Stella Lane, the protagonist of Helen Hoang's charming and original debut novel The Kiss Quotient, out June 5, thinks things through. It’s what she does best, and it’s what made her a star in her high-powered Silicon Valley tech company. Though she's flawless at designing efficient systems, Stella is admittedly less adept at dating. Stella's Asperger's Syndrome makes navigating the nuances of interpersonal socializing — essentially, the entire basis of dating — a nearly insurmountable challenge.
At the start of The Kiss Quotient, Stella decides it's time to tackle her sex and dating problem in typical no-nonsense, Stella fashion: She hires an escort to walk her through a series of lessons in lovemaking. But Stella can't plan out everything. Namely, she never could've guessed what an utter dreamboat her escort, Michael Phan, would be.
The joys of The Kiss Quotient are twofold: It's a perfect romance novel to read in a weekend, and it's also an intimate look at dating (and living!) while neurodiverse. Hoang infused Stella's first person narration, which vacillates between earnestness, anxiety, and tremendous excitement, with her very personal perspective. Hoang was diagnosed with autism as she was writing the book. We emailed with Hoang about the The Kiss Quotient, neurodiverse fiction, and the challenges of writing about social interactions when you struggle with them yourself.
Refinery29: Have you always wanted to be a writer? Why did you choose to write this book now?
Helen Hoang: "I first realized I wanted to write in high school, but it was strongly discouraged by my dad, so I got an undergraduate business degree and worked in finance after college, which was probably the worst possible career choice for me.
"I don’t think I can say I chose to write this book. I had to write it. It was a need. When I learned about the way autism spectrum disorder presents in many women and personally identified with the diagnosis, the story for The Kiss Quotient exploded in my head in full color. I daydreamed about it nonstop for a full week, running the story through my head from beginning to end over and over. After that, there was no question about it. If I didn’t write the story, it would be unbearable. I wrote the synopsis and began the process of translating daydreams into words."
How did you draw on your own experiences with autism spectrum disorder to create the character of Stella?
"I was pursuing an autism diagnosis while I worked on this book, and writing Stella helped me explore aspects of myself I’d always hidden and never understood: difficulty with relationships and intimacy, all-consuming interests, social awkwardness, routines, repetitive motions. Beyond that, her insecurities with regards to her label are also mine. This book (and Stella) helped me embrace my differences and find the courage to share my diagnosis with my loved ones."
Khai, Michael’s friend’s brother, also has autism. Why did you include another neurodiverse character?
"I thought it would make more sense if Michael had some exposure to other people on the spectrum. In addition to that, I wanted to draw attention to the different ways autism presents in different people, in particular women versus men."
How did you approach writing sex scenes for a character who doesn’t like touch?
"For Stella, I feel her intimacy issues stemmed more from lack of trust than a dislike of touch. Through her scenes with Michael, I tried to illustrate the importance of earning trust at her pace. When someone isn’t ready, there’s nothing to gain from rushing them, and a partner needs to respect that. That respect, in turn, creates trust, which enables intimacy.
Stella is comfortable with Michael, but her social awkwardness comes through when she meets his family. What were the challenges of writing about Stella in social situations — especially if it’s something you personally struggle with as well?
"Those scenes where Stella fumbled socially were extremely difficult for me to write. For example, I rewrote the scene where Stella first comes to Michael’s mom’s house more than half a dozen times. It was extremely frustrating, but my agent’s guidance helped to keep me on track as I analyzed and combined the worst parts of several of my past experiences to make one fantastically horrible experience for Stella."
How do you hope The Kiss Quotient impacts readers’ perception and understanding of neurodiverse individuals?
"I wanted to show that while a neurodiverse person’s thought processes may be slightly different, they still have the same fundamental needs and desires as anyone else and, more often than not, good intentions. I hope that this inspires empathy and better communication between people of varying neurotypes."
What can we expect from the next book in the series?
"The Bride Test is about Michael’s autistic cousin Khai. When he avoids relationships out of the misbelief that he has no emotions, his mom takes matters into her own hands and gets him a mail order bride. The novel follows these two over the course of a summer of forced proximity."
Are there any other books featuring neurodiverse characters, or written by neurodiverse authors, you recommend?
"Tracey Livesay’s Love on My Mind and Brenna Aubrey’s For the One are great romances featuring neurodiverse characters. As for books featuring neurodiverse characters written by neurodiverse authors, I recommend the memoir Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison and the young adult novel The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas."
Finally, what are you reading now?
"Because I’ve been so busy with writing and book promotion, I’m embarrassingly behind on current books, but I really want to read Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals books, Kate Clayborn’s Luck of the Draw, Christine Feehan’s Judgement Road, Christina Lauren’s Love and Other Words, Nalini Singh’s Silver Silence, Penelope Douglas’s Birthday Girl, Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers books, and Lynn Turner’s Pas de Deux."