In her sophomore year at MIT, Annabelle Kim '86, SM '89 started her first novel, though she didn’t realize it at the time. A five-page writing assignment for Professor Alexander Theroux about her experience while living in Korea inspired her story and, although she would spend the next two decades working on a career in engineering, eventually she returned to the passage when she started writing her acclaimed novel, Tiger Pelt.
“I always thought I’d write a book or something, what I didn’t think I would do is become an engineer,” says Kim, who minored in English literature at MIT. After earning her mechanical engineering degrees, she hoped to continue both writing and engineering, but engineering took over. Kim applied her degrees working on water treatment equipment design and consulting engineering.
When she finally came back to writing, she knew the story would take place in Korea, where she lived for a few years as a young child and where her father lived before immigrating to the US. “The story follows two Koreans through parallel story lines and the one is inspired by the life of my father,” says Kim. “Every Korean immigrant of that era really led an extraordinary life and I was of the mindset that I needed to write about something extraordinary.”
While writing the book, Kim also drew from her MIT experiences, including when MIT professor Elzbieta Chodakowska told her class to pick one word to describe The Great Gatsby. Kim shyly answered “money” and, when she was right, she promised herself that when she wrote a book someday, she, too, would focus on one word. “A lot of characters came through and a lot of action happened but I knew I always wanted to keep my eye on that one word so it didn’t ramble and so it had a focus,” says Kim. For Tiger Pelt, that word was survival.
“Although it’s harrowing and painful and violent, at the same time I think what really draws people to it is that ultimately, it’s about the human spirit and how we survive the most difficult of circumstances.”
As a first-time author, Kim struggled to find an agent and publish her novel. Although her engineering background did require influential writing skills, she didn’t have the literary background most agents look for. But, after she sent an unpublished manuscript to Kirkus Reviews—a well-known American book review magazine and earned a starred review and best book award in 2015—Kim secured a publisher. Since publication in 2017, the book has gotten awards including the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Finalist and the Gold medal from Nautilus Book Award.
Kim’s next novel has more of a nod to her engineering side, with a plotline that follows an engineer as she travels across the US. As she slowly plugs away, she notes that the process of writing a book is much like that which she applied to her engineering projects.
“In the kind of work that I was doing as an engineer, it would take a year to design a drinking water treatment plant so you had to work steadily toward a far off goal,” says Kim, who took 10 years to complete Tiger Pelt. “It’s the ability to just stick with an idea and slog through it and work every day very hard toward the end goal.”