K-Pop Confidential and K-Pop Revolution author Stephan Lee on using the young adult novels to show ‘how fun and important K-pop is'

Asia's Tech News Daily

K-pop, Blackpink’s Rosé, Itzy, Aespa, StayC

K-Pop Confidential and K-Pop Revolution by Stephan Lee, pub. Point

Many people want to be K-pop stars; Korean-American author Stephan Lee creates them. In his fictional young adult novel series, that is.

Starting with 2020’s K-Pop Confidential and continuing in next year’s K-Pop Revolution, Lee’s heroine, Candace Park, faces a variety of challenges as she pursues her path in the spotlight. Lee will discuss the series at November’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

Despite being works of fiction, Lee’s K-Pop books aim to evoke the realities of the industry while also exploring some “what ifs” that, as a fan, he has often wondered about.

K-pop, Blackpink’s Rosé, Itzy, Aespa, StayC

Karina, Winter, Giselle of Aespa, one of the K-pop groups author Stephan Lee follows, perform in Seoul, South Korea, in June, 2021. Photo: The Chosun Ilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images

“I approached this much more as a fiction writer than as an entertainment journalist or an expert in K-pop,” says Lee, who works at United States-based media outlet Bustle. “I did as much research as I could but I also had to use my imagination.

“There are many people who know more about the [nuances] than me, so I wanted to approach the book from the characters and emotions, so whatever the research didn’t shine a light on, I tried to put myself into the point of the view of the characters as human beings.”

I was a big pop music fan, but I never really regarded people who looked like me as being an option on MTV

Stephan Lee

Even before beginning the series, Lee was already writing another novel, while pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts at New York’s The New School. There, he was approached by author and Scholastic editorial director David Levithan, who happened to be a profes­sor at the school. Levithan had read his work and asked him if he had any ideas for a K-pop young adult novel.

“I did! But I had never seriously sat down and fleshed it out because I was so focused on this other book [I was working on] for years. But I had always thought, ‘Someone should really do this.’”

That someone became him.

Back in 2014, a few years before starting his master’s degree, Lee began ruminating on the idea of a K-pop-themed young adult novel when he was researching a story in Seoul about Korean entertainment for his then-employer Entertainment Weekly. During the trip, Lee learned all about K-pop and became a fan of girl groups especially, including 2NE1.

“How have I been missing this the whole time?” he remembers thinking.

K-pop, Blackpink’s Rosé, Itzy, Aespa, StayC

Stephan Lee. The author will appear in virtual conversation with Tamar Herman as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in November. Photo: Stephan Lee

Ultimately, Lee signed on and in a matter of months he’d finished the first draft of what would become K-Pop Confidential.

“It could illuminate a lot of things about Korean culture and how it kind of participates in global media culture,” he recalls musing about what a young adult series on K-pop could look like.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Atlanta, Lee describes himself as “very” Korean-American and the environment he found himself in as “very Western, very American”. He knew K-pop existed, but it wasn’t until that trip seven years ago that he really came to enjoy it.

“I was a big pop music fan, but I never really regarded people who looked like me as being an option on MTV or anything like that at the time,” says Lee.

He remembers hearing about K-pop groups including Jewelry (2001-2015, 2018), Fin. K. L (1998-2005, 2019) and H.O.T. (1996-2001, 2018-present) while growing up and attending a local Korean church.

K-pop, Blackpink’s Rosé, Itzy, Aespa, StayC

The cover of Lee’s new book, which launches in 2022.

For his first book, and then the second, Lee aimed to explore some of those themes of identity and representation while also casting in fiction the stars he had come to love.

“I wanted to root the story in the individual’s dreams because Candace goes into this world aware of some of the issues, and sees a lot of them, but she still is so motivated and loves the music and has such a passion for K-pop and becoming a star herself. That’s what the focus really is and I wanted to underscore how fun and important K-pop is.”

Lee says he looked to what makes successful young adult novels resonate, and he felt the competition of K-pop, and the situations that he could explore within it, provided the perfect setting for a young adult novel that was both youthful and timeless.

“Thematically and emotionally, proving yourself and being influenced by a lot of older people in authority, trying to assert your humanity and individuality at the same time […] I think a lot of the themes [in the books] are for anybody who has ever tried to measure up in some very difficult or competitive setting.”

Lee was determined not to delve into the “dark side of K-pop” trope. “It was very important to me that it wasn’t ‘This is what’s wrong with K-pop’ or any feeling of an exposé because, generally, I do love K-pop. Obviously, there are problems with the industry that everyone knows about, but I also think there are problems with every entertainment industry around the world.”

K-pop, Blackpink’s Rosé, Itzy, Aespa, StayC

Itzy, another of the K-pop girl groups Lee follows, perform in Seoul, South Korea, in June 2021. Photo: The Chosun Ilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images

Because of his love of girl groups, Lee felt that was the place for his books to begin.

“It felt really natural. I don’t necessarily feel compelled to change my pronouns, but I am so aware as a millennial about how gender is fluid. And, as a gay person, I’ve always kind of had a strong sense that the boundaries are pretty blurred. But I wasn’t really thinking in those terms when deciding to make my protagonist a female. I just really worship female artists,” he says with a laugh, adding that he didn’t consider any specific star or group when creating Candace’s identity.

As for who Lee has been worshipping lately, he admits to a particular reverence for Blackpink’s Rosé. He then lists more than half a dozen K-pop stars and acts, including the rest of Blackpink’s members and rising girl groups such as Itzy, Aespa and StayC, that he listened to while working on Revolution.

Though he does have a shareable playlist, fans waiting to read more about Candace’s musical journey will simply have to wait for K-Pop Revolution’s release next April.

As part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Stephan Lee will be in virtual conversation with Tamar Herman, 11:30am-12:30pm, on Nov 7. Visit festival.org.hk for more details.

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