Writing a romance novel with an autistic heroine helped Helen Hoang understand herself
Helen Hoang had been mulling over an idea for a romance novel that would be a reverse Pretty Woman for some time when she first encountered high-functioning autism, also known as Asperger’s syndrome.
Her daughter’s preschool teacher thought her child might be on the spectrum, which pushed Hoang to research autism further and realize that the common characteristic of “trouble with social skills” might be the key to her writing conundrum — why would a high-powered professional woman hire an escort?
As Hoang began to research in earnest to craft her protagonist, she realized something else: The things she was reading about seemed to describe her and reflect a wealth of her own experiences. And so it was, through researching and writing what would become The Kiss Quotient, that Hoang also pursued and attained an eventual diagnosis for herself, at the age of 34.
The Kiss Quotient follows Stella Lane, a Silicon Valley economics whiz who has high-functioning autism, as she hires a professional male escort, Michael Phan, to help her practice dating, intimacy, and more. Michael, a Vietnamese-Swedish looker with a secret passion for fashion and design, knows just how to help Stella get more comfortable in the bedroom, attuned to her sensitivities and idiosyncrasies before he’s even aware of her diagnosis. As the two spend more and more time together, the lines between professional partnership and love get blurred.
In advance of the June 5 release of Hoang’s debut novel, EW called her up to find out what it was like going on such a personal journey parallel to her protagonist while writing, why it was important to her to showcase the depth and love of her own family on the page, and what might lie ahead in sequels to the book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You write movingly in your author’s note about how writing The Kiss Quotient sent you on a concurrent journey of finding your own diagnosis. How much of that made its way into Stella and the story you were telling?
HELEN HOANG: Drawing Stella as a character, giving her all of these idiosyncrasies was really helpful for me because those are things about myself that I’ve never really paid attention to or understood. Mostly, I was just trying to hide them. This was an opportunity to embrace aspects like the repetitive motions and sensitivities. Those are things that have always plagued me as unhappy things I have to live with and hide or try to cover up. Writing them intentionally felt healthy. Self-acceptance was a big thing because before writing the book, I did a lot of masking. I feel like I’d take it a step further — camouflaging or trying to be other people. It’s kind of unhealthy in that I will even become a different person depending on who I’m with. Learning to [just] be was something that I’ve been working on now, and trying to accept who I am.
The diagnosis didn’t come until the later part of the book, when it was nearing completion, and her struggle to share that label was personal because I had this new diagnosis. I knew it was coming, and I knew I was going to have to share it with my family, and I really didn’t know how they were going to feel about it. It’s kind of bad because I didn’t even tell my mom until I told all of my siblings, I told my husband. I didn’t tell my mom because I just didn’t think she was going to understand. She’s also Asian, and I feel like it’s just worse to be considered autistic or to have any kind of disability in Asian culture. I was just really scared she was going to be upset by that. In the first draft of the book, Stella had a coming-out-as-autistic moment with Michael, and that moment was really good for me to work through the dialogue on paper before I actually said it. That was really useful. And to show that other people generally don’t care as much as I do, so that’s good too.
Were there moments when there was something very fresh or raw for you that felt really difficult to explore on the page, that you had to really push yourself to go for?
It never felt like it was too personal or something like that. In general, I don’t ever feel that way about anything. If anyone is being TMI, it’s me. So I don’t have that problem. It was beneficial for me to explore all the parts and ways that she’s different and accept them. I feel like writing them helped me to understand myself better. Writing her helped me understand me better. The first draft also was mostly just emotional story, and it wasn’t until the following revision round that she became more complex. I was going through diagnosis, I was talking to a therapist, I was researching more, and through each revision round, she became more complete as I understood everything better. So it was a process. As I wrote her I understood me better, but as I understood me better I also wrote her better.
You said you were inspired to write this because you wanted to do a reverse Pretty Woman. What is it about that film or that story that attracted you?
I’d been reading this anthropological piece called Night Work — it’s about hostess clubs in Tokyo. My friend’s an anthropology major, and I thought it was fascinating. I wanted to write about someone in a similar profession, which immediately brings up Pretty Woman in my head. Also, I’m really drawn to anything that’s thought of as taboo or bad because I always feel there’s a compelling reason behind these things, and I always want to see if you were in this person’s shoes, would you feel it was wrong? And to push my mind to see things from a new perspective. I’d just read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I didn’t think I could write a Christian Grey ever. So I flipped it around. I liked the idea of a woman being successful and loving her career, and a hero as a prostitute with a heart of gold. I thought that would be really interesting to write, so that’s where that came from.
You write how your “label set you free,” but for Stella the label is something she fears will spell the end of her relationship with Michael if it’s actually spoken or bestowed upon her. Is that something you also grappled with, or did you want that experience to diverge from your own?
For Stella, her insecurity was how people would respond to it. That was definitely something that I experienced, but the way that it set me free — it’s mostly with helping me advocate for myself and to understand my needs better. That’s the biggest part, because I think up until now I learned to be very easygoing because that’s what my family wanted, that’s how you make friends, that’s how you fit in with society. At least that’s what I learned. So interacting with people, just things like going to parties, vacation, all of these things — I’ve always been so easygoing, and because of that I’m often miserable, but then I get rewarded because the people around me are happy. That always fed into this thing where I would be unhappy, but at the same time rewarded for being unhappy, so I was kind of okay with being unhappy. Having a diagnosis is helpful in that it gives me words that I need to tell people, “Actually this thing that I’ve been doing all this time, it makes me miserable, and because of this diagnosis, maybe you will give me some slack.” That had been a big deal for me, just in terms of my general mental health and how I interact with the people I love. It’s made my quality of life a lot better.
Michael’s family has a huge presence here, as does Stella’s, but Michael’s family works together and they’re very close-knit. Is that something that’s important in your own life? Where did they come from?
If you can’t tell, family is probably the most important thing for me, aside from my personal desires. My family is my greatest treasure. Through the book, I just wanted to share them, so people can see and love them along with me.
One thing I love most about Stella is how competent and ambitious she is when it comes to her job, and how unapologetic she is about it. That’s still not something we see for female characters all that often — at least not without them learning how to set aside career for love. Was that a trope you were determined to work against?
I don’t think it was conscious, but for me as a person, [it’s true]. I have kids and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, and I find motherhood extremely challenging. I’ll probably make people hate me by saying it, but I don’t enjoy motherhood. I don’t. What I enjoy is writing and trying to find a balance between loving my family, my kids, and then doing something that I need to do in order to feel complete as a person. That’s something I struggle with a lot, and I wanted to write somebody as passionate about their work and having that be okay. It’s important. You need to fulfill you in order to be good with the people around you too, so that’s something I go through.
I actually found a lot of Stella’s sensitivities and idiosyncrasies really relatable. I think Michael does as well and is attuned to them. Is that something you hope all readers will find?
What I’ve found in my own interactions with other people is if they want to hug you and you don’t hug them back, they immediately feel rejected. If you go to a party and they don’t want to stay there, you feel rejected because they’re not with you. I wanted to show what it’s like for that person who’s rejecting — the perspective [of] why they’re doing it. It’s not a rejection, it’s just that they’re different and they have different needs. I wanted to show what it’s like so that people can empathize and understand that it’s not rejection, it’s something else. So that people can be more accepting.
Along similar lines, I think a lot of people might feel at sea about interacting with people on the spectrum for fear they’ll embarrass them or not be sensitive to their needs — but you so beautifully show how just being kind, patient, considerate is a good place to start. Is that something you hope people take away from the book?
Yeah, yeah, sure. I’ve never noticed people being awkward. That’s a new perspective to me, thinking about the people who want to put me at ease, the challenge they’re [facing]. Because from my perspective, I’m always wanting to put the person I’m with at ease. I think we’re all trying to do that.
I understand you have sequels in the works; can you tell me more about them? Most importantly, will we get more of Michael’s understanding (and hot!) cousin Quan?
Yes, the second book is about Kai, and he’s on the spectrum. He has the misbelief that he doesn’t have feelings. I wanted to confront that stereotype that autistic people don’t experience empathy and don’t have emotions. That we’re cold and heartless. Because it’s wrong. I wanted to show what it’s like when you actually believe that about yourself, and I wanted to put him on the journey where he comes to accept that he does feel, but just in a different way. He’s got this conflict, and he avoids relationships, and his mom gets him a mail-order bride. It’s about their summer of being together. The third book is Quan’s book, and I loooove Quan. He was a surprise character that I didn’t plan to write, but he just showed up and I really love him. I currently have writer’s block because I have pressure because I want to give him a really great story.