Gina Chung

Gina Chung

Gina Chung

Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 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, Idaho Review, The Rumpus, Pleiades, F(r)iction, and Wigleaf, among others, and has been recognized by several contests, including the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, the Los Angeles Review Literary Awards, and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest.

“Anything is Possible on the Page” an interview with Gina Chung


This interview was conducted via Zoom by Interview Editor Madelynn Paz. Of the process she said, “Green Frog is a treasure; each story shines as an individual jewel, and the collection as a whole is strung together by Chung’s compelling voice, lyrical prose, and the emotional resonance of her characters. It was an incredible joy to speak with her about her craft, the influences of her family and culture, and how storytelling links us all.” In this interview Gina Chung discusses finding magic in everyday life, exploring points of view, and the necessary honesty in humor and in fiction.

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Superstition Review: Hello and welcome. Today we will be speaking with Author Gina Chung about her short story collection,Green Frog. I'd like to start off with an appreciation for this collection. It was such a joy to read. These stories are full of lyrical language and imagery; there's so much emotional complexity. There's humor, there's magic, it really has everything. It engaged me so deeply as a reader, and it's the kind of work I know I will come back to over and over again and get something new out of it every time, so thank you for writing it!

Diving into some of that emotional complexity, for our first question I wanted to ask you, several of the stories in this collection deal with navigating the expectations of an immigrant family; of simultaneously holding love and respect for parental sacrifices while struggling with the resulting pressures that they can create. Specifically, the story “The Sound of Water” really beautifully illustrates some of these conflicting emotions via the protagonist Justin, who struggles to create his own life and identity while supporting his aging parents. I'd like to ask, how have you balanced the expectations of your own family and community while finding your individual voice and identity as a writer?

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Gina Chung: Wow! I what a beautiful question! Thank you so much, and thank you for all the support and for reading Green Frog. I'm so grateful and appreciative. It's a great question, because it's something I'm still trying to sort of figure out for myself as both a human being and an artist. I'm someone whose writing is directly influenced by a lot of my upbringing, and my experiences growing up in my community as a person of Korean-American descent. The book is dedicated to my mother because like many parents we grew up in a household filled with stories. She always told me bedtime stories, read to me; a lot of the stories in this collection were inspired by folk tales and fairy tales of the Korean tradition that I grew up listening to, but my favorite stories from my mother, to be honest, were the stories she would tell me of her own girlhood growing up in South Korea. I don't think I would be a storyteller without that sort of legacy. My whole family is really a bunch of storytellers; they can make a meal out of going to the grocery store and having a strange encounter. I think that I've always sort of grown up in this environment of stories and sharing. 

In terms of balancing expectations, it took a while for me to come around even to the idea of trying to become a writer, because I think I did feel this weight of expectation which wasn't consciously placed upon me by my parents, but I did feel this sense of responsibility a lot of immigrants, and children of immigrants, certainly feel, which is to get a really safe stable job and make money, and create a stronger foothold for yourself and for your family in this country.

It took a while for me to commit myself to the idea of trying to write, and I do work full time now. I wrote these stories and my novel while working full time, trying to carve out space for myself, and also attending an MFA program at the same time, which I thought would give me the structure and community I needed in order to develop as a writer.

In terms of balancing those expectations it took a while for me to realize they didn't need to be in competition with one another, and I could be writing while also writing to please myself first and foremost, but also to explore and pay tribute to some of the traditions I grew up with within my family and my community.

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SR: Thank you so much for sharing that. I really appreciate that struggle between trying to work full time and also carving out time to write. I think that's something a lot of people struggle with, thank you for sharing that.

Moving on a little bit to your Lit hub essay, “Why Learning About Other Animals Makes Us Better Writers,” You discuss how writing about animals can lead to new understandings of your characters and of complex emotional truths. This essay also references a story included in this collection: “The Love Song of the Mexican Free Tailed Bat,” in which the narrator's interaction with bats provides us with a window into her complicated relationship with her father. I'd like to ask how you build that bridge between the honesty of animals and the emotional complexity of your human characters; I found that so interesting.

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GC: Well, one of the reasons I really love writing about animals and the natural world is interacting with, or thinking about, or writing about animals forces us to be honest. And obviously, I'm talking about fiction here. But I do think there is such a thing as emotional honesty in fiction, and readers can often tell when a writer is sort of pulling their punches or not really going as far as they could with a character or a situation.

I think that's why I come back to this theme of writing about animals in particular, in my work. And I love that you brought up, this juxtaposition between the honesty of animals and the emotional complexity of human characters. You know, human beings, we lie all the time, and it doesn't even have to be for nefarious intent. We lie to protect ourselves, to protect one another, to uphold social and community expectations we're forced into. Whereas animals, they don't really have any of that, they have a very different understanding to one another, a very different relationship with time and space. Having those things collide, especially for characters who either work very closely with animals, or have a close connection with animals in some capacity, is really interesting for me, because it forces some of those emotional truths to the surface, while the complexity of the situations and the characters still makes that a bit of a challenge for them and also for myself as the writer, in creating and writing about those situations.

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SR: That's really lovely. Yeah, I definitely felt the emotional truth coming through in each of those stories. I think that was really what I responded to, and what kept me so engaged was you definitely don't pull any punches-- and I really enjoyed that.

One of the many qualities of your collection that I also enjoyed was how you dance between different points of view, particularly when you use either second person or the first-person plural. I'm thinking of “Honey and Sun”, that one comes to mind, as well as “Fruits of Sin”, and “How to Eat Your own Heart.” So many great things are happening with point of view, in all of your stories. When determining a point of view for a story, how do you decide what perspective would be the most effective?

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GC: I think the way that I decide what point of view to take for a story often has to come from the story itself. I'll say just for me personally, as a writer, a lot of my ideas for new stories or creative works usually come to me in the form of an image or a question. Occasionally it'll be a voice where it's like a line from the very beginning, or maybe an image that I actually want put towards the end. So, I do a little bit of exploring about the image or the question that I'm thinking of, and then sometimes I do a little bit of free writing around it, just to see what feels the most natural. I think my choice of POV usually is fairly organic in that way, and I'll sometimes try out different ones, especially if it's for a longer story. But in the end, I feel like I have to come back to the one I think is doing the most for the story, whether it's creating a certain kind of mood or allowing me to explore the world of the characters in the way that I want to.

With the stories you mentioned, for “How to Eat Your Own Heart” for example, I wrote that one in the second person because it takes the form of a recipe, a step by step recipe for how to eat your own heart. And recipes are written in a second person, “you” format, but then I wondered what it would be like if the person who's doing these actions actually takes on their own life over the course of this story you're reading. I love the second person. I think one of the reasons why it's such a power point of view is because, in removing the immediate trappings of character from a situation, it allows you to explore some really difficult emotional truths that might be lying below the surface of this character. 

For the first-person plural, those stories that you mentioned: “Honey and Sun” and “The Fruits of Sin,” I was really interested in what it would be like to write from almost a hive mind perspective, which is what the first-person plural does. It's often a very funny POV, because when you have more than one mind joined up together observing the world it often lends itself to a zoomed-out version of the world I think is very conducive to humor in a lot of ways, while also exploring the emotional impact a thing can have on a collective of people, as opposed to just one person. So those were sorts of experiments for me. But then I felt like this was my way of trying to delve into, say, the minds of a pair of twins who are very abandoned and a little bit feral. And in the case of “Fruits of Sin”, a group of very gossipy church ladies, who all kind of try to think together as one, but ultimately are very diverging in their opinions and viewpoints.

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SR: Excellent. Thank you so much. Yeah, that was so fascinating to me. I love the second person, and I really appreciated that. The hive mind collective comment as well; especially from the aunties, the gossipy church ladies that you mentioned. It was hilarious, and speaking of your humor, that segues perfectly into my next question. 

A few of your previous interviews in Atticus and Rumpus mentioned your use of humor to add emotional contrast to your work, and how humor functions as a way to connect with and surprise the reader, which you often do.

You mentioned in those interviews that “the best kind of humor is always vulnerable”. I'd like to highlight at this point that yourPushcart prize winning story “Mantis” as an excellent example of this. I see it as an emotional gut punch, wrapped in humor and whimsy. And I'd like to ask how you access your vulnerability and channel it into humor?

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GC: Well, I guess I'll start with the idea of vulnerability, that connection between vulnerability and humor which is: if you're not being vulnerable in your humor, it doesn't mean it can't be funny in some way, but if that's happening, usually the humor is happening from an outsider perspective, and that has a connotation of punching down a little bit. I think that can be effective, but I don't think I'm that kind of writer when it comes to humor. When I do use humor in my writing it almost always is to connect with the reader and to use that humor as a wedge for exploring other things.

The writer, Percival Everett; I just read an interview with him in which he talked about how he uses humor (which I'm paraphrasing) but he said something like: You know, if you can make your reader laugh, you can do almost anything. You can get away with anything on the page. I think that's such a powerful reminder for fiction writers, and for any kind of writer really, which is humor is first and foremost a tool of connection. I don't think that connection is possible without some kind of vulnerability.

And in the case of the story “Mantis” it's a story that usually draws laughs if I read it, or if people read it in the world, they mentioned the humor of it. It's an inherently absurd story, because it's about the dating life of a praying mantis, but you know, as you mentioned, I didn't want to just have it be a funny look at her dating life. I wanted to look at the costs of what being someone like that would be and those two things for me always have to go hand in hand. If you're going to be funny, you have to leave something on the page. Whether it's your characters or your own experiences, and that's ultimately what's going to connect the most with readers and be most memorable, as opposed to just a joke that has no real emotional stakes.

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SR: Thank you. Okay, we touched on this a little bit at the beginning, but I'd like to come back to it now. The emotional complexity of the relationships between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters is kind of a connecting thread through many of the stories in this collection. It especially stood out to me in the title story, “Green Frog”, as well as in “The Arrow” and the book itself, as you mentioned, is dedicated to your own mother. You call her your first storyteller in that dedication which is so lovely. Can you speak a little bit more to the influence that female relationships and female storytellers had on the development of this collection?

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GC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mentioned earlier my mother was my first storyteller, and a lot of the stories I most wanted to hear from her growing up were about her girlhood. Thinking about the stories of my mother as a child, it's inextricably tied to her memories of my grandmother, who I didn't really have a chance to know, as she passed away when I was very young. I feel through my mother's stories, I've come to know her in a kind of way, even though I didn't actually get a chance to develop a relationship with her as an adult. My grandmother's own stories, in thinking about lineage and family ancestry; none of us would be here were it not for the mothers before and the mothers before. And I think about how storytelling is this longstanding tradition, not just within my family, but within communities all over the world, especially for people who have been oppressed in any kind of way, marginalized, colonized; that's the experience of so many people. I think stories are not just a way of keeping those family stories alive, but also of remembering what happened, and being able to give voice for the people who didn't get a chance to pass down those stories to descendants. In terms of the influence, it has a huge impact on my writing and in the stories in this collection, certainly.

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SR: That’s so beautiful. I love the idea of storytelling as a legacy, kind of as a chain that links us together, even if we don't get the chance to meet that person, you can still get to know them through story. That's really lovely, and it's kind of what storytelling is all about, I think, for a lot of people, and for me in particular.

GC: Absolutely.

SR: For several of the stories in the collection including “You'll Never Know How Much I Loved You,” “Rabbit Heart,” and “Human Heart,” they feature young girls who feel they do not fit into a traditional ideal of feminine beauty. Some of the characters in those stories do find love within themselves, and some do not. How has your relationship to the concept of beauty and self-love evolved over time?

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GC: Oh, this is a great question. I feel like, this is becoming a therapy session. You know, like many people who are socialized as young girls, I grew up (and I'm in my thirties now) I came of age in the nineties and the early aughts. It's never been a great time to be a woman surrounded by ideals of feminine beauty, but I feel like those were particularly toxic times, just in terms of media saturation of bodies and certain kinds of bodies. I mentioned my mother earlier, and she had all the best intentions in the world, but oftentimes I would hear her comment on other girls and women's bodies, like people we knew, and celebrities. From an early age I was always told, “Watch what you eat”. You have to look a certain way, act a certain way to be acceptable, to be pretty. Of course, it was coming from love, from care, from worry, but, looking back, there were times where I was really angry with her for making me feel like I had to fit into a certain box.

I'm able now to have a lot of forgiveness and compassion for her, because I see how harsh she is with her own body and her own ideal of her beauty. And speaking of things that get passed down, I think unfortunately, that is a thing that gets passed down a lot from mothers to daughters, and so on and so forth.

I think the concept of beauty is one that I think about a lot, especially when writing fiction, because beauty is a kind of power in some ways. Ultimately, it can be a double-edged sword. In the case of some of the stories you mentioned, for these characters, they feel they lack a certain kind of physical beauty, and it makes them feel like they don't belong. It makes them feel like they have to make up for something, that they're not enough. In some ways they’re actually able to channel that, as you said, into a form of agency that maybe they wouldn't have had to discover on their own if they were just naturally gifted with this sort of beauty their mothers and people expect from them.

In terms of thinking about self-love and beauty, self-love is an ongoing journey, and I think for a lot of people it actually doesn't have very much to do with what you look like. It's about how you feel. I mean, this sounds so cheesy, but it has everything to do with how you feel on the inside. And I think for me it's a relationship that has everything to do with reminding myself about how I feel about myself at the end of the day. Actually, I could look great that day, for example, but if I'm not feeling good on the inside, then I'm not going to really be taking care of myself. I think self-love for me now has a lot to do with doing what I need to do to maintain a decent relationship with myself. Not engaging in the kind of negative self-talk that I definitely grew up with, or that I've injected into some of these stories with these girls who feel that they're not living up to expectations of society and beauty.

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SR: Certainly. That also resonated with me as well; I also grew up during that time. That's something we all kind of carry with us as we get older.

Okay, I'd like to pivot a little bit into some of the longer stories in the collection. Specifically, “Attachment Process” and “Presence”; they're both hauntingly beautiful stories. They explore potentially problematic technology in relation to memory and grief. Both of these stories also feature a nonlinear narrative in which key elements are revealed through flashbacks, with the past blending into the present. Regarding structure for pieces like those, how do you build and pace a story in order to have the right reveal at the right moment?

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GC: that's such a great question. I think, in the case of these two stories which, as you mentioned, are explorations of different forms of technology the characters have access to. I didn't want to do the info dump thing I think can happen with works that are more world building or a bit more science fiction in nature. There's a character, and maybe in the opening they immediately tell you what this thing is, how it works, the rules. That can work in a story or novel, but I wanted it to be parceled out over time, across the events of this story. In the cases of these two stories, these are both protagonists who, while quite different, have been through really difficult loss. Trauma, definitely familial loss, is a huge part of what they've experienced.

In the case of “Presence” the character is also someone who has really lost their sense of self, along with a central relationship. I wanted for those stories to show how these two different women have gotten to the point that they have and how they've made these decisions using the technology that's available to them. I think both stories are in a way about avoiding being uncomfortable. They're both exploring grief and trauma in different ways. I think when you have a character like that, in exploring emotional discomfort, if you have a character that's experienced great loss, great trauma, and is not able to talk about that, they're often not going to talk about the events in a linear way, right? So oftentimes people who've experienced grief and trauma in real life, their memories are not linear--things are piecemeal, things are in flashback. I felt like that was organic to the stories; it came about through that structure. Then, in going back and revising I ended up inserting some scenes here, some scenes there, just to flesh out what was happening, and to ensure the reader was brought along on the journey of understanding the rules of the technology. And also seeing the progression of these two different womens’ emotional decisions and the impact the earlier events have had on them.

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SR:  Yeah, that's so true. The trauma memory fragmentation really resonates with me as well. And I think you convey that so beautifully. For this question, I noticed in your acknowledgement section that you thank several of your teachers, among them fellow author K. Ming Chang. Both of you utilize prose in a beautifully visceral and lyrical way, and I'd like to ask, can you speak to how Chang has influenced your own writing, stylistically or otherwise?

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GC: Oh, my God, I love K. Ming! And I'm always so excited to talk about her and her brilliance and her work. I took a few classes with K. Ming Chang online, during 2020 to 2021. This was, I think, right before her first novel Bestiary came out, and I was so inspired throughout those classes. In addition to being such a brilliant, inventive writer she's also a very generous and inspiring instructor, and through those classes we read a lot of short works together, discussed language, and then she provided all these prompts for thinking about how to approach our own stories, as inspired by some of the works that we were reading. I think the makeup of the classes, too, was also really perfect, it was a lovely little community online during the weeks that we spent together on Zoom. It was through K. Ming’s classes I realized there didn't need to be this sort of lengthy, complicated explanation for why magic is happening in the world; with the characters it can just happen. And there were other writers that I'd read to over the years that you know operate in this way, of course too, like Kelly Link, for example.

The tradition of magical realism is all about ordinary characters accepting extraordinary circumstances. I felt the way K. Ming Chang's classes, or the way she approached her class, and the way that her writing takes flight off the page, it spoke to me in a way that made me think about how I can incorporate my own ancestral myths or stories and histories into the works I was trying to write. One story that was particularly inspired by K. Ming Chang's work and her teaching was the short story, “Rabbit Heart.” That was a story actually inspired by my maternal grandmother, who I mentioned earlier, who I never really got to know as an adult, because she passed away when I was very young. I imagined this alternative universe, or scenario, in which the grandmother actually got to spend more time with her granddaughter. The protagonist of that story is not me. The grandmother in the story is not my grandmother, but it was like a wish fulfillment scenario. In writing what sort of became a last hurrah for this unusual pairing, it felt like I could imagine new possibilities for my own trajectory of my relationship with my grandmother as well. I think that she's one of my favorite writers, and it's because she just makes things feel so possible both on the page and off of it.

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SR: That's beautiful. Thank you so much. We have touched on this a few times, but let's expand on it a little bit. Several of the stories in the collection, including “Rabbit Heart” and “Human Hearts reference traditional Korean folk tales such as the Sail Bride or the Kumiho, still others, such as “Honey and Sun,” include more surrealist and magical elements in the narrative. Where do you find the magic in everyday life, and how do you incorporate it into your work?

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GC: Wow! I love this question. I was just thinking about this yesterday because I had a horror movie marathon over the weekend with my partner. We were just talking about ghost stories, and we were both talking about how neither of us are spiritually sensitive in that way, but you know we both grew up with people who were. I'm always that person who would love to see a ghost, but also, I would be terrified. So, I probably shouldn't be that person the spirits reveal themselves to. But I think magic is in all parts of the world, and it can be anywhere really. I do a little bit of tarot on my own; I sometimes talk aloud to my ancestors just throughout the course of my day, and this was something I started doing on the advice of an astrologer I saw. And it's not like I've ever gotten like a concrete response back, right? Again, I'm not spiritually gifted in that way, but it brings me so much comfort to engage in small little rituals like that. I think even the ritual of something really prosaic, like making my coffee in the morning, that feels like magic. You know you're alchemizing something you're doing. You're adding elements to a thing that on its own wouldn't have the properties it does by the end of that process. I think there's so much power in rituals, and that can be found through writing rituals as well. I know some people who, they don't write unless they have a favorite crystal or talisman of theirs on their desk, and that just of sets them up for entering into that writing space. I think that's the real power of things like rituals, and that's one way I find magic in my everyday life.

In terms of incorporating it into my work, I think it comes back to this idea of remembering anything is possible on the page. There are some stories, of course, in the collection that are much more in a more grounded real-life setting, and I love those stories as well. But I think for the stories in which there is a bit more of a supernatural or a speculative element, it comes about through me wondering, what could be possible, that isn't necessarily possible in my version of reality? A lot of that comes from being observant and attentive to my own world, and the challenges or the limitations of my world, while also thinking about what could be possible in my fiction.

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SR: That's lovely, Thank you. I love that reference to the magic of everyday ritual and everyday life; that's so powerful. For my final question. Prior to this collection, you published your debut novel, Sea Change; what differences or challenges in the creative process did you notice when putting together a short story collection versus a novel? And looking towards the future, what creative projects are next for you?

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GC: I think the main difference for me in writing a novel versus writing a collection of short stories is that with a novel you're wrestling with or shaping one larger idea or world, whereas with a short story collection it's multiple, small pocket universes you've created. I've used this analogy before, but I don't know if you've heard; this is like one of my favorites Would you Rather on the Internet: “Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or many duck sized horses? That's kind of what a novel versus a collection is like to me. I will say for this collection a lot of the stories, they've evolved and have varying ages in terms of how long they've lived in my head, and lived in my drafts. When it came time to assemble the collection, I kind of just put them all next to each other.

I wasn't even sure if they would amount to a collection, but then I realized reading through them there were themes in common, certainly preoccupations in common. I thought, this could maybe be strung together as a collection, and then the re-ordering process of the collection was deciding what came first, what came next. That was a very collaborative process with both my agent, and then later, my editor. That process taught me a lot about how a reader might experience a collection. I know some people who hop around when they read a collection, but I'm very linear. I tend to read first to last, and I think most people tend to do that with a collection.

My editor was the one who taught me to think about how do you want to start off? You know what are the high points and low points, not low points in terms of quality, hopefully, but energy; how does the energy flow through a collection? It's like crafting a mixtape or a playlist, if you think about it, too. You want to have a strong start; you want to have a strong closer that leaves the person with the impression you want. Then throughout you want to have the energy not be all one note, and what you want it to vary a little bit like a like a sine curve. I think plotting a novel is similar. You do want to have a plot that is reflective of what the character is going through or exploring, but then you also want it to be varied in terms of texture, in terms of action, in terms of what's happening on the page. Both are challenging in different ways, but I think in some ways a novel lends itself to a certain kind of luxurious, percolating stage that can be really fun. Whereas a short story you get to hop around and try on different voices and different scenarios, and settings in a more brisk way. So, both are really enjoyable and challenging for different reasons.

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SR: I love that comparison to a mixed tape. I definitely enjoyed how the stories played off of each other, and how they were placed in the collection. I think they really do lead you through if you read it through in a linear way. And they just play so nicely together. I really liked how you ordered it, especially, that was very effective. And then can you speak to any creative projects that are coming up next for you?

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GC: Oh, yes, so I am working on my next novel, and it's in a very early messy draft stage right now. It's on pause at the moment, but I'm excited to get back to it again, and be in that messy novel world brain I was talking about earlier. I'm not saying too much about it yet other than that. It'll be, I think, different totally from Sea Change and some of the stories in Green Frog. But there will definitely be elements of family, maybe some magic here and there, and myth, and I think it's going to be horror adjacent. We'll see. I'm trying to write in a way that scares myself, which is fun.

SR: Excellent. That sounds very exciting. I very much look forward to it.

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SR: Alright! That was all of the questions I had for you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and discuss Green Frog. Each of those stories is really just a jewel, and together they make a little treasure box. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.

GC: Thank you so much. This was such a joy. Thank you for those beautiful questions.

SR: You're very welcome. Thank you.