Helen Hoang, Author of 'The Kiss Quotient,' Answers Questions About Romance, Autism and Self-Acceptance
“The Kiss Quotient” is an adult romance novel and may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Helen Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” follows Stella Lane, a woman who spends much of her time delving into data and numbers. She’s good at it, too, but one thing Stella hasn’t quite figured out is relationships. Stella is on the autism spectrum, and some social norms like dating haven’t come easy for her. Convinced she needs a practice relationship to get a real boyfriend, she hires a male escort.
The Mighty interviewed Hoang to get an inside look at how this story came to be, how Stella helped Hoang, who is also autistic, gain self-acceptance, and how she hopes Stella brings awareness to women on the spectrum.
The Mighty: Where did you get the idea for “The Kiss Quotient”?
Helen Hoang: Prior to writing this book, I’d been thinking about a gender-swapped “Pretty Woman” for quite some time, but I couldn’t figure out why a beautiful successful woman would hire a male escort. When my daughter’s preschool teacher suggested she was on the spectrum, that sent me on a journey of exploration that resulted in my own diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and the inspiration for Stella, “The Kiss Quotient’s” autistic heroine.
Did your own experiences on the spectrum influence how you wrote the story? If so, how?
HH: 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, etc. 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.
How did you get your diagnosis? Did getting a diagnosis help shape you as a writer?
HH: I was diagnosed by a therapist who specializes in adult autism. I believe the diagnosis and more importantly, the knowledge that I’m not alone, that there are others with my same challenges and experiences, helped me find the self-acceptance and bravery needed to trust myself as a writer and stop blindly imitating others.
The book is about romance and finding love, which is a narrative you don’t often see portrayed in various media with autistic characters. Why do you think it isn’t shown as much and why did you want to show it?
HH: There’s a common misconception that all autistic people are asexual and aromantic. While this is certainly true for a segment of the autistic population (just as it’s true for a segment of the nonautistic population), it isn’t a diagnostic criterion for autism spectrum disorder. Lots of autistic people, myself included, have and desire romantic relationships, and I wanted to portray that in a positive way.
Why is it important for female autistic characters to be written?
HH: I had two goals when I wrote Stella: I wanted to offer a peek into the mind of an autistic woman and show that while her thought processes may be slightly different, she still has the same fundamental needs and desires as anyone else, and I hoped to bring extra awareness to the existence and under-diagnosis of autism in women.
What do you hope your readers get out of this book?
HH: One of my biggest struggles has always been self-acceptance. I used to put a lot of effort into changing myself to please people, and that worked — I was able to develop relationships of a sort. But they exhausted me, and as a result, they frequently ended in failure. In order to have real relationships, I needed to feel safe being who I am. In other words, I had to learn trust and self-acceptance. I think those two things go hand-in-hand. As much as I wish I’d learned self-acceptance on my own, I realize that I needed someone to accept me the way I am before I could do it, too. Love makes you stronger, and it can come from unexpected places, because underneath it all, we’re more alike than we think.
I think one of the best parts of the book was Stella’s personal growth — not just in making relationships, but how she views her autism. Was your experience of having a “label” similar to Stella’s?
HH: Being late-diagnosed, I lived most of my life without a label, but I always felt incredibly isolated. When I learned about autism and identified with the diagnosis, I was thrilled. Finally, everything made sense, and I belonged somewhere, I wasn’t alone. But, at the same time, I didn’t know how the people around me would take the news. Would they be ashamed of me because I’m not as “perfect” as I’d always made myself out to be? Would they suddenly be afraid and uncomfortable around me? A diagnosis didn’t change me. I’m still me, the same person. I gave this fear and conflict to Stella, and writing her helped me to process what I was thinking and feeling before I eventually “came out” as autistic to my family and loved ones.
There’s a lot of research and people focused on “fixing” autism, but most advocacy is for accepting autism and neurodiversity. Was it important for you to help neurotypical readers understand how autism isn’t a bad thing, but rather a part of who Stella is?
HH: Absolutely. In the book, Stella goes through a “fresh and fabulous” regimen where she tries to “fix” herself. My goal with those scenes was to show how horribly wrong that is. She is perfectly lovable as herself, “imperfections” and all. Moreover, she could change her clothes and the things she said, break her routines, etc., but she’d always be the same inside, where it matters. Autistic isn’t bad. It’s just another way to be.