If you’ve been following me for a while, you will know Axie Oh is auto-buy status for me. I loved Rebel Seoul and Rogue Heart and, unsurprisingly, XOXO. So I was so happy when Axie agreed to answer some of my questions I had immediately after finishing!
Cello prodigy Jenny has one goal: to get into a prestigious music conservatory. When she meets mysterious, handsome Jaewoo in her uncle’s Los Angeles karaoke bar, it’s clear he’s the kind of boy who would uproot her careful plans. But in a moment of spontaneity, she allows him to pull her out of her comfort zone for one unforgettable night of adventure…before he disappears without a word.
Three months later, when Jenny and her mother arrive in South Korea to take care of her ailing grandmother, she’s shocked to discover that Jaewoo is a student at the same elite arts academy where she’s enrolled for the semester. And he’s not just any student. He’s a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world—and he’s strictly forbidden from dating.
When a relationship means throwing Jenny’s life off the path she’s spent years mapping out, she’ll have to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love.
(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links. For more information you can look at the Policy page. If you’re uncomfortable with that, know you can look up the book on any of the sites below to avoid the link)
What kinds of music did you listen to as a teen and would Jenny or Jaewoo approve?
I listened to a lot of 90’s and early 00’s K-pop as a teen, and I would say, Jaewoo at least would 100% approve! A few of my favorite artists included: Super Junior, Big Bang and the Wonder Girls. As for Jenny, until the events of XOXO, she solely listened to classical music. As a teen I *also* listened to classical music since I played the harp in my high school orchestra. So Jenny would approve of those music choices.
The relationship between Jenny and her mother, and her mother and grandmother, is one of my favorite elements. How was it like to create their backstories?
It was a lot of fun! With any side character, I always begin with the main character and what she needs. For Jenny, I knew she needed to learn throughout the book that closing yourself off to new experiences because of the possibility of heartbreak means she might miss out on making real connections with people, and so I gave her mother a similar mindset, so that she could exacerbate these thoughts in Jenny.
I wanted Jenny’s relationship with her mother to parallel her mother’s relationship with her mother (Jenny’s grandmother). Both mothers sacrifice and make decisions on behalf of their daughters in order to protect them, and both daughters misunderstand and blame their mothers. This pattern of generational pain and love is something that I find very Korean and I wanted to not only have it in the book for Jenny’s growth as a character, but also as a theme that can hopefully resonate with readers.
Like a lot of K-dramas, I wrote XOXO to be lighthearted, but even the most lighthearted of K-dramas touch upon more emotional topics, especially when it comes to family, and so I wanted to portray that in XOXO.
What other mother/daughter duos do you like?
In general, K-dramas are great with portrayals of family dynamics, including those between mothers and daughters. One of my favorite examples of a mother/daughter duo is in the Reply series, a slice-of-life K-drama series which focuses on the life of the daughter of a family living in a certain cultural era of Korea’s recent past. For example, Reply 1988 follows a group of neighbors living on the same street in the year 1988, when Seoul held the summer Olympics. These dramas are always packed full of moments of nostalgia, but the relationship between mother and daughter—where they bicker and fight, where the mother nags and worries over her daughter, where the daughter complains to and annoys her mother, and where they love each other unconditionally—reminds me of my own relationship with my mother and always makes me laugh and cry.
What do you think are some similarities between Jenny and Jaewoo?
First of all, as musicians, they share a love of music and performance, which, of course, brings them closer together throughout the book. I also think they’re both independent people with their own dreams and desires apart from each other. One of the aspects of their relationship I wanted to portray in XOXO is that Jenny and Jaewoo don’t need to be together but they want and choose to be, even if the circumstances are difficult (like Jaewoo being a K-pop idol).
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most challenging?
Surprisingly, I didn’t have to do too much research in terms of the lifestyles of K-pop stars. Because my heroine isn’t a K-pop star, but dating one, the book doesn’t delve too much into the ins-and-outs of the industry. Most of the K-pop elements I did include in the book were just from being a fan of K-pop for many years.
The most challenging aspect in terms of research was actually Jenny’s cello playing. I don’t play the cello (though I played the piano, clarinet, and harp in elementary, middle, and high school, respectively), so, in order to research both cello playing and also cello music, I watched a ton of YouTube videos and even read sections of books on cello playing. My favorite cellists are Nana Ouyang, Hee-Young Lim, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Were there any challenges switching from SF to contemporary?
Not really! I always knew I wanted to write all kinds of genres, and there was a long stretch between finishing ROGUE HEART, my latest sci-fi drafted in 2018, and drafting XOXO in 2020. I didn’t jump from one genre into another immediately, and in fact, revised my YA Fantasy, THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA, between those two books! I think, because I read a lot of contemporary, the genre conventions were familiar to me, and unlike a sci-fi or fantasy novel, there’s much less worldbuilding to do in a contemporary!
Conflicting dreams and love is a big theme in XOXO, have you ever been at a crossroads? What advice would you give past you?
I think I’ve been at many crossroads in my life, but one in particular that stands out occurred the year after college when I’d moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. At the end of that year, I was offered a job as a literary agent’s assistant at a prestigious agency. But also during that year, I kept putting on hold writing time and opportunities in order to advance publishing job opportunities. At this crossroads, I believed I had two choices: take the job and stay in NYC (and possibly push back my writerly aspirations) or move back home and apply to MFA programs, to give writing a real shot. I chose the latter, and here we are! (Disclaimer: I *don’t* think similar situations must be an either/or choice for everyone, so many people have full time careers and write as well. In my early twenties, I just believed this was the case for me). As for what I would tell my younger self, I would give the same advice Uncle Jay gives to Jenny in XOXO: “…[W]hen you’re afraid your heart is closed, and it’s never the right time, but when your heart is open, and you’re willing to be brave enough to take a chance, the time is always right.”
About the Author
Axie Oh is a first generation Korean American, born in NYC and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California – San Diego and holds an MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada with her puppy, Toro.