By David Canfield
September 03, 2019 at 02:33 PM EDT
Corina Marie for EW

In the spring of 2018, David Yoon was called for jury duty. It was good timing: The day before, Yoon had sent the manuscript for his debut novel, Frankly in Love, to publishers. His agent told him to expect responses in “a week or two.” Would he get a few offers? One? None? He didn’t know. Fulfilling his civic duty was the perfect distraction for what could be a long wait. Yoon reported to the Los Angeles courthouse, his phone tucked away. But the notifications kept buzzing. He pretended to take a bathroom break. What came next, Yoon says, “was one of the most exciting moments in my entire life.”

A Korean-American rom-com, Frankly emerged as last year’s hottest YA manuscript, launching an auction where updates came by the minute. (Yoon surreptitiously darted away from the jury room when he could.) Over just a few hours, the book was the center of an intense bidding war among 10 publishing houses, and was bought by Penguin Young Readers as part of a two-book deal with Yoon. Then, a few months later, Alloy Entertainment and Paramount Players (What Men Want) acquired movie rights—a year before publication.

It’s all been a bit surreal for Yoon, now 47, given the novel’s deeply personal roots. On a humid July afternoon in Echo Park, Calif., the author is in a studio for his first magazine photo shoot; he’s only a few miles from where he grew up with his older brother and parents, immigrants from Korea in search of a better life. It’s been a long road: Known for illustrating his wife Nicola Yoon’s hit novel Everything, Everything (the basis for the 2017 film), he’s been a lifelong writer. He has books, short stories, and screenplays “just sitting there.” But it took mining the depths of his own life to get the publishing world’s attention.

G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

Yoon’s SoCal childhood laid the foundation for Frankly; it shares the same setting, and centers on Frank Li, a 16-year-old facing challenges not unlike what Yoon struggled with: lack of belonging, seismic cultural differences with his parents, a ban on dating non-Korean girls.

It’s that last point that Yoon spins into a frothy alt-history. “I basically had to hide my entire love life from [my parents],” the soft-spoken Yoon says. (The only girlfriend he introduced them to was his now wife, Nicola, who’s Jamaican-American.) Two years ago, he conceived a fresh update on the fake-dating rom-com plot trope: Two Korean-American teens pretend to be a couple so they can secretly date outside their race. The resulting narrative contains echoes of John Green and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but feels wholly its own.

Indeed, Frankly isn’t just a romance: Through this “light, fun” story, and in part because he’s the father of a 7-year-old himself, Yoon attempted to better understand his parents, too. Growing up, they were a “huge mystery” to him, working very long hours and staying closed off emotionally. Frank’s parents display racism toward other ethnic groups; as survivors of war, they approach life believing “everything is ephemeral.” Yoon admits he’s “scared to death” of his mother reading the book because of how much it’s based on their life, “warts and all.”

Inevitably, Frank’s parents catch his lie, forcing an examination of its motivation. “Frank is the kid I wish I could’ve been,” Yoon says. “He has the conversations I wish I could’ve had with my parents. At the end of it, you’re left [asking], ‘How do you accept people for who they are without wishing they were someone else? How do you love that person?'”

Yoon always comes back to love. It’s in everything, even the generous food descriptions. (“I grew up with Korean dramas in the background. The actors don’t f— around like American actors do. They’re always eating while they’re acting.”) Perhaps that’s why Frankly is set to be the next big YA smash. “YA always has a kernel of hope,” Yoon explains. “And I’m a hopeful person. I think I have to be, to live in this world.”

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