Young adult novelist Jenny Han writes stories that make you squeal and feel mushy and giddy at the same time. We believe the Internet has its own term for this— “feels”—and to say Han is a mistress of feels is no exaggeration.
Han’s characters all have a quirky sense of humor that makes you want to be friends with them. It actually takes only a few minutes hanging out with the author to learn that she and her characters share the same disposition that had many laughing in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
She was recently in the country, courtesy of National Book Store, to sign her books and meet fans in Manila and Cebu. In those two cities, she got her biggest audience to date (a group of hard-core fans lined up as early as 11 p.m. the night before her Manila signing event).
Her tweets and Instagram posts about her Manila experience were hilarious—she was amazed that getting a blow-dry here cost only $22 (around P968) versus her normal $45 in New York (we had to tell her that she could get it cheaper outside the hotel salon for P300 or $7, which shocked her); and being given TV news exposure side by side with Bong Revilla.
She talked to Inquirer Super about why she agreed to fly to Manila, her K-drama obsession, her Beyoncé-themed mani and writing unsent love letters. We also begged her for spoilers (we’re unabashed fans) in “Ashes To Ashes” and the sequel to “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
How did National Book Store get you to come here?
My publisher asked me. I was happy to say yes because a bunch of friends had come here to do the same thing, like Gayle Forman, Becca Fitzpatrick, Melissa de la Cruz, Lauren Oliver. People who’ve done it say that it’s great.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” was the book that put you on the YA map. Are you planning to tell Jeremiah’s story next?
No. I think I left Jeremiah in a good place; I was happy with that. If I would ever go back to that series, I think I would be more interested in doing like a prequel, maybe of the moms and their friendship. That would be interesting to me.
Do you have a favorite character among those you’ve written so far?
Probably Kitty because she is a lot like my sister, and I also love Laurel from “The Summer I Turned Pretty”—she was the mom; and I really like Peter, too.
We love Peter, too, and since you like him, we’re feeling confident about the sequel to “To All The Boys.” What will it be called?
“P.S. I Still Love You.” There’s actually another guy in the sequel. Someone comes back from her (Lara Jean’s) past. That’s why I wrote the sequel, because I really wanted to explore his character. I’m still working on it right now. I’m still figuring things out. It could change just because I don’t outline or plan it. It’s supposed to come out next April. But I don’t know if it’s going to come out in time because I’m still writing it.
Have you ever written love letters to guys?
Yes. And that’s how I got the idea for the books. I used to do the same thing as Lara Jean, but mine never got sent, thank God. They were all there, just safe and sound in the hatbox.
How many boys did you write to?
I had four.
Are you in touch with any of them?
Two of them just on Facebook; but that was from when I was 12 through college, so, like a lifetime ago.
Do you still have the letters?
I still have the letters. In fact, in my book release party in New York, I read a little piece [from one of the letters] to the crowd, and it was actually funny because it was more embarrassing than I thought it would be.
What was it about?
It was very similar to Lara Jean’s letters of pointing out their bad qualities.
Kitty was crazy campaigning for a dog. Did you have to beg to get a dog, too?
I wanted a dog for like a second, but my parents weren’t big animal people, so my dad called me downstairs for a “family meeting” and said, “We’re getting rabbits.” (Laughs) But they didn’t get to live that long because my grandmother fed them macaroni and cheese and brownies while we were gone one weekend, and when we came back they were sick. We did get a dog when I went to college; he died last year. I was thinking about him as I wrote this book (“To All The Boys”) actually.
Your books have a lot of cool recipes. What goes in a Doritos sandwich and an olive oil cake?
It’s just (Nacho Cheese) Doritos and white bread. As a kid I used to eat that—it tastes better than you think. As for the olive oil cake, I’ve never made it, but I’ve had it at bakeries, it’s amazing. It’s really moist. If you want to make it, try getting Frankie’s cookbook. It’s a restaurant in Brooklyn, and it has an amazing olive oil cake.
Do you also like to cook?
I love to cook and bake. When I was growing up, I used to do the cooking for me and my sister, because my grandmother cooked only Korean food and I always wanted to eat American food. So I would just make up my own recipes and cook them. My sister doesn’t cook at all, it’s just me.
What have you dressed up as, like for Halloween?
I dressed up as Poison Ivy once, Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood,” Cho Chang multiple times. I kept on adding to the costume. I dressed up as Go Go Yobari once, because it was similar to Cho’s, but with different props.
Did you also have a difficult time choosing Halloween costumes like Lara Jean?
Yes. That happened to me a lot because there wasn’t much diversity where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. It’s pretty Southern, and I was always the only Asian person. I would be teased a lot in elementary and middle school. High school was better, I went to a high school that was really diverse because it was like a “nerd” school where you have to apply to get in. Everybody was different, which was great.
Did the teasing get to you?
It did. In middle school there was one guy who used to throw spitballs at me in the school bus and stuff, called me names because I was Asian. When I was 10, we moved to a different neighborhood but still in the same town, just a more fancy neighborhood, and we used to get all these prank calls and stuff … for having moved in. There was definitely stuff like that, but I hope that it’s better as it’s gotten more and more diverse. I live in New York now so I don’t feel it as much.
Was it a factor when you were looking to get published?
Not for me. But a question people always ask me is—because in my first book “Shug,” the main character was white—“Why aren’t you writing about Asian people?” I was like, “I kinda write what I wanna write about.” I don’t want to be boxed in; whatever I’m inspired to do, I wanna do.
Who were the writers that influenced you?
When I was younger, I read “Sweet Valley High” and “The Babysitters Club,” but I also loved V.C. Andrews and “Gone With the Wind,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Stephen King. I read everything I could get my hands on.
Was Stephen King an inspiration for “Burn For Burn”?
There’s definitely an homage to him in the first book. I think he’s a master storyteller.
Please give us a teaser on what’s going to happen in “Ashes To Ashes.”
There will definitely be some steamy love scenes. My favorite scenes to write were the love story aspects of it. Mary will be in a dark place, for sure.
Did you ever seek revenge on anyone who has wronged you, like in “Burn For Burn”?
No, I never did. But the idea came from me thinking about it. (Laughs)
What would you have done for revenge?
When somebody says something to you that’s horrible, it’s like you don’t think of a good comeback until you’re at home and you’re crying in your bed, and you go, “Why didn’t I say this?” The book is really about taking back the power and
the moment, and to feel in control.
How did you and Siobhan Vivian write the “Burn For Burn” series together?
We outlined the whole theories together, we planned it out. For the first book, we did a detailed 20-page outline and then we split it up according to whatever scenes we wanted to write. So both of us wrote all three girls, so that we had a really firm handle on it. But I think … I ended up writing most of the Lillia scenes and she (Siobhan) ended up writing most of the Mary scenes, and we split up Kat.
Speaking of Lillia and Lara Jean, you’ve written two characters who are part Asian. Having grown up with an Asian background in the States, would you like to undo any stereotypes in books?
Yeah. The first book I wrote was “Shug,” and her best friend in it is Korean-American, and she is really popular and well-liked at school, everyone thinks she’s really cool and interesting. I felt like why couldn’t she be Asian? There isn’t only one type of Asian girl, and I think people often assume that Asian girls in media, in movies and TV, are kind of quiet, shy, soft-spoken and submissive. I do like to do something different just to show a wider perspective. There’s diversity within, obviously, because there’s all different kinds of people and nobody’s the same.
How old were you when you first visited Korea?
I was 7 the first time I went because my mom’s mom was sick. We left during the school year for a month so we could spend time with her. It was surreal because I had never left the United States before and I had never met my relatives on my mom’s side. One funny memory I have is meeting my cousin who’s my age, and we had brought these cool stuff—crayons, toys, candies—from the United States, and I asked her if she wanted to play with my sister and me and she wouldn’t answer me, and I said to my sister, “Forget this snob. We’re not gonna play with her.”
And it took me, like, literally, a full day or two to realize she didn’t speak English ’cause I’d never been around kids before who didn’t speak English. So it was just confusing to me that she couldn’t understand what I was saying. I could speak Korean to my grandparents, my family, but I just hadn’t met any kids.
Are you fluent in Korean?
I wouldn’t say fluent, but I can get by conversationally with my family and stuff, and watch K-dramas.
What K-dramas are you watching now?
I am not watching anything, because when I start watching a K-drama, I have to watch the whole thing in 24 hours. I’m on a deadline, I can’t start a new show when I’m on a deadline; but I really want to check out “You From Another Star” (My Love From The Star). I still haven’t seen “That Winter, the Wind Blows.” I was hooked on “Boys Over Flowers.” I had broken my ankle for the first time and I was in a cast and my friends were like, “Watch ‘Boys Over Flowers.’” I hadn’t watched a K-drama since I was in high school, then I got obsessed and that was the one that kicked me off.
How did you get into writing? Was that what you really wanted to do?
No. Like I said, I grew up in a small town and so I never met others before who were having book signings and stuff. It never seemed like a viable career option for me. It wasn’t until I went to college and took a writing class… I’d written books as a kid and read all the time, but it wasn’t, in my mind, very practical. When I took that class in college, I thought, “Wow, I really do love this.”
What were you studying in college before you took the writing class?
I was a psychology major. I was thinking about forensics, social work, child psychology… I had a lot of different things in my head.
You mentioned writing books since you were a kid. What was the first story you wrote?
My first story was about a girl whose parents were getting divorced. I also wrote one about a girl with leukemia. I was very young then, 7 years old.
Heavy stuff for a 7-year-old.
Things I didn’t know about at all because my parents were never divorced and I never had cancer. But no one got to read it, I wrote it for myself.
How has your family reacted to your books?
They’re so proud… I’ve been really lucky that my parents have been always supportive of me and my career, moving to New York and going to graduate school for writing… They were like, “You can do it, you’re an amazing writer.” They were my biggest champions.
Jenny Han’s books are available at National Book Store and as eBooks via Kobo. Log on to www.nationalbookstore.com.ph and follow on Twitter/Instagram: @nbsalert.