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INTERVIEW: Kristen Burnham on “Hart & Seoul”

GUYS, THIS IS SO EXCITING. I couldn’t be more thrilled to present you guys with my first-ever author interview! I was lucky enough to have the chance to chat with Kristen Burnham on her upcoming debut, “Hart & Seoul,” which I loved (review here). Both Kristen and her agent, Michelle Weber, were wonderful to work with, and I can’t wait to share her insights with you guys – and hopefully get some of you to read this awesome debut, which is releasing June 4!


1. K-Pop is obviously a huge cultural phenomenon right now—I’ve been seeing a lot of K-pop-related YA lit right now (I’m actually reading another book that deals with the K-pop industry, which is kind of a funny coincidence!). Even so, Hart & Seoulwas a really unique take on that subject matter—taking the K-pop star out of Korea and plunking him down in Virginia certainly changes the dynamic a lot! How’d you get into K-pop, and what ultimately inspired you to write a novel about it? 


K-pop has really taken the country by storm, hasn’t it? Being in Northern Virginia, I’m right near what we call Little Korea, THE place to get all the Korean food you could ever want from both restaurants and grocery stores and anything else Korean you have a craving for. It’s perfect for a K-drama/pop junkie like me! And it’s great for inspiration; whenever I hit a creative wall, I’d go out to my favorite Korean bbq place and always leave inspired…and full. Really, really full.


But I in no way planned for my debut novel to be Hart & Seoul. It’s funny, because if you’d told me that my first novel was going to be about a K-pop star, I would have laughed myself silly; I’d been grappling with one idea for years, and it was most definitely not Hart & Seoul. I was convinced that that was going to be the one that I’d publish first…but I am so glad that I was wrong!


Hart & Seoul seemingly hit me out of nowhere, although in hindsight I think it ultimately came from years of watching K-dramas (I blame Boys Over Flowers for starting it all), which eventually led me to K-pop. I was volunteering at a book festival, moderating a panel, and twiddling my thumbs because the audience was having such a great time with the authors and obviously didn’t need me there to come up with questions. I admit, I was super tired from having to get up so early to get to the festival, had the beginnings of a massive headache, and the day was only halfway over—so I told myself that as a reward I’d start a new K-drama. But what drama to watch? A romance? Fantasy? Comedy? What if there was a drama about a K-pop star that moved next door to a girl in America…and Hart & Seoul was born! I was really hoping that I’d be able to create a rom-com that is just as you described it: unique. 


2. One of my favorite parts of Hart & Seoul was the famous guy/ordinary girl romance dynamic. I’m a total sucker for that type of rom-com, and I have to ask: what made you want to write about that? Also, semi-relatedly, I noticed that the novel is set very near your hometown—is that a clue that there is some element of autobiography in this (whether real or more of a wishful-thinking scenario, like what you would have wanted to experience at Merrilee’s age)? 


Wouldn’t any K-drama/pop lovin’ teenager want this? *Laughs* But alas, for me, it is entirely a work of fiction—I mean, I can’t even draw (unlike Merilee), and I certainly haven’t come so much as thirty feet near a celebrity of any kind. One day, celebrity crush, one day…


I chose this setting because a) it was what I know and b) I wanted to put Lee in an area that on the one hand would be out of the spotlight but still run the risk of meeting fans, although he’s not entirely aware of that danger at first. That was tricky, because I wanted to make it relatively believable that he’d be recognized without having the Chasers be an actual threat before his discovery. And yes, I had A LOT of fun writing the Chaser scenes. 


I am SO a sucker for famous person falling for ordinary person—one of my favorite Disney Channel original movies was Model Behavior. I won’t spoil the plot for you because it’s worth the time to search for it, but needless to say I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the book features the famous/ordinary love story plotline…as does half of the K-dramas that I’ve ever watched. Two words for you: Full House. #Rain


3. Hart & Seoul is much, much cleaner than your average YA book (as a reader who isn’t comfortable with tons of adult content, I very much appreciated that!). I often find that YA authors who choose to write cleaner stories do so very purposefully. Could you tell us if that’s the case with you as well? Did you have a particular motivation for wanting to write something that touches on mature themes without mature content?


I love that you bring this up, because that is EXACTLY what I was going for. One of the reasons why I fell in love with YA was because I could have the fun of all the most amazing genres without some of the more graphic content that is in adult books. I have friends/co-workers who don’t mind that content, which is fine; I, personally, gravitate towards books that don’t have it, and wanted to help provide some more of that kind to give YA readers a variety to choose from. I challenged myself to write a book that is entertaining without the added adult content because you don’t always need it to tell the story. 


4. Merilee’s turns of phrase and the way she thinks and speaks are absolutely hilarious. I was in stitches at some of her observations, which rarely happens when I read YA contemporaries. How did you develop her incredibly unique and comedic voice? And, more broadly, how did you manage to pull off that tonal balance between humor—Merilee’s zany manner of speaking, her hilariously awkward interactions with Lee, the terrifying-but-somehow-still-hysterically-funny melodrama perpetrated by the Storm Chaser fangirls—and the more serious messages about mental health and absentee parents? 


I read somewhere that debut authors often put a LOT of themselves in the book, and that is absolutely the case with Hart & Seoul. I always try to see the humor in situations, and I think Merilee’s voice is very similar to my own. (Okay, I know that it is; several people who read early drafts of it commented on just how much Merilee sounds like me.) I have always enjoyed comedies with snappy dialogue, feisty characters who are able to a laugh at themselves, and zany (love that word!) adventures that pull everything together, and really wanted to create that atmosphere in Hart & Seoul. I took a lot of inspiration from K-dramas, which excel at having that humor while at the same time introducing emotional storylines that have a surprising amount of depth to them that you initially didn’t expect.


In regards to the more serious plotlines in the book, I drew from my own experiences, particularly with Lee’s struggles. I think that because I tend to be very bubbly person (other people’s description of me, not my own), people are shocked when they find out that I suffer from anxietymainly panic attacks. I had my first one when I was six years old, and for years didn’t know how to describe it other than saying that I was sick. At one point, it was so bad I couldn’t leave the house, and even now it amazes me that I’ve been able to do the things that I’ve done. It hasn’t been an easy road, but my family has always been so supportive of me, and I’ve been blessed to work with a fantastic counselor who has helped me learn coping techniques that I practice every day. Plus, having a sense of humor about things is a huge help!


Everyone, to some extent, deals with anxiety, but for some of us that level of anxiety is kicked up a notch…or fifty. If nothing else, I want people to know that they are not alone—something that both Merilee and Lee struggle with, in different ways—and that there is hope. Whether it’s talking to a family member, friend, therapist—there are people who genuinely care and want to help you. 


5. My English teacher once told my class a story about a friend of Ernest Hemingway’s who challenged him to write a story in six words. I loved that idea, and I included six-word summaries of every book I reviewed for several months. Now it’s your turn! How would you describe Hart & Seoul in six words? 


Oh gosh, really? Okay, here goes: Runaway K-pop star meets American suburbs.


6. As a youth librarian, you clearly have a lot of exposure to children’s/YA literature. What was it that you hoped to add to the YA world by writing the story that you did—in other words, what did you not see in other books that you hoped readers would see in yours? 


There are so many excellent YA books out therebooks that inspired me to write, books that I see reader after reader get excited about. I don’t want to say that theyre missing something that my book has—other than the fact that I’m the writer of it and not someone else!—but I will say that YA moves in trends. No surprise there. I just wanted to try something new, both for me to write and for people to read. And boy oh boy, am I glad I did! I began penning the draft before K-pop had become as hugely popular in the States as it is now, but once I saw just how popular it was getting, it convinced me all the more that this was a story that was meant to be shared. Writing a book doesn’t happen overnight, and getting it published takes even longer, so I’m incredibly fortunate that the timing worked out the way it did. 



7. The question every author probably dreads: are you working on any other writing projects after Hart & Seoul? Are you interested in returning to the world of Korean pop culture in your writing, or would future projects probably be very different from Hart & Seoul


While I am happy to say that that one idea that I struggled with for so long is finally ready to be developed, I think it’s safe to say that Merilee and Lee’s adventures are not over. They both still have a lot of things to sort out, lessons to learn…and we still haven’t met the other Thunder members yet! And that’s all I’ll say at the moment. 😊

 I hope that’s gotten you all excited for this release! Seriously, you’ve got to read this. “Hart & Seoul” is out today and you can purchase it at:

Happy reading! 🙂


Hello, friends! My name is Sarah and I would like to say that I'm an average adolescent, but as the majority of adolescents do not run book review blogs, I do not know if that characterization would be accurate. I love writing about books almost as much as I love reading them and I can't wait to share my thoughts with you! Happy reading :)

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