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Justinian Huang: From Film Studio Exec to Published Novelist — And Just Getting Started



An image of a copy of The Emperor and the Endless Palace with a headshot of its author, Justinian Huang, edited next to it.
HarperCollins

While the majority of the world turned to learning how to bake sourdough bread while in lockdown during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Justinian Huang developed a love of removable wallpaper. On the wall behind him during our Zoom interview, I can see what is, in fact, an illustration of a handsome, red-haired merman among other aquatic elements. “The reason why I have this underwater theme in my office is because that’s Chinese feng shui,” he says. “Water means wealth.”


Of course, interior design was hardly the biggest development during this time for Huang — he also completed the first draft of his debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace. Billed as a “romantasy” novel, the book is a love story between two young men that traverses time and space across three eras. In the year 4 BCE, a courtier is tasked with seducing the Emperor in a game of political intrigue. Then, in 1740, an innkeeper receives a mysterious visitor with an even more mysterious request. Finally, in present-day Los Angeles, a college student encounters a stranger at a nightclub and can’t help but feel they’ve met before.


For Huang, writing The Emperor and the Endless Palace posed as a new chapter in his career, and while pivoting towards a different industry can be daunting, it’s not something he wasn’t already accustomed to. Raised in San Gabriel Valley, Orange County — “Always on the periphery of Hollywood,” as Huang calls it — he knew early on that he wanted to work in movies. Growing up in the early-1990s, however, wasn’t the most inspiring time for Asian artists. “When I told my parents, they were like, ‘That’s crazy because Asians don’t do that.’”


“I went to school as a pre-med student, but even then, I was laying the groundwork [for a film career],” Huang adds, comparing himself to one of the characters of his novel, Dong Xian, the resourceful and ambitious courtier who has his eyes on the Emperor. Huang enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, California as part of their pre-med program, but it wasn’t long before “I found myself driving golf carts on Paramount.” 


Eventually, he caught the attention of the trailblazing film producer Lynda Obst who took Huang on as an assistant of sorts, which included reading scripts for her and driving her wherever she needed to go. After college, he “worked for a bunch of old-school producers [like] Gary Ross,” but still hadn’t experienced a catapult moment. “[It] sort of had ebbs and flows,” Huang says. Then, in his late-20s, his mom suggested he live with his dad in Asia. “She was like, ‘You have L.A.-agoraphobia. All you do is live in L.A., you’ve seen nothing of the world. You know nothing about your cultural heritage.” 


This move ended up being Huang’s golden ticket into the film industry. “This was 2015, when Hollywood and China were just pouring money into each other, and it was like panning for gold as an expat there. With my background, especially being mentored by Lynda, I was hired by the then-head of DreamWorks Shanghai.” Then, five years later, Huang became Head of Development, pushing out several high-profile animated movies, including the Oscar-nominated Over the Moon




Fei Fei from Over the Moon, holding a fantastical-looking bunny while standing in a field of brightly-coloured bulbs.
Netflix

However, in 2020, as the pandemic rocked the world, Huang recalls his career seemingly disappearing overnight. “It was over,” he says, which prompted a return home to “my mom’s attic in Hermosa Beach.” And yet, as life-changing as these years in Shanghai were on a professional level, it wasn’t his career in the film industry that he lamented upon moving back to California.


“I thought about two men I had fallen in love with at different times. I thought a lot about myself as a queer Asian person, what it meant that I returned home to the motherland, and what it had been like to be part of majority finally — and I remembered this story about this emperor in 4 BCE, who fell in love with one of the members of his court and dedicated the entire kingdom to this boy.”

Huang dubs it “the greatest love story never told,” and combining this piece of lost history with the spirit of the two men he had fallen in love with, he came up with the foundation for The Emperor and the Endless Palace


At this point, our discussion moves towards writing from a place of literal love, and how one sustains this feeling over the marathonic process of writing a book. But, surprisingly, Huang proclaims writing his novel was more of a sprint. In fact, the writing itself took about two months during the pandemic lockdowns. “I barely ate. My mom came to visit me, and she thought I was dying.” 


Two months doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but that’s because Huang leaned on his experience and expertise as a film executive, devoting ample time to planning the novel’s intricate structure. Indeed, The Emperor and the Endless Palace showcases a meticulous dance between its three seemingly disparate timelines, each initially disconnected from the others before all finally converging. With every key plot point and thematic message carefully laid out, Huang describes a sort of freedom with which the words spilled onto the page.


Millennial (and older) LGBTQ+ folks will be the first to say that, growing up, it wasn’t always easy access to queer literature — at least not by today’s standards. Now, BookTok and Bookstagram (the literary sects of TikTok and Instagram, respectively) have allowed a more widespread discussion and promotion of gay books that have translated to mainstream success. Titles like Heartstopper and Red, White & Royal Blue gained massive online followings that arguably paved the way for their on-screen adaptation. Even large-chain and independent bookstores alike dedicate shelves and tables to LGBTQ+ offerings.


And yet — both surprisingly and not — when Huang began telling others about The Emperor and the Endless Palace, a fantastical gay love story with two Asian leads, the most common reaction he received was: “Wow, that’s so niche.” This, he says, confused him, but at the same time, was a source of empowerment. “It felt like I was addressing a need that no one else sees because everyone is just so enamoured by the traditional idea of what romance should be.”


“I wrote it being like, ‘This might not get published, but I’m going to have a lot of fun with it.’ I’m going to write what I want to write.”


The Emperor and the Endless Palace is now available to purchase at HarperCollins and your favourite local bookstore.

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