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Asian A.V. Club newsletter #4
Romance writer Claudia Tan talks to us about her journey from Wattpad to feature film. Screenwriter Eirene Tran Donohue gives us her personal tips on the perfect rom com. Plus why we love Suzume.
Romance author Claudia Tan’s journey from posting sections of her writing anonymously on the online platform Wattpad, to being one of the most read published novelists from that website, is a thoroughly fascinating story in itself. Honing her skills as a writer, Tan developed the ‘Perfect’ series over a couple of years and with the eventual novels accumulating a staggering readership of 170 million views (and counting)! This month sees the release of the film adaptation of her most popular title, ‘Perfect Addiction’, starring Kiana Madiera (Fear Street) and Ross Butler (Riverdale, Shazam! Fury of the Gods).
The Asian A.V. Club recently got the chance to talk to Claudia about her interesting creative journey as she called in from Malaysia where she is currently based.
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Asian AV Club: Can you tell us how you got into writing and found yourself on a platform like Wattpad?
Claudia Tan: I was 16 when I wanted to write generally. And I was trying to find a platform to house all these stories. I was on fanfiction.net, that was kind of a website where you put fanfics on. But I didn't want to write fan-fiction, I wanted to write original stories. So I stumbled upon Wattpad and found out that you could have original stories on there. I decided to give it a go and really liked the interactive nature of the platform where you don't upload the whole manuscript at one go. Instead you update chapter per chapter.
It also allowed me to write whenever I had the time. I was in high school and just couldn’t upload like a whole 100,000-word manuscript (laughs). So it was updating chapter per chapter, and it was really nice to get that instant feedback. That was what I liked about Wattpad the most, you kind of have this feature called inline comments, where readers could comment on every line. The response gave me validation and motivation to keep going and updating as well. I was actively writing there for like a good five years.
Asian AV Club: What was it like to see that your work was resonating with the readers?
Claudia Tan: It was amazing. I felt like I was living a double life because I didn't really tell my family and my friends about it. Because they were romance stories, I was a little embarrassed by them at that time. (laughs) But over time, the (readership) numbers were quite insane. Every week was kind of crazy how loyal the reader base was. And that compelled me to write at a more frequent pace as well. I'm super grateful for the people that tuned in.
Asian AV Club: At which point in your writing did you decide to connect all your stories under the ‘Perfect’ series universe?
Claudia Tan: To be honest, I just kind of winged it. I started with one book, ‘Perfect Illusion’ and it was meant to be a standalone. But then I wanted to figure out a way to connect to my reader base with the next few books that I wanted to do. So, I just figured, let’s just make it a series. I made it so that all these people are friends in the same universe, but they kind of appear in each other's books. You could still read them as standalones, but it’s a nice way to tie everything together.
Asian AV Club: What was the transition from writing these books to making a movie?
Claudia Tan: So the height of the series popularity was probably around 2016 and Wattpad was getting increasingly popular as well. They set up a publishing division and a studio side, which then offered me the chance to develop my stories even more.
Asian AV Club: When you heard that they were going to make ‘Perfect Addiction’ into a movie, how were you involved?
Claudia Tan: I wasn't that involved. I received some scripts to give some feedback. And they were very kind enough to bring me to set and I got to have a cameo. But apart from that, I didn't have much involvement.
Asian AV Club: How did you feel about giving your piece over to somebody like that?
Claudia Tan: It was super nerve wracking. I knew it wasn't going to be 100% of what I wrote and I already came in with realistic expectations. But more importantly, I was nervous on behalf of the fans because I knew they were eagerly waiting for certain lines and certain scenes to come onto the screen. I didn't want to disappoint them. So that was more of my mindset.
Asian AV Club: I saw a video on YouTube with you watching the trailer of ‘Perfect Addiction’ for the first time, did you ever watch a footage or a rough cut of the film prior to that?
Claudia Tan: For the trailer reveal on YouTube, I really wanted to experience it the same way a reader would see the trailer. I was offered to see a rough cut before the trailer came out and it was going to be only me that was allowed to see it. But I really wanted to see it in a theater with an audience. I wanted the whole experience. So I held off.
Asian AV Club: Now that you have seen the film, has the essence of your writing transitioned onto the screen?
Claudia Tan: They definitely kept the essence of the book. At the end of the day, it's about a girl who feels betrayed in the worst possible way and is trying to get over this breakup. So she tries to overcome her hurt through forgiveness and focuses on herself, rather than all the guys in her life. I think they portrayed that really well.
Asian AV Club: To be very honest, it's very fascinating to me that you decided to use the underground MMA (mixed martial arts) world as a backdrop? Where did that come from?
Claudia Tan: At the time when I was writing it, these fighter romances were kind of a thing. They were always seen through the perspective of main male character, who liked to be in the ring and kick some ass. In these romances, the female lead always took on the subordinate position, where he's training her or she is his assistant. I felt it would be interesting to see the roles reversed. To see an MMA woman kick ass. So I just wrote that myself.
Asian AV Club: Are you a fan of the MMA?
Claudia Tan: I was never that exposed to MMA before writing it. So it was a whole new thing for me. Since writing it, I’ve been exposed to it quite a bit. And I do kickboxing, but definitely not to the extent of these characters. I'm terrified of getting hit. That's my number one fear. (laughs)
Asian AV Club: One of the things of your ‘Perfect’ series is how your female lead Sienna approaches sexuality with confidence and empowerment. In the film, intimacy is portrayed quite naturally and not something salacious.
Claudia Tan: Well, you and I both know that in Asian culture, we don’t really talk about sex. So when I saw the trailer, I was excited for five seconds, and then I was like, oh shit, how do I explain this to my parents? I think even now I feel a bit of shame, even though I am a romance writer. (laughs)
I think the movie is a great way to show that this is something that a lot of girls want to see portrayed on screen. To show that even someone as strong as Sienna, still craves that intimacy. And it's not shown in a shameful way. In fact, the movie shows how she is strong and dominant, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Asian AV Club: When you were writing, did you always picture people of color as your leads?
Claudia Tan: I really didn't picture any people of color in my books at first. In the book, she's like, blonde, and blue eyed. (laughs) When I was a teen, it felt like a no brainer to have an all-white cast in my romance books, because that was what everybody was doing. I didn't feel like people wanted to see Asian characters in this kind of story.
So after the series was done and the movie was happening. They asked me about casting, and I was like, you know what, just cast whoever fits the role. When I heard that Ross Butler got cast as the male lead, I was super ecstatic. He's also a quarter Malaysian and so I felt quite connected to him. In a sense, I'm happy I got to redo that and see people who looked like me on screen.
Asian AV Club: With your writing now, do you have people who look like you in mind as your lead?
Claudia Tan: I definitely am working on a few stories that has an Asian female lead. It's really refreshing to be able to put my culture into her thoughts and her family, shaping that personality. It's also such a relief, because I felt like I held back a lot of things and now I'm able to put it on paper, no holds barred basically.
Asian AV Club: If the studio decides to make more ‘Perfect’ films would you like to get more involved, like being a screenwriter?
Claudia Tan: I would like to be a producer if they decide to make a sequel. I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but I’d be down to do something more.
Asian AV Club: Now that you are working directly with a publisher, how has it been from having basically a community of editors to now working with just one editor on your writing?
Claudia Tan: It's such an isolating experience now writing for publication. You're in your own room, trying to churn out all these chapters, and only after you finish the manuscript that you’ve passed on to the editor, that you go back and forth with feedback. I still miss that interactive nature I experienced on Wattpad.
Asian AV Club: You not only express yourself through writing, but you're also a singer. How does being so diverse help your ability to be creative?
Claudia Tan: I feel like I've always been that kind of person that can't just do one thing. I'm definitely a person that has a lot of passions and singing has always been one of them. Apart from my writing, I feel like it's a nice balance to have. When I get kind of stuck with writing, or when I feel like it's getting too much for me, I get to escape through songwriting and music. And vice versa. It's really a nice way to keep things interesting in my life. And I'm glad that I get to do both.
Asian AV Club: Currently you’re based in Malaysia, would you ever move West if Hollywood beckoned?
Claudia Tan: I wouldn’t mind being based in the West. I feel like in terms of the creative industry here in Malaysia, there are opportunities, but because of political strife everything is politicized right now and I don't feel comfortable enough to tap into that. And due to the nature of the things that I write, I feel like it's better for me to seek opportunities in the West as to be based here permanently.
Asian AV Club: What are your fans like? Especially your Asian ones.
Claudia Tan: They're generally super nice. I feel like there's an extra sense of pride for them. I'm happy I get to be that person who they can say, if she can write these romance stories, so can I.
Asian AV Club: You’ve inspired me to write that romance story too. (laughs) It was so nice chatting with you.
Claudia Tan: Thank you!
Perfect Addiction is available to buy or rent on demand on all digital platforms. If you’re outside North America, the film is on Amazon Prime Video now.
We asked the extremely prolific and talented writer Eirene Tran Donohue, screenwriter of the new Netflix rom-com ‘A Tourist’s Guide to Love’, her tips on how she crafted this diverse and fun new film.
Asian A.V. Club: What are the formulaic tropes of a rom com that most writers have to go by?
Eirene Tran Donohue: Well the basic story of pretty much every rom com is that a couple meets, has some sort of conflict or obstacle that keeps them from being together and then somehow overcomes it because they realize that they love each other and are meant to be together. There will be ups and downs along the way, miscommunications and sometimes secrets. A cast of quirky comic relief supporting characters is also very standard in rom coms. Almost kisses that are interrupted for some reason. Big grand romantic gestures to win back your lover. Declarations of all the reasons that they can’t live without the other. And so many more.
Asian A.V. Club: When you’re given space to put your own spin, what did you do?
Eirene Tran Donohue: For me, after coming up with the basic concept, the most important thing is creating an interesting character and trying to figure out what makes them tick, and what makes them unique. I try to find fresh takes on familiar circumstances. Set stories in worlds or situations that haven’t been explored before. I’m always looking to add diversity of experience into my stories, either through the casting or setting or plot. And I don’t just mean racial or ethnic diversity. Sexual identity, gender identity, economic status, national identity, religious identity. I want my stories to be inclusive, with characters of all body types, all cultures and personalities. Who have all lived specific and individual lives and whose stories are worthy of being told.
Asian A.V. Club: Why did you choose Vietnam as your faraway love destination?
Eirene Tran Donohue: My mother is Vietnamese. She met and fell in love with my white American father in Saigon over 50 years ago. And I met my husband while I was backpacking in Vietnam over 20 years ago. So for me Vietnam is not a war story, it’s a love story. I wanted to show that side of Vietnam. To change the narrative that exists in the world about Vietnam. It is a stunningly beautiful country with a vibrant and thriving culture, full of complex passionate loving joyful amazing people. It is a place where it is easy to fall in love.
Asian A.V. Club: For “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” how did you put your cultural background into the specificities of the script?
Eirene Tran Donohue: Some of the settings and emotional moments of the movie were pulled from my own life. My mother’s whole family still lives in Vietnam and over the years I have been lucky enough to visit a few times. So I pulled from those moments. The scenes in the grandmother’s village were inspired by when my sister had a traditional Vietnamese wedding on the family farm in the countryside. The importance of family, the honoring of the ancestors, the abundance of delicious food, all of those details are ones that came from my own experience. But we also worked together with many Vietnamese consultants to make sure that we got the details right and they helped us make the portrayal of Vietnamese culture more authentic.
Asian A.V. Club: Your scripts have broken barriers for the rom com in terms of representation, how do you avoid the pressures of that kind of expectation when you approach future rom com scripts?
Eirene Tran Donohue: Every story is different and each one follows it’s own path. There are certain stories I want to tell that are culturally specific but others that aren’t. I try to combine specific experiences/worlds with universal themes. Being Vietnamese is only one part of my identity so I allow myself the freedom to write whichever story I feel I need to tell in that moment and to represent multiple aspects of the world. No matter where you are from or how you identify, we all want to love and be loved. And so that is what I focus on. The love.
A Tourist’s Guide to Love is streaming on Netflix now
5 reasons why you should watch Suzume
1: Makoto Shinkai (新海 誠) is not only one of Japan’s most popular animated storytellers, but his films “Your Name”, “Weathering With You” and now “Suzume” are ranked within the top 15 highest grossing films ever in Japan’s box-office.
2: Not your typical crowd pleasing animated film, the idea for “Suzume” was inspired by the earthquake of 2011 in northeastern Japan that made Shinkai think about how humans could co-exist in a world of disaster. From that tragic event on, his stories revolve around how characters can find hope in these disruptive times.
3: Suzume goes on a fantastical coming of age adventure by trying to stop a series of potential earthquakes across Japan with the help of a variety of characters and a three legged chair that you’ll grow to love (it’s true!)
4: Daijin the cat. I mean…
5: Though “Suzume” subconsciously carries an underlying level of personal trauma, the film can be somewhat light hearted and has an emotional payoff that will leave you in happy tears.
Suzume is in theaters now
So there you have it club members, we hope you enjoyed this issue! It’s been wonderful getting feedback and the interview opportunities from you guys! We are grateful and thank you!
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