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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

When in Isolation: Kyla Zhao

*beat drops for "Lonely" by Akon*

In 2020, we were so lonelyyyyyyyy

The world was shut down

We were so lonelyyyyyy, on our own

Some of us ate snacks

Others went to sleep

Mostly we watched tv

But a few of us got our creativity back!

We were so lonelyyyyyyy, on our own

So we created made up people

Imaginary worlds

And the keyboard went clickity-clack

Keep reading to see what became of that for double debut author, Kyla Zhao!

1. Welp, the first question is the one I’m sure you’ve answered many times but everyone loves to know. Please tell us all about your writing journey!

Hi everyone! And thanks Elnora, for having me on your blog. 😊 I’ve been a reader for a long time.

I’ve always been a voracious reader since I was young but never thought I was creative enough to write, much less write an entire book. The idea of writing anything longer than a school paper seemed absolutely daunting to me.

But then Covid struck when I was in my third year of university in California. I couldn’t go back to my hometown of Singapore because my internship didn’t allow me to work from outside the country. So I was living alone for a large part of 2020, far away from my family and friends in Singapore. Like many other people, the loneliness and general despondency of the world really got to me. Like I usually do when I feel down, I turned to books for comfort, but that was also when anti-Asian racism was rising across the nation, and it struck me then that the books I loved rarely feature protagonists of color and are rarely set outside of the West.

That was what first gave me the idea of writing my own book—one set in Singapore and featuring an entirely Asian cast of characters. It was my way of helping myself feel connected to my hometown and my loved ones even though I didn’t know when I would get to see them next.

I started writing the first draft of THE FRAUD SQUAD on June 28, 2020, and got to announce my book sale to Berkley (Penguin Random House) on June 28, 2021! The timing just could not be beaten. :) Even better, I had finally managed to reunite with my family in Singapore, and so I was with them when I received my book offer! It was the best feeling being able to celebrate with them in person at home.

2. Double, double toil, and trouble? Or in your case, double, double moving and happening! You have not one but TWO debut novels that were announced within months of each other: THE FRAUD SQUAD (adult) and MAY THE BEST PLAYER WIN (middle grade). What is it like to write in different age groups? What does adult offer that may feel more freeing than writing in the kidlit sphere? Or vice versa?

Ooh I love this question! I’m almost always working on a book. Previously, it was THE FRAUD SQUAD and MAY THE BEST PLAYER WIN. Now, I’m simultaneously drafting my second adult novel and revising MAY THE BEST PLAYER WIN. Switching back-and-forth between these two always feels a little jarring, especially since my adult novels are written in the third-person POV and my kidlit novel is written in the first-person POV.

I think it’s more freeing writing in the adult space. Writing kidlit means that I always have to maintain a certain level of innocence in the character’s voice, even when covering heavy topics like mental health and sexism. And that’s not always easy because I’m now a cynical and jaded adult (hah). Meanwhile, writing for adults lets me (ahem, I mean, my characters) be as messy as I’d like.

3. You are a ‘21 Stanford graduate which I would assume means you wrote your novels while a student. Stanford is quite a prestigious school. How did you handle your academic workload and writing? Was there ever a time when you had to out writing to the side?

I got lucky because I started writing during the pandemic, when everyone was studying remotely. In fact, I never got to go back to school after Covid happened. I graduated remotely in Singapore, just one month before I sold THE FRAUD SQUAD! I think if I had spent my senior year on campus, I would be too busy going to parties to sit down and write. 😉

I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of working full-time, and it’s not easy juggling that and writing. That said, I’ve always treated writing as a form of escape—be it from loneliness during the pandemic, or when my day job gets too hard. I work a lot with data and numbers in my day job, so it’s nice to be able to switch my brain to something more creative in the evening.

4. In what ways did your time as a fashion and [KJZ1] lifestyle writer for Vogue influence THE FRAUD SQAUD?

Even before working at Vogue in 2021, I’ve been involved with high fashion/society magazines for many years. I first wrote for one when I was 16, and that was an article about wedding preparation for Harper’s Bazaar—it’s funny to me that I was writing about getting married when I still hadn’t been in a relationship at that point!

My experiences at magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Tatler allowed me to become very familiar with the fashion landscape, the magazine world, and elite society—all of which feature strongly in THE FRAUD SQUAD. In fact, the idea for the anonymous gossip columnist in my book actually came from my time at Tatler—the magazine had a monthly column that rounded up juicy snippets overheard at high society parties. My personal interactions with socialites also gave me some inspiration for how to write them in my book. 😉 Some of my characters may or may not have been inspired by people I know in real life…

A collage of a few of the magazines which I’ve written for

5. MAY THE BEST PLAYER WIN follows a chess prodigy. Where did the seed of this idea come from?

I’ve been playing chess since I was 6 and I just adore the game with all my heart (but I’m far from a prodigy haha). Readers who play chess will be able to spot all the easter eggs I sprinkled throughout the story.

The book is about a girl who makes a bet with her guy teammate that she will triumph over him in a competition. I always knew I wanted to make sexism a core point of the story because I care deeply about the gender imbalance in chess. Since I was young, I’ve noticed that the number of guys playing chess far outranks the number of girls, and this gap only worsens as you progress. The summer before college, I actually gathered a group of friends to organize Singapore’s first-ever all-female chess competition for young players. (See photo) It makes me really happy to see more girls picking up the game thanks to more female representation in the media, for example, The Queen’s Gambit.

A newspaper article about the Singapore Youth Girls’ Chess Championship 2017, which I organized

6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?

Ah, this is a great question. I’m currently under contract for three books, which means I’m always working on at least one book at any time. And that really takes over my life. My story and my characters are on my mind all the time. They are the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I drift off to sleep. Even when I’m working on something else, I’m always subconsciously mulling over plot points. That does get pretty exhausting at times—imagine having someone living in your head 24/7.

When I sense my head becoming too crowded, I know I need to consciously take a step back from my own books. The best way for me to do that is pick up another book or get into a good TV series—that allows me to still stay creatively engaged but not overwhelmed by my own stories. It’s not easy putting some deliberate distance between myself and my books (especially when I’m under contract and have deadlines to meet), but I just tell myself that I always feel more inspired after a break.

Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!

7. Meryl Streep’s best role besides The Devil Wears Prada is….

I’m going to say Don’t Look Up, only because that’s the most recent Meryl Streep movie I’ve watched. But really, I think nothing tops her role in The Devil Wears Prada! It’s all the little character flourishes and nuances she throws in, like how she uses her glasses as a prop to convey disdain/power—very reminiscent of how Anna Wintour (the Vogue editor-in-chief who inspired Streep’s character) always wears sunglasses so no one can tell what she’s thinking.

8. Unpopular book or writing opinion?

Dog-earing books is okay (as long as it’s your own book)! I think dog-ears are a sign that a book is well-loved.

9. The FRAUD SQUAD starter pack includes…

Wealthy socialites

High fashion

Posh magazines

An anonymous gossip reporter

Scandal and scheming

Author Bio: Born and raised in Singapore, Kyla Zhao graduated in 2021 from Stanford University with an MA in Communications and BA in Psychology. Right now, she works in marketing at a tech company in Silicon Valley, California.

Besides novel writing, Kyla has an extensive magazine editorial portfolio. Previously, she was a fashion and lifestyle writer at Vogue Singapore. She has also written for the Singapore editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Tatler, covered the Asian Television Awards, and interviewed personalities such as singer Nathan Sykes.

Through her writing, she hopes to champion Asian representation and craft characters of color that her younger self rarely saw in books.






Representation: Alex Rice at Creative Artists Agency:

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