“I think it’s almost too meta to cry in H Mart now,” said Michelle Zauner, author of memoir Crying in H Mart and lead vocalist of indie pop band Japanese Breakfast.
Released in April 2021, Crying in H Mart tells the story of Zauner growing up in Eugene with a Korean immigrant mother whose love manifested in unyielding expectations, knife-like criticism, and the most delicious and attentively-prepared meals. In her mother’s final months with pancreatic cancer, Zauner once again used food to show love and process grief.
After delaying promoting the book in-person due to the pandemic, the 33-year-old musician will begin her first book tour this month to promote the book's paperback release. Ahead of her Seattle stop on March 30, The Stranger spoke with Zauner about going on a different kind of tour, getting ready to write her second book, and mostly, being shaped by the places where we live and go.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
STRANGER: How do you feel about embarking on your first book tour?
MICHELLE ZAUNER: I had been really looking forward to it, because as a musician I tour all the time, and I’m pretty used to the lifestyle. But I was particularly excited about not having to move any heavy gear, and just showing up to places with a book and a tote book.
Since 2021, we've anticipated a Crying in H Mart film, and you've been writing the screenplay for it. What was the experience of writing the screenplay like?
I took a screenwriting class in college at Penn. But beyond that, this was my first foray into screenwriting. It was a real education. Like any writing, it was really enjoyable and exciting and also completely agonizing and infuriating and difficult.
How was it different from other writing you’ve done?
I think the biggest difference is that in screenwriting, you have to have a really strong outline and know exactly where it’s going. Whereas with writing a book, it’s a lot of meandering and not knowing and exploring what it is you’re after, and finding it in the end.
Where are you in the process?
I am hopefully doing the last rewrite now. We’re hoping to be shooting this year.
I want to talk about Oregon’s role in the book, which is largely based in Eugene where you grew up. It also references parts of Portland that hold significance for you—Crystal Ballroom, Jake’s Grill, “ a random street in the Pearl District” where your husband Peter proposed. What’s your relationship with the Pacific Northwest these days?
I actually just visited Oregon a couple weeks ago—beyond just touring through for a day—for the first time in years. I took a trip to Eugene just to visit some friends and to get some paperwork from my parents’ security deposit box.
Eugene holds a very special place in my heart. Obviously, when I was growing up in Eugene, it felt very small and somewhat stifling for a young, independent girl. But when I returned to it, so much of my heart and spirit felt very Pacific Northwest.
I think there is an earnestness to people from the Pacific Northwest. It’s a very majestic place with a lot of natural wonder, and that has a humbling quality for a lot of the people.
You wrote that growing up, you and your mom traveled to Korea every other summer. What was that like?
It was a very, very different experience from growing up in Eugene and a beloved part of my childhood. [In Eugene,] I had a very lonely upbringing where there wasn’t anything to do around my house. I couldn’t ride my bike to a convenience store or a park or a friend’s house. We were kind of, like, outside of town. So, to be in Korea, it was not only exciting because I got to travel at such a young age, but I had so much more freedom in a weird way. I could walk to all of the shops. Seoul is a larger city than New York so it was my first exposure to a real big city. In a way, it made me a much more courageous person. I felt very comfortable with travel, not knowing a language, and trying different things.
I read that you’ve wanted to move to Korea for a year and write about learning the language while living in the country. Do you still plan to do that?
Yeah, we’re planning to do it next year. We’ll be taking a year off of touring and focusing on writing my second book. We’re going to be moving January 1 and returning, like, January 1.
What are your feelings around it?
I’m very nervous. I think parts of it will be incredibly lonely and really frustrating. It’s very scary to feel like I have finally established myself in the work I’ve always wanted to do, and in a way, I feel like I’m walking away from that, and that’s really scary. I’m just hoping that it’s there when I return.
But also, I’m so excited to live as a student every day. I think after six years of working as a professional musician and touring so much, I’m really looking forward to being in one place for a while and just kind of focusing on the everyday. So much of my life is planning on being somewhere else. This will be just sort of existing in the day-to-day, which is a big part of why I wanted to go there.
Where do you feel most at home now?
I lived in New York for one year in 2016 and then I moved back in 2020. I would say I feel most at home there. But having just visited Eugene, I know there’s always going to be a piece of me in Oregon.
Michelle Zauner will be at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue, March 30, 7:30 pm, $10-$100, all ages. The event will also be livestreamed.
This story originally appeared in the Portland Mercury.