Author Christina Hwang Dudley takes on Jane Austen in her latest novel

How the author brought a classic tale into modern-day Asian America in “Pride & Preston Lin”

Christina Hwang Dudley.

Courtesy of Christina Hwang Dudley

Words by Samantha Pak

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a love story in possession of an enemies-to-lovers plot line will be enjoyed by many.

Among the most famous pairs of literary enemies to fall in love are Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The classic tale of how Lizzy and Mr. Darcy learn to look past first impressions, differences, and many instances of miscommunication, in order to fall in love, is one that’s been told and retold many times. It’s so ubiquitous that if you’re like me and admittedly haven’t actually read the original, you still might know the specific ups and downs they go through before living happily ever after.

One of the most recent retellings is Christina Hwang Dudley’s latest novel Pride & Preston Lin, which was published in March. While modern-day Austen stories are not new, Hwang Dudley’s story also brings the literary legend into a world where she’s only made a few appearances: Asian America. Following Lissie Cheng and Preston Lin, the novel gives readers a glimpse into the Bay Area’s Chinese American community—where Hwang Dudley was born and raised before she settled in Bellevue, Washington, and where society can be as hierarchical as the English ton.

I recently spoke with Hwang Dudley, who has previously written and self-published Regency romances under the name Christina Dudley, about her new book. We talked about the many versions of Pride and Prejudice—from Fire Island to Wishbone (my personal introduction to the story)—Asians in historical romance (or rather, the lack thereof), and other classic stories she might want to tackle.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A blue book cover of "Pride & Preston Lin" by Christina Hwang Dudley

"Pride & Preston Lin" is Christina Hwang Dudley's first time writing a contemporary romance story.

Courtesy of Christina Hwang Dudley

Samantha Pak: Have you always written romance?
Cristina Hwang Dudley: I dabbled a little in women's fiction. I wrote one ridiculous paranormal romance—but that was romance. I like writing a happy ending.

SP: What year was your first book published?
CHD: I have been self-published until this book. I would say I really started focusing on trying to make this a business and a career in fall of 2021, but I had published my first Regency romance in 2013.

A book like Pride & Preston Lin, I feel like this was its moment. Even if I had sat down and physically written the book 10 years ago, it couldn't have gone anywhere until there started to be this groundswell of books that were not just romance books by white people. But now there's this whole thing! It really was the time for this book now, whereas that wouldn't have been the case. Even five years ago—

Even if I had sat down and physically written the book 10 years ago, it couldn't have gone anywhere until there started to be this groundswell of books that were not just romance books by white people.

SP: Oh yeah. I'm a longtime romance reader, so I know exactly what you're talking about in terms of it being a historically very white genre.
CHD: And now suddenly, it seems like romance is at the forefront, publishing the most cutting-edge stuff in terms of (stories by and about) people who haven't been heard from before. So it's an exciting field to be in.

SP: It's romance and it's YA. Those are two genres I like to read—maybe that's not a coincidence. [Laughs.] Those are the two genres that are “taking the risk” of hearing other people's stories that, like you mentioned, haven't always been heard.
CHD: I am old enough that it wasn't even a question that occurred to me. I read all the standard “girl growing up” books. I didn't read a book by an Asian American author until college—and it was assigned to me. It was Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. My generation, it did not even occur to me to think, “Where are people who look like me?” I just read what was in front of me. It wasn't until college that people started saying, “You know, there are books written by other sorts of people.”

SP: Before Pride & Preston Lin, you'd mostly written historical romance, right?
CHD: Yes. Which is everyone playing dress up, right? None of us were around. I love Jane Austen. And like a lot of people who love Jane Austen, you write Austen-y books. I have been, for the past 10-plus years, writing Regency romance—a hugely popular, hugely crowded genre. But I still love it.

One day across Twitter, I saw a post saying, new publishing company Third State Books looking for AA+PI stories. And I thought, “I have this book idea rattling around in my head for I don't know how long, but I never did anything about it.”

I just cold emailed them and said, “Do you guys consider unagented manuscripts?” And they wrote back and said yes because they were trying to right some of the wrongs in the past around representation (in publishing). So I'm like, “Cool, I have this idea.”

An Asian woman in a blue dress stands at a table with books and her small headshot, with bookshelves in the background.

Christina Hwang Dudley at Third Place Books in Seattle for a book launch event.

Courtesy of Christina Hwang Dudley

SP: With your historical romances, were you writing Asian characters?
CHD: No. Completely straight-arrow Regency. Unless you subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on Instagram or something, you probably had no idea that I was Asian.

SP: People make the argument that there were no Asian people present during that historical period. Did you ever do research to see if there were?
CHD: I learned, yes (there were Asian people in Regency England). With all the shipping and trade, there were of course lascars (sailors) from India and from East Asia, who came and worked the ships, and some of them ended up settling in places like Bristol. So I thought about that. You could have a random Asian guy who worked on a ship, but then he would be so low class that it becomes a reverse Cinderella story—even if (the female protagonist) is middle class.

I have discovered readers of historical romance fall into two camps. One is, “We are really just playing dress up. Do whatever you want, as long as everyone's wearing the right costume.” But I had begun in the traditional historical romance, which is, “Were there Asian people there? I got to look it up. I can't use that word (in this story). It's American, or else the reviewers are gonna smack me.”

With Pride & Preston Lin, I'm interested to see how much of my reader base will actually make the double jump. Because it's jumping to contemporary and it's jumping to non-white characters. I know the super fans will come, but super fans are a much smaller proportion.

Two Asian women sit on chairs on a stage in front of an audience, with microphones, against a purple wall with a sign the reads "The Ripped Bodice."

Christina Hwang Dudley (left) with fellow author Suzanne Park at The Ripped Bodice bookstore in Los Angeles.

Courtesy of Christina Hwang Dudley

SP: But also, I think having Jane Austen as the source material, people are more willing to read retellings.
CHD: I was just thinking about this. She has reached the stage where she gets the “Shakespeare treatment.” And what a level to reach. More power to her, because now people are like, “It’s set in outer space! I don't care! I just want to read the bare bones of that plot again, and again.” She has soared to the level where you can play around with it.

(Pride & Preston Lin) might bifurcate my reader base and turn into one side that is like, “Oh, yeah, do whatever. As long as it's kind of Austen-y.” And one side that's like, “No, I want the traditional and original.” It's fun to experiment with both. I would love to do Jane Austen in outer space!

SP: Why did you pick to do Pride and Prejudice as your first foray into Jane Austen?
CHD: My favorite Jane Austen, personally, is Persuasion. But I knew Pride and Prejudice is the one that, if you've ever read Austen or seen Austen, that's the one. I love the story. It's probably my second favorite. But with a business eye, I thought, “This has a wider appeal to people.”

SP: I'll admit I've actually never read Jane Austen, but I do know the story of Pride and Prejudice. I've seen and I've read so many versions of it. [Laughs]

If you were to do another Jane Austen retelling, which story would you go for?
CHD: Probably Persuasion. I've also thought about Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë). It’s been less done and I love Jane Eyre as well.

Here's the thing. I've written 11 (self-published) Regencies. I like to come up with my own plot. But if I started in traditional publishing with an Austen retelling, am I then stuck in this Austen retelling groove?

SP: Where did you get the idea to have Pride & Preston Lin be set in the swimming world? My sister was a swimmer. And so I was like, “Maybe her kids were swimmers. She knows this world. It's not just research.” [Laughs]
CHD: Obviously, Preston has to be the golden boy, right? He could have been a baseball player, but my own kids did competitive swimming and so it was a world I already knew. It was fun to take this whole world that I already knew about and just put (my characters) in it.

Pride & Preston Lin was a really personal book to me because it has so many elements of my life. You know, I sent Lissie to my high school. The family’s restaurant is based on a restaurant I grew up going to with my family. Preston's mom is a real estate agent and if you go into the Bay Area, you will find this one lady, she's on the grocery carts. She's everywhere. Big deal real estate agent. It's just full of Easter eggs.

SP: How was writing contemporary versus historical?
CHD: This book was, in many ways, so much easier to write. One of the things that always is like pulling teeth for me is figuring out my plot arc. Here, I knew that certain things had to happen, the same plot points. So that was faster.

When I write Regency, because the fans can be such sticklers, they don't want Americanisms. So, I have to sit there with the online Oxford English Dictionary. I'm always checking. I've had my hand slapped a couple times. So now I'm paranoid and I'm checking everything.

This book, I could just write it. It was fun to be able to write things that I hear now and write situations I hear now.

Obviously, no book can be completely representative. There's a range of experiences. Lissie really reflects more of mine.

SP: How was it to write about Asian characters?
CHD: It was fun because I could pull in stuff from my experience. The fact that Lissie’s Mandarin is so lame is all taken from me. My parents divorced when I was 7, but even when I was little, they didn't speak Chinese at home. I only heard it when I was visiting my grandma. The Chinese that I can still say and understand is totally “grandma Chinese.” You know, “Are you cold? Have you eaten? I'm gonna spank you. Go put on socks.” This is stuff I can say and understand.

I remember when I went to college, my roommate, who was San Francisco Chinese, had an experience that was so different from mine. Obviously, no book can be completely representative. There's a range of experiences. Lissie really reflects more of mine.

SP: What were some of the challenges you had in writing this story?
CHD: The usual writer fears. The fear that I'm going to sink this very nice company with a really great mission. But also, when you write in one genre and you find success, there is the fear of “Oh, my gosh, I'm doing something new. Is it going to be a total failure?” Imposter syndrome.

SP: On the flip side, what was your favorite thing about writing this story?
CHD: I just had a really good time writing it because like I said, it's certainly easier for me to be given a plot point and spin off what I'm going to do with it. I could just relax into it and just write dialogue. I like to hear dialogue and not have to worry about it. And I wrote places I knew. Coming from a genre where I have to research, research, research, it was just a lot of fun not to have to.

Published on June 25, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.