By JoAnn Yao
Today we’re pleased to welcome Abigail Hing Wen to the WNDB blog to talk about Loveboat Reunion, the sequel to her YA debut Loveboat, Taipei! The book will be released on January 25, 2022 by Harper Teen.
Sophie Ha and Xavier Yeh have what some would call a tumultuous past.
Hearts were broken, revenge was plotted—but at least they’re friends now. They left the drama behind them back in Taipei—at their summer program, Loveboat—forever.
Now that fall is here, they’re focusing on what really matters. Sophie has sworn off boys and is determined to be the best student Dartmouth’s ever had. Xavier just wants to stay under his overbearing father’s radar, collect his trust fund when he turns eighteen, and concentrate on what makes him happy.
But the world doesn’t seem to want Sophie and Xavier to succeed. Sophie’s college professor thinks her first major project is “too feminine.” Xavier’s father gives him an ultimatum: finish high school or be cut off from his inheritance.
Then Sophie and Xavier find themselves on a wild, nonstop Loveboat reunion, hatching a joint plan to take control of their futures. Can they succeed together . . . or are they destined to combust?
This interview has been edited for clarity.
It’s so exciting that you’re in Taiwan right now! For the filming of the Loveboat, Taipei adaptation, right?
I am here for the filming of the movie! It’s been incredible. We’re actually very close to wrap. It’s definitely been a bit bittersweet to wrap up with the cast and everything; I said goodbye to a lot of the supporting cast yesterday.
Well, thanks so much for talking to me. I loved both books; Loveboat, Taipei in particular helped me out of a reading slump at the beginning of the pandemic. How did it feel to revisit Xavier and Sophie as the main characters for Loveboat Reunion?
So I had always wanted to write more about Xavier and Sophie. I wrote book one originally from all four viewpoints: Ever, Rick, Sophie, and Xavier. And at 120,000 words, draft 26, I realized I couldn’t fit them all into one book. It was too much story. So I ended up scrapping the whole thing. I rewrote the whole thing from just Ever’s point of view, making it mostly her journey but, you know, the characters each end up having their own journey on Loveboat. But I always just felt there was so much more story to Xavier and Sophie that I never got to explore, so that’s really been the fun of book two, getting to dive into that.
That’s awesome. So it felt pretty copacetic? Was it easy to get back into their heads and write in their voices?
That’s a great question. I remember telling my family early on, like, I know exactly the feeling. I’m very grounded in the sense of who they are, what they need, where their pain points are, and I didn’t know exactly how the story would unfold for them yet but that was definitely something I hung on to.
Are you a big fan of second chance romance as a trope? Did Sophie and Xavier’s story just naturally unfurl as you were writing, or did you already have a sense of where you wanted to take their relationship?
I am actually not a fan of second chance romance. I usually think that if you break up, there’s probably a good reason why you break up. It’s possible that you could find a way back, but there is a reason that there’s something taking you apart. But with Sophie and Xavier I always did have a strong sense of them together and I realized a lot of it was just that they weren’t real with each other in the first book. They weren’t real with a lot of people—they didn’t even know themselves. And so, once they were able to peel back some of those layers and find out who they really were, then that’s when they were able to connect and have a meaningful relationship.
You mentioned that you went on a research trip to Taiwan—were there any places in particular that influenced or inspired parts of this book? Did you actually get to go to the Moon Festival while you were there?
Yeah, I came exactly at that time, September, October, during the Moon Festival, and I think that’s partly what inspired the idea of the mooncakes and setting it during that time of year. But I was in Taiwan looking for locations. I was looking for where Xavier’s family lived, where their business would be set, and eventually, when I got here, I realized I needed to know where his family is buried. In Taiwan, they bury their dead in the mountains. So I started by exploring Elephant Mountain, which is the closest mountain to the city and is actually a very popular hiking spot. I looked for the cemetery that was marked on the map and when I got there, there was nothing to see! [laughs] It was just wilderness and mountains.
You will see Elephant Mountain appearing in other places that I can’t talk about yet, but those moments of just kind of discovering, oh, Xavier’s family business is going to be set here in Dihua, which is the historic street. It’s still preserved, very old town-ish, beautiful, romantic, and yet being modernized. And so I was like, “Yes, this is exactly where this family would set their business,” and that gave me a sense of who they were. They’re a very proud, old Taiwanese family, inside of which they split over this question of whether they should stay with their roots or modernize and move to Taipei 101.
Then I also had to figure out where Xavier lived, so I figured out, oh, he’s going to live across from Taipei 101, that totally makes sense. And then to have Sophie discover that during the story, like, “Oh my gosh, you live across from this building, this iconic building,” and having that be a moment as well—those were all really important moments for me to understand and really nail who Xavier is, who Xavier’s family is, and then that helped the story itself to develop.
Are you more of a Sophie or Xavier when it comes to mooncakes? If you enjoy them, what’s your favorite kind?
Oh, that’s so fun! Yeah, so Xavier doesn’t like mooncakes. You’d be startled to find out, I actually, to be honest, think they are a little dense. I think I’m a little more Xavier that way. There are some that I love, like the lotus seed or when they have nuts in them or the salted egg, those are fun. But I can’t eat a ton of them. I think I take one bite to try all the different mooncakes, but I’m not a binge mooncake eater.
I think that’s fair! They are quite dense.
As someone who went to engineering school and was in a competitive computer science program, I really identified with Sophie’s struggle to be taken seriously in the cis male-dominated environment of Professor Horvath’s class. Did you draw from your personal experience, especially working in Silicon Valley, for that aspect of her arc?
I think what Sophie went through is implicit bias. It was one of those things that I think surprised me to run into in Silicon Valley, in other places. And I found when I was talking with my other girlfriends in various industries that we were all running into the same thing at the same time. It was really only when we started talking, being open and vulnerable with each other—“Hey, I’m struggling to get promoted.” “I can’t seem to get tenure.” That’s when we realized there was something wrong. And we all hit the same type of feedback. “Oh, you’re not aggressive enough.” Or “Do you really have the numbers to back up what you’re doing?” It was the same story over and over again.
I think implicit bias is very hard to identify. I think we all have it, and it’s shaped by things like movies, like who do we see in leadership roles? And also historically, who do we see as leaders? We saw that in venture capital, where women would have to bring more numbers to back up their start-up ideas, whereas a team of guys pitching a team of male venture capitalists, they would get, “Oh! Talented team, they’ll figure it out. We trust them.” Right? And so, I think that’s kind of what I was trying to capture with Sophie’s story, implicit bias and how hard it is when you’re the recipient of it.
For sure. And it does start early. I experienced it in college myself, and I felt like that part of the book really rang true.
I also feel as though I haven’t seen many depictions of dyslexic Asians in books or in media in general, but obviously disabilities of all kinds are identity-agnostic. I love that you include a list of resources for dyslexic learners in the back of the book. Did you know from the inception of his character that Xavier was dyslexic? What kind of research did you do to make sure you got the details of his dyslexia right?
I did know. I think with book one, it’s such a high-powered, influential group of Asian Americans who are gathered at Loveboat Taipei—and Xavier, among them, cannot read, is not going to college. For me, Xavier was the extreme opposite of these other kids. And yet it was really important to show that he has his own path and that’s totally, absolutely fine.
I have thought a lot about neurodiversity; I have another book that actually hasn’t been announced yet that is also about neurodiversity. And, you know, just realizing or wanting to show every mind is unique, right? It’s kind of its own thing and we have things like… things that used to be called learning disabilities are now called learning differences. But I would love to move that even further and be like, this is just another way of thinking.
I’m very close to the experience of being neurodiverse, and had done a lot of research into dyslexia and then eventually dysgraphia. That’s where I found some of the nuances around, oh, Chinese language is actually easier for dyslexia, but it’s harder for dysgraphia. And those little nuances, I’ve kind of picked up along the way because my own kids have been in Chinese language classes. And then things like learning music are complicated in different ways by dyslexia versus dysgraphia.
So I guess, long story short: yes, I did know that was part of Xavier’s character, and a lot of it’s based on personal journey, but also speaking with other people who have gone through it and doing research.
Relationships between Asian parents and children can often be fraught yet complicated, especially since there is both real hurt and real love present. I thought you balanced that push-and-pull with Xavier and his father superbly. Can you speak a bit more about that?
Yeah, I think that’s one of those complicated things that we’re all figuring out in our own ways. Every human is so complicated and no relationship is perfect. There’s going to be strengths and weaknesses, and there’s going to be pain and hurt that needs to be forgiven.
So definitely with Xavier’s father, you know, book one is Ever’s relationship with her family, and then Xavier’s relationship with his family is even more difficult because there was abuse in the past, and his father has emotionally abused him and refused to accept his particular needs or even try to find the right help for him. So there’s definitely a lot there that needs to be forgiven. And yet boundaries also need to be drawn.
So that was actually an important part of Xavier’s resolution. I don’t want to spoil the story, but in the end there are ways that Xavier is able to be present with his dad but still have protections in place for himself. And you know, the hope is that eventually he won’t need those protections but that’s the reality of where the relationship is in that moment.
What was your favorite part to write in this book?
I actually really loved the baby pandas. [laughs] I was joking online like, “Oh, let’s get these into the movie!” Which I think would actually be really difficult; you can’t hold baby pandas anywhere except in a certain place in China. I love those, I love the mooncakes—I love the film, actually, writing the film that Xavier does at the end, because it was the whole book in just a few pages. A visual of the entire book, and, really, the entire emotional journey. So that was a really fun moment to bring together a lot of things, especially since I’m now working in film as well.
Yeah! It was really great because I could actually see his film in my mind as I was reading. For you, what has been the difference between writing books and writing for a film?
With books you can definitely spend a lot more time developing the interior life of the characters, and that’s something you just can’t show in a film unless you do voiceover, to which there’s a bit of stigma attached. We don’t like voiceover in general.
With the film medium, there are things you can showcase that’s really hard to showcase in a book. Like with book one, one of the criticisms is that there isn’t enough Taipei in it, which I totally agree with, because I had to cut a lot of words while bringing the book down to size. But in a movie, we can definitely show off the coolness of Taipei in shot after shot after shot. So things like that, or the kinetics of the dancing; you can capture that to some extent on the page in describing how she feels in her body and describing the movements as we see them, but in film you can really bring that dance to life.
So I’ve personally just enjoyed the ways I can flex in different mediums and explore and bring out different aspects of the story.
And do you hear certain kinds of music, or listen to music while you’re writing, especially when you’re writing dance scenes?
Yeah! So I actually listened to The Greatest Showman a lot when I was writing book one. And then book two—I did a playlist, but I don’t know that there’s any one song that really stands out. There’s just a lot of modern pop, musicals I’ve always loved, things that I pick up in Taiwan that give me a sense of being here versus being in the States. I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes.
What question do you wish you were asked more as an author, and what’s the answer to that question?
Hmm. It’s interesting, I am asked a lot of different types of questions. Maybe the legacy question, like, “What is it that you want people to take away from your work?” And I guess the answer would be: more openness. Like a shift in how we perceive people who seem different from us, whether that’s ethnic diversity, neurodiversity, gender diversity—to try to walk in other people’s shoes more. Hopefully because they’ve walked in some of my characters’ shoes. To take that kind of attitude forward.
And then even with my parent characters, as you pointed out, like, that was a struggle for me, right? But then in writing these books I also needed to walk in the parents’ shoes in order to write them as characters, so that was an important journey for me too.
Overall, what are you hoping readers take away from the Loveboat series specifically?
I love that, when you bring together so many different Asian Americans, in some ways what is uniquely Asian American about them comes out, but also being Asian American is erased. I think that’s been the fun of writing the Loveboat, Taipei world and even now, here on set in Taiwan with the entire cast coming to life around me, it’s just that experience all over again. It’s this incredible community.
So I think that’s a big part of it; it’s a community with many stories and many types of people in it. But there are definite things that tie us together as human beings. And I think that’s just who we are.
Which books do you think yours is in conversation with? Where do you recommend readers turning to after they finish Loveboat Reunion?
I love Stacey Lee’s work. Stacey’s been one of my long-term critique partners and she just had Luck of the Titanic come out in May of last year. I highly recommend it; it’s about the eight Chinese passengers on the Titanic who were written out of history. She’s kind of breathed new life into them. Then Sabaa Tahir, the author of An Ember in the Ashes series, has a new book coming out in March 2022 called All My Rage. Highly recommend her book as well—I had a chance to beta-read it and it’s really, really incredible. And IW Gregorio’s None of the Above. It’s such an important story and more timely now than even when it was published.
Abigail penned the New York Times best-selling novel, Loveboat, Taipei (sequel, HarperCollins 2022). She is executive producing the book-to-film adaptation with ACE Entertainment, creators of the Netflix franchise To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She and her work have been profiled in Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, NBCNews, Bloomberg, Google Talk, and the World Journal, among others.
Abigail holds a BA from Harvard, where she took coursework in film, ethnic studies and government. She also holds a JD from Columbia and MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her career in tech, she has negotiated multi-billion dollar deals on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, worked in venture capital, and hosted Intel’s Artificial Intelligence podcast featuring leading industry experts including Andrew Ng, Facebook’s Chief AI Scientist Yann LeCun, and US Congresswoman Robin Kelly. She also serves with the Partnership on AI. “One of the most respected voices in fairness and AI.” Forbes.
Abigail lives with her husband and two sons in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her third novel (2023) explores cognitive differences in Silicon Valley and she is writing her fourth novel and a feature film script based in Silicon Valley, as well as producing a girls-in-tech animated series.
For more information: www.abigailhingwen.com