Paula Yoo is a writer and musician based in LA. She got her start through journalism, where she learned the fundamentals of reporting, research, and efficiency. These skills transferred to her eventual career as a fiction and nonfiction author and TV producer/writer, and eventual degrees from Yale, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and Warren Wilson College! Her work includes From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement, an “award-winning YA nonfiction book” about a “famous AAPI civil rights case” in addition to selling 3 TV drama pilots to well-known streaming platforms. Her latest book, Rising From the Ashes, a “narrative nonfiction YA book about the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising and the solidarity formed between the Korean American and Black communities” is set for publication in 2024! When she’s not writing, Yoo is an advocate for national and local issues dear to her, and supports the LA Food Bank, Orlando Youth Alliance, Stop AAPI Hate, and We Need Diverse Books. Her advice to young artists? “Embrace your individuality by finding your voice and working hard at your craft to let that voice blossom and grow.” Read on to learn more about Paula Yoo and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Paula Yoo
Heritage: Korean American
Hometown: All over America and Korea, but mostly Connecticut
Current City: Los Angeles
Current project: Rising From the Ashes – my narrative nonfiction YA book about the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising and the solidarity formed between the Korean American and Black communities since then will be published in Spring 2024 by Norton Young Readers (W.W. Norton & Co.). This book features personal interviews with over 100 people, including the families of Rodney King, Latasha Harlins and Edward Jae Song Lee, along with new information since.
The paperback version of my award-winning YA nonfiction book, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement, comes out this August 2023 with a teacher’s guide! This book features exclusive interviews and new information never before revealed about this famous AAPI civil rights case.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
I am very grateful for the reception my debut YA nonfiction book From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement, received, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the National Book Award Longlist in Young People’s Literature, and the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Most people advise working hard, never giving up and believing in yourself. I agree with all of this. But for me, the most important piece of advice for anyone who wants a career in the arts is… FIND YOUR VOICE. Hard work and talent will only get you so far. Everyone is creative. Everyone has something to say. But WHY YOU? What makes your point of view so unique and powerful that it must be shared? Art is not just about your passion and vision and creativity, but also about what message you are trying to communicate with others through your art. You are unique. Embrace your individuality by finding your voice and working hard at your craft to let that voice blossom and grow.
How did you get your start?
Although I majored in English in college and dreamt of writing the next Great American Novel, I got my start as a journalist. I learned about writing efficiently on deadline and going the extra mile when it comes to research and reporting. Those skills carried over when I started writing fiction and nonfiction books for children and teenagers and also as a TV writer/producer.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
An early highlight in my TV career was getting to attend the Emmys when I was a staff writer for NBC’s The West Wing and being onstage when we won for Most Outstanding TV Drama Series in 2003. I am also still shocked over waking up to the news that my YA nonfiction book on Vincent Chin, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry, had been longlisted for the National Book Award. Finally, I will say that as a TV writer/producer, I’ve always enjoyed being on set as a producer for an episode I wrote and to see all the amazing hard work and creativity that happens behind the scenes, especially seeing how our crew made Supergirl fly on our CW show, Supergirl!
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Racism. I have a “tough skin” and can handle rejection and painful criticism because I also trained at one point to become a professional musician (I play the violin). As a violinist, I learned how to overcome stage fright and to avoid taking audition rejections personally. As a journalist, I have had to approach subjects who do not want to talk to a reporter, so I know how to handle difficult confrontations with professionalism and grace. But none of this prepared me for systemic institutional racism that is baked into the publishing industry and Hollywood with its tokenism, microaggressions AND macroaggressions. I have no problem being criticized because practice makes perfect for musicians, and writers are constantly growing and learning in their craft. But the racism that I encountered devastated me because I was being judged unfairly not for my work but for the color of my skin. In a way, that’s one reason as to why my current books and TV projects focus on social justice and #representationmatters, because I fight back by writing back.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
When it comes to national issues, I try to focus on local groups where donations can directly help individuals instead of mostly going to overhead. Because of LA’s increasing homeless/unhoused population, I volunteer when I can at the LA Food Bank and often donate there (https://www.lafoodbank.org). Ever since the Pulse nightclub mass shooting tragedy in 2016, my friends and I donated diverse LGBTQIA books to this wonderful youth center called the Orlando Youth Alliance, many of whose members were at the club on the night of the shooting. Since then, I love supporting them whenever I can, especially in light of the current book ban controversies in that state. (https://orlandoyouthalliance.org) Because AAPI Heritage Month is coming up, I also support Stop AAPI Hate (https://stopaapihate.org) and We Need Diverse Books (https://diversebooks.org).
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
I always wanted to write. Before I felt I was “ready” to write novels and fiction and books, I went into journalism because I figured that would be a great way to train as a writer by meeting interesting and diverse people and telling their stories first. I was a newspaper reporter for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News,and People Magazine before becoming a full-time book author and TV writer/producer.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
Ever since I read Charlotte’s Web in the first grade. I knew right then and there I wanted to be a writer for the rest of my life. And ever since I first heard the violin in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to play the violin for the rest of my life. I’m very lucky and grateful to have both in my life.
Is where you are now where you thought you’d be?
Yes. I’m very lucky that way. And extremely grateful.
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
When the WGA went on strike in 2007, I passed the CBEST exam and got my certification to be a K-12 substitute teacher during those 100 days of the strike. I love teaching and I hope I can still teach in the future.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Being able to focus for hours alone at my desk on deadline. And then when I am frustrated and procrastinate, my other skill is being able to forgive myself and not get upset when I cannot focus. Basically, I know when to work hard and when I have to work smart. 😊
Where did you study at?
I graduated with a B.A. cum laude in English from Yale University, an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College.
What do you love most about what you do?
I just love that moment in music or writing where the world disappears, and you get lost in the words or notes. It’s like a dream you wake up from after you finish playing a beautiful piece of music or hit the PRINT button on your computer. That’s my favorite part about being a writer and a musician – the dream state!
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
Like all writers and musicians, I’ve had a rollercoaster life! But what helped me rebound was to allow myself to confront, process and wrestle with my anger, my sadness, my pain, and my humiliation whenever I made a mistake or was rejected. The reason why I have a positive personality and am very resilient is because I allow myself to process the negative emotions and learn and grow from them. If I suppressed my negative feelings all the time and tried to be super cheerful and brush off bad news, I would explode later! It’s not easy though – it’s very painful and difficult to sit with your feelings of sadness, despair, anger, etc. after a rejection or mistake. But what helped me bounce back from those moments was knowing – and believing – that it was not ME personally being rejected. It was the WORK. And as personal as that work may be, it does not fully define me as a human being.
Since so many of us spent a lot of time isolated during the pandemic, how has that experience specifically changed your creative or preparation process or your outlook on life?
I am a social butterfly and love going out and hanging out with friends! But ironically about three years before the pandemic began, I had sold some book and TV projects so I was writing from home. It was a dream come true to be paid to write at home! I was already working at home for a few years by the time the pandemic and lockdown happened, so socially, there was no major change for me. And even though I’m very social, I also am very good at being alone because I can easily amuse myself because my imagination is constantly running 24/7. As a result, I wasn’t unhappy working in isolation pre-pandemic and during it. Emotionally, however, I was devastated by the death toll from COVID-19 and the anti-AAPI racism that arose because of it. So sometimes it was difficult – and scary – to work during the early pre-vaccine months of the pandemic and lockdown because so much was unknown about this virus. I’m very grateful to be fully vaccinated and boosted and I still wear a mask when I go out.
As a storyteller, how do you pick the stories you want to work on and what goes into putting a story together, whether on stage, page, or film?
Whenever I brainstorm ideas for TV pilot scripts, it’s about a world filled with never-ending stories and no closure. The characters are always learning new things about themselves and their world. Books, however, have a concrete ending. They’re more about a character-driven journey where a character encounters an obstacle and must overcome that problem to achieve their goal. And in the end, they may not always reach that goal, but their lives have changed forever because of the emotional journey they experienced in trying to overcome that obstacle. And how does that journey resonate for the reader long after they close the book? So for me, if a story can go on FOREVER with endless plots, it’s a TV pilot script. If a story has a concrete emotional journey with a finite end, it’s a book.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I never have writer’s block. I actually have the opposite problem. I write TOO much. I think it’s because I’m also a very talkative person! Haha! So my problem is knowing how to self-edit myself before I even begin typing. When I was a journalist, I started out as a feature writer, so I had the luxury of writing very long feature articles. So it was tough whenever I was assigned the weekend cop beat because I had to switch gears and get to the point a lot faster! Becoming a TV writer/producer also helped me curb the “vomit draft” approach to my books because the page count is so strict for TV shows. The mandatory process of pitching and outlining for TV shows helped me with my books. So long story short – no writer’s block but too much writing! 😊
When you are creating a story, what is your process for putting a storyline together?
It’s always in this order: 1. Cool character. 2. Emotional journey for that character (what they want and what’s standing in their way and how they grow whether or not they solve the problem). 3. Theme. 4. Plot. 5. Outline. 6. Finding the right voice to tell the story. 7. Vomit draft. 8. Get constructive feedback. 9. Edit/revise. 10. Rinse and repeat. 😊
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
It wasn’t one point in time. There were several points in time. But they all shared one thing. SOMETHING BAD HAPPENED. It was either a rejection, a mistake, a failure, a personal tragedy (health issues, loss of a family member or friend etc.) and so on. Each time something bad happened, I wrote. And oftentimes what I wrote ended up being published or selling or getting me the next TV gig. And if not, what I wrote helped me cope and learn and grow from that Very Bad Thing That Happened. Would I take back what I wrote to prevent that Bad Thing from happening in the first place? Of course I would! But I can’t. So I’m grateful these Bad Things did not break me but made me stronger and more compassionate. Courage + Compassion + Art.
To find out more about Paula Yoo, please visit her at:
Twitter, Instagram and YouTube: @paulayoo
Oreo’s Twitter (Paula’s cat): @oreothecatyoo
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