Relative Strangers

by A.H. Kim

Interview by Ellen Birkett Morris

It’s quite a trick to pull off a modern retelling of a classic tale in a way that holds modern interest, A. H. Kim does just that with Relative Strangers. Her novel is a contemporary spin on Sense and Sensibility that follows two half-Korean sisters, their ex-hippie mother, through multiple complex love affairs and family secrets. Kim shares her experiences developing the novel with Authorlink:

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that you can share with us?

 “I have the worst case of imposter syndrome. I don’t have an MFA…I sincerely believe the best training to be a writer is to be a reader.”

KIM: I feel shy about answering this question because I have the worst case of imposter syndrome. I don’t have an MFA, nor have I ever taken a formal creative writing class. I would call myself a self-taught writer, but that doesn’t do justice to the teachers who have inspired me over the years.

I sincerely believe the best training to be a writer is to be a reader, and I thank my second-grade teacher Mrs. Whitelaw for igniting my passion for reading. One of my best childhood memories was sitting in a circle with my classmates while Mrs. Whitelaw read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us. As soon as she finished the book (which has my favorite last two lines in all of literature), I rushed to the library to check it out and read it to myself. Thus began my love affair with books.

There are countless other people who have helped me on the journey to becoming a published author, but I’ll name just one more. Christopher DeLorenzo ( is a writing teacher in San Francisco who holds weekly generative writing workshops as well as inspiring writing retreats. Before meeting Chris, I had written a manuscript but was petrified of letting anyone read it – which is a major problem if you want to be published.

Through Chris’ weekly workshops and brilliant prompts, I not only wrote some of the pieces that would eventually form my debut novel, A Good Family, but also gained the confidence to share my writing with others. Finding a community of kind and generous readers to provide feedback is essential to becoming a good writer.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do story ideas come from for you?

“…A Good Family was very much inspired by my personal life…”

 KIM: The story ideas for all my books – whether published or unpublished – have so far come from a combination of my own life and books I admire.

Twelve years ago, I had just finished reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and I was so deeply touched by the book that it inspired me to try writing my own YA book about first love but from a Korean American girl’s perspective – a viewpoint I hadn’t seen in any YA books at the time. While I wasn’t able to find an agent for that first manuscript, the whole experience sparked a desire in me to keep writing and try to get published.

The idea for my debut novel, A Good Family, came to me when my sister-in-law plead guilty to a white-collar crime and began serving time in a federal women’s prison. I read Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black even before the Netflix show became a worldwide sensation, and the thought occurred to me that my family’s tragic situation had the makings of a riveting novel. Of course, I completely fictionalized the characters and situations, but A Good Family was very much inspired by my personal life plus my admiration for OITNB.

 AUTHORLINK: Relative Strangers is a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. What challenges came with recasting a well-known novel?

KIM: As an Austen fan myself, I know we can be protective of our idol and opinionated about modern adaptations. Plus, so many excellent retellings have already been written.

Thus, the main challenge for me was to write a story that both honored the original and added to the oeuvre of homages. Thankfully, there are somewhat fewer retellings of Sense and Sensibility than, say, Pride and Prejudice, and to my knowledge, none written from a Korean American perspective. I’m hopeful that Janeites will take pleasure in the little Austen Easter eggs I’ve planted throughout Relative Strangers and at the same time appreciate the contemporary twists.

AUTHORLINK: In what ways did having a template ease the way as you were writing?

“I’m pretty particular about story structure: the hook, the inciting incident, the climax…”

KIM: I’m pretty particular about story structure: the hook, the inciting incident, the climax, and so forth. For my debut novel, A Good Family, I obsessed about structure because I wanted to build the mystery and have the solution slowly unfold like a butterfly emerging from her cocoon. The benefit of an homage like Relative Strangers is that the basic structure is already set, so I could focus on other elements such as characterization, setting, and dialogue – which, to me, are the really fun parts of writing fiction.

AUTHORLINK: Your main female characters Amelia Bae-Wood, her sister Eleanor, and mother Tabitha are so well drawn. Talk to me about how you develop your characters.

KIM: Thank you for saying so; that means the world to me.

In A Good Family, the characters took some time to reveal themselves to me. I started drafting that book from the third-person perspective, and much of the initial narrative was external: what places looked like, what people said, what events occurred. It was only when I revised the entire book to dual first-person perspectives (Hannah and Beth) that I felt the characters come to life. Something about describing the world through Hannah and Beth’s eyes made the two women very real to me, and I hope that feeling comes across to the reader.

I must have learned a lesson from that experience, because when I first came up with the idea for Relative Strangers, I started with the characters themselves. Using Austen’s original cast as a jumping off point, I wrote a series of self-introductions in each character’s first-person voice. These short intros not only provided me with a “cheat sheet” to refer to whenever I needed to double-check backstories but also got me attuned to each character’s tics and tones and rhythms.

AUTHORLINK: The book’s sections are divided by seasons. How did you decide on this structure and how did this influence the choices you made when telling the story?

KIM: The four-season structure came to me after I wrote the first dozen or so chapters of the book. At the beginning of the story, Amelia learns that her mother has been kicked out of the family estate and is taking refuge with Amelia’s older sister Eleanor at some remote place called Arcadia. Amelia survives a series of comical encounters, including a very Austen-like rescue in the rain, before finally making her way to her family.

From there, we meet some of the other main characters in the book and set up the book’s critical storylines: Why did Amelia’s mother lose the family estate? Why did Amelia go from being the girlfriend/muse of a Michelin-starred chef to being broke and alone? Which of the Bae-Wood women is going to find love, and with whom?

I had so much fun writing these first dozen or so chapters, but I quickly realized that, at this rate, it would take me 500 pages (or more!) to tell the complete story of the Bae-Wood women. By breaking up the book every ten chapters with a change of seasons, I could “fast forward” some elements of the Bae-Woods’ story (such as the close emotional bond that develops among the residents of Arcadia) without sacrificing the delicious details I love to write (such as the sensual pleasures of food and nature, the playful banter between the characters).

AUTHORLINK: What was your greatest challenge in developing Relative Strangers?

 KIM: The greatest challenge to Relative Strangers actually happened outside of the writing process.

Under the terms of my debut book contract, my publisher (Graydon House) had rights to the first look at my next book. I was almost done with the manuscript for Relative Strangers, when I saw an announcement in Publishers Weekly that Graydon House had purchased a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility by a debut author, Lauren Edmondson. (The book is excellent, by the way. It’s called Ladies of the House.) My heart sank. There was no way, I thought, that my publisher would want two S&S retellings in back-to-back years.

I finished drafting Relative Strangers but set it aside to focus on a new book to submit to my publisher. Around the time I finished my new book, which explores some dark issues, my mother died. I was feeling very sad and could not imagine spending months revising and promoting the dark book. “Let’s just send them the Austen book,” I told my agent. “If they turn it down, we can try to sell it elsewhere.”

But surprise of surprises, my editor accepted it right away.

AUTHORLINK: You worked in corporate law for many years and served as chief of staff to the CEO and as head of investor relations at a Fortune 200 company. What, if any, of the skills needed for that work have carried over to your career as a writer?

“I became a debut novelist in my 50s after decades of working in the corporate world.”

KIM: I became a debut novelist in my 50s after decades of working in the corporate world. Having a challenging and fulfilling career not only provided me with the financial cushion I needed to retire early and pursue writing full-time, but it also taught me valuable skills for being a writer.

Words were the tools of my trade as a lawyer, as they are for me as a novelist. Having had to write every single day for my day job, I have no fear of the empty page or blank Word doc. Writing is a pleasure for me rather than a chore.

Many writers are petrified to speak at book readings or on literary panels. I feel their pain, as I used to have a terrible fear of public speaking as well. But years as a lawyer and corporate leader taught me to quell my anxiety, and now, I sometimes even enjoy public speaking. Practice really does make perfect.

Finally, my experience in the corporate world taught me to overcome my shyness and insecurity and connect with people. This is a surprisingly useful skill to have as a writer. Writing can be a lonely vocation, but having a community of writers you can lean on – whether you’re upset over a bad Goodreads review or need someone to provide a last-minute blurb for your next book – can make all the difference for your career and your mental health.

AUTHORLINK: I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers about either craft or staying encouraged in the face of rejection.

KIM: Rejection is such a big part of being a writer. So are insecurity and jealousy. They are the big, ugly monsters under the bed I struggle with constantly, as do many writers I know.

At a writing conference I attended last year, I heard Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers, I Have Some Questions for You) advise writers to keep a personalized list of “wins” that are within our control: for example, writing 1000 words per day, completing a manuscript by year-end, sending out 10 queries per week. Creating this list encourages us to focus on the things that we can control, and ticking off each item reminds us of how far we’ve come.

In addition, Makkai said we should keep a list of “wins” that are outside our control. This could include shoot-for-the-stars wins (Pulitzer Prize, New York Times bestseller), big wins (getting an agent or book deal, seeing our book in an airport bookstore), and smallish wins (getting a “full request” from an agent, being published by a local newspaper). Over time, Makkai said, we may be surprised how many of the items – even the big ones – we’ve accomplished.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

 KIM: Right now, I’m mostly getting ready for the launch of Relative Strangers. Because my debut was published in 2020, I did not get to do any bookstore events or public readings, so I’m trying to make the most of this second book. I’ve got an 11-stop book tour in April, several more events in May and June (including the Greater Pittsburgh and Bay Area book festivals), and possibly even more stuff the rest of the year. I’m also writing articles for blogs and online publications, doing podcasts and interviews, and of course trying to keep up on social media.

Once the dust settles on Relative Strangers, however, I am looking forward to going back to that “dark book” I mentioned earlier. With the passage of time, I feel ready to tackle the challenges of that book and those characters, and I’m eager to see how everything comes together in the end.

About the author

A.H. Kim (Ann) is the author of Relative Strangers and A Good Family. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. as a young child. Ann was educated at Harvard College and Berkeley Law School, where she was an editor of the California Law Review. Ann practiced corporate law for many years and served as chief of staff to the CEO and as head of investor relations at a Fortune 200 company.

Ann is the proud mother of two sons, a longtime cancer survivor, and community volunteer. After raising her family in the Bay Area, Ann and her husband now call Ann Arbor home.