I’m very excited for today’s post (which is my first in a long time… I’ll address that at the end of the post)!
If you’re on book twitter or maybe YouTube, you probably know Xiran Jay Zhao, author of Iron Widow, coming Fall 2021! I think that they’re one of the funniest people on the Internet, and I highly recommend following one of their social accounts if you haven’t yet—not only will you laugh, but you’ll probably also learn an interesting tidbit about Chinese history. Iron Widow is one of my and many other people’s most anticipated 2021 releases, and I’m so thankful that I got the chance to interview Xiran. (This is the first in what I hope to be a series of author interviews on my blog—exciting!)
About Iron Widow
Iron Widow is a YA Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. The duology will follow an 18-year-old re-imagining of her as she avenges her sister’s murder by an intensely patriarchal military system that pairs boys and girls up to pilot giant magical mecha based on creatures from East Asian myth (Nine-Tailed Fox, Moon Rabbit, etc.), but in which boy pilots are treated like celebrities, while girl pilots must serve as their concubines. It will be out from Penguin Teen / Penguin Random House Canada Fall 2021, with book 2 to follow in Fall 2022.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve always had stories in my head inspired by the media I love. When I was like 7, I used to spin out whole Yugioh fan fics to friends at recess. Never got around to writing any of it down, though. I was an easily-distracted story planner until I was 15 and met this guy at an anime convention. He told me he was a writer, and I was casually like “oh, me too!” Then he wanted to see some of my writing…I was like uhhh and FINALLY wrote the first chapter of something down after I got home. It was absolutely terrible in hindsight, but his feedback encouraged me to keep going. Wherever you are, Dylan, thank you for kicking me down this path, even though it took years and years of stress and disappointment before I finally landed a book deal.
How did you come up with the idea for Iron Widow?
Oh man, it was out of my disappointment with the anime Darling in the Franxx. I loved it so much for its first 13 episodes, then the second half didn’t really go where I hoped it would go. I was ranting about it to a friend, and the rant slowly spiralled into a completely different world and idea based on the basic premise of “two-person male-female-piloted mechas.” The Empress Wu retelling aspect came into play when I came up with the concept that the female pilots are forced to be the male pilots’ concubines. And there’s no rebellious concubine more legendary than Empress Wu.
What do you wish western publishing would learn or had in common with anime?
Having a seinen (older young adults) category for people aged 18-25!!! Seriously, the YA/Adult distinction leaves a very awkward gap for this age range right now. So many books fail to sell because it’s “too dark” for YA but has too much of a “YA voice” for adult. It’s like each age category has distinct connotations, and not matching them makes you struggle at the publishing gatekeepers. I had to cut a LOT from Iron Widow to make it YA. I don’t necessarily regret it, but if a 18-25 category had existed, then I would’ve been able to keep my original vision.
What would you say is the hardest thing you had to overcome on the journey to getting your book deal?
My snobbery. Believe it or not, I used to be one of those people who was super snobbish and looked down on “the current market.” Then as I matured through university, I realized I was hating on those popular books for very nonsensical reasons. Life is way easier after you stop being so pretentious.
Lastly, and in honor of NaNoWriMo being upon us, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are starting their first ever first draft?
Stop constantly going back and editing. Power through the whole thing so you train yourself to actually finish books, THEN dive into the mess to edit. This way, you’ll avoid the trap of being one of those writers who start a lot of stories but can’t finish them.
Rapid Fire Questions
Describe Zetian in five words.
Ruthless, cunning, provocative, resourceful, empress
Enemies to lovers or friends to lovers?
Enemies to lovers, but it has to be done carefully. If the romance is causing way too much collateral damage or is just nonsensical to pursue in the characters’ circumstances then I’ll be yelling at the book instead. So I guess I’m more team #RivalsToLovers?
If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about?
Why Diversity in Media Matters Not Just in Visual Representation By Actors, But Storytelling Positions on the Production Staff
What’s a 2021 release that we should look out for?
Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta!! It’s also inspired by Pacific Rim, but make it ASIAN AND SAPPHIC
Three figures of Chinese history that you’d invite to dinner?
1. Empress Wu, obviously, but I think we’d all die from poisoning and she’d just get up and walk away, her long robe trailing behind her
2. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China. I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS.
3. Emperor Taizong of Tang. He’s the only one who could stop Empress Wu from poisoning everybody.
About Xiran Jay Zhao
Xiran Jay Zhao is a meme-loving shitposter who is somehow becoming a published author. They are a first generation immigrant to Canada originally from Huai’an, China, home of Journey to the West author Wu Cheng’en. An upcoming disease research graduate from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote outlandish 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 about books, anime, comics, feminism, and Chinese history, on Instagram for cosplays and very Extra outfits, and on YouTube for videos about Chinese history and culture.
Just a quick note since this isn’t the point of the post but, in case you haven’t noticed, my blog is on hiatus. Online school is way busier than regular school, and it’s really sucked out all my time and energy to blog. I feel like I’ve been a broken record complaining about school for the past few months, so in order to save myself from apologizing for my absence with the same excuses again, this is a formal announcement that my blog will be on semi-hiatus/full hiatus for the rest of the year. If I find the time to be more active, especially since I have a couple breaks from school coming up, good, but if I don’t, then you know why. Take care everyone. ❤