I know, I know, this is like a bajillion years late, but it’s been a busy few weeks at the day job, what with restructuring and all that unsexy stuff that goes on with corporations. But it’s going up now!
I have to admit that I’ve long seen Jenny Han’s Summer series on bookstore shelves but never really had the urge to pick up a copy, mostly because I was very deeply into Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia’s Beautiful Creatures series. I picked them up pretty quickly when I heard she was coming over, and even picked up her latest, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
And while I like the Summer books well enough, I absolutely loved To All The Boys I‘ve Loved Before. So I was really pumped to talk to her about it during this interview. Aside from that, we also got to touch on issues of diversity in YA (young adult) books, as well as whether one really needs an MFA to become a successful writer.
The full transcript under the cut!
RONREADS (RR): I literally just finished reading To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before this morning. I really like the Summer books but I love this one.
JENNY HAN (JH): Oh my God, thank you!
RR: The four books have similarities but they’re also very different from each other. I was wondering if the idea for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before started before you wrote the Summer books, or during or after?
JH: It started during. It came from something in my own life. I used to write love letters to boys when I was trying to get over them, and it would just be very passionate emotions and I would seal them up and put them in this hatbox that I had. I saved them. They were these really, really long observations and thoughts and whatever. These letters were fourteen pages long. It was really just for my own sense of closure.
That’s how I got the idea for the book. Thank God my letters did not get sent out, they were just for me. But her letters obviously did get sent out and it set her off on an adventure. The idea came from my own life.
RR: And you were writing these letters at the same age as Lara Jean?
JH: Kinda, yeah. A little younger even. Starting around 16 is probably about right.
RR: From getting that idea, how long did it take to write it? Were you writing it in between the second or third Summer books?
JH: I was actually writing it when I was writing another trilogy called Burn for Burn with my best friend and writing partner, Siobhan Vivian, and I was writing To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before when I was writing that at the same time. I was working on it around 2012 and 2013.
RR: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is much more humorous than the Summer books. Was it a conscious idea when you were writing it to distinguish it from those books?
JH: No, it was just me having fun with it. I was just having a really good time. Writing that book was like having a lot of my own quirks in that character. i’m not the best driver. I like to bake. I’m very close to my sister. The book is dedicated to her. it was a very fun, light thing to write. I was thinking of it almost like a romantic comedy.
I also really like watching K-dramas (laughs), so I was always thinking that I cold write a K-drama. I thought to myself that I always wanted something that had contract dating and the hijinks that happened in a K-drama. I was very inspired by that when I was writing this.
RR: Any dramas in particular that inspired the book?
JH: My favorite kind of K-drama is with contract dating, so I loved My Name is Kim Sam Soon. I loved The Palace. I also loved Boys Over Flowers. I loved all those. Coffee Prince.
Coffee Prince kissing scenes. Because.
RR: One thing that I also like about the four books is that the cast is very diverse. It isn’t just white people. There’s Cam and Audrey in the Summer books. The Song girls are Korean-American. Was it also a conscious decision on your part to feature a cast like that?
JH: Somewhat. I want my books to look like the real world, and the real world is populated by all kinds of people. I think diversity in young adult literature is very important because it reflects what the world really looks like, and that it’s a larger experience. It’s not just one narrow experience. I was thinking about that.
RR: Were the Summer books always going to be three books? Because if you look at the first one, it works just as well as a standalone book.
JH: Thank you! Originally, it was just going to be one book, and I was going to do a bunch of summers in one girl’s life. I wanted to show her whole adolescence. When I started writing it, I found it to be so difficult, because I didn’t have enough room to really explore what I wanted to explore, which is a girl growing up. I thought I needed more space to do that, so I asked my editor if I could do two more books and she was happy to say yes.
RR: Before you wrote the Summer books, you were writing middle school books like Shug. What was it like transitioning from middle school books to writing YA? Is there really a difference?
JH: I think Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream was a difficult book for me to write because it’s shorter and I felt like it was kind of like writing a poem. Just because it was short doesn’t mean it was easy to do. You have such a small space to play with. Each word is so important, and I found that to be very difficult. I wanted to make sure that it was easy enough, but still had depth and was still had the themes I was interested in writing. That one was a book I had written for my grandfather who passed away. When I was growing up, my grandfather lived with us also. It was dedicated to him.
RR: Speaking about depth and diversity, those are issues that have been hurled at YA recently. #WeNeedDiverseBooks trended, and the article from Slate….
JH: Oh my gosh, don’t even get me started on that. It was all about how adults shouldn’t read YA. It was very insulting. Everyone was very mad at that. I think people make these generalizations when they only seem to have read three books: Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter. And then they want to make these proclamations about something that they don’t really understand. For me, people should read whatever they want to read. I think that for most people, when you ask them what are the books that are most important to them, they’re the books that you read as a kid, the ones that you remember for your whole life. They’re the ones that first touch your heart and your soul.
RR: They’re like the Conrad of your reading life.
JH: Yeah! Firsts are always important, and you never forget your first anything. When you’re first discovering your love of reading, those first books are really important. I love reading YA, I love writing YA. I love reading adult fiction, I love everything. But it’s silly to me to make those kind of blanket statements because then you can say adults shouldn’t watch Game of Thrones. People should only be going to Shakespeare in the Park, you know what I mean?
JH: People want to be entertained. People want to get lost in the story, and whatever that story is, you have the right to enjoy that.
RR: And just because something is entertaining doesn’t mean it’s not intellectual at the same time.
Look at Jane Austen. When you look back, people thought she was kind of fluffy at the time. And now everybody thinks she’s amazing. It seems so pretentious to make those judgements now without any understanding of context.
RR: Did you always want to be a writer growing up?
JH: I always wrote stories and stuff and read like crazy as a kid. But at first I never thought that it was possible to be a writer, just because it seemed like a really dream job. It seemed so impractical, and it wasn’t until I went to college and took a class that I thought that maybe I could do this.
RR: Do you still remember the first story you ever wrote?
JH: The first story I ever wrote was about a girl whose parents were getting divorced and her little sister was very annoying (laughs). I always have little sisters in my book because I am so close to my sister. She’s based on my sister a bit.
RR: Could you talk about your publication journey?
JH: It was kind of a charmed journey. i went to graduate school for writing for children pretty much right after college. I started writing my first book in the class. I submitted it for workshop and my teacher called me up on the phone that night and asked if the book was finished. She told me to finish it and send it to her agent. That’s kind of the dream everyone has when they go to a graduate school program. You’re hoping to get noticed and plucked from the crowd.
It was really exciting and I was so happy that it happened to me while I was still in school. I got that agent, we sold it in auction. A bunch of publishers wanted to buy it. It was exciting but also scary. It happened very, very fast, much more than I ever imagined. I thought I was going to toil for years before anything happened, and it was just months before everything was happening. There wasn’t much time to be processing it. I was very nervous about making the wrong decision. I thought that I was going to ruin my whole career if I make the wrong decision. But now I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a wrong choice. Whatever happens is what’s meant to be.
RR: When did you realize that?
JH: Never (laughs)? It’s hard for me to just lean into a thing and relax into it. I’m always nervous. This (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) is my eighth book and I was very nervous when it was coming out. I think all writers feel anxious when a book comes out because you don’t know how people are going to receive it, and it’s so important to you and it’s something that you’ve been preparing and it goes into the world and you have no idea how the reception is going to be. You just hope.
RR: How do you handle when the reception is not positive, especially when you’re on social media?
JH: It’s really difficult. When you go on Goodreads and you read people’s reviews, you don’t always consider that the person you’re writing about could read what you wrote, and some people can be very harsh. It definitely stung my feelings before, but I think as a writer you have to accept that people are entitled to their own opinions about your work.
You really have no say about how people respond to a book. You just hope that they like it, but if they don’t, as long as it’s not a personal attack. It’s annoying when you read a review and a person is disagreeing with the choices a character makes and that they’re selfish and this and that. I personally feel, as a writer and as a reader, that I’d rather read about somebody who makes mistakes and who has flaws, as opposed to people who don’t. It doesn’t feel like a character to me. It just feels like a cardboard cut-out and not authentic. My goal is to always tell the truth and be honest and letting the character do what they will.
RR: At least you know readers feel something about your book. I think it’s worse when people don’t have an opinion on your book.
JH: Some writers don’t read their reviews at all. They don’t look at Goodreads or at blogs. It’s harder when people tweet at you. “I don’t like this book by @jennyhan!” Oh (laughs)!
RR: Did you have to tag me?
JH: Yes (laughs)! And when you’re doing a series and they keep saying stuff to you, you really want to write with the door closed and be really committed to what’s going on and not hear the outside chatter. But that’s a struggle. Writers 20 years ago were so lucky because they didn’t have any kind of social media to be thinking about. You could just write a story and if people didn’t like it, it is what it is. It’s too late to do anything about it. It’s more difficult when you have people in your ear saying stuff to you.
RR: So how do you deal with that? For writers now, social media is part of the job.
JH: Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins.
RR: So how do you deal with that constant voice in your ear?
JH: You got me (laughs)! It’s a constant renegotiation of your limits. Some people don’t want to hear those voices and some are really involved. I try to find a balance. I don’t think I can put myself out there to the extent or degree that John Green has. He’s the master, he’s everywhere. It’s so much a part of his persona and people really love him and they love the books also. But it also makes you very vulnerable because people are free to criticize you. You, and not the books. Now he’s a celebrity. You have to compromise a little bit of your privacy to be that person. I don’t think I would be able to put so much of myself out there. I’m a sensitive person and I think the onslaught of other people’s opinions about you when you say the wrong thing and they get upset, defending yourself all the time, I think that would be really difficult.
I think, in general, people have to be really careful about what they say on social media. You could say “I don’t like Pad Thai” and then somebody would say “You’re insulting Thai culture!” And then you have to say that you didn’t mean it like that (laughs). You have to be really careful and put in context when you’re saying something on Twitter. People can’t tell if you’re smiling or joking. There’s a fine line to walk.
RR: When did you first find out you were going here to the country?
JH: A few months ago. My publisher emailed me and told me that I was going to come. A bunch of my friends have come to the Philippines and they’ve told me how amazing it is and how passionate the fans are and how they were getting these huge turnouts. It’s very different from the US. I think the US market could learn something from the Philippines about how to get huge numbers of teens to come out to events. Teens are buying in the US, but in terms of coming to book signings and stuff? It’s not the same level at all, even for the really big authors.
RR: Why is that?
JH: I think it’s a couple of things. There are people who don’t drive. You have to have your parents drive you to the event. When I was growing up in high school, if I didn’t have a ride, I wasn’t going (laughs). Some people were tweeting me that they were flying in to Manila to come to the event tomorrow, and I’m like, “My mother wouldn’t even drive me 20 minutes!” (Laughs) I think it’s that, being able to get to the event.
I think it’s also publicity. Here it seems like they’re very invested in YA and that you guys obviously know your stuff. That Slate article is just proof that mainstream media in the US doesn’t really get it. It’s almost like John Green created YA. They don’t know anything else beyond John Green, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins. They don’t go behind the headlines and understand the writing behind it. That’s another piece of it.
I don’t know how the schools are scheduled here, but in the US, it seems like the bigger and bigger problem is how kids are overscheduled with their school and after-school and a million things. I used to work at a school library, and it was really difficult to have people keep on reading for fun after 14. They have so much school stuff to do and they didn’t have extra time. That’s another issue.
RR: Have Filipino fans been reaching out to you before?
JH: Yeah, they have, through Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr. There’s drawback to social media being such a big part of the job, but also there’s amazing things about it. You can communicate with fans across the world, and that’s really special. You couldn’t do that 20 years ago.
RR: What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?
JH: It feels the best when a fan has emailed me and said that they never thought that Asian girls could be pretty or popular at school. That they were really happy to see it in my books. That’s happened to me before. When my first book Shug came out, the best friend is Korean-American and she’s really popular. I was sitting in a room with a bunch of readers and their teacher asked if there was anything about the book that was not believable. Which is an awkward thing to ask when you have the writer right there (laughs). One girl raised her hand and she was Asian and she said that it wasn’t believable that Elaine was popular because Asian girls aren’t popular. It just broke my heart that she felt that way. She wasn’t saying it for pity, she was just matter of fact about it.
I felt glad to be able to write a book to disprove that and say that an Asian girl’s story can be any girl’s story. I love to get emails from Asian readers who feel that they’re reflected back in a character. But I also get emails from girls who are not Asian and they say that this girl is them. And I love that feeling that it’s a universal thing, and that a person of color’s story is a universal story as well.
RR: But isn’t that added pressure on you to provide this representation?
JH: A little bit. When I started writing, people were asking me why I wasn’t writing only Asian stories. The girl in the Summer books is white. The protagonist in Shug is white. People have expectations on you and there is a bit of pressure, especially when you look at statistics of how many Asian-American writers there are and how many books are being written with Asian characters. The number is so small in comparison. It was like 11 percent were Asian-American writers and four percent had a main character who was an Asian.
I just thought that whatever pressures I might feel, I also had them on myself. There’s so few of us that I do have to represent. Who’s doing it if I’m not doing it? I think we have to be committed to diversity, but I also think that people of the community need to be front and center too. I want to write stories that I want to write. Whatever I feel inspired to do is what i want to do, and I want to have the freedom to do that.
RR: Is an MFA something you would suggest for aspiring writers?
JH: It’s tough. For me, it was the right choice because I had only taken the one writing workshop in college and I hadn’t done a bunch of them. It was perfect for me to finish my first book. It helped me to figure out how to give criticism and how to receive criticism. I think that’s important for a writer, even if you’re a writer who writes with the door closed and who doesn’t get any feedback from anybody but their editor. You need to look at what your editor is asking you to do and zone in on what you need to listen to and what not to listen to.
It also taught me how to be a person that gives good criticism and reads really critically someone else’s work. That was stuff I felt I was learning in the group. It was also invaluable to me to sit at a table and have 13 other people who have read my book with a careful eye and who are fellow writers and who approach it with a certain level of seriousness and gravitas and respect. It was easy for me to take that criticism and use that.
Now I’m not in a writers’ group like that anymore. My friend Siobhan reads my stuff and gives me feedback. I have a couple of writer friends who read my stuff and give me notes. But it’s not like a focus group where you just have people sitting around talking about your book while you’re still writing the book. For some people, it becomes overwhelming, and it’s no way to work for me either. If you hear too many voices in the beginning, you can become overwhelmed and not finish the book and become dispirited and discouraged. But at a certain point in the process I think it’s great.
As far as spending the money and getting the MFA, I think it’s a personal decision. Being in New York was great for me too because it’s the heart of publishing. I was always going to meetings, meeting editors, meeting writers, and it’s just really fertile ground for a writer. I think New York was the bigger part than the MFA.
JH: There’s a sequel.
JH: (Laughs) I’m working on it now. It’s called PS. I Still Love You. For some reason, it’s been difficult to write. Maybe it’s because I’m on the road and i’m travelling and stuff. I was finishing the Burn for Burn series as I was writing the sequel. It’s hard to be in two minds at once. It’s hard to be talking about the first book and then writing the second book, because they kind of have to live separately. It’s a continuation, but it’s kind of its own story. I think finding that balance is difficult.
RR: Are there details you can share about the second book?
JH: It picks up pretty immediately after the first book ends. It’s sort of a throwback to a more old-fashioned way of dating.
JH: (Laughs) I think people date differently now than they used to in the 50s, where it seemed to me that you could casually date people. You weren’t really serious with somebody unless you had the ring, the jacket, or the pin, or something that said you were somebody’s girl or boy. And now, it feels like there’s more of a trend of people being really, really serious at a young age. I was kinda curious about exploring a sort of openness. It’s old-fashioned but it’s feminist, too. It’s nice to see a girl figuring out who she is as she’s having all these kinds of experiences.
RR: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JH: My advice would be to find your own voice and really hone that voice and point of view. That’s really the thing that makes you unique from everybody else. I think 10 different people can write a story about kids fighting to the death or a kid with cancer. It would be 10 different stories because they have different backgrounds and a different set of eyes. Figure out what your point of view is and work on that. You need to read a lot of stuff and hear other people’s voices because you can zero in on what works.