Author Helen Hoang Talks Sex, Autism And Freedom
This summer on Code Switch, we’re talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. Earlier this week, we talked to Sandra Cisneros about her dream home. Today, we’re featuring, a conversation with the romance writer Helen Hoang.
When Helen Hoang was writing her first book, The Kiss Quotient, she had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So, as she was trying to make sense of the diagnosis for herself, she pulled from her own life experiences and folded them into the romance novel, which chronicles the love life of Stella, a young woman on the autism spectrum.
And Stella isn’t the only character in The Kiss Quotient that drew from Hoang’s personal experiences. The other main character, Michael, is Asian American like Hoang, and has experienced some similarly challenging family dynamics, with a parent who doesn’t always make the best decisions.
The book came out in 2018, but I discovered it during the height of the pandemic. I was excited to read something that took my mind off all the doom and gloom. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. It’s pretty steamy — I felt a little weird re-reading it for “work.” But for the hours it took to read, it freed me from the panic of living in lockdown. So for a recent episode of the Code Switch podcast, I talked to Hoang about The Kiss Quotient, how reading it made me feel free, and how writing it made her feel free.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
For those who aren’t familiar with the book, what is The Kiss Quotient about, and what makes it stand out from other romance novels?
So this book is about a heroine, an autistic woman named Stella, who thinks she’s bad at relationships and sex. In order to get better, she decides to hire a male escort, Matthew, to talk her through how to do things. And in the process, they accidentally fall in love. I think the book has some things going for it: Clearly, the autism angle is something that hasn’t been done many times in romance. And I’m not the first, but I had never read a book with an Asian hero in it, or at least one that felt Asian.
This book definitely felt like an escape for me. As a romance writer, was it important for you to write a book that would feel like an escape for your readers?
I do believe that romance is about escape. It’s about taking you out of your real life and letting you focus on different things and experience things that you don’t in your real life. I think that that’s the strength of romance and what makes it such a positive experience. Because it frees you from everything and it just gives you a chance to celebrate emotion and celebrate the human experience.
Many people have preconceived notions about people with autism and how they should be and act, which includes them having sex. Given that, can you tell me about writing sex scenes in your book?
I think that I had heard in the past that, you know, it was offensive to write autistic people having sex and in order to be respectful, you must “infantilize” them. I was horrified by that. But when I wrote the book, I didn’t even know about those expectations around autism, because autism was still kind of new to me. I was only diagnosed with autism five years ago. But after I wrote the book, I was so glad that I did that. I wrote autistic people having sex and and I couldn’t be prouder.
This summer, we’re talking to authors about what it means to be free. How does the concept of freedom show up in your book?
I do think that the heroine, Stella, deals with a lot of insecurity about herself because she’s on the spectrum. And that’s also something that I personally live with. It was freeing to have her go through that journey where she confronts this issue and quits being ashamed of it. It felt really healthy for me to write that. I hope that other people, even if they’re not on the spectrum, can come to that same self-realization and just free themselves from their own perception of what they need to be.
I noticed a theme of letting go of things that hold you back — and not just with Stella. The hero, Michael, had deep resentment towards his father that got in the way of his opening up. Can you elaborate on that?
Michael keeps worrying that he’s similar to his father or that his family trauma defines who he is. Or even that his father defines who he is. I think learning to let go of that and to say: I’m my own person, I can be more than my past, and I can be more than where I came from was important to me. My father has also made some bad decisions in his life and to accept that I love him, even though not everything he does is good, was also freeing in a way.
Staying on the topic of freedom: Was writing this book and being diagnosed with having Autism Spectrum Disorder personally freeing for you?
I definitely think that in my case, my diagnosis did set me free. Because I think that knowledge is power, and when we know what our issues are, we’re better equipped to communicate our needs and to gain self-acceptance. I spent a lot of my life pretending to be something else because I wanted to fit in. I put so much work into trying to fit in. Sometimes it’s so much that I get burnout, and I think it’s just a really sad way to live your life. So learning that the way that I am underneath all of that is actually OK was extremely liberating.
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