Classic literature re-tellings, biracial main characters, and more today! Welcome to my author interview with Jenny Lee, author of Anna K which is out now! I’m so excited to bring this interview where we talk characters, love, and identity.
Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society (even if she prefers the company of her horses and Newfoundland dogs); she has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend, Alexander W.; and she has always made her Korean-American father proud (even if he can be a little controlling). Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather an sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is struggling to recalibrate to normal life after an injury derails her ice dancing career; and Steven’s best friend, Dustin, is madly (and one-sidedly) in love with Kimmie.
As her friends struggle with the pitfalls of ordinary teenage life, Anna always seems to be able to sail gracefully above it all. That is…until the night she meets Alexia “Count” Vronsky at Grand Central. A notorious playboy who has bounced around boarding schools and who lives for his own pleasure, Alexia is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t, either. As Alexia and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go for the chance to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to question if she has ever known herself at all.
Isn’t it amazing the power of books to return back to us in our lives? How was reading Anna Karenina multiple times?
Each time I’ve read Anna Karenina I’ve had a different relationship to love. When I first read it I was a teenager who had never experienced being in love myself, except if you consider being obsessed with reading and books a “first love.” The second time I read it I was married to my first husband and needed a romantic escape from my own life (had moved to new city and didn’t have enough friends yet). Then I read it again when I had the idea for Anna K and this time I was experiencing my own love story with my (now) second husband. Each time I resonated with different characters and moments as my life experiences changed. Anna K follows three main love relationships but I made sure that some of the other characters were also talking about love too.
Which character changed the most in the process of writing Anna K?
The character that went through the most dramatic change in the book was Kimmie, Lolly’s little sister. She really had some big emotional swings as she went from being madly in love to utter despair and depression. We then got to watch her get angry and slowly process her pain and work through it towards a positive lesson about love by the end. She was probably the most surprising character to write and I loved when she had her moment to tell off the boy who shall be unnamed as I don’t want to give anything away…
Anna K talks a lot about double standards, why do you think it’s so important to discuss especially as it effects women of every age in Anna K?
I think discussing double standards is important because real teenage girls are also experiencing it, just like the women of Anna K. I wanted young women to read this book and realize that even if it seems like society is stacked against them, there are powerful female characters (and real people) who will stand up for themselves and for what is right. And the best way to get rid of double standards is to recognize them in ourselves and others and work to change our perception. I really love the part where Lolly points out Steven’s hypocrisy in how he feels about men cheating versus women cheating. Obviously, cheating for any gender isn’t the best thing… but women shouldn’t be judged more harshly.
Love is a powerful force of its own in Anna K, how do your characters see both the positive and consequences of love?
That’s the beauty of both Anna Karenina and Anna K: it shows the true rollercoaster that love is. Lolly and Steven, for example, realize that sometimes love makes you feel the highest highs in exchange for the lowest lows—whether or not that’s healthy isn’t the point, because sometimes that’s what teenage love feels like! Anna herself chooses to follow her heart, regardless of what people think or who she hurts along the way. Even though the story ends in tragedy, she can hold her head high knowing she did not betray her heart.
Part of Anna and Steven’s lives are being biracial and what their dad had to go through, can you talk about your journey writing these characters in Anna K?
I chose to make Anna and Steven specifically half-Korean so that my nieces and nephews could grow up in a world where there are lead characters that look like them. I didn’t want to have the entire story be a comment on race, but whenever it felt important to bring it up, I wouldn’t shy away from it. Growing up with strict Korean parents in a small town in Tennessee, I often felt the push and pull of growing up caught between two very different cultures. One thing I loved about living in NYC was how diverse it was, and everyone is the same when on the subway. Ha ha.
My favorite character had to be Dustin can you talk a bit more about his own background?
Dustin L is the character that was Levin in Anna Karenina. Scholars believe that Levin was a stand in for Tolstoy himself. I don’t know if that was the same for me, but I’m happy Dustin was your favorite character because he’s probably one of mine as well. He was always meant to be the moral center of the book, an outsider into this opulent world. He was smart, funny, and grounded and had no problems telling people when they were behaving badly. But I did not want him to pass judgment (which Levin sometimes did, especially when it came to women), but instead be open and understanding to the difficulties and complications of human existence. I also loved that he was the nerdy/ smart / “man of reason” character who was brought to his knees by love… I truly believe that love is the great equalizer. It cuts through class, race, socio-economics, gender… and can take over our hearts and lives at any moment.
What challenges and opportunities did you see in the retelling aspect of Anna K?
Challenges were of course, how could I do such a masterpiece justice? It’s a big task taking on a work as well known and well-loved as Anna Karenina, and I didn’t want to replace Tolstoy’s work, but rather build on it for a new audience. I was excited to retell it in modern times to give it a feminist twist, and allow for all the female characters to feel empowered by their choices. It’s such a universal story, I knew the original work would translate well to teenagers today. And where the original is one of the greatest masterpieces of literature, I was in no way going for that. What I wanted was a book filled with lots of different characters offering their own unique perspectives about love and for it to be a fast paced and fun soapy read. I love a book that is an escape into a different world than my own, but also makes me think.
About the Author
Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one-rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. Jenny has previously published humor essay collections and middle-grade novels, and Anna K. is her debut YA novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 135-pound Newfoundland, Gemma (and yes, it’s a toss-up on who’s walking who every day).