In Ann Liang’s second YA novel, This Time It’s Real, new student Eliza Lin enlists the help of classmate and celebrity actor Caz Song for a “mutually beneficial and romantically oriented alliance,” to save her reputation after an essay with a fundamental lie at its core goes viral. We spoke with Liang about capturing the essence of the private school setting, how a childhood in different places complicates defining home, and depicting friendship breakups as equally important to romantic breakups.

In the introduction to this book, you mention being surprised by your desire to write a romance, and you even dedicated this book to “all the cynics who secretly still believe in love.” How does a romantic cynic end up writing a romance novel?

I feel like it was always sort of a passion of mine. It was something that I was interested in reading, and I feel like a lot of the times the works that we’re drawn to as readers do translate into the words that we end up writing as authors. But I was kind of in denial for a while. One turning point was when my first book, If You Could See the Sun, was getting ready for publication, and some of the feedback I was getting was [that] people like the romance. That was validation in a way that I maybe could do [romance] if I really tried. [Also] it was the pandemic, and I was in these Zoom lectures, because I was still studying for uni. The whole atmosphere was pretty bleak and uncertain, and I feel like, in those times, we really gravitate towards things that bring us a lot of joy. It was what I really felt like writing and just what I needed at the time, so I’m very glad I went ahead with it.

This Time It’s Real plays off some classic moments in romance, such as fake-dating, run-ins in a janitor’s closet, a celebrity classmate with a unique side to them. What are some of your romance inspirations?

I’ve watched so many rom-coms that it's almost like I don’t know where exactly it came from. You see something so much that it naturally influences you and shapes your writing. For me, one major influence are Chinese dramas. I wanted to go for the C-drama vibe, where there are these modern school romances. There are tropes that are popular in both Hollywood-style rom-coms and the C-dramas that I watched growing up, like them riding around Beijing together on his motorcycle, the staging a [public] kiss part. Moments like that are a testament to C-dramas. And it’s very classic when the protagonist falls for some really inexplicable reason, and then the love interest catches her and it’s slow motion with dramatic music playing in the background. I loved referencing that.

Were there any differences in the writing process for This Time It’s Real, a romance, as opposed to If I Could See the Sun?

My writing process has been very surprisingly consistent, even across different genres, or when I’m trying something new. I prefer something that’s a bit more structured where I know what all the steps are. That said, though, the actual outlining process is still very chaotic. I come up with the premise, and then once I have it, I’ll write a little blurb like a pitch. Then that pitch helps me see how the book will take shape. From there I come up with scenes that I’m really passionate about and I really want to write. Those scenes will form a sort of anchor in the outline, like my touch points. Then I start to weave all of these things together, which eventually creates the plot.

A throughline in your novels seems to be the elite boarding school setting. What do you enjoy about that particular setting and how do you go about capturing it?

It’s the kind of school that I went to when I was in Beijing. Because all the international schools were essentially private schools, it automatically translates into this elite boarding school vibe. In terms of plot and environment it’s very fascinating, because that’s how you end up with celebrities, or the children of company directors, for classmates. It just creates a lot of tension and drama. The social dynamic is also a lot more complicated and interesting. I feel like the boarding school [setting] has a way of making you feel like an outsider because everyone there is popular, or famous, or wealthy. And because they’re this close-knit circle, when you’re new to this environment, you feel really alone or like you’re trying to fit in with this crowd. Both Alice from If You Could See the Sun, and Eliza from This Time It’s Real are outsiders in different ways, and they grapple with that feeling throughout the book.

You and your protagonist Eliza share an overlap in life experiences, such as a passion for writing and a childhood rooted in different places. Were any aspects of Eliza’s journey pulled from your own experiences?

The main [connection] would be her moving around a lot, because that definitely parallels my own experiences, though it’s different in that Eliza moved around to many different countries. For me, it was constantly going back and forth between China and Australia. In that sense, I almost had a bit more stability. But I wanted to amplify those feelings of uncertainty and not knowing if she belongs. And I think that really comes through in the first few chapters. I really felt for her in the interview scene when the teacher is sort of like, “She’s not really fitting in super well. I feel like she should be settled by now.” When you’re moving around your whole life, your life is constantly uprooted. I hope readers with similar experiences relate to that, and also see that it’s okay to have that period of adjustment. People expect you to fit right in and adapt immediately, but it can be really hard.

How does Eliza’s relationship with writing reflect what’s going on in her real life?

I wanted her writing journey to match her emotional arc. At the beginning of the book, her overall philosophy is writing is lying. Like “I shouldn’t be too sincere. I shouldn’t put my whole heart into anything, because that’s how you get hurt.” One of the lessons for her is you can throw your heart into something, you can say exactly what you mean. Even if the vulnerability of that is really scary, the potential benefits of it outweigh the risks. As she grows to trust other people, and she starts to express herself more in her conversation with [her best friend] Zoe, and then with Caz, it also shapes her writing. As writers, I feel like the things that happen in our lives and the things we’re working on emotionally do influence our writing.

Caz is a complex character whose confident celebrity persona contrasts with his private and ultra-independent personality. What went into crafting your leading man?

Celebrity love interests are their own trope, right? I was thinking, as a reader, what would I be interested in seeing with that kind of person who’s already so popular, good-looking, charming? One of the most interesting things about developing a character is to create this other side to them, especially in a romance. It’s all about getting past your initial impression of them and getting to know this person in a way that other people don’t. I wanted to give him a perfectionist streak, which comes with his work because he’s an actor, and I wanted to make sure that he was genuinely passionate about what he was doing. Because even though Eliza and Caz are really different, in terms of their personality, their values are similar. They’re both really invested in their respective careers, and that’s why they enter the fake dating agreement in the first place.

I feel like friendship breakups should be given just as much priority as romantic breakups because it hurts just as much.

Also the little things, like being self-conscious about his hair, and [his] vanity. He needs that in order to round out his character, because he can’t just be this poster boy. My editor encouraged me to think about his internal journey. Also, parts of his career were informed by my internship for a trade magazine, which was focused purely on the Chinese entertainment industry. So every day I wrote these articles, and it was always about the latest celebrity interviews and scandals and whatnot. I think because I was constantly exposed to that, it helped give me a stronger sense of the kind of environment and pressures that Caz would be dealing with.

An acute source of tension for Eliza is her slow friend breakup with Zoe due to distance. What shaped your perspective on friendships dissolving?

I think it really goes to show how common it is to drift apart from a best friend, especially in your teens, because these are really turbulent years. And even if you’re not moving physically, people change, right? I wanted to give that a lot of attention. I feel like these friendship breakups should be given just as much priority as romantic breakups because it hurts just as much. When I was writing it, I was hesitant about which direction to take it. Part of me was wondering, should I have them part ways? Is the conclusion to this that you drift apart and sometimes just break up completely? Because that is one of the sad realities, but at the same time, though, I think it is also possible to repair certain friendships, because friendships also take work. Sometimes it’s just two people not being on the same page for some period of time, but then you can align again. That was really important for Eliza, to be honest with herself and with other people about her true feelings and what she really needs and wants. I wanted to reward her for it and have things end on a more hopeful note.

Your next novel, I Am Not Jessica Chen, is slated for 2024. What can you tell us about it?

I have another novel [as well]. It’s also like a rom-com. It’s similar to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but if our hero sent hate emails instead of love letters. Most of these emails are angry emails directed at her co-captain, and rival, and then they get sent out accidentally, and a lot of chaos ensues. So I’m very excited.

And then there’s I Am Not Jessica Chen. We were talking about elite boarding schools, and I’m continuing with that, but this environment, I think it’s a bit darker. I would categorize this one more as dark academia. It’s about imposter syndrome and academic validation and burnout. It’s kind of like “This Is Me Trying” by Taylor Swift, in book form.

This Time It’s Real by Ann Liang. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Feb. 7 ISBN 978-1-338-82711-8