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Michelle Zauner on Turning Her Bestselling Memoir Into a Film and Japanese Breakfast’s Two Grammy Nominations

Michelle Zauner
Courtesy of Tonje Thilesen

With the release of her bestselling memoir “Crying in H Mart” and critically acclaimed album “Jubilee” with band Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner has had a banner year. And the cherry on top came Nov. 23, when Japanese Breakfast was nominated for two Grammy awards in the best alternative album and best new artist categories.

But the musician and writer is just getting started — and now has her sights set on Hollywood, with plans to adapt the book into a film via Orion Pictures with producers Stacey Sher and Jason Kim. Here, Zauner discusses the Grammy nominations, what she plans to change in the book’s film adaptation and how “Crying in H Mart” and “Jubilee” go hand-in-hand in her oeuvre.

Congratulations on your two Grammy nominations! Take me back to the moment you found out.

It was noon; I was in my Brooklyn apartment. My manager was just like, “I think you should watch.” And I was like, “I don’t really want to because I don’t want to get my hopes up.” He kind of convinced me to watch it, and then I was just stunned. I had a very negative feeling about it. I was like, “There’s no way, and you’re a complete narcissist if you think you even have a sliver of a chance, you puny ant.” [When I learned of the nominations], sounds came out of me that I didn’t know existed — just complete shock, and my phone blew up all day. I also just thought there was no fucking way we would get best new artist; I was like, “That’s a big category.” I was completely shocked — two Grammy nominations. I’ve said it out loud to myself about 100 times.

What does it mean to you to be nominated in the categories of best alternative album and best new artist, specifically?

As an alternative listener, I feel very at home in that category. Every musician that’s been nominated in that category is an idol of mine. It’s just bonkers, I spent all day looking at the Wikipedia of the former nominees and to be considered in that league is really wild, you know? My career has exceeded beyond all fantasy and expectations that I ever held. This really takes the cake of an already very charmed year.

What are you most looking forward to about the ceremony?

I can’t wait to figure out what I’m gonna wear. I’ve been working with my stylist for a long time, Cece Liu. We’ve gone from buying and returning clothing, to this point where maybe finally a designer will dress me without me having to buy and return it. But I’m really looking forward to wearing something epic and getting really drunk and having a really good time.

I’m excited to meet some celebs. I would love to celebrate my fellow Wasian nominee Olivia Rodrigo. I’m obsessed with Megan Thee Stallion, I would love to meet [her]. I love Saweetie. Everyone is like way more famous than I am, so I’m excited to meet all these people. I’m the most excited to share [it with co-producer Craig Hendrix] because the two of us have worked together for a really long time and it means so much to share it with my longtime friend and collaborator.

“Crying in H Mart” is such a personal story about your relationship with your late mother and your Korean American identity. What made you want to write that story? 

I started writing what would come to be the beginning of “Crying in H Mart” in 2016. I was working a full time job in advertising and felt really creatively unfulfilled. I had started cooking Korean food and watching these YouTube videos and I thought it was kind of a sweet story, and that I should try my hand at a non-fiction essay about my relationship with this [YouTuber] Maangchi, who I’d never met and had come to feel so close to. In the process of writing that essay, I realized I had so much more to say about that whole experience. It was a way to compartmentalize everything that had happened in such a whirlwind of six months and to really investigate and process the emotions that were tied to that… I never thought I would write a memoir. It was really just out of necessity.

What has it been like for you to see so many people relating to the book?

It’s been surreal, you know? It’s been strange. I guess it’s just been hard to process because it felt like such a personal project, so I didn’t know if that many people would relate to [it]. I certainly hoped that it would find some success, but I never anticipated this level.

What surprised you the most about the writing process? 

The biggest takeaway from a memoir is that you have to play fair. Within the first draft, I was writing very angrily because I had a lot of resentment and a lot to process. Through revision is where a lot of learning happened and a lot of forgiveness happened. I learned a lot about myself too — about how important it was growing up as an only child and living outside of town with a homemaker and an immigrant parent. Those are things that were just innate parts of my existence that I never really questioned before, and putting them under the microscope made me realize how much that impacted my character and my relationship with my mother.

The book is now also being turned into a film. What can you share about the adaptation?

I can tease that I haven’t worked on it. [Laughs] I am working on the screenplay, and it’s a new craft for me. It’s been hard: Being on tour, I haven’t had much time to sit with it yet. But I think it’s a real opportunity to get to show how delightful a character my mom was and be more in her vantage than it was in the book. I’m just really excited to create a new ecosystem for representation in Hollywood.

How are you preparing to see your story played out by others?

It sounds horrifying, honestly. Initially, I really didn’t want to write [the screenplay] because I felt like however it got made, I would hate it because it’s such a personal story. My mom is such a complicated, multidimensional person, and of course I want to write her that way. It feels like a herculean task to achieve. But you know, I spent some more time away from it, and I felt like it could only be me that could take the creative liberties necessary to turn this story into an interesting screenplay. I think that for me, I wanted the focus to be more on being a young half-Asian girl coming of age as an artist, which is something I shied away from in the book until the end. I’m excited to integrate those parts of the book.

Can you say anything about what the film’s soundtrack will be like?

I don’t know if I’m going to soundtrack it as much as I’m going to supervise the soundtrack. I would love to incorporate songs that I would have been writing at a certain age, some Japanese Breakfast songs. But a very seminal coming-of-age film for me was “Garden State,” which was also a film that my producer Stacey Sher worked on, and I would love to have my version of that soundtrack. As a musician, I just love playlists and making mixtapes, so I would love to have my version of what music I was listening to, and there are certain Korean songs that I really love that are very essential for me to have incorporated into the film. Even when outlining the movie, I have links to certain songs that I imagine playing, and that’s a really important part — the book has lyrical moments and I’m sure the screenplay will as well.

Let’s talk about your record, “Jubilee.” You’ve said before that you wanted it to be defined by joy in contrast with your other albums. Why?

Even after I wrote “Psychopomp,” my first album, I was desperate to write about a new topic. When I started “Soft Sounds,” I had this idea to create a sci-fi concept record that could kind of move me away from grief, but by that point, my mom had passed away two years before and I was still really mourning. So I wrote another record about a different type of grief. Then after writing “Crying in H Mart,” I felt like I had really said everything I needed to about that topic, and it was time to write about some new part of my experience as a human being. I felt like the most exciting thing was to leap to the other end of the spectrum of human experience and write about fighting for joy, because so much of the past seven years of my life has been like, “Am I ever going to feel joy again?”

What message do you hope fans take away from both “Crying in H Mart” and “Jubilee”? How do they complement each other?

I had a really lovely conversation with Minnie Driver on her podcast, which sounds like a weird flex, but it was a really moving conversation because she had just lost her mother and it was very fresh for her. She had read the book and listened to the album — and as companions. She said to me, “I’m not there yet, but it gives me great hope.”

Things you didn’t know about Michelle Zauner:
Age: 32
Hitting the charts: “Crying in H Mart” debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list
Screen presence: Zauner has filmed a YouTube cooking video with H Mart on how to make Korean acorn jelly salad
Inspirations for “Jubilee”: Björk, Wilco, Kate Bush, Randy Newman

This interview has been edited and condensed.