Romance novelist Helen Hoang discusses incorporating characters who have autism during an interview at her San Diego home. Photo for The Washington Post by Peggy Peattie

San Diego - When Helen Hoang was 12 years old, she skipped lunch for an entire week, hoarding her lunch money so she could buy something more delicious than a midday meal: her first romance novel.

Hoang soon realised love stories would feed her in a way nothing else could. Back then, she struggled with simple interactions but didn't know why. Getting lost in a romance novel gave her the vicarious thrill of falling in love without having to talk to or touch anyone.

"I felt like I was buying drugs or porn," Hoang said of that first purchase, noting that she tried to hide her obsession from her parents by picking covers and titles that didn't scream sex. Eventually she amassed an entire shelf of bodice-rippers. And by the end of high school, she'd written her own. Hoang's first reader was her father, who warned: "If you're going to be a writer, you're going to be poor."

That paternal pronouncement, plus Hoang's sense that "growing up" meant quitting romance novels, led her to abandon them in college. But her brain kept chasing the endorphin rush of imagining two people in the throes of passion. 

At night she would lie awake for hours, drafting love stories in her head. She tried working in finance and managing her mother's eucalyptus farm, but she was miserable. After Hoang gave birth to her first child eight years ago, she allowed herself to write again.

Now, 25 years since she rode her bicycle to Kmart to buy that first romance novel, 37-year-old Hoang has published two of her own: The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, both of which have gotten rave reviews and "best of" accolades. A screenplay for The Kiss Quotient is in the works. Her third book (The Heart Principle) is set to publish next year.

She is not poor. She is incredibly successful in a genre that is difficult to break into, especially for women of colour. And she's figured out why socializing has always been difficult: At age 34, Hoang learned she had Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism. That revelation inspired her to create characters who are also on the autism spectrum, a trait that had yet to be explored in the romance genre and is resonating with readers.

The Kiss Quotient, for example, follows Stella, a young woman with Asperger's who's never enjoyed sex, so she hires an escort, Michael, to teach her to be comfortable in the bedroom. 

Stella's path to a happy ending is littered with obstacles, from her discomfort with human touch to her frank - and sometimes unintentionally insensitive - conversation style. The portrayal is a revelation, both for readers with Asperger's, who have never seen themselves so accurately or compassionately depicted, and those without, who gain a better understanding of the difficulties of finding love on the spectrum.

For Hoang, receiving a diagnosis was healing, as if a puzzle piece that had long been missing finally locked into place. "I felt that I could sort of grieve for that girl that I was," Hoang said in an interview at her home recently, describing her childhood as a time she was "drowning in loneliness." If she'd known why it was so hard for her to make friends, perhaps those years would have been less isolating.

Instead, Hoang expended an extreme amount of effort to fit in as a teenager, often with little success. "I remember there was a time when this girl - she told me that my facial expressions were scary," Hoang said, noting that she would study the faces people made on television and in real life and practice them in the mirror.

The Washington Post