Welcome back to my Author Spotlight series! This week, I had the honor of interviewing the #1 New York Times bestselling author Xiran Jay Zhao who is best known for writing the “Iron Widow” series. “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor“ (on sale May 10, 2022) is their debut middle-grade novel.
A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, Xiran Jay Zhao was raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.
After the success of your “Iron Widow” series, what made you decide to write a series for a middle-grade audience?
“Zachary Ying” was actually planned before I had the idea for “Iron Widow”! I was inspired to take a go at writing middle grade when my friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the “Not Even Bones” series, encouraged me to try writing an adventure based on Chinese history and myth, since those stories make for very good [middle grade] novels. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on “Yugioh,” the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic. Though I put it off for a long time because I was prioritizing getting established in [young adult].
How would you say your two books, “Iron Widow” and “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor” are similar and different?
“Iron Widow” and “Zachary Ying” are radically different in style, with the former being grim and brutal and the latter being more wacky and fun, but they share a lot of inspirations from Chinese history and myth. In fact, some familiar names may pop up in “Zachary Ying” for those who’s read “Iron Widow” ; )
If you could describe your book as an aesthetic, what would it be and why?
Magical cyperpunk! Thanks to the blending of high tech and magical shenanigans.
What can readers look forward to in this novel?
An awkward gamer boy and an ancient tyrant in a Rick and Morty dynamic, history in-jokes, famous Chinese people interacting (Li Bai vs Qu Yuan!), legend-based magic, morally grey conundrums, and water. Lots and lots of water getting thrown around.
Your author profile picture is of you in a cow suit. Could you tell us the story behind this promise you made seven years ago?
Oh man, it started as a joke between me and my friends when I first started writing books. At the time, I just got my cow onesie in the mail and had taken a few pictures of in it before going to a writer’s conference, then one of my friends was like “did you wear your cow onesie there?” and I was like “you know what, if I ever become published for real, I’ll take my author photo in the onesie.” I made a whole Facebook status promise about it and everything. And as we all know, you have to live up to your 7-year-old Facebook statuses, so I had no choice but to do a photoshoot in the cow onesie after getting my first book deal. My editors were like “are you SURE you want this picture? It kind of clashes with the vibe of the cover,” but I was adamant. I’d made the Internet a promise!
Every novel an author writes has some piece of them inside the work. How would you say this concept applies to you for “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor”?
“Zachary Ying”—both the book and character—pull deeply from the inner turmoil I struggled with when I was around his age (12). That was when I first immigrated from China to a small town in Canada and landed in a school where I was the only Asian kid. My experience there plummeted my self-esteem, and it took me years to unpack the shame I was made to feel about my heritage and identity. I’m incredibly grateful that I now get to write the books I wish I had when I was younger. Through my stories, I hope I can help the next generation of diaspora come to terms with their identity, so they will have a smoother adolescence than mine.
Were there any novels that helped inspire your book or changed the way you write?
Myth-based adventure books like “Percy Jackson” and “Aru Shah”, of course, but Lemony Snicket is the most formulative author of my childhood. His books helped me break free of the notion that books must be written in a very archaic and professional voice. No, you can have fun and be snarky!
How would you say your experience growing up as a first-gen Chinese immigrant impacted your experience with the internet and YouTube?
It means I grew up with both the Western internet and the Chinese internet. The Chinese internet is the reason I retained the ability to read Chinese, really. And that allowed me to find and read the best info on Chinese history and myth, which I then share in English for Chinese diaspora who don’t have access to that info.
What do you want to tell readers that makes your book stand out from other “Percy Jackson” inspired novels?
For one, I involve more historical figures than mythological figures! History and myth are very entwined in Chinese culture—historical fantasy is the number one genre in classic Chinese literature, after all. But with “Zachary Ying”, I wanted to take things more into the near future. I love combining magic and tech. I’m hoping that readers will find this mix of genres unique!
Are there any other ideas influenced by Chinese mythology and history that you’re looking forward to writing about?
I’ve been planning a historical fantasy set in the Warring States era, during the actual time of the First Emperor of China, for a while! (I know, him and his shenanigans work as quite a muse for me). Unsure when I’ll actually get to it though when I’m so busy with the “Iron Widow” and “Zachary Ying” sequels.
Thank you so much Xiran Jay Zhao for answering my questions! Coming from a family of immigrants, I love seeing the blend of cultures coming together to create something memorable and unique. I can’t wait to see how the “Zachary Ying” and “Iron Widow” series grow! A special thanks to Alex Kelleher from Simon & Schuster who was mediator to Zhao and I. Without the both of them, this interview wouldn’t have been possible. “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor” is on sale May 10, 2022.