She’s a Korean immigrant, a former trial lawyer and the mother of three boys with serious medical issues. With her debut novel, Angie Kim has seamlessly woven these disparate strands of her life into an emotionally sprawling yet psychologically taut legal thriller.
With such a masterful blending of fiction and real life, it’s particularly fitting that Angie Kim will celebrate her 50th birthday the same week that her highly anticipated debut novel, Miracle Creek, is published.
“I’m really excited,” she says in a call to her home in Great Falls, Virginia. “It’s a good excuse to have a big party.” And no doubt it will be a fun one, as the author radiates energy and enthusiasm even over the phone.
At the center of her book is the Yoo family (Young; her husband, Pak; and their 17-year-old daughter, Mary), who have emigrated from Korea and landed in the rural town of Miracle Creek, Virginia. In a barn, they run Miracle Submarine, a center for hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) where people go on “dives” in the pressurized oxygen chamber as an experimental treatment for a variety of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, infertility and more. Disaster strikes in the very first chapter when the Yoos’ chamber explodes, killing two people and injuring and disfiguring others.
"When you have a kid that’s sick, it just brings so many things to focus. And when you have three kids that are sick with three different things, it’s just awful. I probably have many, many novels where I could talk about this stuff.”
The accident, it turns out, is the result of arson, and the rest of the novel unfolds during four days of a trial held one year later, told from multiple points of view, weaving past and present together in a tangled yet beautifully constructed whodunit web. (Kim modeled the structure after two books: Korean bestseller Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, and Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, which begins with a deadly school bus accident, then describes the aftermath.)
Kim’s choice of subject came naturally. Her second son was born with profound hearing loss in one ear, and later diagnosed with celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. Soon after, she accompanied him to a series of HBOT treatments. Because of the fire risks associated with oxygen chambers, everyone inside had to wear special cotton clothing, while items that might spark a fire were forbidden, including belts, eyeglasses, electronics and even underwire bras. (An explosion in a poorly maintained chamber in Florida killed a 4-year-old and his grandmother in 2009, leading to a manslaughter conviction.)
Kim saw literary possibilities in both the danger and the drama of the HBOT setting, which she compares to a confessional in her novel. “You crawl in, and it’s dark and like a tube,” she recalls. “There’s also an emotional tension when you’re sealed up with other parents of kids who have different disabilities and illnesses. You start comparing and contrasting your lives, and it makes an intimacy that builds. But at the same time, jealousy can develop. I thought that was a really rich setting to be able to explore.”
One mother whose child had particularly serious issues jokingly told Kim, “I don’t know why you do this. If I had a son like yours, I would just lie on my couch and eat bonbons all day.” One of Kim’s characters makes the same comment to another mother, and Kim’s initial working title for her manuscript was “Bonbons in the Blue Submarine.”
Noting that her sons are all doing fine now (one has peanut allergies; the other was born with an abnormally small head and exhibited skin symptoms that could’ve been Elephant Man Disease), Kim says of her family’s medical ordeals, “It’s probably something I’ll be exploring for the rest of my life. When you have a kid that’s sick, it just brings so many things to focus. And when you have three kids that are sick with three different things, it’s just awful. I probably have many, many novels where I could talk about this stuff.”
In addition to writing about HBOT, Kim initially contemplated writing a murder mystery involving a family who had emigrated from Korea. A friend suggested she combine these two ideas, leading Kim to model the Yoo family after her own: She and her parents emigrated from Seoul to the Baltimore area when Kim was 11. Just as Young works behind bulletproof glass in a grocery store when she first comes to America, Kim’s parents worked in such a store, living in a small back room, while Kim stayed with her aunt, uncle and cousin.
“I was a complete mess, very upset to be here,” Kim recalls of those years. “In Seoul we were really poor—we didn’t have indoor plumbing or anything like that—but we were just so happy, from my memory of it.” Kim felt abandoned as her parents worked long hours, and she eventually rebelled. “I was a really horrible teenager,” she recalls. “I knew intellectually that it wasn’t their fault. Korea is such a patriarchal culture, and that’s one of the reasons my mom wanted to move to America; she didn’t want that for me. But I just wanted to punish my parents, and I did, acting like a complete teenage brat for a really long time.”Kim struggled with English and excelled in math but later decided to challenge herself with liberal arts classes at Stanford and became a philosophy major. She fared so poorly in a creative writing class, however, that she dropped it. Although she never considered herself a writer, she eventually became an editor at the Harvard Law Review.
Kim’s legal career blossomed, and as a junior lawyer she loved being in the courtroom. After a grueling period working on three successful trials, however, Kim joined her soon-to-be husband on a weekend trip to San Francisco and experienced an epiphany. While he spoke at a legal conference, she spent the day sitting by the ocean at the Cliff House, reading Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. “As a lawyer, I hadn’t had the opportunity to have a day like that in years,” she says. “I decided that I needed to find something that I love, that I could do every day and say, ‘Oh, I love this.’ So that night I told my husband, ‘Oh, by the way, I decided I’m going to quit being a lawyer.’”
She became a management consultant and co-founded a software company. Meanwhile, her confidence in her writing grew, and she began writing essays and short stories. Not surprisingly, Kim particularly enjoyed working on the courtroom scenes in her novel. “I could have witnesses say whatever I wanted them to say,” she says. “They were my puppets, which is what you desperately wish for when you’re actually practicing.”
Kim’s finished product was going to be called “Miracle Submarine,” but after concerns that it sounded too military, the title became Miracle Creek. Kim is pleased, especially since she chose the town’s name as a nod to another of her favorite books, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. “I just love the way that it’s a literary mystery where you don’t know what’s happening, and there are all these great voices that are so raw and honest,” she says. Those words of praise apply equally well to Kim’s debut.
In the decades since she reluctantly boarded a plane from Korea to America, Kim’s life has taken many unexpected turns. As she writes near the end of Miracle Creek, “Every human being was the result of a million different factors mixing together. . . . Good things and bad—every friendship and romance formed, every accident, every illness—resulted from the conspiracy of hundreds of little things, in and of themselves inconsequential.”
“That has just sort of become a theme throughout my life,” Kim admits. “I think it’s so interesting how little things can happen that can really take your life on a totally different strand.”