‘K-Pop Confidential’ is the name of Stephan Lee’s debut novel and it’s a treat! Set in the glamourous, yet highly competitive world of the South Korean K-pop industry, the book is not only entertaining, but also sheds light on how tough the life of a young popstar trainee can be.
While main character Candace Park faced lots of struggles in the book, the Korean American author had a lot of fun writing the story. “I particularly loved spending time with my characters! But the beginning of the writing process is always hard,” Stephan admits. “I actually didn’t map out the plot that much before I started. Early on, I didn’t know what the book is supposed to look, feel, or sound like. So I just wrote random scenes that I had pictured in my head the moment I decided to write this book, which was in the summer of 2019. After a lot of experimentation, I found the rhythm of the book and the characters’ voices, and after that, it was so much fun to write!”
Pressure and courage
Stephan didn’t write K-Pop Confidential exclusively for K-Pop fans. “I think there are universal themes that anyone can enjoy,” he explains. “Of course, in the book there’s a lot about the glamour, hard work, and fun of K-pop, but I wanted to tell a universal story as well. Young people around the world have so many impossible expectations put on them, whether it’s pressure to get into university or competing to be ‘the best’. The standards of success are usually defined by older generations, they’re the ones who get to decide who’s good enough. My book is about young people gathering the courage to defy the people who hold the keys to their dreams and re-defining self-worth for themselves.”
Fictional worlds always felt brighter and more fun
The author’s long-standing love for Korean girl groups has contributed to the creation of K-Pop Confidential, but there are also other, less specific things that inspire him. “This might sound vague, but my biggest source of inspiration has always been wanting to be somewhere else. Ever since I was a kid, I watched the same movies or read the same books over and over again, because fictional worlds always felt a bit brighter and more fun than reality,” Stephan clarifies. “My family was always very pragmatic and didn’t really seek out spontaneous or whimsical experiences. And I don’t blame them, they were busy making sure we survived as immigrants in America! So I had to create them in my mind. I didn’t just want to escape to fantasy worlds, sometimes stories about kids who lived in regular suburbs, but had interesting friends or talents were enough to transport me into another life. I think that’s really why I’ve always wanted to write and create.”
“When I was very young, I thought I wanted to be several different things: a visual artist, a cartoonist, a dinosaur expert,” Stephan remembers. “But storytelling was always my main passion. In first grade I wrote and illustrated a story about a boy who got visited by a friendly alien named Rolly, who invited him to visit a planet made out of peppermint. When it was time to go home, the boy rode a slide all the way back down to earth. My teacher read it out loud to the whole class, and I really think I thought of myself as a future author ever since then!”
Higher stakes and expectations
Even though there are of course similarities between the South Korean and the American entertainment industry, a lot of things are also different. “It’s important to remember that K-pop is not the entire Korean music industry. South Korea has a lively independent music scene that exists outside of the K-pop ‘machinery’,” Stephan explains. “A few years ago, I went to Seoul for three weeks to report a magazine article on the global rise of Korean entertainment. This might be a generalization, but I found that there was a very collective and patriotic attitude toward creating pop culture. South Korea considers entertainment to be a very important export to raise the country’s standing in the world, so there are higher stakes and higher expectations on the artists. It’s not just about individuals who want success and fame. I tried to capture this dynamic in K-Pop Confidential: Candace has to learn that she must find a way to fit into this industry and that it’s not just about her own dreams.”
Working on a sequel
Fans of Stephan’s first book will be pleased to find out that he is working on a sequel for K-Pop Confidential. Especially since the book ended with a lot of suspense and excitement. “I’m actually writing it right now!” he reveals. “It’s about the first year of the girl group formed at the end of K-Pop Confidential. The title is ‘K-Pop Revolution’, but that might change before it’s published.”
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