SAN DIEGO - When Helen Hoang was 12 years old, she skipped lunch for an entire week, hoarding her lunch money so she could buy something more delicious than a midday meal: her first romance novel.
Hoang soon realized love stories would feed her in a way nothing else could. Back then, she struggled with simple interactions but didn't know why. Getting lost in a romance novel gave her the vicarious thrill of falling in love without having to talk to or touch anyone.
"I felt like I was buying drugs or porn," Hoang said of that first purchase, noting that she tried to hide her obsession from her parents by picking covers and titles that didn't scream sex. Eventually she amassed an entire shelf of bodice-rippers. And by the end of high school, she'd written her own. Hoang's first reader was her father, who warned: "If you're going to be a writer, you're going to be poor."
That paternal pronouncement, plus Hoang's sense that "growing up" meant quitting romance novels, led her to abandon them in college. But her brain kept chasing the endorphin rush of imagining two people in the throes of passion. At night she would lie awake for hours, drafting love stories in her head. She tried working in finance and managing her mother's eucalyptus farm, but she was miserable. After Hoang gave birth to her first child eight years ago, she allowed herself to write again.
Now, 25 years since she rode her bicycle to Kmart to buy that first romance novel, 37-year-old Hoang has published two of her own: "The Kiss Quotient" and "The Bride Test," both of which have gotten rave reviews and "best of" accolades. A screenplay for "The Kiss Quotient" is in the works. Her third book ("The Heart Principle") is set to publish next year.
She is not poor. She is incredibly successful in a genre that is difficult to break into, especially for women of color. And she's figured out why socializing has always been difficult: At age 34, Hoang learned she had Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism. That revelation inspired her to create characters who are also on the autism spectrum, a trait that had yet to be explored in the romance genre and is resonating with readers.
"The Kiss Quotient," for example, follows Stella, a young woman with Asperger's who's never enjoyed sex, so she hires an escort, Michael, to teach her to be comfortable in the bedroom. Stella's path to a happy ending is littered with obstacles, from her discomfort with human touch to her frank - and sometimes unintentionally insensitive - conversation style. The portrayal is a revelation, both for readers with Asperger's, who have never seen themselves so accurately or compassionately depicted, and those without, who gain a better understanding of the difficulties of finding love on the spectrum.
For Hoang, receiving a diagnosis was healing, as if a puzzle piece that had long been missing finally locked into place. "I felt that I could sort of grieve for that girl that I was," Hoang said in an interview at her home recently, describing her childhood as a time she was "drowning in loneliness." If she'd known why it was so hard for her to make friends, perhaps those years would have been less isolating.
Instead, Hoang expended an extreme amount of effort to fit in as a teenager, often with little success. "I remember there was a time when this girl - she told me that my facial expressions were scary," Hoang said, noting that she would study the faces people made on television and in real life and practice them in the mirror.
Hoang also relates to Michael, a character with Vietnamese roots, a mother who's battling cancer and a distant father. Michael, just as much as Stella, has to work through his insecurities to see himself worthy of love. The next book in Hoang's series, "The Bride Test," follows Michael's autistic cousin, Khai, whose mother travels to Vietnam to find him a wife. There she picks Esme Tran, who agrees to spend a summer at Khai's house near San Francisco, where cultural miscommunications are just as disorienting as social ones. Hoang's nuanced portrayal shows how the condition can look different in a man. For starters, they don't try as hard to fit in.
Hoang's books and her own love story show that misreading social cues isn't always a hindrance. When Hoang was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the early 2000s, she asked her martial arts instructor to lunch. "Oh no, I already ate," Hoang recalls him saying. Hoang wasn't deterred. The next time, she inquired about dinner. Again, he'd already eaten. The next time, she had a new proposition: Dessert? He didn't like sweets before bed. Someone else might have gotten dissuaded, interpreting this man's "no thanks" as lack of interest. But the teacher didn't realize his student was asking him out. Eventually, on about the sixth try, he agreed to see a movie with Hoang and realized halfway through that this was a date.
"I basically ran him down like a stag," Hoang said with a chuckle, of the martial arts teacher who's now her husband. "He's a physicist," Hoang said, as if being a scientist is code for clueless. Over a decade later, Hoang's husband is a lot more observant: Without her vocalizing it, he can tell when she just needs to sit on the couch and let her brain unwind.
Hoang is so high-functioning - "for me it doesn't feel like a disability," she said of her autism - that she doesn't always feel comfortable taking on the label. But the diagnosis has helped her better understand herself and set boundaries. She doesn't do book tours or in-person signings, for example. She doesn't always get jokes or grasp when she's being made fun of. The day we met for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant near her home, Hoang brought a Rubik's-style cube, so she could twist anytime there was a lull in conversation, and wore a T-shirt promising FREE HUGS above a growling cartoon dinosaur. When her husband picked out the shirt for her, she was confused. "Are people gonna hug me now?" she asked. The contrasting messages of the inviting phrase and ferocious creature did not compute.
In Hoang's world, cubing is a verb and a calming practice. (Stickerless jelly cubes provide a better tactile experience than the standard Rubik's, she insisted.) Cubing is a way to be present without having to engage with those around her. There are no social cues to read, only an algorithm to master.
Making eye contact takes more effort than it might for someone else. But ask Hoang about writing a sex scene, and her gaze becomes laser-focused. Like a choreographer directing her dancers how they should move and what emotions their bodies should evoke, Hoang lays out the key elements. A good love scene, she said with intensity and precision, "needs to have a purpose and it needs to be moving the story forward," she said. It should never be gratuitous. The love scenes in her books focus on establishing trust first and then building intimacy.
Just talking about how to write a good one - what words to use and which to avoid - is so steamy, her glasses fog up. On her phone she keeps a picture of her mentor, romance novelist Brighton Walsh, dealing a thumb's down to some of the smarmier words for certain body parts. Walsh selected Hoang's manuscript for "The Kiss Quotient" during the contest Pitch Wars, in which established authors pick unpublished writers to help through the publishing process.
Hoang has by far been her most successful Pitch Wars author. "Helen's work stood out immediately," Walsh said, "because it made me laugh on the first page and it takes a lot to do that."
Stella's journey has resonated with readers of all kinds, from autistic readers who have "never seen themselves represented in a positive way, especially having sex and having a normal life," Hoang said, to the parents of children with autism who worry that their kids are not going to have happy futures. Her books show otherwise. "I think a lot of it is about finding the right environment and being with the right people," Hoang said. In her books, the love interests are patient and respectful of boundaries, they see their autistic partners as capable of love and worthy of it - even if the characters don't always see themselves that way.
Hoang still carries a touch of the shame she felt as a teenager who didn't want her parents to know what she was reading. Her mother was dying of cancer while "The Kiss Quotient" was in the midst of taking off, so she wasn't fully present for the highs of that journey. (Instead, she was sitting at her mother's bedside, cube in hand.) Hoang and her father have been estranged for years, but she had to let him know that she'd been diagnosed with autism (he's on the spectrum as well) - and that she'd defied his prophecy about her career. She told him she'd written a book but wouldn't give him her pen name. She doesn't even let her husband read her books in full, even though she might show him a few paragraphs here and there.
"There is sexual content that is not appropriate for him," Hoang deadpans.
At least she doesn't have to hide her obsession with romance anymore. Having just moved into a new home, Hoang finally has a room of her own - her first office where she can spin the next installment in her series. Near the door sits a basket full of cubes. Just in case she needs a distraction.