Reporting by: Zoe D.

Teen Press Corps members Zoe & Astrid met with the breakout author of Iron Widow & cultural Youtuber Xiran Jay Zhao before the launch party for Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor at BookPeople last month to talk pop culture, history, and YA lit, of course. There is a minor spoiler toward the end of the interview.

Teen Press Corps: What is one thing that you wanted to have in the book but ultimately left out?

Xiran Jay Zhao: There was a scholar-prince and I think that it’s really funny, because in Western legends you have Helen of Troy and stuff, but the first emperor of China’s Helen was this princely scholar with a stutter. I really wanted to incorporate that in Zachary Ying but there was no room.

TPC: What influenced your choice to use pinyin when the characters are speaking Chinese versus Chinese characters?

XJZ: It’s because I’ve hardly ever seen Chinese characters printed in books. I think it actually might cause some problems during the printing, so it’s entirely a practical issue. It’s funny because what I write in pinyin is impossible for my editors to try to translate through Google Translate so they basically had to have faith that I said what I said I was going to say. They would say please double check this because they didn’t know if the pinyin was right. There was no Mandarin speaker on my editing team.

TPC: Are there any Easter eggs from anything else you’ve written in Zachary Ying?

XJZ: There is a reference to my friend, Rebecca Schaeffer, who inspired me to write, and I referenced her book Not Even Bones. And also there is a time where I describe Zach swimming through the ocean as a cyborg mermaid. That is a reference to my third book that will be coming out in graphic novel form in Fall 2024. And then the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian are Easter eggs because they’re the main characters of Iron Widow or based on the same historical figures.

Xiran Jay Zhao speaks to the audience at BookPeople for the launch of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor.

TPC: What other historical figures do you think play Mahjong with Qin Shi Huang?

XJZ: Napoleon. I think Napoleon is the one big conqueror missing from the list of his Mahjong players. But I think Napoleon is really stubborn and refuses to learn.

TPC: Zachary Ying has many similarities to Percy Jackson. Are there any other middle-grade stories that you might’ve drawn inspiration from?

XJZ: I was inspired by many other mythological middle-grade series such as Tristian Strong and Aru Shah

TPC: If you had one superpower, what would it be and how would you use it?

XJZ: I think I would like to dilate time so I could do a lot more stuff in the same amount of time. I guess it would just be super speed, but I always wondered, if you have super speed does your perception of time change? Or do you feel physically faster than everyone else?

TPC: There are many pop-culture references in Zachary Ying. Do you have a favorite anime?

XJZ: Yes. It’s Yu-Gi-Oh. Yu-Gi-Oh will always be my favorite, though it’s not the anime I’d recommend to people most often because it’s very hard to get into. I think it’s one of those things you have to get into as a kid because it’s like 224 episodes.

TPC: What is some advice you would give to your twelve-year-old self?

XJZ: Stop worrying so much about what other people think, and also you are awesome. You won’t realize this for several more years but you are awesome and you don’t need to be ashamed of who you are and your heritage. Everything will be okay.

Author Xiran Jay Zhao signs copies of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor at BookPeople.

TPC: How long did the book take to write from the initial idea to the final product?

XJZ: Two months. Which is ridiculous, because this was a book I had to write to prove to myself that I could get another book deal and that the Iron Widow book deal wasn’t a fluke and I really could do this author thing, so I really pushed myself to finish it and I did in a ridiculously short amount of time.

TPC: What is your favorite YA book or author?

XJZ: My favorite author is Laini Taylor because I think she does such a good job. Of course her prose is beautiful but she’s such a master at tension and her books are just so well crafted. She’s an author I look up to a lot.

TPC: What aspect of the book (plot, pacing, etc.) did you find most difficult to write?

XJZ: Approximately two thirds of the way through there was a point where I was really stuck on what I was going to do next, but I figured it out by getting what Zach’s character arc was going to be next. This was the point where they’re at the Dragon King’s palace and I was like, “how are they supposed to get out of this?” And I realized it would be nice if Zach came in with his fresh point of view to approach this myth and he tried to treat the Dragon King differently because everyone else thinks that the Dragon King’s a joke but Zach’s like “no, he has us captured. He’s not a joke. We should take him seriously.” I think it’s really neat that he comes in with his fresh point of view and he’s the one who gets them out of that conundrum. 

TPC: What other stories or projects are you working on right now?

XJZ: The Iron Widow sequel, of course. Also, the Zachary Ying sequel because there’s going to be at least one more book. Whether or not there will be more after that depends on how this one does.