"Nothing is Ever Really Lost:" A Deep Dive Into Grief, Love, and Writing With Debut Author Gina Chung


"I hope Sea Change makes readers feel a little bit less alone, if that’s something they’re struggling with...but also that hope, resilience, and community are stronger than our despair."

Sea Change is an insightful novel that plunges deep into human heartbreak and grief. Ro, a Korean American mall aquarium employee, turns to work and drinking in attempt to escape the relentless waves of adversity that threaten to drown her: conflict with her immigrant mother, a difficult breakup, growing apart from her best friend, and the disappearance of her father. In search of solace, she finds comfort in caring for Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who roves a tank at Ro's aquarium and represents a living relic of her father's career as a marine biologist. A product of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sea Change is a thoughtful and creative reflection on healing from trauma and hardship and living within the depths of the Asian American experience. The book releases to audiences on March 28, 2023. 

Today, I am so excited to welcome the author of Sea Change, Gina Chung, to the blog to discuss her upcoming debut. Sea Change was one of my favorite reads of 2022. As I meditated on my pandemic experiences, both as a Korean American and a young person questioning what comes next in the wake of unexpected challenges, Ro's journey to self-acceptance spoke to me in powerful ways; it is poignant, sometimes, but also undeniably imbued with hope. I can't wait for readers to dive in.
My questions will be in blue, and the author's responses will be in standard text. [This interview was also posted on ANMLY blog.]

I can’t wait for readers to get a hold of this story in just a few months! How does it feel to be releasing your debut?

It feels dizzying and surreal, and also a little terrifying and very joyful! I am so excited for the world to meet the characters in my book, and to be able to walk into a bookstore or library and see my name on a shelf, on a book that I wrote and that I feel proud of. It’s been a dream of mine, ever since I was a little kid writing and illustrating my first stories on printer paper sheets and stapling them together for my parents to read. I have the best book team and personal support system around me, and they’ve been so grounding and supportive throughout this process. It’s been a very beautiful experience.

An excerpt from the poem “Reverse Takoyaki (How To Uncook An Octopus)” by Haolun Xu precedes the first chapter of Sea Change: “All life from the ocean, is a sure thing. / Even when time divides us, (please) / laugh triumphantly and call them waves.” Can you speak to your choice to open the book with this work?

I loved Haolun’s poem so much the first time I read it in Electric Literature. The oceanic imagery felt perfect for my novel, and I was captivated by the way the poem uses the idea of reversal and plays with time, space, and memory to resurrect lost love and life. As a writer, I’m obsessed with memory—I’m always trying to think about what my characters remember and what they can’t forget. On a more literal level, these lines also made me think about Ro’s father being lost at sea, and how she wants him so badly to still be alive and around. This poem reminds me so beautifully of the law of conservation of energy, which tells us that energy can never be created or destroyed; it can only be transformed. I find that to be such a hopeful reminder that nothing is ever really lost.

Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus, serves as the anchor for our protagonist Ro as she encounters waves of grief brought on by the disappearance of her father, a breakup, and conflict with her mother. I’m sure many readers will agree that Ro’s aquatic companion represents one of the many things that make Sea Change such a unique story. I have to ask: what was your inspiration or motivation for Dolores? Sea Change is rife with details about the octopus’s moods, diet, color changes, and biology— what did your research and writing process look like to flesh her out as a character in the book?

I had so much fun writing Dolores! I love incorporating animals into my fiction, because I think they can teach us so much about ourselves, and their ways of interacting with the world and experiencing time are so different from ours. Octopuses especially are just the most fascinating creatures. They’re so alien and different from us, but also incredibly curious and even mischievous at times. I started writing this book way before My Octopus Teacher came out on Netflix, but when I did finally watch it, I was so struck by how affectionate and playful the octopus in it was as well.

Basically, I started off with the opening line from the novel (“This morning, Dolores turned blue”), and knew right away that Dolores was an octopus, and I couldn’t stop imagining all the different colors she would turn, or the antics she’d get up to. Along with that, I began to wonder who the person observing Dolores was, and why she was so fascinated by her. I think Ro sees a lot of herself in Dolores, or who she wishes she was. Like Ro, Dolores is very solitary and curious about the world around her, but she doesn’t experience emotions in the same way that humans do, and that, to Ro, is very appealing.

In terms of practical research, I watched a lot of YouTube, read everything I could find on the internet about giant Pacific octopuses, and took a lot of notes. I also watched a couple “day in the life” type videos from aquarists, and that helped me get a sense of what a typical interaction between an octopus and its caretaker might look like. I was also lucky enough to be able to talk to two different aquarium employees (a current aquarist and a friend of a friend who had worked in membership services for an aquarium) about their experiences.

On a similar note, what summoned the side plot of the ongoing mission to Mars, in which Ro’s ex-boyfriend Tae is a selected participant?

I knew from the moment I started writing this book that my narrator was going to be someone who had recently had her heart broken, and who wasn’t going to tell you right away the full story of how it had happened. Tae voluntarily applies for and agrees to go on this incredibly competitive mission to Mars, but I also think part of him wants Ro to ask him to stay. Which isn’t to say that the breakup is her “fault”—it’s more complicated than that. But Ro is a bit emotionally avoidant, and for a good portion of the novel, I wanted her to be in that state of feeling sorry for herself about her boyfriend abandoning her for his big space mission, until she reveals what really happened between him applying for the mission and their breakup.

So I started off with this note to myself about Tae breaking up with Ro because he was going to leave the planet, which added a whole other layer of near-futurism to the story that I hadn’t thought of initially. It also made me wonder about what kind of person would volunteer for such a long-term, remote commitment, and how the people they left behind would feel. I’m deeply terrified of space, so I don’t know that I would ever agree to be part of a mission like Tae’s. But it’s interesting—while I was writing this book, I asked friends of mine if they’d go to space or not, if they had no guarantee of returning to Earth anytime soon, and I was surprised by the number of people who said that they would. It was almost a 50/50 split!

Advanced versions of social media make notable appearances in your book. Ro uses it to keep tabs on Tae’s mission to Mars, and her friend, Yoonhee, even finds her future husband on it (using a dating app that matches people based on all the available data on their cell phones). Why did you choose to include social media in your book? How do you view the role of social media in Ro and Yoonhee’s world?

Social media is such a fascinating puzzle to me, as someone who uses it for personal and professional reasons and as a writer who occasionally incorporates social media in my work. I think so much of what draws us to social media is the idea that it provides a form of connection—which it certainly can—but as anyone who’s gone through a romantic or platonic breakup of any kind knows, it can also be such a double-edged sword, since it can keep us tethered to the past. It's essentially a curated look into someone else’s life that seems more authentic than it actually is, so it can invite comparisons, which I don’t think is always healthy.

I wanted to include social media in my book because I think, for better or for worse, social media is here to stay (even if the platforms themselves might change or evolve, as we’ve seen in recent months), and it is also, in many ways, a reflection of who we are, who we think we are, and what we care about. With Ro, I wanted to write a protagonist who yearns for connection but struggles to find it. Social media is just one of the many tools that Ro uses to isolate and numb herself. For someone like Yoonhee, it’s a little bit less fraught. She genuinely enjoys sharing updates about her life on social media and putting together a narrative about those updates—that’s just the kind of person she is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For Ro, who is mostly a social media lurker, it’s a window into the lives of others, to the kind of life she thinks she can’t have, even if it’s not necessarily something she wants.

On a craft level, social media can also be such an interesting and expedient way to move your story forward or reveal something about the characters using it or being observed on it. Since the story starts out with Ro in the aftermath of her breakup with Tae, I wanted to show her doing something very relatable (keeping tabs on her ex and wondering about his new life without her) that would also give readers a bit of insight into what Tae’s life on the Mars training compound would have looked like. I had a lot of fun thinking about those kinds of things, in terms of fleshing out the near-future aspect of the world of Sea Change.

At the crux of Sea Change is Ro’s evolving relationships with her parents. The context of their Korean background shapes how Ro understands, receives, and imparts love. For example, you write that “‘Have you eaten?’ is code for so many things in Korean families.” Why was this context something that you wanted to explore in familial love?

As a Korean American and the child of immigrants myself, I really wanted to write about the ways that familial love can be expressed in ways beyond what I saw on TV or read about while growing up in the States. It’s almost a cliche at this point to talk about how difficult it is for Asian immigrant families to tell one another they love each other, but it was definitely true in my case. Rather than asking me “How are you” my parents usually ask me if I’m eating well, or if I’m warm enough. I see it as a very touching and efficient expression of care (“Are you getting what you need? Are you caring for yourself the way I need you to be cared for?”).

In writing about the ways that Ro’s understanding of love is shaped by her parents and the Korean families around her, including Yoonhee’s and Tae’s, I also wanted to challenge the idea that verbal, outright expressions of familial love are somehow superior, or that all Korean families express affection in the same ways. There’s this concept in Korean culture that I’m sure you’re familiar with, known as 정 (jeong), which describes a deep, empathic attachment that goes beyond words and only strengthens with time. To describe it as “love” feels limiting, almost. I think Ro’s relationship with her parents and with Yoonhee is very much characterized by 정, because so much of what they understand and see about one another doesn’t need to be put into words.

I was particularly touched by the way that Ro grows into and through her relationship with her Umma. As the daughter of a Korean immigrant myself, I found many of their interactions— affectionate at times and argumentative at others— to be extremely relatable. What was important to you in portraying their mother-daughter relationship?

In portraying Ro’s relationship with her Umma, I really wanted to be as fair to her as possible, to show her as a flawed but loving parent figure with her own traumas, hopes, losses, and history. It was important to me that Ro’s Umma and Apa felt like real human beings, and not just caricatures of stereotypically stern and withholding Asian immigrant parents. While at times they can be that way, and not always cognizant of their daughter’s emotional needs, they also love Ro deeply, and their life together as a family, for all its dysfunctions, was not without its moments of joy and fun. I also wanted to provide an arc to Ro and her Umma’s relationship that felt true to who they were as people, and what they have each gone through in the wake of her Apa’s disappearance. I wanted her to feel like a three-dimensional character outside of Ro’s relationship with her—and also to show how difficult it is for Ro to accept that at first.

What Ro feels and experiences in Sea Change as she grapples with almost losing her sense of self amidst grief is poignant, painful, and powerful to read. How did you navigate writing about a character processing heavy emotions and healing from them?

I wrote the first draft of this novel in late 2020, during our first lockdown winter of the pandemic. It was a very strange and emotionally concentrated time for me, as it was for most people, and in retrospect, I was going through lots of changes in my own personal relationships, but at the same time, I felt incredibly stuck, especially since we were all so limited in where we could physically go. It helped in terms of getting the writing done, since I was able to channel so much of my own loneliness, uncertainty, and grief into the story. Writing about those feelings made me feel less alone. Writing has that effect for me, whether it’s writing for an intended audience or just for myself—it helps me organize my often very disorganized thoughts and let them go, even if it’s just for a short while.

Discussing the chapters as they emerged in that first rough draft with my MFA thesis advisor Mira Jacob and my writing group with my friends, the writers Vanessa Chan and Katie Devine, helped immensely. Talking about the process in therapy was important for me as well. Parts of Ro’s childhood are based on my own, and revisiting those memories to transmute them into fiction was triggering at times. I also went for lots of long walks in the park and listened to an elaborate thematic playlist I’d made for the book, so that even when I wasn’t writing or consciously thinking about the writing, I still felt connected to the world of my characters.

I really admired the originality of the figurative language in Sea Change. One of my favorite examples of this is when Ro describes diving into a motel pool and letting herself “shoot up like a champagne cork.” Can you provide us with some insight into how you come up with such imagery, and, more broadly, your writing process?

Thank you so much! As a reader, I love encountering surprising or unexpected imagery that can make me see or understand something in a new way, and as a writer, I really enjoy playing with metaphors and language, in addition to thinking about story beats and character. Writing tends to be pretty intuitive for me, at least in the first stages of a project—it feels a bit like reaching into a bag in the dark and trying to figure out what’s there, before bringing it up into the light. I like to give myself permission to be as weird as I can be during the drafting process, since I know I can always come back to it later in the editing stages. When it comes to imagery, I’m always trying to think of how something might feel in the body, whether it’s an emotion, a song, etc. I tend to get in my head a lot when I’m writing, so it helps to pause and think about how things might feel physically for my characters.

In terms of my general writing process, I’m definitely not an everyday writer, as much as I’d like to be. I tend to binge-write, but then I require long breaks afterwards, to let my creative brain rest. I’m a bit of a night owl, so when I am in the thick of writing something new, I tend to write at night. I’ve tried writing early in the morning, but it just doesn’t work quite as well for me. I find a lot of inspiration from the natural world, and from taking long walks and listening to music or interviews with writers talking about their work and creative choices. I got really into the New Yorker Fiction Podcast during lockdown. It’s one of my favorites, because it features writers talking about other writers’ work, and I find it really helpful for thinking about what draws us into a story.

What do you hope audiences take from Sea Change?

I hope Sea Change makes readers feel a little bit less alone, if that’s something they’re struggling with. Loneliness really is an epidemic in our society, and I think it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic. So I hope reading about Ro’s journey helps people realize that we are all so much more connected than we think we are. And as our ongoing climate crisis increases in urgency and scope, I also hope that my book can help to remind audiences of everything we stand to lose if we don’t act now to care for our planet—but also that hope, resilience, and community are stronger than our despair.

About the Author 

Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. She is the author of SEA CHANGE, a novel, and a collection of short stories, GREEN FROG, which are forthcoming from Vintage in 2023. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Idaho Review, The Rumpus, Pleiades, and F(r)iction, among others. Find her at gina-chung.com.


  1. Very insightful interview, with some answers that I didn't expect. The story sounds lovely...maybe a bit heartbreaking, but lovely 🙂.

  2. What a fascinating interview and the book sounds wonderful

  3. Thanks you for sharing this! I'm fascinated especially by the relationship between Ro and Dolores and look forward to reading about their interactions (yes I am getting this book ha ha). Sounds like a fabulous debut!

  4. This was really wonderful! Definitely adding this one to the list.

  5. What a great interview! The book sounds so intriguing; I have to check it out. Thanks for alerting us to it and giving the author a forum to elaborate.