Yulin Kuang headshot
April 2024

Yulin Kuang is so much more than Emily Henry’s screenwriter

Interview by
The writer and director behind the upcoming adaptations of Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation is staking her own claim to romance greatness.
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She’s penned the upcoming film adaptation of Emily Henry’s beloved rom-com People We Meet on Vacation. She’s set to write and direct the movie version of another beloved Henry rom-com, Beach Read. But first, Yulin Kuang is going to release her own romance, How to End a Love Story, a sharp, poignant love story between Helen and Grant, two screenwriters linked by a terrible accident that happened when they were in high school. 

You’ve been working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and director for years. How did you approach the shift from storytelling for the screen to storytelling for the page?
I wrote this book at a time when almost everything else I was working on was an adaptation of something, and I wanted to see if I had anything original left within me. I meant to write myself an original feature script to direct, but it was October and NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] was in the air. 

I used to write fan fiction (you’d have to go pretty far back to find it, two decades minimum) and I studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon, so writing this book felt a bit like stepping into an alternate timeline where I picked books instead of TV/movies after graduation. 

From a craft perspective, I approached writing this novel as if I was directing the movie in the reader’s mind. The note I kept getting from my editor, Carrie Feron, was “What does it smell like?”—which I never think about in screenwriting! I ended up giving myself a diary exercise for a month where I’d spend a few lines describing the scents of places I’d been throughout the day.

“. . . you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.”

The story starts when Helen is reunited with Grant after joining the writers room for the TV adaptation of her young adult novels. Did any real-life experiences of your own inspire those moments? 
I created a short film called “I Ship It,” which turned into a web series, which then turned into a TV show that the CW canceled after airing two episodes in 2019. (You can now watch the show on the CBC Gem app in Canada and nowhere else. Looking back on that experience, I think I had a lot of ideas and passion, and not a lot of control over my instrument, as my piano teacher might say.

I was an incredibly young showrunner and I definitely felt such imposter syndrome throughout the process, which Helen feels too, in the book. I hired a number two, Ann Lewis Hamilton, who was much more experienced than me: She had worked on shows I loved growing up like “One Tree Hill” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and she taught me a lot in terms of expectations in the writers room. I also developed a 27 Dresses pilot for ABC Studios with Aline Brosh McKenna, and I learned so much from her about how to interpret notes from producers and how to pitch a project and myself to a studio.

These are just two of the many, very smart women who’ve helped me in my career; I feel like I poured every bit of good advice I’ve received since graduation into this book. It felt less like inspiration from real life and more like a feverish scribbling down of all the industry wisdom I’d managed to acquire by 2021, lest I forget it the next time someone asked.

Now that you’re an author yourself, will you approach future adaptations differently?
I’m currently working on an adaptation of Emily Henry’s Beach Read, which is about two authors who decide to switch genres for a summer. I’ve been joking with my producer Karina Rahardja that I’m a method director, and I had to go write a novel so I could understand these characters better. 

The main thing I’ve learned in the process is that it’s so very, very vulnerable to write a book! So if anything, I’m approaching any authors I potentially adapt in the future with the firsthand understanding that you can’t write 90K+ words without putting something of yourself on the page.

Book jacket image for How to End a Love Story by Yulin Kuang

Grant tries to find a character in Helen’s book he identifies with (he thinks he’s a “Bellamy, with a Phoebe rising”). Which character in the book do you most identify with? What characters from your other projects have you found pieces of yourself in?
I gave Helen all my insecurities and ambitions from when I was 18, and then asked myself how all those qualities would have aged if I’d lived the alternate timeline where I moved to New York after graduation and became a novelist instead of a screenwriter.

I didn’t particularly like myself back then, so the most compelling part of writing Helen was staring into that black mirror reflecting back the parts of me I’ve actively tried to grow away from, and to see what could have happened if I’d grown into them instead.

I gave Grant every attractive quality I’ve ever coveted as a working screenwriter; mainly, that he’s “good in a room,” which is something I really struggled with in the beginning, as an inside child who grew up extremely online and matured into a classic introvert. But my reps tell me “good in a room” is how I am described after general meetings, which is of course nice to hear!

In my other projects, I’m partial to Ella in “I Ship It” (the TV series) and the titular Irene of “Irene Lee, Girl Detective” (a short film on my YouTube channel that I’m still quite proud of). I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.

Do you really think that second kisses are a bigger deal than the first kiss? Why?
I’m pretty sure I wrote that line because of a specific plotline in “Dawson’s Creek,” season three episode 19 (one of the greatest episodes of television possibly ever???) with Joey and Pacey, where they had already kissed in an earlier episode, but the second kiss was what made it A Thing.

So maybe yes, as a viewer of How to End a Love Story’s fictional television program, second kisses are a bigger deal than first kisses!

But in real life, your mileage may vary.

“I love hungry, ambitious, obsessive women.”

Helen and Grant are linked through a tragedy that occurred when they were teenagers. Was that why you made Helen a successful YA writer?
I wanted to write someone who was a little mentally stuck in her senior year of high school, but was chafing against it as she was trying to grow as a person and an artist. YA felt like a natural fit for that journey, in the context of this story.

I have a much younger sister; the age gap between us is 14 years. I definitely felt some pressure to be a good role model for my sister, and I was very consciously avoiding themes that might feel too “adult” in my work for a long time as a result. 

If you watch any of my vlogs on my YouTube channel from the 2010s (haha please don’t), I think it’s very clear I’m speaking primarily to a YA audience on early BookTube, while also fully embracing the twee Tumblr culture of the era which manifested in me and my work as, how should we describe it . . . a pretty and sexless aesthetic? Does that feel accurate? I was so horny and so repressed, and the YA of it all definitely played a role: It meant I could talk about romance and fandom without worrying that my mother would die of shame or my sister couldn’t watch my vlogs or read the books I was recommending.

Anyway, I eventually got over that, and so did Helen.

Great novels don’t necessarily result in great movies. What do you think a book needs in order to translate well to the screen?
A good screenwriter and a great premise.

Read our starred review of ‘How to End a Love Story’ by Yulin Kuang.

What is it about Emily Henry’s work that you connect to? What is the easiest part of translating it to the screen, and what is the hardest part?
I’ve spent so much time trying to claw my way into the mind of Emily Henry, I sometimes wonder if she senses it. Emily, can you hear me right now?!

In seriousness, I first connected with Emily’s work because we both appear to be obsessed with romance, ’90s rom-coms and art with a meta component. I told Sarah MacLean all this when we first met over lunch, and she looked at me like I had missed something obvious, then said, “And grief, clearly.” I wonder if all writers writing after the pandemic are a little obsessed with grief, though.

The easiest part: Emily’s dialogue adapts like butter. The hardest part is finding visually compelling ways to show all that lovely interiority onscreen.

What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll stick with novels or go back to the screen? 
I have two more novels due in this book deal, so I will be chained to my laptop trying to squeeze blood from rocks for another 200K-ish words.

In the meantime, I have a couple projects in various stages of development on the screen side—one adaptation, one original. I like to be creatively nimble.

Photo of Yulin Kuang by Sela Shiloni.

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