Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Graci Kim, Author of The Last Fallen Star – On Korean Folklore, Building Elemental Magic Systems, and Self-Acceptance

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of May, where Asian and Pasifika authors are invited to celebrate being Asian and Pasifika work and literature! Find the introduction post for Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month here.

Way back in January, on a mostly-sleepy New Year’s Day, I picked up an early copy of The Last Fallen Star on a whim, having been eagerly anticipating it since its very first book announcement. And friends, I was enraptured. I basically inhaled the book in one sitting. Delving into this magical world of divine goddesses, haetae, and uniquely Korean-inspired magic reminded me of the best parts of my early childhood experience with Percy Jackson: the way magic thrums right underneath our noses in the modern world, how story winds and bends in exciting (and at times, unpredictable!) ways, and how all the characters were so lovable and easy to root for. Today, I am absolutely delighted to bring you an interview I had with the gracious Graci Kim herself, where we chat about the book and her journey as an author so far!

Graci is joining us today as an adorable Samoyed dressed as a haetae: a mythical creature from Korean folklore, one of whom also plays a big role in the book! They are benevolent and loyal beasts, and rumor also has it that they have the ability to manipulate time itself… 👀 If this sounds at all interesting to you, OR if you’re perhaps very invested in Korean pop culture (think: BTS and K-dramas), this is a book you absolutely do not want to miss! The book reads like a love letter to Korean culture and diaspora belonging, filled to the brim with overwhelming heart. Graci’s interview was a true joy to host, and I’m so excited to share her insights with you today! But first, let us take a peek at the details of the book:

The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim
The cover for The Last Fallen Star. A Korean girl stands determinedly in the center, while the silhouette of mythical Haetae is seen in the evening sky.

Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister get initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has belonged to for generations. Her sister, Hattie, will earn her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram–a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.

Then Hattie gets an idea: what if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!

Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance, and to save her Riley has to fulfill an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what even is the star, and how can she find it?

As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it really means to belong.

Goodreads | Official Website | Indiebound | Bookshop | Amazon | Book Depository
Cover Art by Vivienne To

Author Interview: Graci Kim

Skye: Hello Graci! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Graci: Absolutely! My name is Graci Kim, I’m a Korean-Kiwi (a Kowi for short), and I am a kidlit author who writes magic-infused books for magic-infused readers. I grew up not seeing myself represented in books, so I’ve committed myself to writing Korean diaspora kids onto the page who achieve all their hopes and dreams. When I’m not writing, I’m reading, watching TV, eating all the things, hanging out with my toddler, and probably hugging a dog. Oh, and getting lost in my imagination. I’m always getting lost! 

Skye: Where did the spark that grew into The Last Fallen Star come from? What kept you coming back to the story again and again throughout the writing process?

Graci: I don’t think there was one clear spark that grew into The Last Fallen Star, but rather a trail of crumbs. The first was that I realised Korean diaspora representation was sorely missing in all the books I’d read and treasured as a child. I wanted to be part of the movement toward change, and I knew the best way I could do that was to pick up my pen. Then I read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, an excellent YA book about Latinx witches, and a story lightbulb flicked on in my head—and my heart. I’d always loved fantasy, especially contemporary fantasy, and I’d been particularly fascinated by witches. But it had never occurred to me that witches could come in a different package than the mainstream Bewitched/Charmed/Sabrina-esque ones I’d come to know and love. Reading Labyrinth Lost gave me the permission-space to explore what twenty-first century witches might look like if their heritage was Korean. That desire to discover the world of Korean diaspora witches was what kept me coming back to the story over and over again. Because I realised this was the book I never knew I wanted to read. 

Skye: I love, love, love the world of The Last Fallen Star, and all the colorful characters that inhabit it. Riley is such a lively and empathetic protagonist to root for, and it’s clear just how much love for Korean pop culture and mythology radiates throughout her story. Can you give us a little insight into the inspirations behind this rich tapestry of worldbuilding, and how you went about crafting it? 

Graci: The story seed for the concept of gifted witch clans actually came from one of the origin myths of the Korean peoples. It’s the one about the tiger and the bear, who both desperately wished to become human. The story goes that the two animals prayed to their god for help. Heeding their call, their god bestowed upon them a divine assignment: If they could take a bunch of mugwort leaves and a handful of garlic cloves, and withstand a hundred days in a cave, their prayers would be answered. After twenty days, the tiger became weary. He missed the warmth of the sun and the taste of flesh too much to stay another day in the cold and dark cave. So he gave up and left, giving up his one chance to become human. But the bear persevered. And on the twenty-first day, their god rewarded her by turning her into a beautiful human–the first Korean woman to walk this earth.

I’d always loved this myth, and wondered what would’ve happened if the tiger had also found a way to become human. What if both of them had acquired divine gifts as well? And what if their descendants had emigrated across the world, making faraway new lands their home? What would they look like in the twenty-first century? That line of questioning led me to create the gifted witch clans, and I decided to base the book in Los Angeles, since it’s home to one of the largest Korean diaspora communities outside of Korea. 

Interestingly, the original story was a YA, and only featured two clans—the Gom and the Horangi. It was through working with my agent, Carrie Pestritto, in the revision process that we added the four other clans. It was also later in a Revise & Resubmit request with Disney Hyperion that the book was aged down to a MG. 

Skye: The magic system in the book is so interesting too! Each witch is born with four out of five of the sacred elements (which are wood, earth, water, fire, and metal), and they get a special Gi bracelet that contains the element they lack. When a witch comes of age and learns to harness all five, they can channel the power of the divine goddesses and perform magic! Of course, an author can’t play favorites, but… if you had to choose, what would your dominant element be?

Graci: The idea of the five sacred elements and the Gi bracelet ticking off their missing fifth element was inspired by the concept of saju palja in Korean culture. When things don’t work out in life, Koreans will often blame it on their “palja” or their “bad saju”. The two words literally mean “four pillars, eight letters,” and it’s the ancient way in which one’s cosmic energy (and therefore, their fate and destiny) can be determined by their birth year, birth month, birth date, and birth hour. It’s an entire area of ancient knowledge that’s still used today for things like couple compatibility and pregnancy and fortune telling. But at its simplest, it’s like the zodiac. You can even find saju palja calculators online where you can plug in your birth year, month, date, and hour, and find out your corresponding four animals and four elements (aka your eight letters). When I plugged in my birth information, my four elements were fire, fire, fire, and water, which is what inspired Riley’s fire reading in the book. However, if I could choose any dominant element, I would choose water. It would make for good water fights 😉 

Skye: There’s a strong undercurrent of kindness, family, and self-discovery that drives Riley’s journey to find the eponymous last fallen star. Even through the wild escapades that she embarks on to save her sister, the emotional core of the book, to me, consists of the best kind of middle grade fantasy: filled with magic and unwavering hope. Ultimately, what do you hope young readers take away from Riley’s adventures?

Graci: My sincere hope is that young readers will take away three big messages from The Last Fallen Star. One is that the desire to belong is universal. We are not alone in wanting to be loved. That hunger for acceptance is what makes us human, and we should not be embarrassed or scared about that need. In fact, we should seek it out with open arms! The second is that belonging must first start from within ourselves. We must first practice self-acceptance, because if we can’t model that behaviour, no one else will be able to either. If we really want to be loved, we must first love ourselves. Lastly, I want young readers to know that magic is inside all of us. True magic lies in the choices we make every single day—in the kindness, empathy, and love that we carry with us in all that we do. 

Skye: Okay, looking forward to the future a little: what’s your wildest pie-in-the-sky writing dream?

Graci: Gosh, I really had to think about this one. I think my wildest writing dream would be to create a story universe that is so rich and bountiful that I could write an entire series of worlds within that bigger universe. I’m thinking about how Uncle Rick created the Percy Jackson universe and how many series he wrote within it. How amazing would that be! You know what would be even cooler? If other writers could come join me in that world, and write their own stories in it too. Perhaps even co-write with me. Gosh, what a dream! 

Skye: This is a question we love asking authors here at the Pond, and it also ties in very nicely to the book, which has mouth-watering descriptions of Korean food galore (bulgogi tacos, hotteok, gimchi jjigae… I shouldn’t have written this question late at night): what food reminds you personally of home? Home can mean either a literal place or even just the concept of home!

Graci: To be honest, all Korean food reminds me of home. But if I was to be specific, it’s not the fancy dishes that take me straight back to my childhood. It’s the super simple, everyday meals that hug me like an old blankie. Things like hobak jeon, which is sliced Korean courgette/zucchini that’s egg coated and pan fried. Or steamed cabbage wraps with piping hot rice from the cooker with a generous dollop of ssamjang. Or rice mixed with fried egg, soy sauce, and sesame oil, wrapped in some gim with a piece of gimchi on top. DROOL. To me, those are the meals of home. 

Skye: Before we close, do you have any advice for other aspiring writers out there in the trenches of their various WIPs?

Graci: My biggest piece of advice would be to work as hard as an ox, but remain as nimble as a dancer. Do the research and do the work. Pump out those words. But know when to take on feedback, when to move on, and when to try something new. The publishing industry is a business at the end of the day, and our art needs to be able to adapt with that tide. Overprepare and then go with the flow. You’re in for a ride!

About the Author

Graci Kim is a Korean-Kiwi diplomat turned author who writes magic-infused books for magic-infused readers. She grew up not seeing herself in her most treasured books, and has since committed herself to writing about Korean diaspora kids who achieve all their hopes and dreams.

Her mythology-inspired debut MG novel, The Last Fallen Star, about Korean witches in LA, unbreakable sisters, forbidden spells, and one girl’s search for belonging will be published with Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, on May 4 2021.

In a previous life, Graci was a diplomat for the NZ foreign service, a cooking show host, and once ran a business that turned children’s drawings into cuddly toys. If not lost in her imagination, you’ll find Graci drinking flat whites, eating ramyeon, and most likely hugging a dog (or ideally, many). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and daughter.

Graci is represented by Carrie Pestritto at Laura Dail Literary Agency.

Find Graci on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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