Q & A with Emiko Jean
Emiko Jean debuted as a YA author with a psychological thriller in 2015 called We’ll Never Be Apart, followed in 2018 by a Japanese folklore–inspired YA fantasy, Empress of All Seasons. Her latest YA novel, Tokyo Ever After, which was sold in a seven-figure preempt, is a contemporary rom-com in which a teenage girl finds out she’s the daughter of the Crown Prince of Japan. PW spoke with Jean about her inspirations, genre switching, and identity.
Your book is being compared to The Princess Diaries and Crazy Rich Asians. Can you talk about your inspiration behind this duology?
It’s so funny, because that wasn’t where the story started. It started more with me being interested in writing a story about a Japanese American, like myself, who is searching for her identity, a place where she belongs, which is something I struggled with as an adolescent. And in reflecting on my adolescence, I also remembered not being able to find books that featured Japanese American protagonists, or books that were even written by Japanese Americans. I wished with my whole heart to see myself in the books that I loved, in books like The Princess Diaries. So once I had those two things together, the identity and representation pieces, that was really the driving force behind Tokyo Ever After. That evolved into a girl searching for her identity and going back to Japan, and what better way for her to find her cultural roots than with the Imperial family there, who have been established for a millennium?
How long did it take you to write it, and did you have a long or short revision process?
So it took, let’s see… when did I sell it? I don’t even remember. [Laughs.] I wrote a pretty clean, structured outline and that cut down on revisions—usually a book takes me about a year—so when I went in to revise, there weren’t that many structural changes, just line edits and tweaks. It took about six months to write, and about five revisions. I actually thought it would take a lot longer for the book to sell, but within 24 hours, we were getting positive responses, and then we got an offer, and a preempt, from Flatiron—and it’s been great ever since.
What was it like pivoting from the fantasy and thriller genres to contemporary rom-com?
It was so great! You know, I write books and they’re very reflective of where I am in that period of my life. When I wrote Tokyo Ever After, it was right after I had [boy and girl] twins in 2017—they’re three and a half now—and I really wanted to write something that felt light and fun. I thought about my daughter, and what I would want her to read growing up as a Japanese American, and this book just felt so right. It was an easy pivot—I don’t want to say the book was easy to write, because you know [how books are]—but it felt right the whole time, if that makes sense.
What was your research process like in terms of the Tokyo setting and all the details about royalty?
It was intense! I had Izumi’s character arc pretty mapped out from the beginning; I knew where she was starting and where she was going. I knew about the Imperial family growing up, but wasn’t intimately acquainted with their customs or their private lives. There is a lot written about them around WWII, and a lot of biographies regarding the Emperors, but really getting into the lives of the Imperial royal women was more challenging; I had to rely more on online sources. So I had to devour a lot of different kinds of texts to piece together what their lives looked like on a daily basis.
How did you discover Izumi's snarky voice?
That came from teen Emiko—she’s really fun and irreverent, and I remember being the funny kid in high school. I used that as a shield to kind of mask what I was feeling: that I didn’t really feel like I belonged in the all-white high school I attended. [Humor is] how I figured out how to fit in, so I tapped into that in a much bigger way for this book. But yeah, a lot of my family comments on how Izumi sounds like me—like, “I’ve heard you say this before!”
Are there any other books in this genre you particularly love?
I’ve been reading more romance lately, because that’s been what’s getting me through 2020 and 2021. Beach Read by Emily Henry is an adult romance, but for YA, I most recently read the Native thriller Firekeeper’s Daughter [by Angeline Boulley]. That was the last one I stayed up all night reading, and I think I fed my kids candy for breakfast because I was so tired, [laughs], but that was a really excellent, excellent book.
If you could fancast your book, who would you choose to play the main cast?
That’s a good question—and the thing is, I don’t know. Asian Americans, Japanese Americans, aren’t well represented in film, so I don’t even know who that would be. The dream would be just to see another Asian American full cast—a Japanese American full cast on the screen. I remember seeing Crazy Rich Asians and sitting in the theater, touching my chest, and kind of having my breath just taken away by being able to see that portrayal in media. The real dream is just to see more Japanese Americans in film.
What’s up next for you?
Izumi’s coming back in 2022 in the second book in the series, called Tokyo Dreaming. She’ll be back in the Imperial Palace, and Mom and her stinky dog come to Japan, and it’s going to be a really fun, wild ride! I am working on other things—I’m hesitant to say, because you know how secretive writers can be about our projects—but I do have a women’s fiction novel in the works, featuring another Japanese American protagonist.
Is there anything you want to leave PW readers with?
I really hope this book acts as a window and a mirror. I think we’ve covered the mirror part, but I also hope this acts as a window, so people living outside of this experience can see a version of the Asian American experience that reminds them we are whole people with rich lives. There has been an uptick in violence against the Asian American community, and I hope this book helps to build empathy and awareness. I get emotional when I talk about it, but even though this book is so fun and lighthearted, I do truly hope that it builds awareness.
Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean. Flatiron, $18.99 May 18 ISBN 978-1-250-76660-1