"Xiran Jay Zhao is a Chinese-Canadian author, Internet personality, and cosplayer. Their debut novel, Iron Widow, became a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller."
1. Congratulations on the release and success of “Iron Widow”! You state on your website that, “I made a promise to my friends 7 years ago that if I actually get published, this is what I'll take my author photo in (a cow suit).” This is the best thing ever! Why a cow suit specifically?
Oh man, it started as a joke between me and my friends when I first started writing books. At the time, I just got my cow onesie in the mail and had taken a few pictures of in it before going to a writer's conference, then one of my friends was like "did you wear your cow onesie there?" and I was like "you know what, if I ever become published for real, I'll take my author photo in the onesie."
I made a whole Facebook status promise about it and everything. And as we all know, you have to live up to your 7 year-old Facebook statuses, so I had no choice but to do a photoshoot in the cow onesie after getting my first book deal. My editors were like "are you SURE you want this picture? It kind of clashes with the vibe of the cover,” but I was adamant. I’d made the Internet a promise!
2. This book is being touted by readers as, “one of the best original works I have read in a long time”. What inspired “Iron Widow”?
It was born out of a chaotic mixing of anime and Chinese history in my head. I had binged the mecha anime "Darling in the Franxx" within a few days, and while some parts made me think it was the best anime ever, others left me profoundly disappointed.
I was so frustrated that I ranted to a friend about what I wished it had done differently, then my rant went so off the rails that I realized it was basically a whole original world and story. I was so excited that I instantly saved screenshots of the conversation, because I KNEW it would become a thing. And it did. Funny how one random conversation can change your whole life, right?
3. What was the writing process like for “Iron Widow”?
I wrote it in a 2.5 month frenzy, like the story POSSESSED me. I was supposed to be working on another book, but Iron Widow refused to let me go until I got it all down on the page. It was truly an experience.
4. What was something you learned about yourself while writing this story?
It’s funny, my first 3 books actually didn’t have Chinese protagonists. It was only when I started Iron Widow 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.
5. When did you get into “Mecha” and why was it important to include into this particular story?
Ever since I was a kid, I’d been into media that target teen boys because of their high-octane action. Mechas are a big part of this genre—they’re basically the ultimate teen boy power fantasy.
Unfortunately, these stories don’t tend to treat their female characters very well, so Iron Widow is basically my feminist take on both mechas and teen boy media.
6. Readers rave and admire the characters of this novel. Although you may see yourself in all three characters, which character in the story do you feel is closest to your experiences and in what ways?
Zetian is the obvious answer. I’d always been a rebel and questioner of authority. Nobody could get me to do something I didn’t see the point in doing without a fight. Naturally, gender roles did not sit well with me, and yet I grew up in an environment that was very insistent on them.
This created a lot of frustration that made it into the words of Iron Widow. I’m definitely not as bold and ruthless as Zetian though, and Zetian has a much drier sense of humor than me.
7. What societal norms do you feel are outdated and that you wanted to address directly within this book?
Gender roles. ENOUGH!
8. How important is it for you to write and share Chinese stories specifically within the YA genre?
Stories we read impact the kind of stories we imagine and how we view our place in the world. A common sentiment I've heard from other queer and POC authors is that we didn't realize we could write people like us as the heroes until we saw other people do it, until we truly felt SEEN. It's also important for young readers to be exposed to different perspectives in order to encourage cross-cultural understanding.
9. Finish the sentence: “Stories are most powerful when _____”.
They change something within the reader.
10. What is your proudest accomplishment?
Well, debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
11. “Iron Widow” is a story of passion, terror, revenge, ruthlessness, purpose, but ultimately love. Would you say that you are more of a lover or a fighter?
A fighter. I don’t become nearly as captivated by love and romance as Zetian. In real life, anyway.
12. What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
Go back to your plot outline (or start outlining if you haven’t done that yet!). Write a later scene you’re truly excited for. Or read something else to get yourself inspired.
13. What’s the best book you have read this year so far?
Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis! About a Black girl who has the power to bring back the dead and starts trying to make money off of that.
14. The next book in this series is coming out next year. What can readers expect?
Drastic consequences for drastic actions is all I can say.
Places To Find More From This Author:
Youtube: Xiran Jay Zhao
Get Your Copy of Iron Widow Today!