Christine Ma-Kellams Talks K-pop, Footnotes, and her Debut Novel, The Band

First off, a confession: I am a K-pop stan. I listen to it every day, BTS in particular. I’ve actually seen the septet perform in person seven times. So, as a BTS ARMY (the name of the group’s massive fandom) I was intrigued and not a little bit skeptical of a novel supposedly inspired by the global superstars I love. Would it be a fluffy K-drama? A sappy fanfic tribute? A satirical takedown? Turns out, The Band is way more than all that.

Darkly funny and deeply insightful, Christine Ma-Kellams’ debut novel, The Band, dives deep into cancel culture, celebrity, identity, and mental health like only a Harvard-trained social psychologist could. Her story centers on one member of a Korean boyband at the height of global domination, who suddenly finds himself cancelled after a viral song he wrote re-ignites old ethnic rivalries between East Asia’s three superpowers. But when he escapes by hiding out in the sprawling Los Angeles home of an unhappily married Chinese-American therapist with a savior complex, things get even more complicated. Read more in this New York Times review.

As writers and BTS ARMY, Ma-Kellams and I had a lot to talk about. Her candid thoughts and advice on writing and publishing are below. For the sake of this blog, I left out the hour of fan chat we indulged in!

As a professional social psychologist, your research has been widely covered by major media outlets. As an essayist and short story author, your work has been featured in prominent literary magazines. When and why did you decide to make the leap to writing a novel?

Maybe this is my oblivion talking, but I only discovered last week—thanks to a Twitter thread bemoaning the industry pressure for short story writers to release a novel first—that some people want to exclusively do one format of writing. It took me all of elementary school to learn English (as my second language) but as soon as I did, I’ve been happy to write in any format I could because the act of writing is up there next to sex and chocolate as my favorite pleasures. As a kid, I read mostly novels—are short stories for children even a thing?—and so naturally, I always thought of the novel as the prize. That said, I do think novels are harder to execute—maintaining plot/narrative tension/character development/dialogue over the course of hundred-plus pages is hard—so that’s why I did so much other writing first.

The Band is inspired by BTS, who, as you and I both know, has one of, if not the largest fandom in the world, ARMY, who have a reputation of being fiercely loyal and protective of the seven-member group, especially on social media. Did this cause you any hesitation about depicting a fictional version of BTS and the K-Pop industry?

As yet another testament to my obliviousness, this notion never occurred to me while I was writing the book. I don’t generally write with a specific target audience in the forefront of my mind because I’m not that calculating. Writing fiction is the one thing I do where I don’t plan ahead much, at least when I’m in the middle of it—I’m just afraid it’d mess with my process of falling in love with the characters in my head and letting them reveal themselves to me. That said, now that I’m on the promotional end of authoring, this possibility did catch me off guard when a reviewer—who actually wrote a glowing review of the book—mentioned something similar (that she could see K-pop fans go either way on this). One of the things I love most about ARMY is that it’s not a monolith, so with that comes the fact that not everyone who loves BTS will respond in the same way to this novel. Given how much I love them, it’s hard for me to understand why a fellow ARMY would not want to see a tribute to them via fictionalized doppelgängers. Either way, though, I try not to let fear trump passion.

Okay, so as much as I want to talk more about BTS, let’s focus on writing. You weave social psychology concepts seamlessly throughout the novel, so we learn as much about the fascinating K-Pop world as we do about cancel culture, fandom, mental health, and parasocial relationships. You also enlighten us on cultural differences and misunderstandings among people from Korea, China, Japan, and America. How did you go about balancing the plot with all of these insights from your “day job?”

My favorite books are the ones that give me eyes, that break my heart while also teaching me something new. With The Band, it just seemed so natural to comment on these larger social forces swirling around us while telling a story about a boy band caught in the eye of the storm. I didn’t set out to make a point about cancel culture or mental health or celebrity obsession, or reminding people that not all Asians are the same, but when I was writing the story, these kinds of commentaries just spontaneously popped up as the plot unfurled, and I was always happy to oblige.

My agent actually said something about this to me upon first reading the book—they loved how the writing didn’t come off as pedantic even as it was making a broader point about our current cultural moment. That has always been my goal: despite my day job, I never want to lecture unless I’m standing in front of a classroom. Even then, I think people remember stories much better than remember facts or arguments, so the plot is always the point—everything else is just jujubes on the cake.

In The Band, you insert footnotes, citations, and narrator asides at the bottom of some of the pages, which is unusual for a novel. Can you talk about why you chose this stylistic approach?

I don’t see this that often in fiction, but when I have, I’m always in awe of novelists who tinker with our expectations about form, and I wanted to emulate that feeling. Nobody expects footnotes or citations in a novel, but I wanted to give people something they haven’t read before, something unexpected, and I went out of my way to make sure these extras—that we typically associate with non-fiction—were written in the same voice, with the same punchiness, as the rest of the story. In other words, I wanted the footnotes and asides to be as funny/interesting/curious as the main attraction. And because I’m a psychologist/academic, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t cite my sources.

In the footnotes, the narrator refers several times to a “forthcoming novel,” essentially breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader. I found this very interesting. Was that you (the author talking) or the fictional narrator? Is that novel actually in progress?

I’m so glad you noticed this! The “forthcoming novel” is very real—I actually wrote it before I wrote The Band. It follows two couples—one of which is the narrator and her husband—on the eve of their seventh anniversary who confront the age-old lulls in their marriages by attempting polyamory. What ensues shows that nothing destroys quite like desire.

Our readers love to hear about authors’ publishing journeys, from landing an agent and editor to book launch. What was yours?

Mine was very convoluted, so this is not necessary a road I would wish upon anyone but I hope it does provide encouragement to those who are in similar trenches!

Once upon a time, when I was a postdoc at Harvard, I signed an agent to publish a nonfiction psychology book. That was short-lived—it was too generic of a proposal—but a few years later, Rowman & Littlefield approached me at a psychology conference and asked if I was interested in writing a psychology book for them. I did, and it’s the textbook I—and others—use in my cultural psychology classes every semester.

Then, the forthcoming novel I mentioned in The Band was something I got my second literary agent with, but she wanted to go through a revisions process. She handed me off to an outside editor who gave me one round of feedback (courtesy of the literary agency), but then wanted to charge me for subsequent rounds of feedback that would’ve been in the thousands of dollars. I requested to edit on my own using beta readers because I didn’t have thousands of dollars sitting around, and the agent obliged, but when I sent in my revision several months later, she declined to move forward with the book.

Because the querying/re-querying process took so long, I started writing The Band just to keep myself from losing my mind while waiting. I finished it in like three months, and so then started pitching it along with that first novel. Depending on the agent, I would pitch the book that I thought was the best fit for their expertise. Interestingly, I was getting full requests for both manuscripts, but in the end, I had two agents make offers of representation at the same time for The Band. I went with Emmy Higdon Nordstrom, my agent at Westwood Creative Artists, because they were incredibly communicative during the entire process and their vision of the few revisions we’d make before going on submission made total sense to me.

What’s your advice for writers seeking to land an agent and book deal for their first novel? Any lessons learned early in your career that you can share?

I would say to query widely enough to the point where you’ll need to keep a spreadsheet. Start a new writing project while you’re querying to keep your mind off the torture that is waiting—your option novel, or short stories you can submit to literary journals to boost your street cred, or op-eds to major news outlets to expand your audience, etc. Read the acknowledgements of books you like to see who your favorite authors are being represented by AND who their editors are, because that info will come in handy when you go on submission.

Before we wrap up, one last K-pop question. Do you listen to it when you’re writing? For those new to the genre who might want to know more, what songs or music videos do you recommend?

I listen to K-pop all the time, but not while I’m writing—I write in total silence. (I’m pretty sure based on my understanding of neuroscience that your brain can’t process one set of words while listening to a song and a totally different set of words while writing a story). I obviously recommend BTS, but even for people new to the genre, I suggest not starting with their more recent English language songs, but with their older tracks in Korean, especially the music videos or live performances. “ON” and “Black Swan” remain my favorites. Visually, lyrically, choreography-wise, I think those two performances are unparalleled, not just in K-pop, but maybe in all of music.

Outside of BTS, I’m also obsessed with Hwasa. Her songs are like anthems of self-love and charisma. “I Love My Body” is one of the newer tracks on my Spotify author playlist for The Band—not because it has anything to do with the book, but it’s just irresistible.

The Band (Atria) is out now. Get your copy at

Christine Ma-Kellams is a Pushcart-nominated writer, Harvard-trained cultural psychologist, first-generation American and college professor at San Jose State University. Her academic text, Cultural Psychology: Cross- and Multicultural Perspectives, has been adopted in classes at college campuses across the United States and overseas. Her short stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZVA, Kenyon Review, Saturday Evening Post, the Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. The Band is her debut novel.


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