• Jen Trinh

Bye-bye, Burlfriends ❤️

Y'all.

I've written and published three books in the last year and a half.

Whaaaaat?


But that's me. I like to move fast. Once I'd decided to do the damn thing, I didn't want to waste a single moment.


With my first set of books, I sought to accomplish a few things:

  1. Prove that I could write a full-length novel.

  2. Prove that the first book wasn't a fluke—that I could write more than one book, and have them all be sufficiently different.

  3. Learn the basics of plotting, drafting, editing, (self-)publishing, and marketing.

  4. Process my feelings around my career decisions, passions, family, and my experience as an Asian American Millennial.

  5. Make money? (🤣)

Except for that last bit, I'd say that I've succeeded. 🎉 So now that my first set of books is complete, I'm taking a break to reflect on each one.


Burlfriends: close friends with whom one can tackle "burly" problems, or problems that require strength and resilience, both in the context of climbing and in life.

Careful for minor spoilers.


Crushing on You (buy)


"An enemies-to-lovers exploration of the second-generation Asian American experience—specifically the tension between filial expectations / family loyalty and the pressure to assimilate [into a predominantly White culture]."


Anna Tang comes from a Chinese family that seeks to control every aspect of her life. Unsurprisingly, her response is to rebel, utterly and completely, and to eschew everything that her family has ever asked of her...which means that when it comes to love, she's determined not to date a guy that they would approve of.


Ian Gao's Chinese family also has high expectations for him, but unlike Anna's family, they shower him with the love and support he needs to pave his own way. He accepts their desired proximity and presence in his life, and gladly performs his duties as a respectful, high-earning son who takes care of his parents, even at the cost of his own happiness.


Both characters spend the book finding a balance between these two extremes.


Because it was my debut novel, I was extremely anxious about how it would be received.


Not bad.


Some reviewers hated the premise. Yes, the fact that Anna was close-minded and didn't want to date Asian guys was kind of shitty, but it's a real, complicated phenomenon, one that it didn't really make sense for Anna herself to explore more deeply. We all have our preferences, even when the reasons for them might be misguided. But after meeting Ian and being reluctantly charmed, she eventually realizes that he's perfect for her, not in spite of his being Chinese, but because he understands and accepts all of her, something that he's able to do in part because of his upbringing. I am not saying that we should all date within our own race, or even that the issues Anna faced are unique to Chinese families. We shouldn't, and they're not. Only that, when it comes to love, we should be able to look past our preferences and absolute prejudices.


No one is part of a monolith. Everyone is unique. Anyone could be the one for you.

Meanwhile, some reviewers couldn't really get into the book because they simply didn't like Anna as a character. They didn't care for someone who was so insecure or reckless or self-centered.


Guess what? It [was] me. #ownvoices?


If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?” -Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays

I wanted to write an extremely flawed Asian American heroine, someone who wasn't even close to a model minority. Anna vacillates between feeling like a complete failure and thinking that she's hot shit. She's an emotional wreck, but she's also not afraid to let you know what she thinks. She's creative and broke, but she follows her passions, not what's "right" or "best for her".


There have been times in my life where I've felt the same insecurity and sense of helplessness that she did, and the same desire for independence. I've never been quite as messy as Anna, but the more that my family tried to control me and make me feel dependent / depended on, the more reckless I was. I loved them, but in return, their narrow love for me chafed. I hated what they expected of me, especially given that my friends had no such expectations placed on them, and were able to live up to the "American" ideal of individualism. I wanted that, but my parents continually told me, "You're not American, you're Chinese."


Wrong—I'm both. And so is Anna, and so is Ian.


Some readers felt that Ian was too bland. It [also was] me. I've put up a front before in order to be the Good Girl that everyone expected me to be. I've kept my mouth shut. I've done things for the sake of my family instead of doing what I wanted to do. He's handsome, quiet, and hardworking—he's supposed to be like the model minority, and he hates it. It's part of why he's so drawn to Anna and her spiritedness.


They're two sides of the same coin. They get each other. And I recognize the both of them in myself, and I get them, too.


This book was a reminder that:

We can choose what our family looks like, and we can choose what our lives look like. With the right family (found or biological), no matter what comes our way, we'll figure it out.

I know that I could've gone deeper into the racial side of things, but that'll be for another book. And my writing could've used some polishing, too. It will improve.


Fun Fact #1: I considered having Anna reconcile with her mom at some point, but decided that her family had simply gone too far. Anna would have no need to invite them back into her life, and they wouldn't have really changed, anyway. Love doesn't always come easy and sometimes we have to fight for it, but it's also important to know when to say goodbye.


Falling for You (Buy)


"An opposites-attract story about the search for meaning and purpose in a finite lifetime."


Lina Miller can't help but feel that time is running out. Having recently experienced the loss of her relatively-young husband, she's all too aware of her mortality. Plus, the deadline to complete her PhD is approaching, and she doesn't know what to do next. Her relationship with her field of study has changed, but the cost of doing something else seems too high. With so much to do and so little time, she feels constant guilt around taking care of herself or doing things that she enjoys, but deems unproductive (e.g., climbing and reading).


In Asher Friedmann's case, there's too much time and space to fill. Asher has money, an apartment, and no need for a real job. With his depression about the past and anxiety about the future, he feels stagnant and stuck in time and place. His living situation is dilapidated. The hustle and bustle of New York City is brutal and stifling. Every day is the same. Women come and go, and it's because he's not worth their time or effort. Even his bandmates don't think his time is worth the same as theirs, because he's not motivated the same way that they are.


Like many of my PhD'ed readers, I identified with Lina's graduate school angst. Countless times, I desperately wanted to quit, or felt like I'd made a mistake by spending five years on a track that I ultimately wouldn't continue on. And with Asher, his paralysis, despite his privilege, resonated deeply. What connects the two of them (besides sex and their intense love of wordplay) is that their pasts hold them back: Lina's grief for her husband, her fear about her PhD going to waste, and Asher's remorse over his family situation, his insecurities and unwillingness to take chances given his past failed relationships and mediocre music career. Their shared connection to the past provides a major clue as to how compatible they'll be in the future, and it's part of what allows them to heal and progress together.


This book was a reminder to:

Let go of the things you don't need, and move forward with intention. Don't let the past ruin the future.

I do think that the fact that they were both independently wealthy made it easier for them to make the decisions that they did. The story would've been quite different if money were a more important concern for either of them. Perhaps something worth exploring later.


Fun Fact #2: In an early draft of Crushing on You, Lina and Asher actually hooked up on the night that they first met, at the very end of the book.


Take Me (buy)


"A love letter to authenticity and truth."


It's nice when things are simple and easy. That's why people love heuristics, the familiar, the expected, consensus, normality, etc. The path of least resistance is so pleasant.


But where does that path lead to? Sometimes, mediocrity, loneliness, stagnation. Or for some people, a perfectly good life. 🤷🏻‍♀️


How do you define a good life, or a life well-lived? Is it through one's accomplishments, or the depth of one's relationships? The number of people one has positively impacted?


This is the question that my characters must ask themselves in Take Me, and the honest answers lead them down some interesting paths.


(Fun Fact #3: It's not about finding the horse; it's about the experience of searching for it. 🐴)


While Tom Ong and Cassie Green were coworkers, and work did play a major role in the story, the primary focus of the book was an exploration of Happily Ever After (HEA). As young women (etc.), we're often told that True Love is the key to happiness. In most Disney films, True Love can be found with the first "good guy" that comes along, and once the heroine marries the good guy, it's HEA! (And the sequels where there's trouble in paradise, like Cinderella and Mulan, are total flops.)


Cassie supposedly found her HEA at the beginning of Crushing on You, but when circumstances lead Cassie and her husband Michael to question whether there might be a better arrangement between them, their definitions of HEA begin to change.


That act of questioning is something that my book has gotten readers to do, and I am honestly thrilled. I love the idea of choosing and crafting a life with intention, rather than by default.


My definition of a life well-lived is one where I'm able to be as honest as possible, both with myself and with others. To be True. That means asking questions, and asking more questions, and accepting that sometimes, the answers change.

I'm not saying that any of this is deep. It's pretty obvious, written out like I've done. But I took a risk in writing a romance novel about this and it's been gratifying to hear that for some people, the idea of questioning HEA and exploring new possibilities (e.g., polyamory) was enthusiastically received. And as expected, for others, it really wasn't. But IMO, this is my best book yet, and the one that I'm most proud of.


Fun Fact #4: In an early draft of Take Me, Michael was a serial cheater with a gambling problem, i.e., a cartoon villain. 😈 What a turnaround he's made!


In general


All of the Burlfriends books have the following:


A diverse cast of characters. The world I live in (your world and mine) is vibrant and full of variety. I don't always do the best job of capturing it, but I'd like to continue learning and trying to do so. We need more diverse stories and voices, and I hope that each of my books will help to enrich people's visions of what's possible, and to combat stereotypes. Obviously, I haven't been able to avoid them all. Ian, a Chinese male, is a software engineer and extremely family-oriented. Tom, another Chinese male, is nerdy and analytical. Not all Asians have these same experiences. But I'm writing stories that I want to tell, and that means that my characters aren't all going to be total stereotype-busters. Ideally, people could be (or could not be) anything at all, including good at math and close to their families. It takes more than one or two stories to break all stereotypes.


An emphasis on individual growth and the choice of being together, rather than co-dependency. My characters do spend more time apart than in most romance novels, but that's because I believe that individual growth is more important than change garnered through romantic connection. Lovers come and go, but you will always have yourself—so you'd better love yourself! My characters always end up in happy relationships, but I'd like to think that they'd know when to walk away, too. Also, their careers play a big role in their motivations. I've either drawn on my own career experience or done research (e.g., with Asher's music career) to paint as faithful a picture as I could.


A healthy dose of things that I am passionate about, like food and climbing. Food (eating, making, and sharing it) has always been a passion of mine, and it brings us all together. I'm not sure why there isn't more food in books! As for climbing, I discovered it at a point in my life where a social, physical activity was very much needed, and I became consumed with the drive to climb and to get better and climbing. Many readers report getting hungry or wanting to learn how to climb after reading my book (you should definitely try it!).


Hot open-door sex. 'Nuff said.


A balance between a fun rom-com experience and reality. There are some very unbelievable plot points at times, but I try to keep the dialogue realistic where possible (I know that COY especially veers more towards the unbelievable...whoops!) Sometimes, people come into my books expecting something that's been scrubbed clean, especially given the adorable covers. My worst reviews are from folks who expect a cute, straightforward read, with easy-to-love characters and common romance tropes. I'm not judging—I love those, too! But my books require an open mind. I'm pretty sure that they will always be a bit off. Oh well. 💸💸💸

My books are not perfect. Everyone's opinion is completely justified. But I will continue to get better at writing, and I'll also get better about not caring what other people think. (That's the hope, anyway. It hurts too much, otherwise.)


What's Next?


If you cried at any point in the Burlfriends series, know that I was probably crying when I wrote those parts, and a lot of those feelings stem from my complicated relationship with my family. That's what's coming next—a book on intergenerational trauma, and how my family's experiences during the Cambodian genocide have bled into our current lives and relationships.


After that, who knows? I have so many ideas!


With future books, romance will likely continue to be a thread, but sometimes, it will not be the primary focus. I hope you'll be willing to read them anyway!


Thanks for coming along for the ride. ❤️

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© 2021 by Jen Trinh