The following is an edited conversation between Sarah Dessen, the no. 1 best-selling author of more than a dozen YA novels, her most recent being the acclaimed The Rest of the Story, and Abigail Hing Wen, whose buzzy debut Loveboat, Taipei will be published on Jan. 7, 2020 by HarperTeen. The two discuss the key to writing romance, the themes that they keep coming back to, the power of representation, and more. Read on below.
ABIGAIL HING WEN: I’m thrilled to be talking to you about books, writing, inspiration — all of it. I tried to channel you while writing several scenes in Loveboat, Taipei. I hope I was successful!
SARAH DESSEN: Hello to you! And I’m honored to hear that as I’m really enjoying it. You do a great job of pulling the reader in right from the start.
ABIGAIL: Thank you! One of the aspects I love most about your books is the many sweet moments between characters — especially romantic ones. I loved the kiss in the car wash in Just Listen, or when Emma and Roo are dancing in The Rest of the Story. For me, these little moments are what bring your characters to life and make them live forever — how do you find them? And what makes a good romance really work in a novel?
SARAH: For me, the process of falling for someone is all about the little moments that together add up to something epic. An inside joke, a second of connection. I love having characters doing something together, like learning to drive or discussing music: it gives you a lot of possibility. You build a lot of romances in Loveboat, Taipei. How did you decide who would end up with whom?
ABIGAIL: I personally really struggled with this one. My good friend Stephanie Garber challenged me in the best of ways about this when she read an early draft. She told me that my main character, Ever Wong, was ending up with the wrong person (I won’t say who — don’t want to give too much away!), and that I either needed to switch the guy she ended up with, make the winning love interest infinitely stronger, or have her end up with neither. Stephanie was so right.
I knew in my gut that Ever was ending up with the right guy, but something was clearly missing from the page. It really forced me to explore what it was about Ever and each connection that worked and didn’t work. Chemistry is also important, and that can’t be faked. The characters either have it, or they don’t.
SARAH: Totally! And you usually don’t know until you start writing whether it’s going to work or not. Just like in real life, two characters can seem perfect for each other and then fall flat on the page. I’ve planned out my whole plotline only to have someone come in on page 75 who is more interesting than anything that’s happened so far. You can’t ignore that, you have to follow them and see what else they do. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind your characters?
ABIGAIL: When I first started writing this story, I wasn’t sure who needed to go on this crazy trip to Taiwan. I had literally thousands of options for my main character. But who would be most impacted by this immersive and unique experience? As I distilled the heart of what a trip like Loveboat meant to me and to many other teens, four characters began to emerge. Ever Wong from Ohio doesn’t know who she is. The Yale-bound prodigy Rick needs to blow off steam, but not for the obvious reasons. Sophie is looking for love and Xavier is a player, but they all have their own unique journeys.
And as for you, you’ve written so many amazing characters and novels over the years. The Rest of the Story is your 14th book, and I am so in awe. Do you find yourself returning to a certain theme in your novels?
SARAH: The older I get — and more I write — I am realizing that the themes in my books are the same ones I’m dealing within my own life. Family. Friends. Finding your place and people. In every book I am trying to work something out, for both my narrator and myself. I feel like my characters do a better job than I do (sigh) but I’ll keep trying.
ABIGAIL: I know what you mean. I usually don’t even know what it is I’m working out until the book is done, and sometimes not even then.
For example, one of the themes that emerged in Loveboat, Taipei was recognizing that you are stronger than you knew. Ever is definitely stronger than she gives herself credit for, Sophie is a powerhouse who is skeptical about her own self-worth. My friends who’ve read Loveboat tell me this theme resonates with them. And I know it resonates with me! But even though I wrote this novel, I find I still have to remind myself over and over that I have strength, and the power to make important changes for my life and for the world.
SARAH: For me, the first step of every book is the narrator’s name. It’s where it all begins. I love the name Ever. How did you come up with that?
ABIGAIL: I met a girl named Ever in California and loved her name. But I knew the Wongs would not have encountered the name themselves, and so my main character became Everett, a boy’s name by mistake… and one of those small character moments for her and her family.
And speaking of Ever, she is a special character to me for another reason. I didn’t know a Chinese-American girl could be the main character of a novel until I attended Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA in writing. Their brilliant faculty set me straight, and that’s when I began to write Loveboat, Taipei.
I’m grateful to be writing in a time when there are movements like WNDB, and when the powers that be in publishing and entertainment are championing diversity and inclusion. It takes people who are brave, visionary and selfless to bring about changes like this, and I’m lucky to be working with a team of such people.
What are your thoughts on what this means for young readers and how does it impact your writing?
SARAH: I agree, I think this is an incredible time for YA right now. For so long, much of our stories and voices were white and straight. But all teens need books and voices, not just a few. The rise of WNDB has shown so many teens that their experience matters and is important. The greatest thing about reading is recognizing something from your own life on the page! We all need that, especially as teens. It’s validating and reassures us of our place in the world.
ABIGAIL: Validating and reassuring — that is so true, and so well said!