Norman Asks | Xiran Jay Zhao Answers

Zephyrus Croft
May 18, 2022

The amazing Xiran Jay Zhao has come around for our newest edition of ‘Norman Asks’!

Xiran is a hugely successful YouTuber and now also an equally successful author, with their debut novel, Iron Widow, having been published in 2021. Instantly a hit, Iron Widow became a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller only a week after its release. It went on to win the 2021 British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Book for Younger Readers and is currently a top ten finalist for the 2022 Locus Awards for Best First Novel and Best Young Adult Novel.

Iron Widow follows 18-year-old Wu Zetian as she finds a way to level the playing field with her male counterparts. She could do the morally correct thing and negotiate equal standing . . . but she resorts to murder because no one has gotten anywhere by being nice. A story of misogyny, mental strength and mecha pilots, this novel questions the nature of sci-fi and its treatment of female power, adding a new layer of depth to the world of Huaxia.

Xiran’s second book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, was published last week and has also received stunning reviews.

Read some of their retrospective insights on Iron Widow and find out what to expect from Zachary Ying below.

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Five Questions for Xiran Jay Zhao

Zephyr: G’day from Australia, Xiran! I’ve read Iron Widow, and I loved it so much that I’ve been telling everyone to read it and even got my whole family to read it too! It was fun to listen to my mum (who has never watched anime) and my dad (who has and is also an avid reader of Chinese web novels) talk about it. What has been your favourite reaction to your book?

Xiran: Hello! My favourite reaction was also from a dad! A reader from France talked about getting the French version of the book and leaving it at their dad’s house, then some time later, when they had a phone call, the dad was like, ‘By the way, I read your book with the Chinese people. I really liked it. Is there more?’

Absolutely love how Iron Widow is now known as ‘the book with the Chinese people’.

Zephyr: As an amateur writer and filmmaker, I’m super interested in how you write. On your social media, you’ve stated that Iron Widow began as a rant about a certain anime – do all your works begin with the need to see something come to life? There must be some ideas that you have to put down or shelve. How far does an idea have to go before you realise you’ve got a workable book?

Xiran: My books have been inspired by all sorts of things. My first two books were vague concepts that evolved over time, then there was a single picture of a girl wearing mecha-looking knee socks (my third book), my disappointment in an anime (Iron Widow, my fourth book) and my desire to do a Chinese take on Yu-Gi-Oh! (Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, my fifth book). To commit to writing a book, I have to know I can make an actual story out of it. Also, I unfortunately have to consider business factors. I have to be confident that a certain concept would do well in the market.

Zephyr: One of the things I’m learning for a screenwriting class is how to balance writing for yourself and writing for an audience. How much of Iron Widow was for yourself and how much was for your readers? Are there any particular scenes that were for a particular person? Personally, I found that the interactions Wu Zetian had with other women of her society really spoke to the misogyny that women internalise and parrot back, and it was so refreshing to see that these problems exist and are very real.

Xiran: I’d say everything I write is for myself. I can’t stand to write things solely to appease others. Like, we all know Iron Widow would sell a lot better if it had a more generic sci-fi setting and no queer elements, but I couldn’t bring myself to write something like that. I can only put effort into something unapologetically myself. This is why I probably can’t write according to someone else’s vision.

Zephyr: This is a more open-ended question: What do you really focus on doing when writing (something that helps guide you to write, to complete, to enjoy)?

Xiran: I always have to have music playing, and I focus on forming a mental picture of the scene and essentially rendering it like CGI through words on the page.

Zephyr: Your second book, Zachary Ying, has just come out, and I’m super excited to read it! The cover looks amazing! Zachary Ying is a middle grade (MG) book, vastly different from Iron Widow. Was it easy to jump from YA to MG? What can we expect from it?

Xiran: Oh my god, I’ve been obsessed with the Zachary Ying cover since I first laid eyes on it. It is beyond gorgeous.

I actually didn’t have much difficulty transitioning to MG! Writing Zachary Ying was easier for me, even. My personality is naturally more suited to the wacky and fun style of MG. Zachary Ying is a MG adventure I pitch as Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yu-Gi-Oh! It features a 12-year-old Chinese American boy, Zack, who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but after the spirit of the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset, he’s compelled to go on a journey across China to fight historical and mythical figures and heist real artifacts. You can expect historical figures causing shenanigans, magic based on famous legends, and Zack struggling with the questionable ethics and motives of his imperial companions.

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About the Author

Photo of Xiran.

Xiran Jay Zhao is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series and Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were 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.

Find Xiran on their: Website | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

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About the Book

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected – she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way – and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Find it on: Goodreads | Abbey’s | Booktopia | Readings