, it is tempting to think that our interiority is so special and advanced that, in fact, we are the first people to develop an infatuation with someone's mind through a conduit. digital. This is completely false, and any book that discredits this solipsistic fiction is useful and shakily uncomfortable. Recently, I called Choi to talk about beautiful devices, young love and a subgenre that should expand forever.
This interview has been edited for clarity and duration.
It was so funny to me that the reader's introduction to Penny is just her conversation about how beautiful her iPhone is. How is your relationship with your Apple devices?
Well, right now I'm grayscale because my phone is so beautiful that I have to make it look ugly. My screen and my wallpaper and everything is in grayscale. And I also have the triple touch, so it gets dark. I have all the things to make it less attractive to me because, apparently, I am a horrible magpie when it comes to my phone. I'm going through the most traumatic experience of two of my closest friends receiving Pixels. They jumped into the green bubble team without any preamble, and that was a really challenging and traumatic moment.
"My phone is so beautiful that I have to make it look ugly."
Especially for Penny, this is her first phone that was new when she got it. For her, this was a kind of initiation rite. And when you get your first iPhone, there's something in the box, once you start the cellophane part. It's almost like when you open a new newspaper that is perfectly tied, the smell of the paper, just snorting. It is almost a tactile sensation.
Do you remember [Vertu] that phone that was so, so expensive, and was it supposed to be the Centurion black card but cell phones? Basically the Cartier Love phone bracelet, so expensive. The iPhone is also exorbitantly expensive, but has an equalizing aspect. If you're holding your iPhone, and it's the most recent iteration, it's like, "Oh, famous people have my phone, the captains of the industry have my phone." And that can be an intoxicating experience for someone who goes to college for the first time. It's almost like, not a portal, but a kind of portal, for someone like Penny whose interiority is a big problem. Her phone meant more to her than her car. In fact, I think her car was embarrassing for her, because she's supposed to feel like a gateway to freedom, and for her, it was just another reminder of how she's failing in certain aspects of socialization.
This is your first YA novel. What made you want to try this, write a novel that has so many text messages in it?
[The epistolary format] is really, really good; I hate to use the word "device" because it sounds manipulative, but it is a good conduit. Letters, journal entries or texts speak with a type of narrator who may not be as good at showing versus telling. Similarly, for me personally, coming from a non-fiction background, it's probably a crutch. Because in the kind of work I do, I'm not used to inventing things. Basically it is a crutch for the good that I still am in the construction of the world. It is also a deep and sincere reflection of how most of my relationships are. I am definitely an indoor child who has become an interior person.
I think everyone has been in one of these situations where you write text messages all the time and you develop an inflated and false intimacy, and then you hang out and do not know yourself at all. How did you develop the voices of the characters' text messages, which are so different from how they talk aloud to each other?
Yes, there is a great seismic backwardness when you expect the space of the flesh to catch up with the intimacy you have when you send text messages. Sam and Penny definitely have that in the anguished instances in which they have to interact in real life, where they say: "My God, I wish I could send you a text message, call you, little Tamagotchi, you know exactly what I'm thinking.
"The brain-thumb barrier is very, very thin at times, especially depending on the time of day, at what time of night."
He definitely wanted a big difference between his meat suit me and his text message me. And then I knew that those would be different, and the distinction comes from the fact that we're almost a crap of self-publishing. People say all the time that it is very difficult to deduce the meaning of text messages because it has no intonation and has no nuances. But to a certain extent, I do not agree with that, because for them, it's almost like sodium pentothal, it's like the truth serum.
The brain-thumb barrier is very, very thin at times, especially depending on the time of day, at what time of night, or if, literally, it eats through a whole battery of text messages to this person. It's not like "in vino veritas" (with wine there is truth), it's like "with seven hours of shitty text brain, there's truth". You will withdraw all these things, and find yourself saying these things that you have never articulated before. [Penny and Sam] they mutually confess the types of artists they want to become and how humiliating that is. But once you have the safe space for children in the dead end to do it, it's not just that you tell another person, you're definitely telling yourself.
In one of Sam's chapters, she says that "I could not imagine the space that Penny would occupy in her life if she jumped out of her phone." And then he describes it as an "irresistible computer algorithm". When I read it, I thought, "Oh, no, this is going to end in disaster." They are going to be so bad with each other. "Because there's something dark in there, I thought about it a lot when I was reading The Idiot, too, if there's something inherently wrong or wrong in wanting someone to exist for you alone in a digital space.
You read about things like the way that Instagram vibrates the numbers so you do not care, so it's much more addictive. With Twitter, you have "Things you may have missed". O Instagram stories, the way they unite, the urgency of Instagram, "Sale of fire in these stories, they're gone!" There are so many things that make your phone more addictive and we know it, and even before we know it, we suspect that.
When something feels too seductive, which is what Penny feels about Sam, you worry. Part of this is [the fear of] cat fishing, but part of it is simply the incredible suspension of disbelief that is required for someone to love, or to be infatuated, cheated or let yourself be cajoled by this single open tab. This unique application Knowing that all other applications are trying to kill you or fuck you.
"I'm in love with this person, but this person can never have something as simple as spinach in their teeth because this person does not have teeth."
And many times your phone version, especially if your text game is wild, that's a good aspect of your project. So, to say: "I also chew and poop," all that other crap, a biological shit you do not have to think about ever becomes that. I am in love with this person, but this person can never have something as simple as spinach in their teeth because this person has no teeth. That is a great, great help. Not only do you not have to consider that, you do not have to consider that. That is a bit weird.
And so with two people who have social anxiety, or who are going through some problems in their lives, or feel completely printable … to be able to get rid of this package that is a very good version of themselves and just project that, it feels really good. Remembering that you are doing that, conversely, you only feel discordant and a little bad.
That is a good way to say it. There is a part in The Idiot where they go to lunch, and the main character thinks something like: "I could not believe I had eaten all the days of his life and now I was going to do it".
Yes! Penny has a moment when they are kissing, and she says to him: "My God, you can see by your eyes". And it does before when Sam is fainting, where he is, panting, unrestricted access to your physicality with my eyes, when your eyes are closed, it's so incredible. But when you have your eyes open and I realize that you are looking at me too, that scares me. Personally, I really identify with that. It's a trip like that. I think we have it all the time. Bodies are very strange, and trusting bodies is almost a contradiction in what we are talking about technologically.
I want to talk about the title. The conversation in which they become "emergency contacts" is one of my favorites because it captures this teasing and playful way that people designate each other as important now. It's hard to tell where the joke ends. I like, "Is this real, do we care about each other?" I can not say, "We're kidding."
Many conversations like that do not happen anymore. Who will be like: "Will you be my best friend?" No, someone simply calls you declaratively as their best friend, which infuses a lot more ambiguity in the "that is". But I wanted "Ahh! Emergency contact!" And then at the end, solemnly anchoring that with "Yes, I guess that's why you need an emergency contact." I am deploying it as my emergency contact. I'm breaking up in an emergency, and this is my time to do it. I think that's a very good thing to do and something that I only arrived in my 30s, to really lean on your friends and formalize it a bit. I'm going to do this to you, and you can also do this to me, to me.
"Bodies are very strange, and trusting bodies is almost a contradiction in what we are talking about technologically."
Do you want to write more YA, or the Emergency Contact is just an experiment?
I'm going to write introductory novels … I'm going to write whatever it is I'm going to write, and any bookshelf or section where they end up in the bookstore is going to be that, and I'll let the marketing people remove their hair and worry about that.
I'm definitely writing more NOW. The first thing that attracted me was that I like to talk with people who read. Sometimes a great work of literary fiction is a big problem and it becomes this popular cultural giant, and everyone will read it, but with YA, and science fiction is the same way, the people you talk to will read a lot . This is an enriching and surprising space to enter. Fiction is very new to me, but it seems like a good place to learn more about writing, as part of a conversation with the readers who live here.
I read a lot ALREADY as an adult because I think there are things you can do, like the text messages in this book, that would become tricks in more traditional literary fiction. But if you write for a specific audience, maybe they will go there with you.
There are very generous readers with YA. It is dripping. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are some really dynamite editors and great editors and everyone was so excited about this book. I think it really matters when you have an industry of people that puts fans first. I can definitely say that with YA, in terms of my personal experience with that.

Returning to literary fiction, it is almost positioned as this kind of pop culture task, where it is like: "If I do not watch this season of Game of Thrones, I can not dine out with other humans." And certain books kind of carry that with them. In YA, you have great hitters, I read Turtles All the Way Down like everyone else, as soon as it was available, but many people simply go towards what they naturally attract and read things in whatever order they feel right to them. It is not dictated by SEO. It is dictated by genuine curiosity.
A book that really influenced this was obviously [Rainbow Rowell’s] Eleanor & Park. Definitely there were previous versions of this book where everyone was in a sarcastic, and the rhythm was very similar, Amy Sherman-Palladino or Gossip Girl and The OC. Where is it on, on, on, on, on? Everyone was … it was not bad for each other, but a bit more picky. I really wanted this book to be sweet. I definitely received some criticism about it, in the first readings, of people who simply were not the people I should have gone to for the first readings, in which I said: "This is such a small story, can you make it more conceptual? "Or," Can you make it more heartbreaking? "" Can you alienate these people a little more? "" Can you make them have more friction between them? "He did not feel true to the characters, and ultimately he did not I do not feel faithful to the book I wanted.
I wanted a happy ending, as unreal as that, and as ambiguous as this is particularly. Like I wanted to make a book that felt like a safe space, but still had a lot at stake. I wanted people to come out of that saying, "Oh shit, maybe I'm an artist." Or like, "Oh shit, maybe I need to stop running 1000 people and find just one person."
Emergency Contact will be available on March 27 through Simon & Schuster.

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