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Jenny Han on how the 2016 election led to the third To All the Boys book

“I think I needed those feelings again. And I wanted to offer that feeling again to my readers.”

Jenny Han and Eva Chen sit talking at a table with microphones in front of them
Jenny Han, left, and Eva Chen at New York City’s BookCon, June 2019.
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New York City’s BookCon, the annual fan convention for readers, is always packed with enthusiastic YA fans. But the enthusiasm for Jenny Han, whose best-selling book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was the source material for Netflix’s smash hit movie last summer, is at another level. At this year’s convention, when Han sat down for a panel discussion with fellow YA author and Instagram fashion partnership director Eva Chen, the room was overflowing with delighted Jenny Han completists, ready to applaud at the slightest notice.

Over the course of their conversation, Han and Chen covered the importance of consolidating student loans, the way Noah Centineo smells (clean), and how the 2016 election led to the third volume in the To All the Boys trilogy. Highlights from their talk follow, lightly edited for length and clarity.

“If you don’t see something, then you don’t really know that it’s possible”

Eva Chen

I want to start with Noah Centineo. Is that awkward? I feel like this is what the people are here for. Very professional question, not at all creepy: What does he smell like?

Jenny Han

I didn’t notice anything. I have a very keen sense of smell, and I don’t like it when people wear heavy colognes. Just clean.

Eva Chen

Now I’m picturing that, and I like it. Let’s rewind all the way past you being BFFs with Lana [Condor, who plays lead character Lara Jean in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before adaptation], all the way back to little Jenny. When did you know you wanted to be an author?

Jenny Han

Honestly, I did not even think about it until I went to college. I wrote stories since I was very young, I kept notebooks, and I even wrote fanfic about me and my friends. Like, “we’re on a ski trip,” or “here’s us 10 years from now.” I wrote these stories, but I never thought about being a writer because honestly, it was a different time.

There really weren’t any conventions like this one that I could go to, or even really author tours. I never met an author until I worked at a bookstore. I think if you don’t see something, then you don’t really know that it’s possible, and I certainly hadn’t met anybody that was young and Asian American. That just wasn’t in my field of view.

I took a [writing] class in college, and I was like, “Wow, I really love this, and I haven’t had an opportunity to do it in a while.” And then I started writing my first book, which is called Shug, and I went to grad school. I moved to New York when I was 22, and everything happened very fast from there.

Eva Chen

What made you want to move to New York? Was it the program?

Jenny Han

The program.

Eva Chen

Or did you want to live that Sex and the City life?

Jenny Han

That too! It felt in some ways like a scary choice, with student loans and all that. I felt like, “I’m making this big decision with big repercussions if it doesn’t work out.” And it’s not the same thing as going to law school or going to teaching college, because there’s no guarantee that you’re going to ever sell a book.

I remember telling my mom about it. I thought she was going to be more concerned, but she was like, “We believe in your talent. You’re going to make it.” That’s so not my mom’s style, because she’s always nervous.

Eva Chen

Are you a first-generation American?

Jenny Han

I am. Well, second-generation in the sense that my parents immigrated here. I think there’s two different definitions. I would say second-generation because my parents were the first to live here, but I’m the first born here.

Eva Chen

Where were they born originally?

Jenny Han

Korea. Yours too, right? I mean, not from Korea —

Eva Chen

Mine are Chinese. I was the first generation born here. I think a lot of the time with first-generation Americans and immigrant parents, careers in the arts — whether it’s writing, fashion, and I’m not speaking from personal experience at all — sometimes it’s not understood, or it’s frowned upon. So it’s wonderful that your mom had that reaction. How was your dad about it?

Jenny Han

He was the same way. I was like, “Wow, I’m taking on $50,000 in loans to do this,” and my dad is very protective. If I’m out at 6 pm, he’s like, “You need to hurry home before it’s dark.” But they both were so supportive of it, and made me feel really strong in my convictions to give it a shot.

Eva Chen

That is wonderful, and I’m extremely jealous.

So, $50,000 in student loans. May I ask a personal question? When did you pay those off?

Jenny Han

Last week. But that’s part laziness; I could have paid it sooner. I consolidated —

Eva Chen

This conversation has gotten very grown-up. We started with Noah Centineo’s clean smells and now we’re on student loans. Walk us through it.

Jenny Han

When I sold my first book, I immediately paid off my private loans where the interest rate was higher, and then the other ones where the interest rate was at, like, 2 percent, I just let them be there, and then I kind of forgot about it.

Eva Chen

I’m sure your financial planner loved that.

Jenny Han

But it was only $150 a month; it was a small payment. And then last week I was like, I really should just pay it off —

Eva Chen

And become officially a grown-up?

Jenny Han

Officially debt-free! For that.

“I think I needed those feelings again. And I wanted to offer that feeling again to my readers.”

Eva Chen

In your two series, [To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Summer I Turned Pretty,] who do you think are the most underrated characters?

Jenny Han

Oh, whoa! No one’s ever asked me that!

Eva Chen

I am a good interviewer.

Jenny Han

It’s hard to say, because I feel like all the characters are very appreciated, and everyone has their own favorites.

Eva Chen

Okay, so let’s go the other way. If you had to play favorites —

Jenny Han

So my personal favorite characters? From To All the Boys, to write, I loved doing all of Stormy’s scenes, and I also loved doing all of Peter’s. Kitty, Peter, and Stormy were very easy to write.

From Summer I Turned Pretty, I think my favorite character would probably be Belly’s mom Laurel. I really enjoyed writing all her stuff as well.

Eva Chen

For To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, you said that the third book was kind of a bonus book. How do you know when you’re done with a story arc as a writer? Do you know in your heart?

Jenny Han

Now I know I’m done. I was done before. I kept saying [books] one and two were two halves of a heart, and there was something nice about that, just doing a duology.

I was thinking about how it came to be. [Before I wrote Always and Forever, Lara Jean], I was starting something new, but I was very distracted. It was 2016, it was a very tumultuous year for a lot of people in America. So I kept thinking about my old characters and really wanting to be comforted, like spending times with old friends.

As I wrote To All the Boys, the feeling that I wanted readers to have about it was to feel really warm, to feel cozy, like being around a hearth. I think I needed those feelings again. And I wanted to offer that feeling again to my readers.

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