Body positivity, self-acceptance, AND romance? Yes please! You can find all of this in Chinese Canadian Bookstagrammer and debut author Amy Lea‘s new novel, ‘Set On You’, out May 10, 2022, timed perfectly for AAPI Awareness Month. If you are looking for a fresh perspective and narrative in the rom-com genre, one that delivers a “happily ever after” story in a way that is inclusive and exciting (not to mention spicy!), then this is the book for you.
Curvy fitness influencer Crystal Chen is so focused on herself and the gym that no man can get in her way: except for firefighter and new gym patron Scott, literally, when he steals her squat rack. Soon the competition – and their undeniable chemistry – heats up as they fight for gym domination. But after their escalating jabs, the last place Crystal expects to see Scott is at their grandparents’ engagement party. As Crystal discovers the softness under his muscular exterior, she feels a deep bond forming – but when internet trolls come after a viral picture of them, Crystal and Scott will have to ground their budding relationship in what they know is real.
Amy’s unprecedented perspective on self-love and body image is perfectly represented in Crystal, who finds her strength in the gym while still loving her mid-size body. And while Amy is Asian Canadian, her protagonist Crystal is Asian American living the romcom life in Boston, MA. Crystal’s firefighter enemy-to-lover, Scott, is inspired by movie star Chris Evans.
As a writer who loves to feature strong heroines, witty banter, mid-2000s pop culture references, and happily ever afters, we immediately wanted to chat with Amy about her debut novel, the inspiration from her own life, and what message she wants to share by being inclusive and diverse with her main protagonist.
How did the story for ‘Set On You’ first come about?
The inspiration started with me spending time in the gym people watching (as one does). As an avid romance reader, I can find inspiration for love wherever I go. While dying and profusely sweating in a spin class, it suddenly came to me that the gym would be the perfect place to meet someone, as well as the perfect setting for enemies to lovers shenanigans.
Although it is a love story, we love that so much of it is centered around self-love and body acceptance. Why were these topics important for you to incorporate?
I’m always drawn to strong main characters in romance. While it’s fiction, there were definitely bits of her journey that were inspired by my own experiences with self-acceptance. I thought it would be interesting to depict a character who is seemingly the picture of strength and confidence. She’s a character who, despite being an idol in the body positivity fitness community and despite the privilege that comes with being midsized and fit, still has her moments of doubt in a community that has sky high standards for bodies. I hoped to write a book that would show readers it’s okay not to feel confident all the time – because society still has a long way to go in normalizing marginalized bodies (whether that’s ethnicity, weight, disability) as being worthy of love.
And even more importantly, I wanted to write a book that would affirm that everyone deserves to be a main character in their own story.
As an Asian-Canadian, you were purposeful about making Crystal an Asian protagonist (Asian-American). Can you talk more about the power of representation, even in fictional stories?
As Asian girl who grew up in an all-white community, I seldom saw myself represented in books or film, aside from flimsy side characters. When you don’t regularly see yourself represented in the media you consume, you begin to think you’re not worthy of being a main character in your own life. And despite people telling you “you’re beautiful the way you are,” you’re never going to believe it if wider society doesn’t reflect that.
I always dreamed of being a fiction author, but because I never saw myself represented on-screen or in books, it never even occurred to me to write a main character who wasn’t white. In fact, the first two books I wrote before ‘Set On You’ (which will never see the light of day!) featured white heroines.
I still remember that day in Chapters/Indigo [Canadian chain of book stores] when I saw Lara-Jean on the cover of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, and Esme on the cover of The Bride Test by Helen Hoang. Until then, main character status and happily ever afters seemed reserved for white characters in traditional publishing. That was the first time it occurred to me that I could write a character who looked like me.
It’s incredibly important to me that young people of color in future generations see themselves as main characters in their own stories, the way I never did until adulthood. They deserve to see stories of main characters of color that not only defy stereotypes, but that centralize them as human beings.
Why was it important to create a strong family dynamic for Crystal?
Crystal’s family was one of the most enjoyable parts to write. In many books, characters are often brought together by friends – particularly when weddings are involved. I love including weddings in books and thought it would be a good spin on this trope to make it their grandparents’ wedding as opposed to a friend’s wedding.
One of the other reasons it was important to me to incorporate a strong family dynamic was because it was something Crystal and Scott bonded over. Family is incredibly important to them and they’re both close to their grandparents. Furthermore, Crystal relies a lot on the support of the people in her life, including her parents and her sister toward the end of the book. It was important for me to showcase the support system she has to get through one of the toughest times in her life.
You’ve said that firefighter Scott was inspired by Hollywood star Chris Evans, which makes us TOTALLY see this as a feature film rom-com in the future! So our question is: who would you ideally like to see playing Crystal on screen?
It would be my absolute dream for Chris Evans to play Scott. Honestly, I’d settle for him knowing I exist, period (lol). But in terms of Crystal, I’m super open. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of well-known curvy, Asian actresses. However, there are a couple models that helped shaped my vision for her. Their names are Catherine Li and Sarah Kim.
‘Set On You’ is being released during AAPI Awareness Month in the US. How do you hope your book will contribute to the conversations being had during May?
I strongly believe people should make an effort to read diversely throughout the entire year, not just during months that specifically celebrate diversity. However, I love that months like AAPI month (or Asian Heritage Month as it’s called in Canada) not only bring awareness to certain issues within various Asian communities, but also celebrate and uplift underrepresented voices.
In particular, I hope my rom-com ‘Set On You’ reminds readers that while diverse books can serve as an educational tool, it is not the only reason to read our books. I want people to read my book and remember that characters of color or other marginalized folks don’t have to be defined by their struggle. They get to experience joy and love, too.
Crystal is a human being, just like any other main character in a rom-com. If you’re a human (which I assume you are), you can relate to Crystal, regardless of what her ethnicity is. Everyone should feel deserving of an epic love story and a happily ever after, no matter what they look like.