Abigail Hing Wen began her journey to writing Loveboat, Taipei decades ago. Just like the young characters at the heart of her delightful novel, she attended a program to learn Mandarin in Taiwan. Once there she realized that it was far from the strict schooling she expected. But it wasn’t until two decades later that she began to write about it. Now that book has become a huge hit, a bestseller with a movie adaptation on the way and a sequel novel. That sequel, Loveboat Reunion, debuts soon. To celebrate the book’s release, we chatted with the author about her journey as a writer, what to expect from the Loveboat, Taipei movie, and what’s in store for Xavier and Sophie in Loveboat Reunion.
Nerdist: You’ve spoken about the origin of Loveboat, Taipei being real summer programs, but when did it really coalesce and start to become the story that you put out into the world?
Abigail Hing Wen: I think I wrote the book 20 years after I attended the program because I was on a journey as a writer and I didn’t feel like I was ready to tackle such a big story. But my husband had gone on the program as well. So it was something that we talked about throughout the years. We’d go to parties and it’d be one of those things where you’d go, “Oh, you went on Loveboat, remember all those stories?” And I was at a party at Stacey Lee’s house and someone said, “Someone really needs to make this into a young adult novel.” So that may have been like the first seed that made me think maybe I should just try and tackle this.
What was that process like of actually writing the book and taking it to that place where you felt happy with it, and then putting it out there?
I’ve shared elsewhere that I wrote 26 drafts! Many people have gone on this trip, 1000s of real people. It’s a real program that’s been around since the 1960s. So all different types of people have gone, so it took me a while to settle who was going to be the main narrator. I had four main characters initially who ended up being my four mains in the book: Ever, Rick, Sophie, and Xavier. The 26 drafts were telling the story from those four points of view. And eventually I realized that was just too many for one book. So I scrapped them all and consolidated with Ever Wong. And that became the version that’s now on the shelves. It’s just her point of view, but the characters are fully realized because I spent so much time writing their points of view.
The book became a massive success and was so well received. What was that like?
It has been life changing for sure. It’s been such a privilege to have so many people tell me what the book means to them. For them to feel like, “Oh, these are my stories. I feel seen.” My marketing person, I talk about her all the time. Jane Lee at Harper, she was the first person to say that to me. She said she read the book three times and that she’d never felt so seen before. She told me I will do everything that I can to make this book a success. And she did. Since then, I’ve just received so many notes like that from people who either relate to the ethnic identity journey, the cultural identity journey, or this this journey that Ever has or trying to pursue your dreams. The dancer while honoring her parents who want her to be a doctor.
And when you were writing the book did you ever imagine it might become a film?
I don’t know that I thought about it specifically. But I have always been told my writing is cinematic. Before Loveboat, Taipei was picked up, I’d had two novels come close at a major publishing house and couldn’t get through marketing. This was before Crazy Rich Asians opened up the world for diverse storytelling and diverse casts. Same with Hamilton. I consider Hamilton one of my forebearers. One of my books that had come close, we had talked about making that one into a movie. So it’s one of those things I didn’t aspire to because it’s just so hard. It’s already hard enough to publish a book. You know, I didn’t want to raise the bar that high for myself. So it’s definitely been such a joy to be on the journey now.
You’re literally just about to head out to Taiwan to start shooting the Loveboat, Taipei movie now. What does that feel like?
It’s magical. Reading the scripts and seeing it evolve was for me like experiencing the multiverse. I describe it as Loki meeting another Loki. It’s really very personal because this book is me. Each of these characters, they’re all parts of myself. They all come from my imagination. Seeing the script evolve was like seeing someone else holding the pen and making my characters do things that I’d never made them do, but yet are actually quite true to who they are.
Alongside the making of the Loveboat, Taipei movie, the sequel novel Loveboat Reunion is out in the world. Did you always plan to write a second book, or was it something that came naturally from getting to know these characters so well?
Book one is about Ever Wong going to Taipei to learn language and culture, but it also really ends up being a story of identity, right? She’s trying to determine her identity and all its facets. Ethnic identity, who she is as a daughter, as a friend, as someone in romantic relationships. I think book two is a journey of coming into your own power. Sophie and Xavier are the characters that Ever meets on Loveboat in book one. They’re two fan favorites that I’m excited to continue the journey with. Both of them kind of went through a tough summer. Sophie had gone on the boat, looking for a husband wanting to marry well, and now she is swearing off boys. It was a disastrous summer, so now she’s doubling down as a freshman at Dartmouth trying to be the best computer science major that she could be.
Meanwhile, Xavier also had a somewhat disastrous Summer. He’s coming to terms with his learning differences and trying to get out from under his controlling father’s boot. How? He’s trying to get the trust fund that his mother left behind. But unfortunately at the last minute his father pulls the rug out from under him and takes away the trust fund until he graduates from high school. So now Xavier is stuck repeating high school until he graduates. So together the two of them decide to take control of their own futures. They end up on this reunion trip to Taiwan to do some further explorations. That’s kind of how the story came about. Or how the story evolved.
After doing the 26 drafts, I did feel like I just had so much more story to tell about these characters. And Xavier especially. So I’m thrilled that they have this opportunity.
Loveboat Reunion releases on January 25, 2022.