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.
Xiran: Hello, Amy! 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.