If you’re like us and have a love for all things books and K-POP, then there’s a good chance that you’ve read one of the biggest K-POP YA novels, K-POP Confidential. Released two years ago, Stephan Lee’s debut novel followed the story of Korean American teen Candace Park as she found herself auditioning for one of the biggest entertainment companies and competing to become a member of the next hottest girl group. Two years and one major cliffhanger later, Candace is back and is ready to make her mark on the K-POP world in K-POP Revolution. We spoke to Stephan to get all the tea on his upcoming release.
Summary: She thought that debuting in a K-POP band was the finish line, but it was only the beginning. Because now it’s not only Candace’s company judging her―it’s the entire world. How will she find the courage to stand by her beliefs, even when powerful forces are trying to shame and silence her…
In the sequel to K-POP Confidential, Candace is a Rookie idol. Her life is suddenly filled with the fans, cameras, and glamor of stardom: She and her boyfriend, YoungBae, are a K-POP power couple; she’s a walking icon at Brandt Foreign School; and her new girl group, known simply as THE GIRLS, is poised to break records across the industry. With her status as the industry’s K-POP Warrior, she has all the clout at her disposal to make waves. Right?
Her label, S.A.Y., promises to help make sweeping changes for the industry to become a more humane and compassionate place for artists. But what will happen when the road to a record-breaking debut isn’t as smooth as they’d planned? When a rival girl group emerges to steal the spotlight, carrying the message of change better than Candace ever could, she’ll have to decide what it’ll cost her and her bandmates to stand up for their beliefs. And as the world turns against her, with online bullies scrutinizing her every word, there’s only so much that one person can take.
From the top of the world to the brink of disaster, Candace is going to have to figure out why the world is out to get her. And she’s not going to be able to do it alone.
How far does one girl need to be pushed to start a K-POP Revolution?
Hey Stephan! Congrats on the upcoming release of K-POP Revolution, we’re so excited to talk to you! Which three songs would you use as a way to introduce yourself as a person?
‘DALLA DALLA’ by ITZY, ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears, and ‘I AM THE BEST’ by 2NE1 🙂
Okay, taste! We all remember how we first became a K-POP stan, what’s your story?
I was exposed to early K-POP when I was growing up in Atlanta in the nineties, but I’m ashamed to say that at the time, I was more interested in fitting in with what was popular mainstream, so I completely missed the boat there!
Years later, in 2014, I was working as a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly. Because I was the only Asian American writer on staff, I was often assigned stories that had to do with Asian culture, whether or not I was already an expert. (I’m not complaining! It was an amazing opportunity). At that time, PSY and Girls’ Generation and a bunch of other K-POP acts were really crossing over into international markets, so EW sent me to Korea for three weeks to report a story about the rise of Korean entertainment. I did a ton of research beforehand, and that’s when I truly fell in love with K-POP, especially girl groups like Girls’ Generation and 2NE1. EW couldn’t help me set up interviews, so my mom, who lives in Korea, just e-mailed and called everyone she knew to nab interviews for me with Oscar-winner Bong Joon-Ho, singer Ailee, and SNSD member Tiffany, among many others — and no, she had no ties to the entertainment industry, she’s just an amazing Korean mom!
On that trip, I learned so much about Korean culture, and how vital entertainment is to Korea’s identity in the world. The fact that Korea is a more significant global cultural force than countries that are much bigger is no accident — Korea has intentionally and passionately committed to using arts to tell stories for the world to see, and what we’re experiencing now is no accident. It’s the result of decades and decades of planning, work, and sheer talent.
The article unfortunately got canceled by EW before I even started writing it, but in many ways, I think of K-POP Confidential and K-POP Revolution as the result of that trip that happened so long ago!
We are honestly so excited about K-POP Revolution! The ending of K-POP Confidential practically gave us whiplash so we’ve been dying to know what happens to Candace’s story next! What were your main goals when revisiting her after such a shock ending?
I only had a deal to write one book, so I originally wanted K-POP Confidential to cover everything in a K-POP idol’s journey, from trainee life to the first rookie year. I wrote this entire other part where Candace debuts and has to battle S.A.Y. Entertainment, but the book was getting way too long, and it felt like I was trying to cram too much in, so my editor advised me to end the first book where I did. It was a difficult decision, because there was no guarantee that I’d get to write a Book 2, but it ended up being amazing advice. I did in fact get the deal for the sequel, and now I get to tell the full story exactly how I intended with K-POP Revolution, complete with Music Shows, reality TV, and all the drama!
We are so glad you did! We know that The Hunger Games and The Wizard of Oz were two books that inspired you when writing the first book. Where did you find inspiration for K-POP Revolution?
I’m a huge pop culture nerd and always love series and franchises and the whole trope of the sequel! A sequel should be bigger, darker, and more epic, like The Empire Strikes Back or Scream 2 or one of my favorites, Sister Act 2! K-POP Confidential was actually a very intimate book — Candace was locked away inside a training facility for most of the time, and it was a very personal journey toward authentic expression and building the courage to chase your dreams. You knew exactly who the antagonists were. But in K-POP Revolution, Candace is finally out in front of the world, and the forces against her aren’t just individual people … it’s the entire fandom, and even the entire internet!
I definitely got inspiration, once again, from The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. In The Hunger Games, you thought Katniss’ burdens couldn’t get any bigger, but in Catching Fire, they do, because she has to deal with the fallout of her actions outside of the arena. I let Candace go to a very dark place in K-POP Revolution because she has to put actions behind her words, which is always so much harder and comes with so many more consequences. There’s a reason why the second installment of a series is the darkest for the protagonist!
Honestly, we were gripped throughout both books! Rebellion is a common theme throughout K-POP Confidential, which we don’t often see from idols in reality. Why was it important for you to incorporate this into the story, particularly through Candace?
In a way, K-POP Confidential is the story of generational conflict: A system has been set up by older people, with rules and expectations that maybe don’t make sense anymore, yet young people are the ones who are forced to work within it. It was important to me to make Candace’s story relatable to anyone reading it, even if the idea of entering a K-POP training facility is totally foreign to you, as it is to most people!
I want readers to draw parallels to their own lives. Whether you’re applying to college, training for competitive sports, entering the workforce, or trying to publish a novel, you’re dealing with processes put in place by gatekeepers who are not going through these experiences themselves. Candace is part of a generation that is brave enough to reject these rules like no other that came before, but of course, doing so means drawing a target on your back. I thought the K-POP world was the perfect metaphor for this whole struggle.
Your books showcase the darker sides of the K-POP industry. Why do you think it’s so important for the public – particularly the consumers – to discuss this?Building on my previous answer, it’s important for me to point out that I’m not trying to single out the K-POP industry as exceptionally dark, even though anyone who follows K-POP at all knows that many, many things about it need to change. But that’s true of almost any competitive industry in which young people are treated as symbols or commodities. I don’t think Hollywood is any better or more humane than the Korean entertainment world — there’s too much proof of that to even start listing examples … but look at what Britney Spears had to go through! Also, look at Simone Biles pulling out of the Olympics — it was such a brave act of reclaiming her personhood for herself, which is not easy for anyone in the spotlight who’s had trauma put on them by people who profit off their talents. I hope by reading K-POP Revolution, maybe someone will be inspired to speak up for their personhood before they get pushed to the edge like Candace is.
There are some original song lyrics throughout both books. Is songwriting something you have dabbled in before? What was the progress like for writing the lyrics?
No, I’ve never tried writing songs! I don’t have a beat or tune in mind when I’m writing lyrics — the songs exist to serve as expressions of how characters are really feeling or don’t know they’re feeling, because music is so subconscious. I like to focus on a very simple metaphor and tie it to a universal emotion, which I think is what all pop music does! I’ve never made pop music, but I’m definitely a student of it, and it’s all I listen to.
I feel bad for my audiobook narrator, Joy Osmanski, and the audiobook producers, who have to come up with tunes to put to my words and make them not sound clunky! The end results are amazing, though.
Okay but low key we could see some of the songs becoming all kills! When creating the characters for the series, do you have specific idols or actors in mind who get face claims?
I really don’t! I have very specific visions of what the characters look like, and they don’t look like anyone who exists in real life. I’ve definitely been inspired by certain traits or stories of real-life idols, but no character is directly based on any idol. I was more directly inspired by “roles” and “types” members embody in K-POP groups, like the maknae, the Visual, the mood maker, the serious one, the 4D Personality, etc. Of course, it gets interesting when a character’s reality is different from the role they’re assigned!
We see Candace meet the likes of idol One-J and fellow trainee Helena, who she has preconceived notions about, but they’re not who Candace thought they were. Was there a particular reason you made their public personalities different from their personal ones?
I’m always fascinated to learn when a celebrity’s true personality is different from public perception, and not necessarily in a bad way. I used to interview celebrities for a living, and I was just as often surprised by people I’d assumed would be prickly being lovely in person as the other way around. Either way, we form such strong opinions about people while knowing so little about them, whether or not they’re famous. I actually love finding out I was wrong about someone I’d already made judgments about. It’s such a good reminder that you can never assume you know about someone’s experience based on their exterior.
Also, it’s so comforting to remember that even people who you idolize or think are impossibly glamorous are just human beings at the end of the day. Human beings will always surprise you!
There are some very loveable characters in both books. If you could be besties with any of them, who would you choose and why?
Oh, gosh! I think I’d be besties with JinJoo from K-POP Confidential or Summer Han from K-POP Revolution. They’re very different from each other, but what they have in common is that they’re usually the weirdest person in whatever room they’re in. That’s who I instantly gravitate to in life, whether it’s at a party or the first day at a new job … unless I am that person myself, which is also highly likely!
They’re both such great characters! What elements, if any, of the two books have been inspired by your own life?
Oh, so many! Even though I don’t sing or dance, Candace’s emotional journey is something I really put myself into — everything from her struggle to fit into both Korean and American culture, her belief in a wild dream, and all her self doubt that comes from chasing the dream.
While I was writing K-POP Revolution, I was actually going through a period of intense self doubt, and for the longest time, I struggled. K-POP Confidential, which was my first novel, had just come out during the middle of the pandemic, and it was successful enough and people really liked it, but I was still so hard on myself. I considered anything with the release of my first book that didn’t go as planned a total failure, and I really internalized whatever criticism I did get. I found myself trying to write the sequel as criticism-proof, or writing it in a way that I thought would maximize its appeal, and of course, that kind of cautiousness doesn’t lead to honest or authentic writing, and I got stuck. This sounds cheesy, but what really “unlocked” the book for me was trying to channel Candace herself — in spite of all the fear of what people might say, expressing what you want to say in an honest, authentic way. Instead of trying to be perfect, I put so many of my own real-life fears and insecurities into the final draft of K-POP Revolution, and I think that made the book come alive.
Being a multi-stan yourself, what do you think is next for K-POP? Or alternatively, what would you like to see become the next trend?
I’m hoping that people around the world start to think of K-POP as just music instead of something so foreign! I hear people who love pop music say that they can’t get into K-pop, and I have to question why — it’s legit amazing music that just happens to be (partially) in another language and performed by artists who are (mostly) of Asian descent. But I think K-POP is on its way to becoming more like LatinX music — it’s going to keep crossing over.
In my opinion, diversifying K-POP will help make that happen! K-POP fans love that K-POP feels Korean, and we can retain that, but also debut artists that embody different identities that we don’t see very often in K-POP. In K-POP Revolution, a rival group made up of girls who normally wouldn’t get a chance to debut ends up stealing some of Candace and THE GIRLS’ thunder, and I think there’s room for groups like them. And that doesn’t mean we can’t have groups that are more traditional — I love those groups, too! But I believe there’s space to welcome more young artists into K-POP.
We’d love to know what books you’ve been reading recently! What are some books that have had you gripped as we have been with K-POP Revolution?
Oh gosh, so many! I’m loving When You Get The Chance by Emma Lord — the MC, Millie Price, would totally be besties with Candace Park. Some of my other favorite books I’ve read this year are Crying In H-Mart by Michelle Zauner, Skinship by Yoon Choi, and The Last Story Of Mina Lee by Nancy Yoojoung Kim. It’s been an amazing year for Korean American literature.
What’s next for Stephan Lee? Will you be considering continuing with The Girls’ story, or perhaps another character?
I’m writing an adult novel right now that has nothing to do with K-pop, and I’m also working on some TV pilots, but I’d love to return to Candace and THE GIRLS! I have an idea for a third book from Candace’s perspective … it has to do with her solo projects and efforts to cross over into the U.S. music scene. But I’d also love to explore the K-POP world from the perspective of a queer SLK member, or a boy trainee. We’ll see, though!
Well, you can count on us pre-ordering immediately if any of these ever happen! Thanks, Stephan! We’ve loved the two books and can’t wait to see what’s next for you!
K-POP Revolution is out now!
Did you read K-POP Confidential? What are you hoping happens in K-POP Revolution? Let us know down in the comments below or by tweeting us @TheHoneyPOP!
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Creative Director of The Honey POP. Disney and pop culture enthusiast.