Xiran Jay Zhao is a meme-loving shitposter who is somehow becoming a published author. They are a first generation immigrant to Canada from small town China (which, for China, means a town of 4 million people). A recent graduate from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote sci-fi and fantasy books while they probably should’ve been studying more biochemical pathways. They are in a cow suit because they made a promise to their friends 7 years ago that they would take their author photo in it if they actually got published, and they are not going back on that promise. You can find them on Twitter for daily shitposts, Instagram for cosplays and very Extra outfits, and YouTube for videos about Chinese history and culture.
What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?
From all sorts of weird places! Like, the sci-fi mermaid book that got me my agent was inspired by a single picture of a girl in robot-looking kneesocks that the caption falsely claimed were “functional propulsion thrusters.” It wasn’t real, but hey, it inspired me to create a whole futuristic underwater world. As for my actual debut novel Iron Widow, it was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend after finishing a promising but ultimately disappointing anime (okay, it was Darling in the Franxx). I was envisioning all the things it could’ve done differently and my vision became so different that I had to write it all down, and it became a whole book of its own.
Tell us about your book.
It’s a Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale (or Girls of Paper and Fire for YA readers) reimagining of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. Basically imagining if she was born a teenage girl in a society that has the customs of ancient China but futuristic tech, and is under siege by mecha monsters beyond the Great Wall. Humanity fights back by making their own mechas, called Chrysalises in the book, but these Chrysalises have a sexist, heteronormative piloting system that requires a boy-girl pair, with the female pilot being in constant danger of getting mentally overloaded and killed by the boy. The story starts when Zetian’s sister dies as one of these female pilots, and she enlists herself to get revenge against the male pilot. Also, something that’s been spoiled everywhere already – the story has that typically fanwork-only trope where there’s a love triangle between her and two boys, except they resolve as a polyamorous trio by the end
Can you pitch your current project?
It’s a Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh meets Pokemon Go middle grade adventure! Featuring a 12-year-old Chinese American boy who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but is compelled to go on a journey across China to fight historical and mythical figures and heist real artifacts after the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset.
Tell us about your writing journey and how you got where you are today.
Oh BOY. It’s been a ride for sure. I started writing when I was 15, and thought I was a genius at it. I was not. My first two books were absolutely terrible, but I was messy enough to query them anyway. My writing only vastly improved when I accepted that I needed to think hard about what my target audience is and read the books that are being published recently for them. I can’t just think the whole industry will bow to any random idea that comes into my head. Once I started writing with direction and purpose, I got a lot further. My 3rd book got me into PitchWars 2018 and snagged the attention of my agent Rachel Brooks, then my 4th book is, well, Iron Widow
What advice do you have for writers?
As I’ve said, write with direction and purpose. Even when plotting, figure out the ending first so you always know where the story is heading and don’t get stuck meandering in the middle (those are always the hardest, aren’t they?). Also, give at least a little bit of thought to the market side of things. I know no creative likes to do this, but if you want to make money off your creations, you do need to be aware of target audience and such. Who would want to buy your book and why? You need to have specific answers in mind.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators? What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators from marginalized backgrounds?
This is something I see a lot: marginalized creators getting tangled up in the fear and pressure of not representing their cultures well. My advice is to not silence yourself out of fear. It’s YOUR culture and cultures are never a monolith, so your specific perspective matters in contributing to the diversity WITHIN representation of that culture. Yes, you may get some negative feedback from those within your culture who don’t get this principle, but rest assured that the vast majority of readers will love and appreciate your voice.
How do you weave your culture(s) into your book(s)? How do(es) your culture(s) influence your writing?
It’s funny, my first 3 books actually didn’t have Chinese protagonists. It was only after I finished my 3rd did I have the realization that it’s, in fact, not self-indulgent to write a Chinese protagonist and that my voice as a Chinese person is important. Now I’m basically planning nothing but Chinese-inspired stories. Stories that showcase a whole range of Chinese protagonists, from ancient figures in historical fiction to mecha pilots in sci-fi to angsty boys in modern China. I feel that it’s not only important to have Chinese representation on the page, but as diverse of representation as possible. I take a LOT of inspiration from Chinese history, just because it’s so wild and fun and has so many iconic anecdotes.
What is your writing process like?
I figure out the character arc I want my protagonist to have, the specific goal they’re trying to achieve in the story, then how the antagonist(s) competes with them for that goal. I used to have a problem with my plots meandering, but I solved it by constantly keeping in mind what my antagonist is doing and building a push and pull between my protagonist and antagonist. Then I whine incessantly to my friends about how impossible it’ll be to finish the book until I finish the book.
You’ve made some very informative and entertaining Youtube videos and twitter threads on Chinese history, what inspired your platform?
It all started May of last year, when it was Asia Pacific Heritage Month and I posted some fun facts from Chinese history. People ended up really enjoying those tidbits, so I made a vow to post one each day of that month, because I realized the general public knows criminally little about Chinese history. My posts got more and more popular, and I had more and more Chinese diaspora tell me my posts made them feel more connected to their Chinese roots. That honestly made my heart grow a size each time, so I’m continuing to share whatever I can whenever I can, and I don’t plan on stopping.
What is your writing style in a few words?
Dramatic, extra, anime
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part? Why?
My favorite part is the research!! I love learning new stuff and musing about how I could showcase them in my stories. My least favorite is the actual writing. For a writer, I really hate the physical process of writing, lol. I will whine and complain and cry until the whole thing is down on the page.
What superpower would you like to have?
I want to be able to stop time. I never have enough of it.
How do you deal with critiques of your work?
I think of my stories as engineering projects, so critiques are a sign of something wrong with the structure of the story. If the critique doesn’t make sense to me on a surface level, I try to figure out the deeper reason behind why they’re feeling a certain way. I also always keep in mind if they’re my target audience or not, and if the concerns would actually matter to my audience.