"Your fresh starts will always reflect your skill level better"-- Interview With Xiran Jay Zhao
Iron Widow, author Xiran Jay Zhao's debut novel, is coming in fall 2021. Below are her thoughts on journey, craft, and debut. This interview is lightly edited for blog formatting.
How has your perception of writing changed from when you started writing to now when you have a two-book deal?
This might sound surprising, but the biggest change is that I stopped taking writing so seriously. When I started as an arrogant teenager, I thought my books were going to make a huge impact, blow people's minds, and change the world. I now laugh at those expectations. It was honestly a huge relief to shake off those grandiose dreams and just be fine with writing what excites and amuses me. I don't need to change the world, and my writing doesn't need to be Deep and Profound. Whoever will like it will like it.
What inspired you to become an author?
This guy I met at an anime convention when I was 15 (Dylan, if you're reading this, hi). He had dabbled in professional writing and told me some stuff about the publishing industry, demystifying it to the point where I was like "Hey, why not start writing my copious story ideas into books and trying to get them published?" (This would cause me years upon years of grief and suffering and self-doubt. Thanks, Dylan.)
When did you start writing?
After that encounter with Dylan when I was 15, I guess.
How do you deal with rejection?
I fume about them to close friends at first, but then I cool off pretty quickly and try to find the deeper reason behind the rejection if it's not one that immediately makes sense to me. Sometimes it's just a matter of taste, and there's nothing you can do. Though, for some reason, agents and editors don't tend to admit that "yeah I just didn't vibe with this, sorry"; They have a bad habit of reaching for a Valid Reason instead, though I find this harmful because it may just be one thing that passed their minds, yet it could make a writer overly fixate on it. So this is a reminder to not take rejections TOO seriously.
What were some trials you faced in getting to this point, and what would you say to those who faces similar obstacles?
I've gotten rejected SO MANY TIMES. Don’t listen to those stories where they're like "oh this author got rejected by a whole 12 agents/publishers before getting picked up!" Those are extremely unusual numbers, actually. Getting hundreds of rejections is more normal, so I wouldn't have too high of expectations going in. I know it'll be hard, but seriously, don't put so much pressure on yourself to succeed right away. I pressured myself, and it really messed me up mentally for several years. Funny thing though, I was rereading some of my writing from 2018 not long ago and I was like "Wow…No wonder no agent wanted to sign me." Sometimes you really aren't good enough until you are! The only thing you can do is write more books. Don't fixate on the ones you haven't managed to find success with for years; your fresh starts will ALWAYS reflect your skill level better.
What advice do you have for writers who think they’re too young or too old to be published?
There's no such thing as an age limit to publishing! Though there are troubles with both. I personally started querying when I was a teenager and didn't get my book deal until I was close to graduating university, yet I firmly believe that I would not have been able to handle what came after the deal if I had gotten it even a year earlier. I was simply not mature enough. Honestly, I was one of those people who wanted to boast about how I got a deal as a teenager and got published at xx age, but I've come to realize that it's not really a healthy thing to cling to. It'll sound impressive for a while…and then what? You'll age. Everyone ages. Being too attached to accomplishing great things when young makes you afraid of aging, so I make no associations between my writing career and my age anymore. It doesn't matter, except that I probably can't write adult characters well because of my lack of life experiences.
On the flip side, being older than average when getting published could mean you're less social media savvy, I guess. But individual social media doesn't make that big of a difference in sales anyway. So it's really better to be older and more mature when getting published than young. You'll only have a steady career if you're in it for the long haul, not the burst of glory.
What’s most important to you in a book— setting, character, theme, etc— and why?
Transportive, atmospheric writing tends to hook me the hardest. I can read anything if the writing is stunning. I can definitely think of a few authors (not naming them) whose plots and characters make no sense to me, but their writing is so beautiful that I read all their books anyway. After that, it's setting. It also has to be a setting that intrigues me. I've read books with mind-blowing plots and characters, but they ultimately didn't end up among my faves because the setting just wasn't my thing.
What is your favorite work of classical literature (can be in any language)?
Journey to the West. What an icon.
Why do you think the old classics are important or not important?
I'll confess this right now: I don't like reading classics. It's not because I think they're not important, but I think they were mostly written by a very privileged and elite group of people, and I simply can't relate to most of their content. ESPECIALLY English classics. I firmly believe that many Classic Authors would be baffled at why schools make children read their books. I have strong opinions about this because being forced to read books I couldn't connect with ruined my love of reading for YEARS. My god, the time I could've spent reading books I actually liked!
Please describe Iron Widow in one word.
Describe each of your MC in one word.
Zetian - Ruthless
Shimin - Sweet
Zhinu - Shady
Where did you draw inspiration for Iron Widow?
Chinese myth, Asian palace dramas, and anime!
What kind of research did you put into developing your world and characters?
I did plenty of research about Chinese history and myth to fill my story with Easter eggs. I'm actually not that good at coming up with concepts from scratch, so I always need concrete inspiration. And hey, when you get inspiration from myth and history, no one can say you're ripping stuff off!
What drew you to Wu Zetian’s life?
The fact that she pulled off the unprecedented even when all odds were against her. (She fought two generations of harem battles! Two! Most people barely survive one!) If you look through her historical records, you can see her constantly using every trick at her disposal to spin the situation in her favor. And she didn't just snatch power for power's sake, she was a legitimately good ruler and the common people were happy under her. There are people who clown on her because she lost a lot of territory during her reign or something, but well, those people are likely imperialists and their priorities are questionable.
What do you hope readers pull from your debut?
Sometimes, compassion and morality are traps to guilt you into catering to the whims of others, especially for women. You should never be ashamed of putting yourself first.
What is your favorite Chinese myth?
I really like the Battle of Zhuolu, that dramatic battle between the Yellow Emperor and Chiyou, the god of war. SO MUCH DRAMA.
What is the most random and irrelevant thing you’ve done to write Iron Widow?
Not sure if this counts as irrelevant but I've thrown myself to the floor to see how a character would land during a battle.
Thank you so much for the interview, Xiran! We cannot wait for your debut next year (out Fall 2021!) and hope to see more from you in the future.