Helena Ku Rhee grew up in Los Angeles, but has also lived in various parts of the U.S., Asia and Europe. She has a soft spot for small, stout animals and loves to travel far and wide across this beautiful planet, counting among her favorite journeys a camping trip in the Sahara Desert, a swim with elephants in Thailand and a horseback-riding tour of Easter Island. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and draws story ideas from her travels.
Christopher Seid Photography
Helena Ku Rhee grew up in Los Angeles, and moved around the country and around the world in her late teens and twenties. In her thirties, she landed back in the City of Angels and loves it more than she ever thought she would.
Helena’s debut picture book “The Turtle Ship” was published on June 5, 2018 by Lee & Low, the largest publisher of multicultural/diverse books in the United States. Based in New York City, Lee & Low has a wonderful and important mission, to publish diverse stories that all children can enjoy.
Her second picture book “The Paper Kingdom” will be published in 2019/2020 by Penguin Random House, the company that has published so many of her all-time favorite books.
As a college student at Yale, she majored in English (no surprise), and then went on to U.C. Berkeley for law school (again, no surprise, since so many English majors end up in law school). Afterwards, she worked at a firm in San Francisco, and though she enjoyed her time there and met some brilliant people, she quickly realized she wanted to work in a creative industry.
And that’s how she landed back in her hometown, to work in the movie industry and to be closer to family. Working for a storytelling organization has been the perfect alignment of her creative interests with her professional training. During her first few years back in L.A., Helena attended U.S.C. as a part-time evening student and received her MFA in creative writing through a joint program between U.S.C. and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Currently, Helena works at a movie studio by day and as a writer by night and weekends. Thanks for visiting!
Yes! I’ve always loved books and stories. I have a gazillion ideas, but the hard part is writing those ideas in a way that will make people want to read. I majored in English in college, but the funny thing is, I explored other “more practical majors” such as econ (yikes!) because I thought reading novels all day seemed too decadent a way to spend a college career. But you always turn back to what you love, and I’ve always loved books and stories.
The best training is to read, read, read. If you’re a bookworm, you already have a head start on everyone else who wants to publish their projects. Also, read not just the classics, but read what’s being published today. Plot, pacing and characterization are much snappier in books being published today than, say, fifty years ago, thanks to competing media like YouTube channels, TV shows and movies. So if you want to be published the traditional way (with an agent and traditional publisher like Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Lee & Low, etc.), you have to keep abreast of the marketplace. That said, don’t focus too much on the market, trends, what others are up to, etc. You want to keep laser focused on your projects and not let the noise distract you too much. And one more thing: rejection is all part of the process. I promise, it’ll make you stronger. During the years when agents and publishers rejected my work, it would sting for a while, but then I became even more determined to make my next project better. And even when you’re a published author, rejection is still part of the game. You never know whether your next manuscript will sell or not, so rejection is something all writers in every phase of their career must get used to (unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or…you get the picture).
I usually write at my dining table or in my upstairs home office. It’s got big windows, so I like looking at the sky every once in a while to watch the birds swoop by. Sometimes, a group of small, green parrots flies by – boy, are they noisy! Their chatter makes me laugh. They like to gossip while they fly.
My ideas come from everywhere: while having a conversation, watching the news, traveling, walking our dog — see the photo below…isn’t he TOO CUTE???
Anyway, if you pay attention to the world around you (even the most mundane details), a story idea may pop up. I also find it helpful to explore other art forms — visit a museum, go to a play, listen to music. That’ll help the creative juices flow. It’s also great to have a creative buddy or critique partner who will ask tough, intelligent questions about your characters, plot, etc. A fellow artist/writer is your best bet, or at least someone with a very strong artistic sensibility (you don’t want to buddy up with someone who thinks books are dull or who finds reading your work to be a tedious chore). My husband produces and writes for the movie industry, and is actually the first reader and editor of all my writing projects. He’s very helpful with plotting/pacing because his taste is much more commercial than mine. It’s awesome to have my early drafts analyzed by someone who loves stories as much as I do. And of course, it’s great to have a dog who will think you are perfect no matter how terrible your first draft.
The short answer is no, I don’t have a writing schedule. I used to feel very guilty about not being able to write everyday, but I’ve come to realize that I’m okay with writing in productive bursts, rather than steady, regular hours each day. Since I work at a movie studio during the day, I usually write during the evenings and weekends. I’ve had to trim out a lot of social activities because I want to devote as much of my free time as I can to writing projects. At first, I felt really bad about turning down this, that and the other, but then I realized that I felt even worse when I didn’t have time to write. In fact, I get really cranky and antsy when I can’t write for a while. You can often find me grumbling in the corner when social events run too long. In other words, I’m an introvert and I’m passionately in love with being at home, so the life of a writer suits me perfectly.
I would love to help…but I can’t. I used to say yes to these types of requests on occasion, but that opened up a floodgate of requests I couldn’t manage. Due to time constraints (my full-time job, writing schedule and family/other obligations) and legal reasons, I can’t address such requests any more, as much as I wish for your success. If it makes you feel better, those times in the past when I did review someone’s manuscript and/or introduced someone to a rep and/or met up to chat about publishing was not at all like me handing over a key — in fact, quite the opposite was true, as there was a LOT more work to do.
So if you’d like feedback on your manuscript, I suggest either forming a critique group or reaching out to a freelance editor who will review your work for a fee (if you’re writing kidlit, joining the SCBWI will lead you in the right direction). As for meeting agents, attending writing conferences are a great way to network with professionals in the publishing industry. The SCBWI holds national conferences twice a year, in NYC during the winter, and in L.A. during the summer. You’ll also learn the proper way to query agents, which is what 99% of authors have had to do — effectively pitching your own work is a great skill to have in your toolbox! And one reason I maintain this website is to answer questions about writing and publishing for those who’d like to know (you’ll find exactly what I would say to you in person or on the phone right here on this site — in my posts and articles/interviews).
The road to getting traditionally published is a tough one, often filled with rejection letters and years of hard work, so you’re not alone (I can’t speak to self-publishing because I’ve never tried it…at least not yet). The best advice I can give is to build a community of creatives and to keep going even when you feel like giving up. Especially when you feel like giving up. On days when it seems like everything you’re doing is worthless, pick up one of your favorite books to get re-inspired. I like to go for a walk and get away from my project(s) for a while to get some perspective. Persistence (and some talent/ability) is truly the key. Wishing you much success!
Oh boy, how many hours do you have? Actually, do you have a week?? So many good books, so little time! As a kid, I absolutely loved Roald Dahl’s books. Seems like he had so much naughty fun writing his stories. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and any book about curious, adventurous kids – Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy come to mind. I absolutely love picture books by Amy Krause Rosenthal, (such as Duck, Rabbit) and by Doreen Cronin – Diary of a Worm and Click Clack Moo are brilliant. Linda Sue Park is so good for middle grade! As for young adult novels, omg I love Matt de la Pena. And John Green. And E. Lockhart and Stephanie Perkins. I recently discovered Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns…brilliant. In the adult realm, so many, from Stephen King (when I want to be afraid of my own house), Paul Theroux (when I want to travel far and wide with a cranky guide) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Geoff Dyer and Chang Rae Lee (when I want to marvel at gorgeous writing and brilliant thinking). Harlan Coben and Haruki Murakami are both so entertaining. M.G. Lord was a writing professor of mine and is a masterful writer and hilarious speaker. Judith Freeman and Janet Fitch are also amazingly skilled writers. And there are the classics—I will always love Marguerite Duras, Paul Bowles, Arthur Miller and on and on… Did I put you to sleep? Because I could spend a week on this topic. When I’m near an author I admire, I have to remind myself to breathe.
I love everything from super goofy humor (Coming to America, Bridesmaids) to epic dramas(Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca) and recent releases like La La Land and Get Out. My favorite Pixar animation is The Incredibles. Don’t you love that moment when Dash finds out he can use his legs to make his mother/raft a speedboat??It was so thrilling. In the movie Paris Je T’aime, I love the chapter directed by Alexander Payne – it’s at once hilarious and lovely. I love Sideways by Alexander Payne as well. And Mad Max: Fury Road – WOW. And boy, Kathryn Bigelow is amazing. The movies Contact with Jodie Foster and Arrival with Amy Adams fill me with hope and wonder. I think I was the only person in the theater who was bawling after watching The Road with Viggo Mortensen…it’s a stunning movie I never want to watch again because it makes me so sad. I could spend the entire next week listing all the movies I love. Many movies I love are based on books (The Road, Arrival, etc.). And as a kid, I loved the TV series The Twilight Zone. I would watch entire marathon weekends until my mom would yell at me to turn off the TV. Then I would grab a book and go outside.
Our world is full of fabulous destinations. We’re so blessed to be earthlings. I’ll always remember my camping trip through the Sahara Desert, how the night sky was dusted with stars.I would love to go back to Tanzania — the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater are so WOW.I loved meeting baby elephant Boon in Thailand. I am obsessed with Bora Bora in French Polynesia because of its stunning sealife (been there three times and counting!). My favorite European city is Paris. I lived there for two years, and it will always ignite my imagination. And if I could have a pied-a-terre somewhere in the world, it’d probably be in Provence, the South of France. Likely in Aix, where life seems to have a musical quality to it, a perfect little song.
For more thoughts about travel, please visit my travel-related blog posts here.