“Baking is my way of de-stressing,” Jenny Han says, hovering over a tray of cake in the private kitchen of Manhattan’s Milk Bar flagship. “There are all these rules in place, and then when you’re done, there’s an actual finished product.” She cuts out a perfect circle, and sets the piece of cake to the side. The second movie in Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, P.S. I Still Love You, is about to drop on Netflix, and ahead of the movie’s press blitz, I’ve met the author at a baking class to indulge in her favorite form of escapism. “With a book, it can go on infinitely. You can keep messing with it, or feel like it’s not quite there yet. But when you’re baking, you know. It makes me feel in control…” she trails off. “In a world full of chaos?” I ask. She pops a scrap of cake in her mouth and nods.
Chaotic is one way to describe the last two years of Han’s life. In 2018, Netflix released To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, about a Korean-American teen whose secret love letters make their way into the hands of her crushes. The movie became one of the streaming giant’s most-watched originals ever, and threw the internet into Peter Kavinsky-fueled hysteria. Stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo became overnight celebrities, and Han, a former children’s librarian, became a books-to-movies titan, joining the likes of John Greene and Stephenie Meyer in YA immortality.
But Han has been a quiet force in children’s literature for more than a decade. Though we only just met, I feel like I’ve known her my whole life; I was 11 years old when I read her first book, Shug, and flipping to Han’s author photo, I saw someone who looked like me. We often talk about books changing our lives, but in this case, it was the author who changed mine. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the rare YA novel to hit the best-seller list that features an Asian person on the cover, and Lara Jean is the rare Asian lead of a teen movie. With the film and publishing industries still overwhelmingly white, there’s pressure on artists of color to speak for a monolith. Han insists a collective story doesn’t exist. “Often, if you saw a book written by a person of color, you assume it was going to be a hard read, about suffering and struggle and pain,” she says. “People walk past it thinking, ‘I just want something fun to read at the beach.’” With To All the Boys, Han accomplishes just that: an Asian girl, content in her identity, falling in love.
But before there was Jenny Han, the New York Times-bestselling author, there was Jenny Han the young baker. Growing up in Virginia, the eldest of two daughters of Korean immigrants, Han was drawn to what would become a lifelong hobby out of necessity. “My grandparents lived with us until I was 10,” she recalls, “and my grandma used to do all the cooking. I really wanted certain American treats, and she didn’t know how to make them, so I started baking my own stuff really young.”
She also began writing very young—around the age of seven—but the possibility of turning her passion into a career seemed unrealistic. Her mother ran a small grocery store while her father worked for Phillip Morris, and like so many children of immigrants, Han felt a certain pressure to pursue a good, stable job—nurse, doctor, lawyer. To think practically. “Immigrant parents don’t want their children to suffer or have to live harder than they did,” Han explains. Still, her parents supported her writing, offering encouragement when she needed it most. “Getting an MFA comes down to not just talent, but luck and timing. But [my mom] said, ‘We really believe in your talent. We know you’re going to make it.’” While pursuing the degree at the New School, Han wrote and sold Shug. In her early novels, Han wrote white protagonists, with Asian characters relegated to the sidelines of the story. It wasn’t until To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that she introduced her first Asian lead. When I ask if that was a strategic decision, she takes a moment to respond. “I think I was strategic about the timing,” she says. “Right now, we’re in a moment where people are really celebrating diversity. I don’t think people are aware of how new that is,” Han says. “Culture has moved. In some ways, so slowly. In some ways, really fast.”
Han watched the shift in real-time as she pitched the first To All the Boys movie. Most production companies didn’t care that Lara Jean is Asian. “That’s why authors are always saying, ‘Authors don’t cast the movies,’ because you can give your input on it, but they don’t have to listen to you,” Han says. “I think Hollywood is very risk-averse. It’s all about being able to green-light something and having a proven entity. There’s no teen version of Julia Roberts because young actresses haven’t had the opportunity to have a long career, and people who show up for you no matter what,” she adds. “Kristen Stewart did an amazing job in Twilight, but it wasn’t her name that brought people [to theaters], it was the story. She has on her resume that opening weekend, she was able to get X amount of dollars, then she gets her next project, and she builds and builds and builds. When you are a person of color and you’re not given an opportunity for those parts, how do you have a chance?” Ultimately, Overbrook Entertainment was the only company willing to back an Asian star. Han wanted Condor as Lara Jean after seeing her in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and pitched her for the role. “Lana’s a person who has chemistry with a lot of people,” Han explains. “She’s really good at connecting with her eyes and Noah is the same way. They’re both really magnetic people.”
Condor, for her part, thinks of Han as an older sister. “That relationship is probably the most meaningful I got out of the whole experience,” Condor says. “The other day we were on the phone for four hours, and it was 4 a.m. her time. I’m like, ‘What the heck?!’ She explains that Han’s influence is palpable in every detail on set. “She cares really deeply, down to the eraser in the drawer of Lara Jean’s desk that you as an audience will never see. She knows about that.”
Which brings us to the new movie: To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. “I think it’s better than the first one,” Han declares. “Terminator 2 is one of my favorite movies, [but] you rarely ever see a sequel elevate what the first one did. I think this one does.” The movie picks up with heroine Lara Jean (Condor) officially dating Peter (Centineo), but the reappearance of John Ambrose McClaren, one of Lara Jean’s other letter recipients, introduces a love triangle to the story. “Casting John Ambrose McClaren was the hardest part, because so much of who he is is what he means to Lara Jean,” says Han. “He’s quiet, but then he’s got inner confidence. It’s hard to find that in one person.” In a minor re-casting from the first movie, Rent: Live star Jordan Fisher was chosen for the role. “When you think of a multi-hyphenate talent, that’s Jordan,” Han raves. “When you see him on the screen, he is just electric.”
Han’s fans match her enthusiasm. Even before the movie adaptations made Han a household name, she attended a signing in the Philippines where fans camped out overnight for a day-long signing. “I wasn’t modulating how much I was smiling, and the next day, I couldn’t even chew,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night with shooting pains in my face.” It got crazier after the first movie’s release. “There was such a huge reception and people were really excited about it, and all of that was amazing,” Han recalls. “But it was also a lot of press and events.” She became exhausted, and the whirlwind led her to create a decision-making metric. “I would ask myself three questions: Is it fun? Is it easy? Is it really worth it? You’ll be amazed at how easily you can work things out if you ask those questions.”
With massive success comes the judging eye of the Internet, but in the era of cancel culture, Han remains positive. “It’s hard of any artist, not just authors, [when] you know immediately how people feel about something you put out. But you have to find ways within yourself to write with the door closed. People are gonna feel however they feel about it. You have to be able to get up in the morning and write again and be brave and take the swings.” Han is Extremely Online, and relishes interacting with her readers; her Twitter and Instagram accounts reach a following of half a million. “I think social media allows you to have that direct line to readers. It’s really nice to feel close to the people reading your books, because they feel like they know you, and in a way, they do,” she says. I’m reminded of my freshman year of high school, when I’d submit questions to Han’s Tumblr for her fan Q&As. Mine ultimately went unanswered. Han laughs—these days, there are 10 times as many queries. “My website used to have my email address and all these ways to contact me, then I would feel such guilt because there’s no way I can get through my inbox. It’s better to take the stress out of the equation.” She’s only one woman, after all, though a woman who’s profoundly impacted a lot of young writers—myself among them.
Upon completing our birthday cake masterpieces (hers more masterful than mine), I present her with my copy of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. It’s an advanced version, a gift from a former ELLE.com editor when I was just an intern, and one of my most prized possessions. Overwhelmed, I start crying, and Han pulls me into a hug. It’s because of her that I was able to see myself as a writer in an industry that historically excludes writers who look like me. She understands.
And yet… “I’m jealous of you,” Han told me at the beginning of our time together. Me?! I was stunned. “With the name Ariana,” she continued. “One of my favorite songs of 2018 is ‘Thank U, Next.’ You can really be like, ‘Her name is Ari,’” she sings. “Twenty-eighteen was a very hectic year. I felt like [that song] was the perfect goodbye to it. ‘Thank you,’ with gratitude, you know what I mean?” She’ll need a new anthem for 2020.