I got to interview New York Times bestselling YA author Jenny Han during her Philippine book signing tour this weekend, something I had been looking forward to after finishing her latest novel, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is about Lara Jean Song, who writes secret letters to each boy she has ever loved as a way of moving on and purging them out of her system. To Lara Jean’s mortification, her letters somehow disappear and get sent out, making their way to five boys, including her next door neighbor Josh, who happens to be her sister’s boyfriend.
I’m not sure if it’s some unspoken rite of passage among teenage girls, but I wrote these kinds of letters at that age, too (some I actually sent, some I still keep, but they will never see the light of day! :D), and I’m sure countless of other readers have done it as well. Lara Jean is perhaps on the young side of 16 compared to heroines of the same age in other YA novels, but I found all her little quirks charming, and I think ultimately more relatable, at least for the young Filipino reader. I enjoyed the candidness of the writing, the heartfelt emotion behind the words, and how the novel successfully captures high school awkwardness, boy crushes, friendship, cultural identity, and family.
Han’s first novel, “Shug” is a middle grade novel featuring Annemarie Wilcox, age 12, who is painfully navigating growing up, boys, friendship, junior high, and a less than ideal family. “Shug” is poignant in its honesty, revealing the realities of an awkward pre-teen in a dysfunctional family, punctuated by the passage of many “firsts” of that age: first love, first heartbreak, first period, first kiss… “Shug” has that luminous quality that reminded me strongly about the Judy Blume books I read while I was growing up.
I also read Han’s bestselling series, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” series (“The Summer I Turned Pretty,” “It’s Not Summer Without You,” and “We’ll Always Have Summer.” The series is about Isabelle “Belly” Conklin, whose life is defined by the summers spent at a family friend’s beach house. She’s known the Fisher boys Conrad and Jeremiah (sons of her mother’s best friend, Susannah, who owns the beach house) all her life, and the summer she turns sixteen marks the start of a love triangle involving Conrad, whom she’s had a crush on in forever, and Jeremiah, who’s always been her best friend. I was planning on reading only the first book because I only wanted to get the feel for the series, but ended up finishing all three because I wanted to know which boy she would eventually choose. The series is compelling enough, and I understand her unbreakable bond with the Fisher boys, but I really would have wanted to see Belly seriously consider options outside of Conrad and Jeremiah.
I sat down with Jenny Han last Saturday, right before her first book signing event in Manila. Here’s the transcript of the interview:
Q: What got you interested in writing? And why contemporary YA, in particular?
A: I’ve always just loved to read and write my own stories ever since I was a kid. It wasn’t even a dream; it didn’t feel very practical, but when I went to college there was a writing class and I started writing my first book there.
It just happened to be contemporary; it wasn’t a conscious decision… I would love to do fantasy; I think it takes a different sort of talent to write fantasy, because you have to create intricate words and kingdoms and rules. But if I ever had a good idea, I’d love to take the challenge.
I think, YA because it was the books I read as a child that stayed with me the most, like “Gone with the Wind,” which is not YA, but it starts when she was a teenager. I think even as an adult, the books I like most are the ones with the young main character… “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and a book called “The Hundred Dresses” — I love it so much; it’s like the perfect example of the pathos of childhood. It’s not a happy ending but it feels so real, and the girl just has her guilt to live with, and that’s real. I think everyone’s had a moment of when she may have spoken up for somebody, or having been the mean girl and you wish you haven’t been that way because it’s already history.
A story is a story, and my main focus is writing authentic characters and staying true to that, so I don’t bother much with [intended} age.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I’m reading Leigh Bardugo’s “The Grisha Trilogy;” I just started that. I’m also reading “Where’d you go, Bernadette?” by Maria Semple. Those are the two books I bought with me to the Philippines for me to read.
Q: What brought about this trip to the Philippines?
A: I was invited by National Book Store, and I was really excited to say yes, because my friends (Gayle Foreman, Melissa dela Cruz, Lauren Oliver, Tahereh Mafi) have done the same tour, and I’ve heard how amazing the Filipino fans are, and I was excited to come and meet them.
Q: How did you get your first publishing deal?
A: When I was in graduate school, I got an agent and my agent sent the book out. Several publishers were interested in “Shug” and there was an auction, and we ended up selling it to Simon and Schuster, which is my home.
Q: What were you doing when you found out you were on the New York Times Bestseller List? How has your life changed since then?
A: I was at work; I used to work at a school library and I was leaving work. My editor called me and everyone was on the phone, screaming, and it was surreal. I was walking around the Upper West Side, just walking around blocks and blocks, and then I got a hamburger… I guess one way it’s changed is that most people have heard of the New York Times Bestseller List. Most people haven’t heard of my books if they don’t know YA. But most people who don’t read YA other than “The Hunger Games” or Harry Potter will know what that [the NYT Bestseller List] is at least, and they’ll think you’re a “real” writer.
Q: Where do you get the ideas for your books? What is your writing process like?
A: From my own experience… I just kind of sit down, I don’t write in order, I listen to music, I don’t outline — I just write what I feel inspired to write. I never plan ahead, I just figure it out as I go.
Q: A couple of your books were co-written with another author [Siobhan Vivian]. How did that work?
A: We met in graduate school, in New York, at [YA author] David Levithan’s class, and she moved in with her boyfriend, and her boyfriend lived literally around the corner from me. We would take the subway home together, and we would write together and we started going on writing dates where she would work on her stuff and I would work on my stuff.
Q: When you write your stories, do you know from the get-go who your protagonist would end up with?
A: Sometimes I have a sense of it, but I’m never a hundred percent sure. I like to leave it open for myself, too, because I find that interesting for me as well. For “The Summer I Turned Pretty” series, I was debating until the end. For “To All the Boys” I don’t want to say, because I’m writing a sequel now (*cue my excited “Squee!”*), “P.S. I Still Love You,” which takes place immediately after the first book and is scheduled to come out next April (2015).
Q: Fans can be a vocal bunch — when you were writing your series, did you get any pressure from fans who were hoping to push the ship in a certain direction?
A: It’s difficult when you’re in the middle of a trilogy, and people are gunning for one ship. You have to write with the door closed because you’re going to tell the story you’re gonna tell. You cannot please everybody. I feel like if you set out to please everyone, it’s not really authentic. You have to please yourself as a writer and not everyone’s gonna love it. It’s hard because you don’t want to disappoint people, but at the same time, your first priority is your story and your characters.
Q: How about pressure to release the next book in a series? How do you deal with that?
A: Yes, especially with the trilogy. People think it’s so far away, but for the writer, it’s not, because you finish it well before then for the publisher to get it out on time. Like for me, I’m writing a book that’s due at my editor next month, but right now I’m here promoting the first book. It can be very grueling in terms of schedule. When it’s crunch time, there’s really not much balance. You just have to push, but as a writer, I think you don’t want to short shrift yourself or your audience, and you really want to tell the story you want to tell and have the time to do it right. You don’t want to rush it because the readers are going to be disappointed. If you’re thinking too much about other people, you’re going to end up disappointing somebody, so in the end, you really have to please yourself.
‘Q: In”To All the Boys…” what inspired the letter-writing component of the book?
A: It was from my own life. did do that, as a kid. I had a hatbox, I had everything. My letters never got sent out, but I do still have them. Just for my eyes only.
Q: “To All the Boys” in particular has a half-Korean protagonist. As a Korean-American writer, do you consciously incorporate that part of your culture in the stories you write?
A: I think that if it feels organic to the story, then I do. I try to consciously write a world that is culturally diverse, because that’s the world that we live in and I want to reflect that truth. But as far as the Korean-American stuff, it felt like that’s who the character was, and it felt very natural.
I was very excited because I knew there was going to be an Asian girl on the cover and people have been asking me, ‘Is this the first YA book with an Asian girl on the cover to make it on the NYT Bestseller List?’ and I think it might be. That was so important for me, because first and foremost I want readers to relate to the story, and nothing pleases me more than when I get an email from an Asian girl, and she goes,’That is so me, I can really relate to the story.’ But then I also really love it when I get an email from a non-Asian girl who says, ‘That story is so me’ because it means that an Asian girl story can be an every girl story that people can relate to. I was really hoping that my readers of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” would follow me to this book and not feel like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really look like me and I don’t want any intellectual labor” and or that there was an extra hurdle to get into the story. But I feel like people have really embraced it, which makes me feel so gratified and hopeful because what it’s saying is that a story can just be about a character, and her character isn’t all about her cultural identity; it’s just a piece of it, just like it’s all just a piece of us but not all that we are.
Q: In the industry there’s been buzz about the “death of dystopia” and how contemporary is enjoying its turn in the limelight. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I feel like nothing ever dies, and that something was always there. I think contemporary has been popular even while dystopia was thriving, you still had great contemporary books that were still being published. It’s just like the vampire is never going to die — it has eternal life. And I love a vampire story; I love dystopic. I think things come and go in waves, but nothing is gone forever.
Q: So what did you think about that article on adults reading YA that sparked so much furor?
A: I just thought it was really silly and ignorant. I feel like it’s always silly when other people make judgments on what other people should or shouldn’t be doing for their own pleasure. And I think it’s a waste of people’s time to listen [to that kind of judgment}.
Q: On the other side of the coin, why do you think YA’s popularity has gone beyond its intended audience.
A: I think it’s just because they’re universal good stories. To me, it’s less about categorizing a story as this or that — a good story is a good story, and it finds its audience. Half of the readership of YA is adult; it resonates because it takes people back to their own youth as well and it’s nice to reflect on that… I also think that stories about young people are inherently interesting because it’s a time of so many firsts happening, and people remember those moments.
Q: What would you advise other Asian writers who want to reach out to a multicultural audience?
A: I think you have to stay true to the stories you want to tell. If the story is good, it will find its audience. You never know what’s going to resonate with people. I mean, who would have thought that Rainbow Rowell’s book, “Eleanor and Park,” where one of the main characters is Korean, would be a huge success in the States? You can’t really predict those moments of what people respond to. You really have to do what you want to do, and you can’t conform to someone else’s idea of what you should be doing. It’s honoring your own stories and honoring yourself as a writer and staying true to that.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring YA authors?
A: Try not to follow a trend, just because you hear contemporary is big right now… There’s always going to be exceptions to the rule, so don’t be discouraged if the thing you’re currently workign on is dystopic. Keep working on your story and the cream will rise to the top. Write the story you want to tell; do it for yourself first and let the chips fall where they may.
To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 4.5/5 stars
Shug, 4/5 stars
The Summer I Turned Pretty series 3.5/5 stars
Big thanks to National Book Store (hello JB!) for arranging my interview. All of Jenny Han’s books are available at National Book Store.