Helen Hoang’s debut romance, The Kiss Quotient, was released to universal acclaim in 2018. Quan Diep, a tattooed bad boy with a heart of gold, nearly stole the show, and fans clamored for him to get his very own love story. But the pressure of creating a match for Quan weighed heavily on her. We talked to Hoang about how her artistic burnout led to The Heart Principle, in which Quan meets his match in Anna Sun, a classical violinist.
Romance fans have been so excited for The Heart Principle, and now it’s finally out! How do you feel?
This was an extremely difficult book to write, and one of the reasons is how personal it was. Anna’s story was inspired by recent events in my own life. Her emotions and thoughts, especially, are things that I personally felt and thought. Now that I’m sharing my experiences with readers, one of the biggest things I’m feeling is vulnerable.
While many readers will be familiar with the first two books in the series, this may be the first Helen Hoang romance for others. What would you tell those new readers to expect from The Heart Principle?
This is not the most lighthearted book I’ve written, and I recommend picking it up when they need catharsis rather than a fun, feel-good experience. I suspect this is the kind of book that will make people cry. It’s also, in my opinion, very steamy.
"I had to fight for every word. . ."
What is your typical writing process like? Was there anything different about crafting this book in particular?
Before I was published, I used to daydream my books in their entirety before I wrote them. My stories were an escape, somewhere I could go when real life became too much. The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test were “daydream” books, and because of the way publishing works, I finished writing them both before my debut. The Heart Principle is the first book that I had to write after being published, after people had developed expectations of me, and the pressure to meet those expectations made it impossible to daydream. Honestly, the pressure, combined with life events, made me mentally ill.
Like Anna, I compulsively started this book over again and again. Nothing I wrote was good enough, and I couldn’t see where the story was going. I completely lost confidence in my ability as a writer, and I second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-guessed myself with every sentence, which led to panic attacks and burnout. Writing this book was a real journey for me. I had to fight for every word, and I had to fight for my mental health as I did so. In the end, I can’t quite say I managed to regain trust in my writing, but I do accept my writing. This is what I have to give. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best. It’s not what every single reader wants. But it gets to stand, it gets to be—just like each of us gets to be.
Quan was a fan favorite pretty much from the moment he was introduced in The Kiss Quotient. Did you expect that at all? How hard was it to write a heroine to match him?
Truthfully, I didn’t anticipate Quan would be a fan favorite, and yes, I had a hard time creating a heroine to match him. But I tried my best to give Quan someone who saw him, truly loved him and felt real at the same time.
Anna gets a boost of viral fame on YouTube but experiences some heavy burnout while trying to make lightning strike twice. Was this part of Anna’s story always present, or did it become more prominent as you were writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people became burned out in work?
When I first pitched this story to my publisher, it was supposed to be a fun, gender-swapped Sabrina and had nothing to do with burnout. Clearly, things changed during the writing process. My first book, The Kiss Quotient, did far better than I imagined it would, and when I tried to reproduce the magic with The Heart Principle so I wouldn’t disappoint readers, my efforts led to burnout, which in turn inspired that aspect of the book.
The worst of my burnout happened right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, quarantining under stay-at-home orders was a relief to me. Being on the autism spectrum, social interaction is extremely stressful and demanding work for me, and I haven’t minded social distancing at all. That said, like for most people, the off-the-charts levels of anxiety and uncertainty during these times have been a challenge.
What’s been getting you through the past year? Any wonderful books that brought you comfort? A new, calming hobby?
Hands down, the books that provided the greatest escape for me over the past year are Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians romances. (There are 22, plus an adjacent series with another 15 books, and I read them all.) They’re as far from reality as you can get (they literally don’t take place on this planet), there are no politics or impeachments or elections, and the conflicts revolve around basic survival. The heroes are blue aliens (most of them, anyway) whose greatest goals in life are to make their human mates (they come in all body types and ethnicities and are each the most beautiful person in the world to their alien) happy.
When I was writing and struggling with frequent panic attacks, it helped to have coloring books on hand so I could calm down and reset my mind before getting back to work. I also got really into Rubik’s cubes and such. My current favorite is the Gigaminx. It’s a dodecahedron with five-layered sides. I spent hundreds of hours (not exaggerating) solving, mixing and resolving this puzzle as a form of meditation. The algorithms are ingrained in my muscle memory now.
Complex emotional arcs are always prominent in your romances. Without giving away too many details, Anna deals with a family tragedy in this book. How do you balance tough subjects (anxiety, grief, trauma) while still moving the couple toward a happily ever after?
When I write heavy topics in romance, the key for me is finding the emotional connection between those things and the conflict keeping the lovers apart. Once that’s done, the story seems to fall into place and balance itself very naturally. In The Heart Principle, for example, that emotional connection is Anna’s helpless desire for external validation.
Out of the three books in the Kiss Quotient series, which hero is your favorite—Michael, Kai or Quan?
I really can’t pick. It would be like asking me to say which of my kids I love more!
One of the things I’ve loved most about your books are your author’s notes. They’re very cathartic to read, and you really give readers a peek at your inspiration for each specific romance. How did that become a tradition for you, and do you think you’ll always write one for each book?
When we were preparing to release The Kiss Quotient, I remember thinking that I had more to share than just the story in the book, that I wanted to talk about my late autism diagnosis. It changed my life, and I hoped that by bringing attention to the underdiagnosis of autism in women, I could help lead other women like myself toward greater self-understanding and improve their quality of life. I asked my editor if I could add an author’s note to the book, and she supported the idea.
For The Bride Test and The Heart Principle, on the other hand, I didn’t originally plan to write author’s notes, but when my editor asked if there was more I wanted to say, I realized that there was. I think she could see how personal these books are to me and wanted to provide the opportunity for me to share the stories behind the stories. I’m not sure I’ll always write author’s notes like these. It’ll depend on the book. If there’s something important I left out or if I feel I can bring attention to issues close to my heart, I imagine I’ll ask readers for those extra minutes of their time before they shut the book.
Author photo by Eric Kieu.