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Jenny Han stands, with hands on hips, smiling at the camera.

“UNC lives large in my life and my writing to this day,” said popular YA novelist Jenny Han. “I’ll always be rooting for Carolina.” (photo by Jingyu Lin)

Fans love the bestselling YA author’s novels and TV shows. Do they know her heart bleeds Carolina blue?

Jenny Han’s best-selling teen and young adult novels have been published in more than 30 languages. Her The Summer I Turned Pretty trilogy was adapted for Prime Video (and filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina), with Han as creator and co-showrunner. Han was executive producer on Netflix adaptations of her To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy and is creator and executive producer for XO, Kitty on Netflix. She also started her own production company, Jenny Kissed Me.

Jenny Han receives a Distinguished Alumna Award during the University Day celebration on Oct. 12, 2023. (photo by Jon Gardiner)

When some 200 students and alumni heard Han (psychology ’02) speak at a UNC Asian American Center talk in 2021, Han was warm, open and funny, said Heidi Kim, center director and a professor of English and comparative literature.

“It was amazing to see students leaning forward and hanging on her every word and laughing at her jokes,” said Kim, who nominated Han for the UNC Distinguished Alumna Award she received last fall. “I met more than one student who said they came to UNC because of Jenny Han.”

Han answered several questions for the College.

How do you use your Carolina psychology major in your work?

Good storytelling is all about empathy and putting yourself in a character’s shoes, even when they’re very different from you. As you construct a story, you are constantly asking yourself why a character is doing something, what is driving them — I think having a background in psychology is helpful in that way.

You’ve enjoyed connections with UNC’s Asian American Center. How do you hope your work has been an inspiration to writers and filmmakers of color?

I felt so happy to know that there was a dedicated space on campus for Asian American students, because I knew I would have really appreciated that when I was a student. For me, the top priority when it comes to writing and filmmaking will always be telling the best story, and representation is a natural part of that. I believe that stories should reflect the moment that we are living in, and I think we have seen some real movement in the past couple of years toward better representation, both in front of and behind the camera.

Describe your creative process.

It depends on whether I’m writing for a novel or TV. In my novel-writing life, I tend not to outline and feel my way through a story intuitively. I often say that I picture myself going through a forest blindfolded and feeling my way through. I know where the finish point is but don’t always know how I’m going to get there. When I’m writing a book, I have to sink into the story and cast a sort of spell over myself.

When writing for TV, I am also producing the season in my head, so it’s much more pragmatic. You are constantly thinking about practical constraints like budget, time, what’s creatively possible. TV is also much more structured and requires more outlining and collaboration.

What excites you most when you are adapting your work for the screen?

I’m excited to continue bringing these stories that are so close to my heart to the fans who have loved them from the beginning, as well as telling new stories.

We understand you are a big Tar Heel basketball fan.

UNC lives large in my life and my writing to this day. In The Summer I Turned Pretty books, Conrad Fisher is a passionate UNC basketball fan. Also, when I was on set in Korea for the first season of XO, Kitty [in 2022], I remember sitting by the monitors, listening to the radio for updates on the NCAA championship and rejoicing when I found out that we had beat Duke. I’ll always be rooting for Carolina.

By Laura J. Toler ’76

Published in the Spring 2024 issue | Alumni Up Close, Tar Heels Up Close

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