Gina Chung’s near-future debut novel Sea Change is narrated by 30-year-old Korean American aquarium worker Ro, whose menial job is uplifted by taking care of a magnificent, genetically mutated giant octopus called Dolores. Dolores was brought to the aquarium by Ro’s father two decades earlier, lifted from a highly polluted stretch of northern ocean known as the Bering Vortex – from where her father disappeared on a subsequent expedition. Her father’s loss led to a persistently strained relationship with her mother, and now Ro is struggling to deal with a break-up with longtime boyfriend Tae, who has opted to join a pioneering human colony on Mars, workplace tensions with higher-achieving best friend Yoonhee, and cost-cutting measures at the aquarium that may lead to the sale of Dolores to a private investor. It’s a multilayered, endlessly surprising and emotionally engaging study of love and friendship, uncertainty, awe and self-determination.

Where are you now?

I’m at home, in Brooklyn, New York, and I’m currently at my standing desk (which is really just a breakfast tray with legs that I sometimes prop up on top of my regular writing desk when I’m feeling enterprising).

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

I tend to write at night. Despite my best efforts, I can never seem to get up early enough to write in the mornings, and the few times I have, nothing good writing-wise ever came from it. I love writing late at night when everyone else is asleep and I can let my brain unfurl and wiggle around like the weird nocturnal electric worm it is. I also like to write at home, where I can make as many strange faces as I want at my computer and the coffee (and whiskey, for moments when the writing isn’t going as well) is free and plentiful.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

When I’m working on a larger writing project, I tend to outline everything in advance (even if I end up disobeying the outline later). I’m really into checking things off on a list as I go, so I like to check in on how far I’ve gotten on my initial outline before digging in. It gives me that little hit of dopamine I need to keep pressing on. I sometimes light a candle for myself, too, just to set the mood and give myself a bit of a shift from whatever it was I was doing before.   

How do you relax when you’re writing?

I try to remember to stretch at intervals, which helps. I have terrible posture. I tend to hold a lot of tension in my shoulders and lower back, and now that I’m in my 30s I have to remember that I can’t just sit curled up at my desk like a shrimp for hours and not expect to feel it later in the day (hence the standing desk).

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

Sea Change is about love, loss, cephalopods, and learning how to stay for yourself when it feels like everyone is leaving you.

Was your starting point for the novel the impacts of climate change, the mysteries of the deep ocean and deep space, Ro’s personal relationships, doubts and insecurities – or something else altogether?

I started off with the image of Dolores, the giant Pacific octopus at the heart of the novel. I was given a writing prompt in a class I was taking at the time in my MFA program. The prompt was to write about something turning blue, and my brain just ran with it. I decided that the thing I was imagining turning blue was an octopus changing colors. Then, as I continued writing about the octopus, I began wondering about who was telling us about her, and why they cared so much. Once I decided to bring in the near-future elements of the story, it occurred to me that this narrator had recently gotten her heart broken, by someone leaving her for Mars, and that made things even more interesting. From there, Ro and her world came to life for me.

What is the science behind your near-future vision of the Bering Vortex?

I see the Bering Vortex as a zone that’s been so warped by climate change and pollution that it’s become a kind of Bermuda Triangle-esque no-man’s-land, where the usual laws of physics have bent and broken and where something like a research boat could just disappear without a trace. I have a great fear and respect for the ocean, and writing in the speculative mode allowed me to think about these associations I already have with the ocean – mystery, power, the unknown – and ratchet them up to near-supernatural levels. At the same time, I don’t see it as a zone that’s barren of life. On the contrary, it’s teeming with all kinds of anomalies of nature, including Dolores, who is significantly larger and older than the average giant Pacific octopus. The natural world is so much more fragile and more resilient than we humans realize, and I liked the idea of writing about a place that has faced incredible devastation but that has also given birth to its own strange, hyper-specific ecosystem over time.

What personal sea changes have you yourself faced?

So many, particularly during the early years of the pandemic. I think I became so angry and distressed during that time over the incessant suffering and violence happening every day that I actually broke my brain a little bit. After that, I couldn’t feel anything at all for a while, which wasn’t ideal either. When I finally was able to come back to myself, it felt like I had become a different person. I think some version of that has happened to all of us – in times of extreme duress, you can’t help but shed some old skins.

One of the biggest personal sea changes for me over the last few years was learning to take myself more seriously as a writer, and learning to believe in my own abilities through the course of writing this book. A smaller, but still noteworthy sea change I went through during the last few years was starting to experiment more with my personal style, including dyeing my hair. I’ve gone through about four color changes now, which has been very fun.

Octopuses are as different from us, structurally, as it’s possible to be. And yet they are capable of forming deep attachments and associations with human beings. They’re endlessly fascinating and impossibly cool.”

What kinds of encounters, if any, have you had with cephalopods? And what’s the key to our enduring curiosity about them?

Sadly, I have yet to really meet a cephalopod in person – the closest I’ve gotten is seeing two giant Pacific octopuses in their tanks at aquariums, first at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska and then at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island here in Brooklyn. I will say though that both times I came away feeling as though the octopus had been watching me just as intently as I was watching it, which feels right.

I think octopuses intrigue us because they’re both alien and familiar. I remember reading somewhere while I was doing research for Sea Change that they are as different from us, structurally, as it’s possible to be. And yet they have such lively personalities and are, as we know, capable of forming deep attachments and associations with human beings. They’re endlessly fascinating and impossibly cool. They also lead very difficult lives, as both predator and prey. I find it really interesting that most octopuses are quite solitary, but are also so intelligent that sometimes their curiosity inspires them to investigate new stimuli in their environments, rather than shying away.

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

So, so many, but these are four of the books that I’ve held particularly close to my heart over the years:

Chemistry by Weike Wang
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
House of the Winds by Mia Yun
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

“It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. At Sylvie’s house, my grandmother’s house, so much of what I remembered I could hold in my hand – like a china cup, or a windfall apple, sour and cold from its affinity with deep earth, with only a trace of the perfume of its blossoming. Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things.”
From Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan (coming soon in January 2024!)
What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri
I Do Everything I’m Told by Meg Fernandes
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang
The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
The Seas by Samantha Hunt 
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

What is the last work you read in translation?

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Which story collections would you particularly recommend?

In no particular order:
Lot by Bryan Washington
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Skinship by Yoon Choi
This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

What are you working on next?

I’ve just finished up edits on my short story collection Green Frog, which will be coming out next year from Picador. And I’ve also been working in small fits and starts on my next novel, which is about two sisters.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

I actually just answered a version of this question for the lovely podcast A Novel Evening, but I’ll answer differently here to mix things up a bit! I’d invite Circe (from Madeline Miller’s novel), Fiona Apple, Kate Bush and Nina Simone. It would be an extremely powerful dinner party. 

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

A research librarian. I love libraries and always feel so safe in them. In college, I worked at the circulation desk of the science library, and I absolutely loved it. While most of my tasks were fairly mundane and just involved checking in and checking out materials, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think there’s a part of me that really likes the idea of helping people find whatever it is they might be looking for in the library.

If you were the last person on Earth, what would you write?

Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind for me is a list. I’ve loved making lists ever since I was a child, and I remember I used to obsessively make and regularly update lists of things I loved or hated. I find lists very comforting, because it feels like a way to establish order in our chaotic universe. So I would probably write down a list of everything I could remember about life before, and about the people I had loved and lost along the way. Maybe I’d even make a list of the people I hated, just to remember them. That way there might be some record left behind of all those people, for whoever came along after me. Maybe someday my lists would live on in some extraterrestrial archive, to be studied and puzzled over by alien graduate students majoring in Earth Studies in a far-off galaxy.

How can we make peace with our planet?

We have to listen and pay attention to it, and also listen and pay attention to the people who know much more about it and what it needs than the rest of us. And we also need to move away from the global capitalist drive that encourages us to see the world as nothing but a series of resources to be exploited, rather than a home that it is our responsibility to help maintain. As human beings, we often tend to think of ourselves as being outside of or above nature, when in actuality we are part of it. I think anything that encourages us to think that we are separate from the places we live in, and that our actions are without consequence to our environment and ourselves, is deeply destructive and suspect.

Introduced and compiled by Mark Reynolds

Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn. She is a 2021–22 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review and Idaho Review among others. Sea Change is published by Picador in paperback, eBook and audio download.
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Author photo by S.M. Sukardi