Writing Asperger's romance novel 'The Kiss Quotient ' was liberating for author Helen Hoang

Helen Hoang

Helen Hoang Photo by Eric Kieu

Minnesota native Helen Hoang wanted to write a Pretty Woman-style story with the gender roles reversed, but she couldn’t figure out why a successful, beautiful woman would hire a male escort.

She put the idea on hold until one day, her daughter’s preschool teacher pulled her aside and told Hoang that she thought her daughter was on the autism spectrum. “It was quite a big surprise for me because before that, I didn’t have a very big understanding of autism. I had a very stereotypical understanding of it,” says Hoang, who now lives in California.

Her research on the condition led her to Aspergirls, a book by Rudy Simone about girls with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The symptomology, which includes a tendency toward awkwardness in social interactions, resonated with Hoang. At 34, she was given a diagnosis on the spectrum as well.

From there, the basis for her debut novel was born.

The Kiss Quotient follows 30-year-old Stella, an econometrician who feels pressure from her parents to marry and produce grandchildren. At the suggestion of a creepy male co-worker that she “get some practice” in sex to land a man, Stella hires Michael Phan, a Vietnamese-Swedish escort. A love affair ensues.

As a longtime reader of romance novels, tackling the genre was a no-brainer for Hoang. “I wrote a romance the way I like to read,” she says. “I wanted to write something true-to-life.”

What makes The Kiss Quotient different from other romance novels, however, is its heroine, who struggles to reconcile intimacy with Asperger’s.

“Writing Stella was a really fun and a really liberating experience for me,” says Hoang. “I was taking these traits of myself that I’d been repressing and hiding, and I was consciously giving them to her. It felt really healthy to embrace those things. In that way, through writing her, I was exploring myself.”

As for Michael’s character, Hoang didn’t hire an escort or research the profession per se, but she was informed by the anthropological text Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison.

“At the risk of making people hate me, I think I’ve always had pretty unpopular opinions regarding prostitution,” she says. “It’s hard for me to view it as exploitative when a lot of people do it as a job. I’m not talking about people who are forced into it. When someone volunteers to do this, it’s a way to earn a living. It’s not what I would want to do to earn money, but I don’t like making that decision for other people.”

The Kiss Quotient has been lauded everywhere—including the New York Times, NPR, and NBC News —for its innovative take on modern relationships, depiction of mental health issues, and its diversity. Hoang is humble about the book’s unexpected success.

“I would like to be a trailblazer, but it’s hard to claim that because I’m not the first one who’s written an autistic character or who’s written an Asian character in romance,” she says. “The only way I’d be a trailblazer is in how supportive the public has been of this book.”

She hopes that the success of The Kiss Quotient will motivate romance novel publishers to become more inclusive of all races, genders, and abilities. She’d also like to see more “neuro-diversity,” including OCD, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia as well as mental health issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia represented in romance novel protagonists.

“I think there’s a compelling story to be told in every case,” she says. “As a reader, I want to read those stories. I want to see what it’s like to live that like. I want to know the struggles and unique joys of it. I want to know it all. When we can read that and empathize and have a greater understanding, I feel like we become better people.”