Jenny Han Takes YA Seriously, And So Should You
"My feeling was that I wanted to present an Asian-American main character where her ethnicity wasn’t the whole of who she was. That wasn’t what her struggle was. I think sometimes it gets distilled down to just race, and I wanted to be able to show that really any girl can be the every girl."
Jenny Han is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
Jenny Han is a New York Times Bestselling Author. She wrote her first published book while still in college. Since then, she has written another children’s book, two trilogies, and co-wrote another trilogy with her best friend. Basically, Jenny Han is really, really good at what she does. Perhaps a young, female, Asian-American bestselling YA author is unique in and of itself, but the real pull of Jenny Han is her ability to engage young readers throughout her prolific career. Jenny Han is a writer. She writes. And she doesn't stop.
With her new book coming out in 2017 on Simon & Schuster---Always and Forever, Lara Jean---the most anticipated (and also surprise) final story in the To All The Boys I Loved Before series, she’s not stopping any time soon. Good thing, too. We talked to her about writing, the “process,” working with an Asian-American protagonist, advice to women, and lipstick below.
Did you always know To All The Boys I Loved Before was going to be a trilogy?
No, it was a surprise to me. In this case I really intended to do two. I had just gone through two different trilogies, but I was looking at my next project and I was just having a hard time making it click. I kept thinking about all the characters from To All The Boys I Loved Before. So I talked to my best friend [Siobhan, with whom she co-wrote the Burn for Burn trilogy with] and said, “would it be crazy if I did one more?” And she was like, no. I think I just needed the permission to try.
Do you find that you write and plan ahead or do those kinds of surprises happen a lot?
I don’t plan stuff. I don’t outline. I get bored if I know exactly what’s going to happen. I like to have moments of serendipity, and to feel surprised and to feel excited. I don’t write in order, either. I kind of just write what I write and figure out where it goes. Then it starts to shape into something, like a skeleton of what it’s going to be.
I feel like every writer has their own crazy process---it’s so personal. Is there an actual good piece of advice you can give to writers about the process?
No! You want to find whatever their process is. I hate my process, but it’s my process. This is my 11th book. It’s just the way I do it. What else can I do? I can’t force it a different way.
What made you want to write for and about young women?
I was writing my first book when I was in college. I was a teenager. My whole life, as an adult as well, I’ve been attracted to stories about young people. This period of time is so fertile---there’s a million things that are happening, a million firsts, and to be able to witness that and record that is a privilege. People remember their first. People don’t really remember the middle as much.
What firsts do you like thinking about?
The first time that you realize the world is a lot bigger than you thought. The first time you realize your parents are humans. Making your mom cry. Your first big fight with your best friend. The thing is, about writing young adults, is that you can’t minimize the experience---even as an adult, those things don’t go away….
Well, life is just an extended version of high school...
(Laughs) It’s all in preparation.
Do you find that being a teen is a very different experience now than it was when you were a teen? People are always saying “young people are so different now”…do you find that to be true?
I don’t think it’s true. The only difference is the way that information is dispersed… the biggest difference is if something happened at a party [when you were younger]…and people talked about it on Monday, there wasn’t proof that it happened. There wasn't the same level of proof. And now...people all over the world could learn about it. It’s a burden you can carry for the rest of your life. You can’t just start over. You have to be really cognizant of that fact.
Do you wish there’s anything you learned when you were younger?
I think the one thing I wish that I knew was….I looked great. I should have been wearing a bikini every day. I think, in the moment, it’s hard to see yourself as beautiful and you feel so insecure and self-conscious about your body. The Summer I Turned Pretty is about how, as a young woman, everyone gets that moment of being in bloom, but nobody really appreciates it. I think all young woman are beautiful, and nobody really sees that at the time.
Do you like when people ask you about what it’s like to be a female writer and the challenges that come with that?
I just think of myself as a writer. Yes, I’m a woman. And I’m a writer. The main challenge is that I like to write stories about young women, and society doesn’t place much of a premium on young women’s stories. And I think that’s why I gravitate towards it. I really honor that, and I treasure that time, and they should be given that respect.
Do you get frustrated with the criticisms of YA as a genre?
I think it’s people that don’t know what they’re talking about. They can’t name more than one YA book. It’s frustrating, but I can’t get my feelings too worked about it. There was an article that came out this year that was shaming adults for read YA books…and it’s silly. There’s such a narrow scope on what’s considered to be “worthy” of reading.
What about the idea of female/POC writers not getting enough recognition for their work?
I mean, I think where we spend our money is where we show the value. If people are buying those books and purchasing those books, the publishers will carry those books. When I buy books…it’s important where you put your dollars. If you don’t spend your money on it, the voices will go away.
I read an interview where you said you get emails from young Asian women saying they didn’t think of themselves as the pretty/popular girl…then they see your books and they get that…how much do you feel at the moment that race plays into your writing?
I feel responsibility as one of very few Asian-Americans YA writers to represent that point of view. Do I think about that? Absolutely. But To All The Boys I Loved Before… my feeling was that I wanted to present an Asian-American main character where her ethnicity wasn’t the whole of who she was. That wasn’t what her struggle was. I think sometimes it gets distilled down to just race, and I wanted to be able to show that really any girl can be the every girl. The girl next door can be literally anybody.
Okay, and I have to ask…I saw on your website that there’s a Tom Ford Lipstick you like and I wanted to know the name.
Ruby Rush! And I just found Charlotte Tilbury’s…Red Carpet Red. I have like, 50 different reds.
Cover Photo: Adam Krause