January 07, 2020

Abigail Hing Wen

The magic of feeling seen
Interview by

We spoke to Abigail Hing Wen about how her own teenage experiences with a Loveboat-esque program informed her first novel.

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Abigail Hing Wen’s debut novel, Loveboat, Taipei, is an effervescent blend of self-discovery and romance, set over the course of one unforgettable summer. It’s the story of Ever Wong, whose parents send her to Taiwan for a cultural immersion program nicknamed “Loveboat” by attendees because of its notoriety for matchmaking. We spoke to the author about how her own teenage experiences with a Loveboat-esque program informed the book, developing characters, battling stereotypes and her hopes for her first novel.

How did your own personal experiences influence the writing and storytelling process of Loveboat, Taipei?
The Loveboat experience was such a unique and iconic one in the Asian American community. I knew I wanted to write a story about it. But it took me a while to figure out who needed to go on this trip. I discussed it at length with my husband, who also attended Loveboat a few years before I did, trying to get to the heart of the experience. We came to the conclusion that it was about discovering identity in all its facets—cultural heritage, certainly, but also a coming-of-age in such important formative years.

I’d grown up in Ohio, not always proud of my Asian American heritage. I was even less familiar with all the wonderful parts that came with it. On Loveboat, I was amazed to meet Asian Americans my age who were as enthusiastic about scallion pancakes and Dragon’s beard candy as my Ohio friends were about pizza and donuts. Instead of feeling ashamed of non-English speaking relations, Loveboaters were excited to visit families in the traditional Hutong.

I met all sorts of personalities: funny, quiet, timid, outrageous, gentle, angry, bitter, even snobby and exclusive, a surprise to me. It was both shocking and refreshing to witness rebellious Asian American teens getting demerits and getting drunk. They broke every model minority stereotype in the book.

“It was both shocking and refreshing to witness rebellious Asian American teens getting demerits and getting drunk. They broke every model minority stereotype in the book.”

Most magical of all in this experience: I felt included for the first time. The sweetest thing someone said was, “That’s so Abby!” I had never felt so seen before, which was exactly what Jane Lee on my HarperCollins team said about my book when I first met her. She’d read Loveboat, Taipei three times. I hadn’t put it into words until that moment, but that was what I wanted for this novel. To make others feel seen. To share with others a bit of that magical transformation I’d experienced myself.

Even now, as people begin to respond to the novel, I’m growing in my appreciation of what it meant to have this grounding experience. I’m realizing I’m so much stronger for it.

What kind of research or preparation did you do in addition to your own personal experiences?
After I wrote a draft of the book, I visited Taipei and took a bus tour of the island, similar to the one I took as a student on the program. This immersive reminder helped me get into the heads of my main characters as I connected with things they would connect with. For example, while there, I ran into foods I associated with my childhood and parents, like a huge platter of fried eggs. I knew that Ever would also have such moments on her trip.

In addition, two Taiwanese American friends read and commented on the novel: Judy Hung Liang and Chienlan Hsu-Hoffman. I later interviewed a number of Loveboat alumni.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Loveboat, Taipei.

Much of Ever’s internal conflict is motivated by the tension between her personal passions and her desire to meet expectations placed on her by others or to follow the rules. When you were a teen, where did you fall on the rule-following/rule-breaking, what-I-want/what-others-want spectrum? Do you have any advice for teens who find themselves sharing Ever’s internal conflict?
Great question! My dad came to the United States when he was 13, so he was a little more Americanized than my Asian American friends’ parents. He wasn’t a typical dad—we would often negotiate rules, and he would let me win if I was convincing. It taught me an important lesson early on—that I could disagree and prevail if I had a sensible idea. I think that freedom made me a little less rebellious than some of my peers.

But I really felt a weight of expectation from others in the community. Some of that was supportive, but some of that felt like a cage.

As for advice for teens, wow, this is hard. I wish I could say talk it out honestly with your parents, but not everyone is in a position to do that. I would say—take baby steps and pick your battles. Save the gunfire for the big issues that really matter to you, like your choice of college major or who you date.

Also something to keep in mind: While you’re a student living under your parents’ roof, it’s harder to strike out and do what you want. That will come to an end. You’ll become an adult and no one will be responsible for your decisions except yourself.

“While you’re a student living under your parents’ roof, it’s harder to strike out and do what you want. That will come to an end. You’ll become an adult and no one will be responsible for your decisions except yourself.”

Ever’s developing relationship with her family is an important part of her emotional journey over the course of the novel. What role does Ever’s family play in her identity, and how does that role change? Can you talk about some of the choices you made as you crafted that relationship?
Another tough question! Ever’s family’s values deeply influence her identity. There are positive aspects to it. She has a strong moral compass that comes from them. They have high career ambitions for her, in contrast to Sophie’s family, and those ambitions also raised the bar for Ever’s goals in dancing and choreography.

I spent time considering how Ever’s choices might impact her parents as well. And they do—especially her dad. That wasn’t so much a choice I made, but as a matter of craft, needing to really try to follow their characters along their natural arcs.

I loved all of the secondary characters in Loveboat, Taipei; you gave so many of them such engaging and complex stories. Who was your favorite secondary character to create and write, and why?
It’s so hard to choose! I love them all for different reasons. I love Sophie’s generosity and misguided energies, and Xavier’s fight against his personal demons. I have a sequel in the works involving them. I also adore the Gang of Five. I love how they went from angry to taking back their own stereotypes. I envision them in a musical like a bad boy band, popping out at intervals to speak their truths. When I told my agent, Jo about this, she said, “They’re like the Greek chorus.” She was so right! 

As readers might expect from the title, Loveboat, Taipei’s protagonist, Ever, explores not just her identity and questions about her future, but also the possibility of romance. What do you hope readers gain from Ever’s exploration of this side of herself and from the different possibilities she explores?
I want readers to see Asian Americans holistically. We are deeply human, and love and romance is an important part of our lives. Ever is smart and accomplished, but she is also flawed and lonely, and she craves love and connection as much as anyone.

Many of the male-identifying characters in Loveboat, Taipei struggle with expectations of masculinity. Why did you choose to explore this theme?
It always pains me to see anyone questioning their attractiveness because they don’t fit Western norms of beauty. I had to come through my own journey here with all the ways I don’t line up myself.

In many ways, Asian American males have it harder than Asian American females. Author David Yoon has spoken of how struck he and his author wife, Nicola Yoon, were when they found out Asian males and African American females are the least swiped on dating apps. These small social pressures can really shape how a person views and values themselves, especially if they don’t realize it’s not about them, but part of a larger social construct. Just because a guy doesn’t fit the typical masculine mold doesn’t mean he isn’t attractive.

“I want readers to see Asian Americans holistically. We are deeply human, and love and romance is an important part of our lives.”

Loveboat, Taipei breaks down so many stereotypes about Asian Americans and the Asian American community so skillfully. Why was challenging these stereotypes important to you?
Stereotypes have real ramifications. Women who are expected to behave submissively can be mischaracterized as aggressive or out for themselves if they don’t, and that can really get in the way of their effectiveness running projects or taking on other leadership roles. Stereotypes prevent leaders from identifying great talent. They unfairly box people in. I work with many enlightened men and women in Silicon Valley, but as a society striving for true equality, we aren’t there yet.

I am especially passionate about broadening our conception of what leadership looks like. There are so many kinds of strengths. Ever has an eye for talent and calls it out. Sophie loves fashion and clothing and yes, she is boy crazy—and she also gets things done like no one else. Marc brings people together. They are all leaders in their own ways and it pays off when they give themselves permission to exercise those gifts.

For me, I had to make a choice whether to share my novel at work. I’ve always worked in a very male environment and I did make a deliberate choice to begin to share about my novel. One well-meaning woman privately ask me if letting people know I’d written a romance novel undercut my authority. I agreed it was a risk to share, but I also want to broaden what leadership looks like. If male leaders can rave about fantasy football and sports races, then I can talk about my forthcoming novel. And instead of undercutting my authority with men, I think it has done the opposite.

What was the most challenging part of writing Loveboat, Taipei? What was the most enjoyable?
Most challenging:

Early in my process, figuring out who was going on this journey. There were literally thousands of teens who could go on this trip. Who would be the main character? He or she would be changed by the experience—who needed to go on a trip like this?

I wasn’t sure. I wrote from several points of view until four characters began to emerge: Ever Wong from Ohio, who doesn’t know who she is. The Yale-bound prodigy Rick, who needs to blow off steam. Sophie who is looking for love and Xavier who is a player, but in all three cases, not for the obvious reasons.

Most enjoyable:

Stephanie Garber really challenged me to think deeply about the love triangles. It was fascinating for me to dig into what it was that connected Ever to each boy—and when I really understood why a certain connection worked and why another one would lead them in the wrong direction, it felt so incredibly satisfying and fun—was this really part of my job?

What did you learn from the writing and editorial process of Loveboat, Taipei that you’ll carry forward as you work on new books?
That I need to put in the time to develop all my characters. There’s no shortcutting it, at least not for me. Without intending to, I wrote the novel five times, from each of the main characters’ points of view, including Jenna. I eventually rewrote the entire book from Ever’s point of view, but one of the most common comments I’ve gotten is that my secondary characters are really well-rounded. So it paid off!

See my blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations for more on this.

Loveboat, Taipei is your debut novel. Although readers will be reading your answers after the book is published, you’re answering these questions before its publication. How do you feel? What are you excited about? Nervous about? What part of publishing a book are you most looking forward to?
I have been overwhelmed and blown away by the support for Loveboat, Taipei. So many people have offered to help. For a while, there were folks from the Asian American arts community emailing me all the ways I was behind in getting the word out. I was really stressed out at first, until it dawned on me they were tiger-momming me! Then I felt very loved.

I’m also a little nervous about reader reactions. I know people from so many different aspects of my life: young and old, American and foreign born, from the tech, legal and writing worlds, literary and commercial fiction lovers. Art and fiction are so taste-based, and I know that no one work will appeal to all people. I hope that people who don’t necessarily resonate with this story themselves understand that’s OK with me. I get it.

I’m most looking forward to the opportunity to speak with readers and to hear about their experiences. And I’m excited to find out where this journey is going!


Author photo by Olga Pichkova of IOPhotoStudio

Get the Book

Loveboat, Taipei

Loveboat, Taipei

By Abigail Hing Wen
ISBN 9780062957276

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