Xiran Jay Zhao Author Of Zachary Ying & The Dragon Emperor

“I can’t just pretend China is some paradise. I couldn’t have Zachary being like, Oh, finally I’m in China and then everything is good. No, it is not.”

Check out our chat with Xiran Jay Zhao about Zachary Ying & The Dragon Emperor!

For the release of their first middle-grade Sci-Fi fantasy book, we got to sit down and speak with Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor author Xiran Jay Zhao! Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor follows the journey of a young Chinese Muslim boy living in a mostly white town in Maine. He spends most of his life cut off from his heritage and culture but all of that changes when he’s attacked by evil spirits and he hears the voice of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang beckoning him to release control of his body. The book is out May 10th, and you can preorder it here!

Keshav Kant  

Thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it! I got a copy of Zachary Ying from Simon Schuster Canada a little while because they saw me talking about it on TikTok way before we confirmed this interview was happening. So I’m excited for us to be chatting about it now.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh!

Keshav Kant  

Yeah! But do you have any questions for me or anything you want to talk about before we jump in?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Do you have the hardcover?

Cover of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao 
Cover of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao 

Keshav Kant  

The hardcover got sent to our PR team in America. I have the paperback review copy.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Okay, because look at that hardcover is so beautiful, but I have yet to get my hands on it. So every time like, I’m like, do you have the hardcover? I want to gaze at it.

Keshav Kant  

It’s beautiful! Our New York team kept sending me pictures while they were reading it. And I already pre-ordered my copy, and it’ll get to me eventually, but I want that one right now.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

I know it’s so pretty. 

Keshav Kant  

Oh, it is, but yeah, I’m so sorry you haven’t been able to get your hands on it! Outside of running OffCo, I consult in publishing. Clients & friends who are authors keep mentioning how they hope that publishing houses don’t have to push back their books because of all the shortages happening with like paper and printing; it’s ridiculous.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It is like Iron Widow got reprinted eight times in six months just because of the limit on print orders. So it’s like, what?

Keshav Kant  

Oh, yeah, you can see Iron Widow’s right there. I pre-ordered it immediately, but I swung by like my local Indigo on release day, and I got it before it could sell out. So I was like, I had to have a hard copy.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh my god, thank you!

Keshav Kant  

Of course! Okay, so let’s jump right in. Again, Zachary Ying. I got a copy a little early. And one thing that stuck out is like, from the very jump, you mentioned how like it- your family thought of you writing a book as winning the lottery. You have it written like your dedication and the acknowledgments that it took them to get to Zachary Ying before they’re like, “Oh, they’re a writer.”

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, yeah. I’m very passive-aggressive about this.

Keshav Kant  

Haha, that’s fair! But, honestly, my parents still don’t understand what I do. So I’m like, don’t worry about it. 

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah.

Keshav Kant  

How does it feel for you? Like not only having won the lottery, but you are now like, you’ve written a new adult fiction, you’ve written middle grade, you’ve got a third book on the way, and you’ve got more coming. So what’s that feeling like for you? 

Xiran Jay Zhao  

I do feel vindicated, but at the same time, you look, you know, it has been a long journey. And if I were to go back, I’m not sure I would advise my younger self to go through it. But you know, it’s- things did have a happy ending. And I think the things that my parents said to me probably, like, motivated me in some way. I was like, you know, I cannot be seen as failing at my passion. I gotta, like, prove myself and for sure, because, like, Iron Widow didn’t sell in a big flashy deal or anything. 

Then they were kind of unconvinced by my decision to become a writer because they’re like, “Oh, you’ve worked so many years to get this one book deal, and it’s not even enough to live on. So like, what are you doing?” And then so I wrote Zachary Ying in a two-month frenzy, and then it’s sold at auctions. So that was finally what proved to me that Iron Widow is not a one-time thing and that I can continue on this path. Although, ironically, I didn’t, um, I still didn’t become a full-time writer because of my YouTube thing. So yeah, still, I’m like a part-time writer. But probably, I’m gonna take a hiatus from YouTube so I can finish my sequels. And yeah, so I it-it feels vindicated, but at the same time, wow, that was a long journey.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, I love this quote that I heard from director Matthew Cherry when he talked about his animated short Hair Love. He was just like, “It takes a lot of years to become an overnight success.”

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It does. Okay, that is such a perfect quote.

Keshav Kant  

Right?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It is! Like YouTube is my side hustle. I never intend on making it a full-time thing like books. It is like writing books and doing YouTube simultaneously, and like being successful, YouTube gave me more perspective. I was like, even though YouTube is super fun, books are still my number one passion. I wouldn’t- I would never give up books just to become a full-time YouTuber even though it will probably make me more money, but I just realized no, like books are still my number one thing. 

Yeah, and I resonate with that quote, just because I think many people look at me and they’re like overnight success because of YouTube, but no, that is not true. My Iron Widow book deal came before YouTube. So I am not a YouTube author. Like those who got popular on YouTube and then got a book deal? No, that is not true. I worked my ass off for it.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, like, I think people also, I was following you on Twitter from before like you got super popular on YouTube, which was that you were like the I don’t think people understand. Authors have to market themselves now to put their personality out there and be like, “You should buy me; that’s why you’re reading this book!”. So just look at you, Chloe Gong and Rebekah Weatherspoon; you all do that well cause you understand your audience needs the stories and how to market them well. But that doesn’t mean you have to be someone who specializes in marketing.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, I think, like my generation Gen Z. We just grew up with the Internet. So we kind of understand the language of it. And the internet or marketing yourself on the internet it’s not something that can be taught. I think you have to have the instinct for it. You either have the internet factor, or you don’t. So you can’t teach this whether you’re in tune with the internet language.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, and I think that also helps how you market yourself. So, for example, I left a medical track because the Internet thing clicked for me. And we’ve heard so many stories where people are like, yeah, this just happened. But in that same vein, in Zachary Ying, you mentioned in the acknowledgments that someone had to cajole you into writing middle grade. I believe it was Rebecca Schaefer, you said?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, my god. Yes! Rebecca Schaefer. Yes, author of “Not Even Bones,” and yeah, um, so I distinctly remember this because this happened on the sky train. So we talked on the sky train, and then she was just randomly like, “Hey, you should try your hand at writing middle grade, like all these stories that are coming out these stories about Chinese history and myth. Like they do well a middle grade”.

So that got me thinking, Hmm, could I write middle grade and then immediately, like my, my mind immediately jumped to Yu-Gi-Oh! Yu-Gi-Oh! is like my number one thing. It was so formative when I was growing up, and I was like, what if I did a Chinese version of Yu-Gi-Oh! So then, instead of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, it was the first emperor of China. And so that was the birth of Zachary Ying, and then yeah, I still- she was also responsible for Iron Widow. So basically, I owe my whole career to Rebecca.

Keshav Kant  

That’s awesome! I love that you have like someone in your corner like that. Also, you can see the direct references to Yu-Gi-Oh!, where it’s like, everyone puts on their AR glasses, and it’s just like a part of their life. Like after- wasn’t it like in the second season of Yu-Gi-Oh! everyone has those like portable duel discs, having battles all over the city?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, yeah. Like, oh, my God, Seto Kaiba is taking over the whole city, and it’s hilarious because you, like, have shots where people like ordinary people in their cars and being super annoyed at these like teenagers just having the hologram battles on the street. And then that universe is ridiculous because you can see references to like normies, but Seto Kaiba was like, no, all of you have to be obsessed with this card game because I am. Then he even hijacked all the broadcasting stations to broadcasts like the finale. The finals of the tournament, and it’s just like Kaiba. What if some people didn’t like this game? 

Keshav Kant  

Yeah. He said, “No”, he said this is my girl boss moment. I’m leaning in. I love books where people use technology to tell older stories because I think that there’s such like a, it takes a particular eye to weave that together. And the way you do that, in Iron Widow and Zachary Ying, hopefully, next year and Heavily Tyrant, it’s well done. It just makes all those books enjoyable. And I think that Rebecca was right when they suggested that you do middle grade because I think you’ve talked about this before, how you kind of write for like the ADHD brain?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah, and I don’t do it intentionally, but somehow it is like, people tell me, “Oh, I have ADHD, and I normally don’t binge books, but I’ve managed to binge yours,” and I’m like, I don’t know how I did that. But I’m thrilled that I did.

Keshav Kant  

I think it’s because of the way you pace books, is it never really like it’s not too fast, nor is it too slow. It keeps your attention throughout time. When I consult and review manuscripts for work, I usually look for how many times I feel the need to put this book down? And in your case, it’s never and even with Zachary Ying. Speaking of Zachary Ying, despite the book being middle grade, you introduce politics and social dynamics in a way that you understand all the nuance. However, it’s still digestible to someone in that age group.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Hopefully, this was my first step in writing middle grade, and I don’t know how well the target audience, the age group, will receive it. But I will see because I have yet to hear an actual child, the child’s reaction to it, and then I’ll see.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, honestly, my friends and I are 20 to 40-something-year-olds, and we’re reading middle-grade books because why not? We have the money.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah.

Keshav Kant  

So I’m sure- but I’ll find one of my nieces or nephews and be like here, give me your thoughts. 

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh yeah.

Keshav Kant  

But specifically, when I was prepping for this interview, I came across critiques of your work talking about how they read it as you were sort of flattening Chinese cultures and only focusing on the majority, but with Zachary Yang, you’re talking about someone who’s like ethnically a minority. He is a queer Muslim boy. And I was like, Okay, this is like a direct- like, this is a critique, and this is the opposite. So what was that process like for you to write specifically about, like, this particular ethnic minority, the religious experience and, like, all of the stuff that Zachary goes through?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Well, um, I did some people. I ran into a situation where some people were just on the internet and then throwing some bad faith critiques at me. They were like, and I honestly do not understand where that came from. Because, in all my videos, I say, “Hey, this is only my perspective. Chinese culture isn’t a monolith”. But then, some people still choose to be like, “Oh, you’re flattening Chinese culture”. This still confuses me because even in Iron Widow, I have like representation of ethnic minorities. You know I’m not Han Chinese; I’m Hui Chinese. So I don’t know where this came from. Also, why are you making assumptions about me just because I’m not super loud about certain things? So I don’t think it’s a good-faith critique. 

Sometimes it does annoy me, that you know? There’s so much politics when you are a Chinese person who chooses to speak about politics online. And well, just like being Chinese is so political nowadays. And then I wrote Zachary Ying before I realized that I would be getting into these sorts of situations online. So it’s not an attempt to prove myself or anything because, you know, and like, writing a book takes a long time. So I hope that whoever chose to critique me in that way they can- that, you know, Zachary Ying will just not prove them wrong, but like make them rethink their opinion on me because where did it come from?

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, I’m not Chinese, so I can’t speak about the experience of people who grew up in China. But I saw a reflection of, like, what it was growing up in India. As someone who is a child of an inter-ethnic group, inter-caste marriage and there’s colorism also involved. So for me, I don’t necessarily understand the critique because, in Iron Widow, you have a polyamorous couple that’s of different ethnic groups. One of them is an ethnic group that’s been demonized, essentially, and they’re seen as less than, and the book explores those dynamics.

Then with Zachary Ying, you also talk about the experience of, like, Chinese Muslims, both living in like a big city and then also living in a smaller city where there’s like, the class also plays a huge role there. So I was like. Hopefully, they’re open-minded enough to read the book and see where you’re coming from because I think you did an excellent job fleshing out that storyline.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah, no, but like some people on the internet, they have opinions about you and then it’s something that baffles me sometimes. Like, where did you get this? Where did you get this idea about me? I do not understand. So, have people on the internet; they will just make accusations about you.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, it’s the thing we’re like, you can come with receipts, and people will still be mad at you— it’s ridiculous. I was having this conversation two weeks ago because I interviewed Vaishnavi Patel, the author of Kaikeyi. We were talking about right-wing Hindu nationalists talking about her book.  Her book, Kaikeyi, talks about how social pressures and the patriarchy play a role in religion. And people lost their minds at her. I was like, your book doesn’t say anything wrong about religion at all. It’s just talking about society using religion to like enforce gender roles. Vaishnavi was like, Yeah, I can’t say anything; people just come into my DMs or the like, review bomb, and it’s just part of the deal.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It is. I know that like, especially like just being Chinese. You have to remember that well. But, again, being Chinese is not a monolith. And we do have our version of like, Trumpers, I guess, our version of like, right-wing, just right-wing fools. Who are super nationalistic. 

Keshav Kant  

That’s the best way to say it.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

I think, um, yeah, just last week, someone accused me of being- like playing up my being my Chinese -ness and playing my Chinese culture- this was a Chinese person. So they’re like, “Oh, you only care about making money from your culture. You don’t care about China itself”. And I was like, “Why do I need to care about China in a nationalistic way”?

Their accusation was that I never did any interviews in Chinese with big Chinese media outlets. And I had to be like, “Have you considered that maybe it’s because I’m very politically outspoken. And then they don’t want to associate with me, so they don’t want to interview me”? So just why are you- it baffles me, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re like you’re playing up your culture for money,” which is just what? What are you talking about?

Keshav Kant  

You just wrote a middle-grade book that actively calls out the Chinese government and their treatment of ethnic minorities.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah, and then probably that’s gonna piss off a lot of Chinese Nationalists. They’re gonna be like, “What are you doing? Why? Are you slandering China? You’re like, playing into your believing Western propaganda”. So you gotta just like ignore those people. But also like, I hope that people online won’t just take their words at face value and be like, Oh, this is a Chinese person critiquing another Chinese person saying it must be valid. Well, no, we have our own version of like, right-wingers. Don’t believe everything you see.

Banner from Xiran Jay Zhao’s website

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, cuz and that’s literally my next question. Despite it being a middle-grade book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor takes a really hard look at the realities of like, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities, in China. Even explicitly talking about the ramifications of being a political dissident because Zachary Ying is living in America because his father talked about the oppression of Uyghur Muslims. On top of that, you also talk about class and structures of privilege. I’m very surprised someone could say that you are like, someone could say, why you aren’t endorsed by Chinese media when you’re being very rightfully critical of it? I’m very confused. 

Xiran Jay Zhao  

So am I.

Keshav Kant  

Honestly, who even knows. But moving on since we are talking about it. I love when authors talk about oppression & privilege in their homeland versus let’s say North America. Because it’s very different things and the way they play together is really interesting What was your process like writing all of that out?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

My books always get political even when like it probably doesn’t serve me best. They probably like get me in trouble, but I can’t help but talk about these things just because they’re on my mind.

But I can’t set a book in China without addressing these things. I can’t just pretend like China is some paradise because I think certain people in the diaspora think that all of their problems are going to be solved after they go to China because of the oppression they face in the West. But you know if you’re diaspora, there’s really no safe place for you to be there’s no place where you’re going to feel 100% home. So I had to address that in the book because I couldn’t have him (Zachary) being like, Oh, finally I’m in China and then everything is good. No, it is not.

Sure, China’s not as bad as he thought it was at the beginning of the book, but also like, there is bad stuff happening. I had to just be really realistic about that cuz I can’t help but get political. But my mom even told me, she read the book and she was like, No, you need to tell your publisher that you need to cut this and this out and I was like too late. It’s gone now.

Keshav Kant

And we’re thankful for it because it’s such an amazing read. But I do want to ask you what is your obsession with like the twist at the end? Because it happened in Iron Widow, and with Zachary Ying, I was like okay, it’s a middle grade. There’s probably like an obvious antagonist- we’re going into- no, we still got to twist at the end.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It was a twist, but it wasn’t Iron Widow levels of mean!.

Keshav Kant  

Fair, I’ll give you that. But still, I was like, how did we go from like this? Like, what is hap- what? Because I also thought it was a standalone novel.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, okay. I’m sorry. Yeah, no, it is a series.

Keshav Kant  

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been making that mistake. recently. I just read The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri thinking it’s the final book. Nope. There’s a third. I have to wait another year. And you did the same thing to me. So like, what is why the twist is that your trademark is that your move

Xiran Jay Zhao  

It’s not I just think it’s fun to leave some leave readers wanting a sequel and I’m curious about what happens in the sequel. So it’s just it’s a thing I do because I think it’s fun. You toy with them. I-yeah, but it’s not as mean as what I did at the end of Iron Widow where there was like a twist every five pages and then like, huge, huge huge twists on like the last two pages. That was super mean, I would admit it.

Keshav Kant  

Ya know, with Iron Widow I was like, okay, because I expect it. You know, like after a while when you be like reading so many- like especially when you work in publishing, you can kind of see something coming. 

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah.

Keshav Kant  

So the gender-based power dampener I kind of saw coming, but then the whole like the Gods are alive situation. I was like- What?! With Zachary Ying, it was a little bit better. You are-

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Yeah, it was a little bit I was less mean in it and in Heavily Tyrant, the Iron Widow sequel I would definitely like- I will be exploring the full ramifications of those twists at the end like she’s going to be like so if that is true then what was all this for?

Keshav Kant  

Okay, so I’m gonna ask you for my curiosity is Heavenly Tyrant the finale are we going to get third? Because I need to prepare for that emotionally. I can’t have another Oleander Sword.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

So I can’t say anything yet, but let me just say there’s a reason I called the Iron Widow series instead of the Iron Widow duology.

Keshav Kant  

Fair. At least I’m at least I can talk to my therapist we can prepare. Speaking of. Okay, final questions. Is there anything you want to let readers know something before they go into Zachary Ying? And are there any things you can share about upcoming projects that you have coming down the pipeline?

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, what do readers want to know? Just be prepared for lots of questionable moral shenanigans in Zachary Ying. Just imagine you find out that you accidentally became a supervillain’s hench boy. 

Keshav Kant  

That’s it.

Xiran Jay Zhao  

So that is Zachary Ying and the following projects; I can’t say anything definitive because the announcement is still not out, but I think I talked about my third book online before. It’s about futuristic Asian science mermaids, which will be coming out in a more visual form than a written novel.

Keshav Kant  

Okay, I think I caught that tweet! But I’ll have to keep an eye out for updates. But that’s the last question I ha; thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it!

Xiran Jay Zhao  

Oh, thanks for talking with m; this was fun!

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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