LJ Talks with Lauren Kung Jessen, Author of 'Lunar Love'

Lauren Kung Jessen is a mixed-race Chinese American writer with a fondness for witty, flirtatious dialogue and making meals with too many steps but lots of flavor. She is fascinated by myths and superstitions and how ideas, beliefs, traditions, and stories evolve over time. LJ reviewer Eve Stano, talked with Kung Jessen about books, the Chinese zodiac, and more.

Lauren Kung Jessen is a mixed-race Chinese American writer with a fondness for witty, flirtatious dialogue and making meals with too many steps but lots of flavor. She is fascinated by myths and superstitions and how ideas, beliefs, traditions, and stories evolve over time. From attending culinary school to working in the world of Big Tech to writing love stories, Lauren cares about creating experiences that make people feel something. When she’s not writing novels, she works as a content strategist and user experience writer. She lives in Nashville with her husband (whom she met thanks to fate—read: the algorithms of online dating), two cats, and a dog. For more on Lauren, visit LaurenKungJessen.com.

Before you published Lunar Love, you went to culinary school and worked in Big Tech. What prompted you to start writing romances?

I loved to write growing up, but I didn’t pursue it as a career until more recently. I started a food and film blog, A Dash of Cinema, in college, where I would make the food you saw in movies and write a couple of paragraphs to accompany the recipes. Going to culinary school was a way for me to deepen my cooking, baking, and culinary management skills, but I intended to go into food writing afterwards. Ironically, I ended up working in one of the most intense kitchens in New York City, where I was way too tired to write at night. Still, I learned so many useful skills and valuable work ethic practices in culinary school and in a professional kitchen. That entire experience helped pave the way for how I handle my current writing schedule and pushing through early mornings and late nights.

It was when I had started doing user experience writing for tech companies that I started to claim being a writer in a more professional sense. Spending my days working on technical writing made me crave writing more creatively. I gravitated toward writing romance not only because it’s what I personally love to read, but also because they provide safe, comforting spaces to explore difficult topics. Life is not just made up of love and romance. There’s also pain and grief and trauma and struggles with identity. I wanted to explore tough topics in a setting that could also make people feel good and where there is flirting, stolen glances, and laughter.

Lunar Love centers around multiracial Chinese American protagonists. Why is it so important to portray multiracial characters in the romance genre?

Putting multiracial Chinese American protagonists front and center in my stories is something that is incredibly important and personal to me. I love reading because books allow me to temporarily live in worlds and lives that are different than my own. That’s what stories do for us. But something else I believe that stories should do is show us ourselves. The world is a diverse place, but that hasn’t always been reflected in the romance genre, especially when it comes to featuring multiracial characters.

I’m a byproduct of romantic comedies, but the ones I read and watched growing up didn’t feature characters who looked like me or my family. When I set out to write my own book as a mixed-race Chinese American, I knew I wanted to showcase people like me whose worlds and struggles aren’t often shown in the media. Representation matters because it can help break down barriers, provide new ideas and perspectives, and give people who haven’t historically been featured in media [the opportunity] to see themselves belonging. Because we do.

What prompted you to incorporate the Chinese zodiac into your romance novel?

The Chinese zodiac is an important part of Chinese culture, and it has always been a part of my life. The Chinese zodiac also plays an important role in Lunar Love as it is the bedrock of Olivia’s family’s Chinese zodiac matchmaking business. The Chinese zodiac is a belief system based on the lunar calendar in which 12 animals represent a repeating 12-year cycle. Each lunar year is represented by a different animal, in the order of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each animal is associated with various personality traits, which heavily come into play in Lunar Love with the various characters and, of course, with matchmaking. For instance, Olivia is the Year of Horse, a very stubborn and independent animal in the zodiac. It’s part of the reason why she is so steadfast on compatibility, even after feelings and opportunities arise with someone incompatible. While Olivia doesn’t embody every single Horse trait, the ones she does will be pretty apparent.

I have always been fascinated by the element of compatibility in the Chinese zodiac, and when I set out to write Lunar Love, I found myself wondering what it meant if I wasn’t dating or married to someone whose animal sign was compatible to my Horse. What would it mean for a character whose belief system and livelihood is based on making compatible matches? How has this custom evolved over time? I was excited to explore compatibility and to dive into the various animal signs to see how they would play out when manifested as characters interacting, competing, and falling in love.

What drew you to the rivals-to-lovers theme? How to you think tropes work best in romances?

I am a big fan of the rivals-to-lovers trope. It lends itself well to built-in tension, witty banter, and a fun plot. It also brings the characters together in a way where they are concerned with the external situation they’re dealing with, in Lunar Love’s case competing Chinese zodiac matchmaking businesses, but also the internal developing feelings they’re experiencing. For Lunar Love, I first had the idea for the traditional matchmaking business that paired compatible matches in-person. Then I thought about how dating has changed over the years, especially since I had met my husband through online dating. Now that we have technology playing matchmaker at our fingertips, I was drawn to how tradition and modernity might work together, or in Lunar Love’s case, compete. Rivals-to-lovers resulted naturally from those themes.

When it comes to tropes in romances, I love seeing the familiar spun into something fresh. The key is staying true to the trope but daring to add your own unique perspective on it. Tropes are a useful way to give readers a sense of what to expect in a book. Like happy ever afters, tropes provide a level of comfort for readers so that they know what’s coming. If you stray too far from what they expect, they may be caught off-guard. It’s also practical: If readers like a specific trope, such as rivals-to-lovers or opposites attract, they can more easily find other books with similar tropes.

Food is emphasized throughout Lunar Love. What is the significance of food in this novel? And why do you think food resonates so well with romance readers?

In my own life, I express and receive love through food, as well as use food as a way to learn more about my cultures. Like in life, the food in Lunar Love brings the characters together, provides comfort, offers an outlet to express themselves, and is a way to communicate feelings and love. Food is also used as a way to showcase the characters’ cultures. We grow up with certain types of food, whether it’s preference, tradition, cultural, or learned, and it can be really satisfying seeing food you grew up eating reflected on the page.

Baking is also how Lunar Love’s main character, Olivia, destresses. Her creations are slightly more ambitious (think animal-shaped cakes), which capture the effort and heart she puts into everything she does. Recipes and the way food is made can be passed down from generation to generation, which I think is beautiful. This very act is captured in a scene with Olivia and her Pó Po making dumplings together. I love that with food you can both express feelings toward others, as well as express yourself. There’s a variety of food and a good amount of eating in this book, but there are also several instances of making food together, which can be intimate, bonding, and healing.

I think food resonates so well with romance readers because it’s another way to delight our senses. From the way food tastes, feels, and smells, eating is such a sensual experience. And like love, food is a human need. Food can also be really comforting, which is appropriate for romance novels and happy ever afters. It’s as fun for me to write about food as it is to write a meet-cute or a first kiss.

Lunar Love’s characters run the emotional gamut: from anger to love, from feeling overlooked to understood, from humor to grief, yet the romance is never overshadowed. How did you achieve that balance? Why is it important to portray smart, emotionally complex characters?

When I wrote Lunar Love, I wanted to showcase the romance between Olivia and Bennett first and foremost. With Lunar Love being a romantic comedy, the characters’ developing relationship is the focus of the story. However, falling in love doesn’t always happen immediately or cleanly. Real life is happening while we get butterflies in our stomachs over someone special. We grieve, we try to understand our place in the world, we try to carry on legacies. In Olivia and Bennett’s situation, they are running competing matchmaking businesses, one a more traditional matchmaking business and the other a dating app. This unexpected situation makes Olivia angry and worried, but her emotions take a turn into something more competitive when she and Bennett make a bet about whose matchmaking methods are more effective. I paid close attention to when moments called for comedic relief and when there needed to be more emotional depth, all while supporting the love story throughout.

It’s important to portray smart, emotionally complex characters because that’s who people are! We are incredibly complicated, emotional beings. I appreciate when protagonists are unapologetically who they are, sometimes even when they’re considered “unlikable.” There are so many types of people in the world, so showing the flattering sides and the not-so-flattering sides is important. It’s how people can feel seen in books.

What challenges or surprises did you encounter as a debut author when publishing your first romance novel?

As a debut author I have done a lot of out-of-the-blue reach-outs to other authors over social media and email. Putting myself out there in that way isn’t the easiest or most natural thing for me. However, a nice surprise was how incredibly generous authors have been. I’ll never forget the kindness of the ones who answered my cold emails, responded to my questions, and jumped on a phone call with me. I hardly knew anyone in the publishing industry when I began this entire process, from writing to querying and beyond, and it can be a little intimidating being new to a space.

The other nice surprise has been learning firsthand how generous the book community is. I’m so used to observing publishing from the outside looking in, so to be supported in the way that I have been as a debut author by the incredible people reading, writing about, and sharing Lunar Love is quite the emotional ride. From librarians to booksellers to book influencers on social media, there is no shortage of great stories being shared and recommended. It is always a thrill to see Lunar Love included in this way.

What do you think will be future trends for the romance genre?

I hope that there will be even more [representative] stories featuring multifaceted protagonists dealing with complicated struggles in life, love, career, identity, family, and culture. I’m eager for more fresh takes on classic tropes and the inclusion of mental health representation on the page. Also, I know it’s been popular for a while, but I hope the abundance of food in romances doesn’t go away anytime soon, even if the story doesn’t revolve around food-centric environments.

What have you enjoyed reading lately?

Lately, I’ve been reading nonfiction research books for my next book, as well as romantic comedies and romance novels. I try to alternate so that I’m not falling too far behind on my reading list, but that inevitably happens anyways.

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading The Matchmaker’s Gift by Lynda Cohen Loigman, Set on You by Amy Lea, The Stand-In by Lily Chu, Bend Toward the Sun by Jen Devon, and The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars by Jo Marchant.

Eve Stano is the Collections Development and Electronic Resources Librarian at Ball State University, Muncie, IN. She has strong interests in collection development, especially electronic resources, and readers’ advisory, and has reviewed romances for LJ since November 2014 

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