Cover One of the K-pop groups that author Stephan Lee loves is Blackpink (Photo: Natt Lim/Getty Images for Coachella)

Stephan Lee makes his debut as a novelist in the young adult novel, K-Pop Confidential which he hopes will show how fun K-pop can be

It’s not an exaggeration to say that K-pop is taking the world by storm—just like Korean dramas, Korean movies, Korean beauty and Korean fashion. But there’s plenty that still hasn’t boarded the K-mania. Korean American author and certified K-pop fan, Stephan Lee hopes his book, K-pop Confidential will show you how fun K-pop can be.

Lee has been working as a journalist at Entertainment Weekly covering books and movies. While K-pop has always been something at the back of his head, it was ignited when he went to Seoul for three weeks to write a feature about Korean entertainment’s world domination—getting the chance to talk to K-pop idols, filmmakers and K-drama writers. Now, Lee has put his passion into a book with K-pop Confidential and its sequel, K-pop Revolution.

The book will follow K-pop trainee Candace Park, who wants to be a K-pop idol but she will have to overcome challenges in order to be in the spotlight. Lee will be sharing his book at Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 7. Ahead of his appearance, Lee sits down with Tatler to talk about his debut book, how he got into K-pop and why even non-K-pop fans will love it.

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Can you tell us more about your new book, K-Pop Confidential?

K-Pop Confidential follows the story of Candace Park, a Korean American teen from New Jersey, as she flies to Seoul after unexpectedly passing an audition at the biggest K-pop company in the world. She enters the company’s trainee program, which she soon finds out is way harder than she ever could have expected, physically and emotionally.

Not only are the expectations from the company unrealistic—she has to deal with insane schedules, dating bans, and enforced diets. But she’s also a fish out of water who has to learn how to be “authentically” Korean, whatever that means. Of course, Candace has a ton of fun too, falling in forbidden love, making enemies and best friends, and finding her voice literally and figuratively.

I also want to note that readers who had no knowledge or interest in K-pop before reading the book have loved it as there’s a definite The Hungers Games feel to a K-pop trainee facility, except it’s real life!

You’ve been working at Entertainment Weekly then now at Bustle, what made you decide to finally write a book?

I’ve found that a lot of people who write about pop culture and entertainment secretly (or not-so-secretly) wish they were the ones creating the things that they’re writing about. I love writing about entertainment, but my goal all along was to be an author and eventually screenwriter.

I was actually working on a completely different book—an adult novel that was somewhat autobiographical—when [author] David Levithan of Scholastic asked me if I’d be interested in writing a K-pop young adult (YA) novel. I’d always had an idea for a K-pop YA novel, but I never thought I’d be the one to write it until the opportunity presented itself so I immediately said yes.

Tell us, how did you get into K-pop?

I always knew about K-pop—when I was young, groups like H.O.T. and Fin.K.L were really popular. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but growing up, my goal was always to try and be more “American,” so getting into K-pop didn’t seem like a priority at the time. It wasn’t until much later while I was working at Entertainment Weekly that I was assigned Korean entertainment stories every now and then, because I was the only Asian writer on staff.

In 2014, I went to Korea for three weeks to report a story about Korean entertainment, and that’s when I really got obsessed with K-pop, especially girl groups like 2NE1 and Girls’ Generation. My fandom has grown exponentially since then.

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Was K-Pop Confidential inspired by your own experiences or was there anything particular that inspired it?

I’ve never actually been a K-pop trainee, of course, but I definitely relate to being thrown into competitive, cutthroat environments and how traumatic that can be. I went to an extremely competitive high school surrounded by people who were much richer than me and had parents who knew how to navigate elite American social systems as my parents didn’t. The same was true at college.

Even as an adult, working in the New York magazine world, which is super-competitive and is full of people whose families can afford to support them into their 40s and beyond while I was struggling to prove my worth. I deeply relate to Candace’s pressure to present herself as what others want her to be, whether it’s the K-pop industry or her own parents, and how hard it is to break away from those expectations and define your own worth.

For Candace’s character, did you base her on anyone or talk to any former/current trainees? What kind of character did you want to portray through her?

As part of my research, I talked to a former trainee, whose identity and K-pop company I can’t reveal, but I didn’t base Candace on any one particular star. I was inspired by some classic maknaes (youngest person of a group)—Candace is a maknae through and through—such as Yeri [of Red Velvet], Seohyun [of Girls’ Generation], and Tzuyu [of Twice]. Candace is known for having a unique voice and for being a sensitive songwriter, so for that side of her, I was inspired by my ultimate bias (favourite), Rosé of Blackpink!

After this book, you have the K-Pop Revolution coming up. Did you want to write more books about K-Pop?

I was always thinking of K-Pop Confidential as two books, but I loved writing K-Pop Revolution so much. I actually love it even more than the first book—that I’ve started jotting down ideas for a third book. But if my publisher is interested in it, it’s going to be a while...I’m back to writing that adult book that I was working on for years and years.

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What kind of message do you want to send through the book?

The main theme of the book is holding onto your sense of self even when everyone around you is saying your true self isn’t good enough. It’s also about gaining the courage to speak up for what’s right, even if it might cost you your dream.

You’re also one of the guests at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) this November. Tell us more about that.

It’s been a dream to be part of HKILF! It’s such an engaged audience, and the programming focuses on such important, global subjects that only books can illuminate.

What should viewers be excited about in the upcoming event at HKILF?

All the different authors! While trying to get published, hearing authors speak honestly about what they’ve learned about writing and imparting their wisdom was like gold to me. It still is!

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The music and visuals of K-pop are just so innovative and perfectly crafted, and I think it deserves more respect from mainstream media
Stephan Lee

With the growing popularity of K-pop, there are also a lot of misconceptions that come with it. Would your book address or touch upon some of those?

Absolutely! There are so many misconceptions about K-pop, like the idea that it’s manufactured, or that idols aren’t true artists. I think Korean creators and Asian creators at large are so great at pairing strong, surprising aesthetics with honest and true messages. The music and visuals of K-pop are just so innovative and perfectly crafted, and I think it deserves more respect from mainstream media.

Secondly, I think Western media has a tendency to sensationalize the K-pop industry. Of course, the K-pop industry has flaws, some of which are very serious, and of course I couldn’t shy away from exploring those. But I believe every entertainment industry around the world has serious issues. The last thing I wanted K-Pop Confidential to be is an “exposé” of K-pop. Even though it gets into some difficult territory, it’s ultimately a celebration of the fun and importance of K-pop.

For someone who’s never listened to K-pop, why do you think they should read your book?

I think everyone will be able to relate to Candace no matter where they’re from and whether they’re K-pop stans or not. The world depicted in K-pop Confidential is so foreign to most people, but I wanted to focus on the humanity underneath all the gloss so the experiences become universal. Also, because Candace is Korean American and hasn’t been to Korea before becoming a trainee, she definitely has an outsider’s perspective, so her narration is a good entry point for people who don’t know anything about K-pop or Korean culture.

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Here in Hong Kong, we’ve probably picked up on K-pop earlier. But now, globally, K-pop is on the rise. Why do you think so many are getting into it? Where do you expect it’s headed?

In addition to the amazing visuals and catchy music, I think K-pop fans around the world are picking up on the beauty of Korean culture, even if they don’t realize it. Part of the reason BTS is so popular is that they’re different from a lot of Western artists—the respect for fans, the humility, hard work, the value of the group over individual ambition, is rooted in Korean identity, and I think fans really appreciate that.

I also think Korean artists of all types are uniquely able to find joy and beauty amid the deepest despair—that’s the legacy of Korea’s history, which is so full of tragedy and resilience. This is apparent in works like Squid Game and Parasite, as well as in K-pop. There’s so much more going on than you see on the surface. The fact that a country that, not too long ago, was one of the poorest in the world is now a leading tastemaker in global pop culture — it’s an amazing feat, and I’m so proud to be a tiny part of it.

Upon reading your book, what do you hope your readers will feel?

I hope readers will be inspired to take a big risk and break out of the boxes people have put them in. I also hope they’ll feel empowered to stand up and speak out for what’s right, even if people who have authority over you are trying to silence you.

Lastly, I have to ask: is there any group or idol you’re stanning lately?

BTS, of course! Aside from BTS, I mostly stan girl groups: Red Velvet, Blackpink, Twice, Itzy, Aespa, Dreamcatcher, Everglow, and so many more. We’re living in a golden age!

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Stephan Lee will be speaking online at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 7. For details, please visit the official website.

 

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