To truly grasp the plight of Lara Jean Song Covey, the protagonist of Jenny Han's book and soon-to-be-Netflix movie To All the Boys I Loved Before, let's first embark on a brief thought experiment. Take the most embarrassing memory from your high school love life. Cradle it, and do not look away. Do you feel that scorch of humiliation, still potent after all these years? Now, multiply the incident by approximately a million, and you'll understand how 16-year-old Lara Jean feels when the five secret love letters she's written to crushes are actually mailed to them.
So begins one of YA fiction's most beloved franchises, which has inspired character-themed Twitter accounts, Lara Jean mood boards, and original art. With the release of the movie on Netflix on August 17, the fandom is about to grow exponentially. We spoke to Jenny Han, the architect of Lara Jean's love story, about nail art, love triangles, and the importance of representation in YA literature (Lara Jean and her two sisters are mixed race).
Refinery29: In the book, Lara Jean is torn between Josh and Peter. How do you go about designing a love triangle?
Jenny Han: “I love love triangles. I love that exquisite agony of wanting two things, and you can’t have them both. I like to draw that feeling out. A successful love triangle is one where you’ll feel elated and heartbroken either way, no matter what happens.”
Did you know who she’d end up with when you started writing the book?
“I don’t outline anything in advance. That can be really scary. I liken it to walking blindfolded. I’m trying to head towards somewhere, but I have no idea how to get there. I don’t write in order, either. I’m taking things as they come, following my fancy.”
I saw on your Instagram that you, too, kept a hatbox of letters you wrote to boys like Lara Jean did. Can you let us in on the secrets of your own hat-box?
“When I was in high school, I started writing love letters to guys when I was trying to get over them. Pages and pages of my thoughts, feelings, and frustrations about them. Then I’d put them in an envelope, seal it up, put it in a hatbox, and never send them. It was a way for me to work through what was feeling. That’s where the idea came from.”
What would you have done if someone sent those letters out?
“I would’ve been devastated. So embarrassed. At the book launch of To All the Boys I Loved Before, I thought it would be funny if I read from one of my love letters. But when I got in front of my smiling friends and fans and read it, I realized I was so embarrassed. When you write something that you don’t mean for anyone else to see, it should probably stay that way. It’s such an intimate thing to do. I never did it again.”
The book is so chock full of the stuff of Lara Jean’s life. How did you go about choosing how Lara Jean would decorate her room, what items she would like?
“That process actually began when we worked on the cover for the first book. It was really important to me that her bedroom looked like a real girl’s room. We used stuff from my teenage bedroom in the shoot. I got a lot of little details in there — little perfume bottles, a hairbrush, shoes, pictures on the wall I cut out myself. This continued on for the second and third books. The third book has all her bedroom stuff. There’s a picture of Romeo and Juliet on the back cover, which I had cut out of a newspaper when I was 15 and the movie came out."
So all these personal secrets are embedded in the cover.
“Yeah, all these Easter eggs. There’s a copy of my book, The Summer I Turned Pretty, in her bedroom, if you look closely. There’s also a picture of me and the cover model, Helen, on the third book cover.”
Your movie happens to come out the same week as Crazy Rich Asians. How does it feel to be contributing to this moment of Asian representation in film?
“I’m really excited because for me, growing up, I never got to see an Asian American girl be the lead of a teen movie. I always loved rom-coms and teen movies, but I didn’t have that experience of seeing someone who looked like me as the star. I’m so happy to see Lana [Condor] have that opportunity, and I'm happy that other girls can see it as well.”
It goes back to the book cover, too.
“That was really important for me. I really wanted a photographic image on the cover. I wanted to have that experience of seeing that.”
Jenny Han: “The nail artist’s name is Mei. I first found out about her on Vogue online. When I went to the National Book Awards, I asked her to do the nominees’ covers on my nails. One time, I went to the Romance Writers of America conference, and I had different moments from my favorite romantic comedies on there.”
“This is such a crazy detail, but remember in Sleepless in Seattle, when Meg Ryan passes by a store with Valentine’s Day stuff? If you look closely, there are cameos on a heart. They're actually Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s’ profiles. So I did Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s profiles.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.