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Yulin Kuang On Her Debut Novel, Directing ‘Beach Read’ and Friendship with Emily Henry


Yulin Kuang can trace the trajectory of her entire writing career back to one pivotal moment: finding out about fan fiction.

The screenwriter and soon-to-be director of “Beach Read” published her own debut romance novel, “How to End a Love Story,” on April 9. But she’s only now a writer because of a deal she made with herself when she was a teenager crafting stories about the characters in the “Harry Potter” series.

“I made this deal with myself that I was like, if I can get my Harry-Ginny one shot on the end of year Top 10 list on LiveJournal, I will have a career for myself as a professional writer. And I did, and now I do,” Kuang tells with a laugh.

Kuang, 34, is living out that promise to her teen self by working in Hollywood and now, writing her own fiction. Her debut novel is an enemies-to-lovers story set in L.A., where Helen, a New York author, asks for a seat in the writing room for the TV adaptation of her bestselling young adult novel.

Just before the team is set to start scripting, she finds out one of the writers is her old high school classmate Grant, with whom she has a complicated and troubled past. Helen and Grant have to work together and rehash the traumatic accident that has bonded them together — while none of their fellow writers know their history.

Kuang is also working closely with fellow romance author and friend Emily Henry on two screen adaptations. Kuang wrote the screenplay for “People We Meet on Vacation” and is set to adapt and direct “Beach Read.”

Henry gushes over Kuang’s book in a statement to “It was genuinely one of my favorite novels I read last year and quite probably one of my favorite romance novels I’ve ever read.

“I told her that I had to take a little intermission in the middle of reading it because I was trying to write my own book at the time and hers was so good that it was all I could think about,” Henry adds. “It made me feel even luckier than I already did to get a chance to work with her. Twice over! She’s the real deal.”

From fan fiction to Hollywood

When asked where she grew up, Kuang says she’s a Jersey girl at her core. “And also Kansas. But also China,” she says.

She adds, for clarity, that she was born in Guangzhou, China, before her family moved to Wichita, Kansas, when she was 3. At age 8, her family moved to New Jersey, where she spent her adolescence living in several suburbs and, of course, discovering fan fiction.

“That journey started in like a purple marble composition notebook,” she says with a laugh. “There was like this really big gap between book four and book five (of ‘Harry Potter’), and so like many kids, I think I got impatient. And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve learned to like, string sentences together. Maybe I can just like write myself a book five, just to amuse myself until it comes out.'”

During one Saturday Chinese school class, one of Kuang’s classmates told her about a fan fiction website, where she found a story, or “song fic,” inspired by a Vanessa Williams song.

“Oh my God, this person is writing this thing, and it’s kind of similar, kind of, to my situation,” she recalls thinking at the time. “And based off of the way that they’re spelling words. I think they’re in London. And isn’t it crazy that somebody in London was having the same experience as me, a kid in suburban New Jersey?”

“It did something to my brain,” she says.

So, she abandoned her draft of a novel — which was really just a “Pearl Harbor fan fic,” she reluctantly admits — created an account and delved into writing Lily and James Potter, Marauders-era “Harry Potter” fan fiction.

“I grew up in the trenches of fan fiction,” she summarizes.

After reaching her goal of making the Top 10 on LiveJournal, a community publishing site, Kuang headed to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She planned to study creative writing, international relations and politics to pursue her then-dream of becoming a White House press correspondent, but she realized political journalism wasn’t actually her true passion.

“It turned out I just really wanted to watch ‘The West Wing.’ Or potentially make ‘The West Wing,'” she says.

“And I was like, ‘Well, if it’s gonna be really hard, no matter what the f— I do, I should go for the thing that I actually want to do,’ which at that point in time was screenwriting,” she adds.

After falling in love with writing and directing through her university’s film club, Kuang moved out to Los Angeles for the NBCUniversal Page Program, in which she described herself as a “very bad employee” in her rotation at the Talent Relations department. (NBCUniversal is the parent company of 

After a snafu delivering wrap gifts to the cast and crew of “The Office” ended in tears, Kuang says she knew she wouldn’t be landing a job at the end of the program.

But, while working as a page, she was making short films on the weekends and sending them to film festivals.

“Everything I was doing at that point in time was coming of age stuff, so somebody told me to check out VidCon, which is this convention for online video,” she says. “So I went there, and it was this sea of screaming teenage girls and I was like, ‘Oh my god, my people are here.'”

What ensued was a string of online ventures she now rattles off in a list, including two YouTube channels, a web series and a viral post on Tumblr. Her “big break” came after she made a short film that was adapted into a TV series for the CW streaming platform.

“I was like 27 years old, and we made a TV show and it premiered to the second-lowest ratings that the CW had ever had at that point in time,” she says through laughter. “It was promptly pulled and thrust online.”

The setbacks didn’t end there: The back cover of “How to End a Love Story” boasts that Kuang was fired from a Hallmark movie for being “too hip for Hallmark.”

And after several failed pitches, Kuang was launched into the studio system in 2018 when one of her pitches was finally accepted and bought, though the project never took off, she says. She worked on multiple pilots that “languished in development” for several years, but it wasn’t until she was handed the manuscript for Henry’s “People We Meet on Vacation” during the pandemic that she knew she had to be involved with the adaptation.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this has more locations than a James Bond movie. This could be so expensive.’ But also, the writing is really warm and lovely,” she says. “This is giving me all those correct feelings that a good romance novel gives me and I think I could make this a movie.”

Working with — and becoming friends with — Emily Henry

Writing the film adaptation for the 2021 romance novel “People We Meet on Vacation” reminded Kuang of her entry into the genre, driven by a search for escapism.

Starting around 2016, she tore through Sherry Thomas, Sarah MacLean and Courtney Milan. She says she was resistant to reading contemporary romance until she read “The Hating Game” by Sally Thorne and never looked back.

Kuang got to know Henry’s work before she knew Henry herself. While working on the “People We Meet on Vacation” script, she says she didn’t interact with the author much beyond an initial call.

“I remember asking her, ‘Is there anything from the book that you definitely want in the movie?’ And she was kind of like, ‘No, I’m good. I trust you,'” Kuang recalls. “And I was like, ‘That’s crazy. Because I could do insane s—. I wouldn’t trust anyone.’ But then she did tell me a thing. And I was like, ‘OK, good. Good, good, good.'”

In the early days, Kuang says their relationship wasn’t quite a friendship.

“I kind of feel like we, Emily and I, were thrust into this marriage of convenience by our respective industries,” she says.

Things changed after Henry sent her a message saying she loved the script, Kuang recalls, and their friendship began to truly blossom once she was asked to work on “Beach Read,” Henry’s adult romance debut published in 2020. “Beach Read” will mark Kuang’s feature film directorial debut.

“I wrote (the ‘People We Meet on Vacation’ script) and then they came back to me and were like, ‘We liked what you did. Do you want to do ‘Beach Read?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, obviously.’ So here we are.”

After that offer, Kuang says she felt able to speak with Henry more freely. They ended up talking often and have since developed “a beautiful friendship,” she says.

“It’s like finding this person who seems to understand, on a fundamental level, what you’re trying to do artistically and also has to interface with a lot of the same gripes, but from a different perspective,” Kuang says. “It’s kind of like seeing an alternate universe of like, what if I had done publishing instead of film.”

The feeling is mutual, according to Henry.

“Working with Yulin has been a dream. She’s so smart, with an acerbic wit, but also a secret softness, and I think that combination is what makes her such an exceptional writer,” Henry says in a statement to “She’s a keen observer of human nature, which makes her not only a phenomenal writer when it comes to her original characters, but also an ideal person to adapt. Because she truly inhabits characters’ voices.”

“Sometimes she’ll send me quick text messages just to get a gut check on original material she’s writing for one of the screenplays, which I think shows a really lovely respect for the readers and desire to make sure she’s capturing what they love about a specific book — but the truth is, those gut checks have been totally unnecessary, because any changes she makes or scenes she adds are so deeply rooted in an understanding of the characters that they only make the scripts feel more spiritually aligned with the books,” Henry continues.

About those ‘Beach Read’ casting rumors…

Kuang is mum with details about “Beach Read” — mostly because while she’s finished the first draft and is working on revisions, details can still change.

“I knew from the start, approach-wise, that I wanted the viewer experience to feel like they were reading a favorite book. So I was writing towards that,” she says.

“Sometimes the things that play really well in a book do not translate to screen. And if you try to be too faithful to the text, then you’re sometimes doing a disservice to the medium you’re trying to translate it over to,” she adds.

But she has seen the excitement about the movie online, including the online fervor over the possibility of Paul Mescal and Ayo Edebiri playing the two leads.

“We’re so early days that we aren’t really even having those conversations, is what I can tell you,” she says of casting. “But no bad ideas here, guys. I love the enthusiasm.”

“It’s thrilling to see people so excited,” she continues. “I come from fandom and so I understand how how like it feels to see everything like, snowballing. I remember when all the ‘Harry Potter’ books were getting announced, and I would like watch, like foaming at the mouth and trying to read between the lines. God, I do miss being able to be in fandom from that end.”

Making her own romance debut

While Kuang was drafting the script for “People We Meet on Vacation,” she decided to write her own novel during National Novel Writing Month in November 2021. And after hearing an executive admit during a meeting she also used to write fan fiction, Kuang re-read one of her pieces and found inspiration.

She explains that in Hollywood, it’s easy to get stuck with the trappings associated with the “rom-com” label.

“That label can have this flattening effect where everybody thinks that it’s about kissing and comedy. And you forget that there is this other spectrum of angst and suffering that you can also explore, while still delivering on that happily ever after,” she says.

Her fan fiction, however, reached towards that angst.

“I read back my old fan fic and I was like, I missed this sensibility,” she says. “So I decided to write a book to see what I would make if I didn’t have to convince other people to get on board first.”

It wasn’t until about 36 hours before November 1 — the first day of National Novel Writing Month — that Kuang came up with the premise of “How to End a Love Story,” then titled “Good in a Room.” In it, Helen, a novelist, and a screenwriter named Grant are linked by the death of Helen’s younger sister.

How to End a Love Story
The cover of “How to End a Love Story.”

“I knew I wanted something that would link the two of them and be a shared wound because it was something that I was thinking about a lot as I was adapting Emily’s books,” Kuang says. “Because I was like, ‘What is it that I resonate with so much here? How have you been hurt by the world, Emily, that I seem to resonate with these parts so much? Like were we hurt by the same things in some way?’ I wanted to give them that.”

Kuang says she wasn’t sure if she could actually execute the ambitious and complicated plot, but her nerves became the motivation needed to attempt it.

“Going into the book, I was like, this premise needs a better writer than I am right now to write it,” she says. “And then I was like, the only way I can get better is by trying to become that writer in the process. I felt myself stretching towards something that I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull off, which is what always excites me the most.”

It’s the same with movies, she says.

“In filmmaking, whenever there’s something that I’m like, I’m not sure we’re gonna be able to pull this off, but I know I want to — that’s always a really good creative compass for me.”

Readers are introduced to the dark premise immediately, with the opening scene occurring at Helen’s sister’s funeral. The story was partially influenced by the people Kuang knows who have struggled with mental health issues, and the struggles she’s faced herself.

“I wanted to explore what happens to the people left behind and what it is to love somebody or be impacted by them — even not knowing them so much, in Grant’s case — and surviving suicide loss,” she says.

Kuang prefaces that Helen’s sister is not representative of her own younger sister.

“It was exploring the feeling of having a sibling who you don’t feel like is there, that you don’t have access to in the way that other people do with their siblings,” she says.

As for Kuang’s younger sister’s reaction to finding out about the premise?

“She’s 14 years younger than me,” she explains, with a laugh. “And she was kind of like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s fine.’”


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