Michelle Zauner explains writing process, grief in her best-seller ‘Crying in H Mart’


Photo courtesy of Peter Ash Lee/Genius

Author and muscian Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast, on the album cover of “Jubilee” released on June 4, 2021. Zauner attended the zoom event “An Evening with Michelle Zauner,” presented by Illinois Libraries Present on Thursday.

By Sydney Wood, buzz Editor

Last Thursday, multiple residents across Illinois joined celebrated author and musician Michelle Zauner via Zoom for a conversation about her music career and her best-selling memoir, “Crying in H Mart.”

Zauner — known professionally as Japanese Breakfast — spoke with Jessica Hopper, a Chicago-based music critic, producer and author, who asked her questions about food, family and, of course, “Crying in H Mart.”

The cover art of Michelle Zauner’s book “Crying in H Mart.” (Photo courtesy of @jbrekkie Instagram)

The book revolves around Zauner’s relationship with her mother, along with her grief after her mother died from an aggressive type of cancer. Throughout the book, Zauner references the importance of food in how she connected with her mom before and after her death.

The Urbana Free Library was one of the many libraries in Illinois that participated in “An Evening with Michelle Zauner,” made possible by Illinois Libraries Present, a state-wide collaboration among public libraries. 

Zauner joined the Zoom broadcast from the comfort of her Brooklyn apartment, saying that she’s had a “rare” two-week break before she continued her “Jubilee” tour in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 8. 

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During the Zoom, Zauner revealed that a film adaptation of “Crying in H Mart” is in the works, and she’s currently finishing the first revisioned rough draft of the screenplay. She said the book was always about her relationship with her mother and not her musical journey, yet she wants the film to take a different angle and combine these two aspects of her life. 

“My creative life actually had so much to do with our relationship, and so much of the friction between us stemmed from this creative life I wanted so desperately for myself,” Zauner said. “So, I think that this time around with the screenplay, that was kind of my new aim.”

Zauner has always been interested in writing and often used her music as a vehicle for her writing, she said. She even studied creative writing in college, yet she never imagined herself becoming an author. 

“Funny enough, I thought that the career of a writer was somehow loftier of a goal than making it as a musician,” she said. “I think part of that was just because the world felt so exclusive, whereas, in music, there’s a more realistic DIY path.”

It wasn’t until after her mom’s death that she felt she needed to expand her writing outside of music. 

“It was just very necessary for me to kind of explore what had happened through writing,” she said. “There was not enough space in music to explain what I was feeling and what had happened.”

Although she didn’t read many memoirs before, Zauner said she began reading them after she started writing “Crying in H Mart.” She named Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights” for grief and food memoirs like Ruth Frankel’s “Tender At The Bone” and Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.”

She described her writing process — for her music and book — as being “ludicrous” in which she set intense rules and deadlines for herself. 

“I really just gunned it to the end without thinking, and that kind of allowed me to write really badly,” she said. “It generated a lot of raw materials, and sometimes, there would be absolutely nothing usable. But sometimes it would be like one word or one sentence or one idea that I found later to be very helpful.” 

During her last tour, Zauner said she would find time to write whenever she could, such as on the van, in hotels, on planes and between soundcheck and showtime. As she wrote and reflected on the past, she said she tried to understand others’ perspectives and her own shortcomings. 

“Looking back on it,” she said, “that was actually a really healing part about writing this memoir, I think it really forces you to have more perspective and compassion for everyone involved.”

She said it’s a universal experience for people to feel as if they don’t belong anywhere. Yet, she said she’s been able to create a community of belonging for herself with “Crying in H Mart,” which she said is “heartwarming and validating.”  

“So much of my disinterest in writing nonfiction was largely because I never felt like I could see myself as a main character, and it finally sort of feels like I am allowed to be,” she said. 

It was necessary for her to write about her grief after losing her mother, and she was angry that no one had prepared her for what she’d see while serving as a caretaker for her mother, Zauner said. She explained that she felt as if no one could understand the intensity of her pain and how it fundamentally changed her life. 

“People needed to know how sad that experience was and how hard it was for me to really know who I am after the fact,” she said. “I really do look at my life as before and after losing my mom and particularly the experience of caretaking.”

As a songwriter and writer, Zauner is interested in finding the extraordinary aspects of ordinary and mundane things, she said. 

“A common theme in my work where you know, it’s very, it starts from a very humble, very human place,” she said. “My work is to sort of make other people understand why that moment or that observation or that characteristic is exceptional.”

As for the future, Zauner said her next book will be about studying the Korean language and documenting that experience. She said the idea feels like a natural jumping-off point from “Crying in H Mart,” especially because writing the memoir was a difficult process. 

“I’m not actually someone who has a particularly great memory, and finding those memories and rooting around in the past was very challenging,” she said. “So I love the idea of writing a book that forces me to be present and a book that allows me to pursue something that I don’t think I will ever be able to pursue without a project built around it.”


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