Welcome everyone! Today, we have an interview with Xiran Jay Zhao, where we discuss her newest (and debut!!) book, a bestselling Young Adult science fiction novel, Iron Widow.
About Iron Widow
An instant #1 New York Times bestseller!
Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
About the Author, Xiran Jay Zhao
XIRAN JAY ZHAO is a first-generation immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Heavenly Tyrant is their second novel, after the runaway success Iron Widow.
Hi Xiran! Congratulations on the release of Iron Widow, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Q: Iron Widow is your debut novel, and you had it published during the pandemic! What did your publishing process look like, and was it what you envisioned it to be?
Oh, boy. I got my book deal in January 2020, and while celebrating with friends, I was also talking with them about the “strange new disease” that was popping up in China and climbing in cases. Never would I have expected that by the time the book came out almost two years later, the disease would be a pandemic still ravaging the planet. I definitely wished I could’ve traveled around and met other authors, but I’m grateful I was able to at least have an in-person signing event at my local bookstore. Having my whole publishing process happen virtually has made it feel very surreal. I honestly still feel like I’ve merely uploaded a piece of fanfiction into a fandom!
Q: How has Iron Widow changed since that first draft?
The first draft had some scenes that were a LOT darker, and I took my agent’s advice to downgrade it from R18 to 14+. The story and characters didn’t change that much, though. The main cutting happened in part 3. I’m happy with the current pacing of the book, though I’m sad that I had to some cut of the more slice of life and steamy scenes 😛
Q: Iron Widow was one of my absolute favourite reads this year, and something I loved was the way the love triangle culminated in a polyamorous relationship (honestly, can’t every love triangle end this way 😭), but I wanted to know if you had any specific inspiration behind it, or how you decided to come to that decision.
It’s funny, I didn’t write Iron Widow expecting it to be something groundbreaking. Polyamory is so normalized in fandom circles that it wasn’t until later that I discovered how rare it is in traditionally published YA. I was just tired of YA protagonists whose main inner conflict is which male love interest she should choose in the end, so I wanted to write one who defied this expectation and is extremely pragmatic about romance. I also don’t love how often male jealousy is used as a device to stir up tension between characters and put pressure on female protagonists. I feel that in M/F relationships, there’s a double standard to how much women owe to men than the other way around. I mean, how often do you see male protagonists being torn between two female love interests for most of a book series, and have his feelings be boggled down by guilt? I bet he would prefer to date them both if that could be arranged, yet this option basically never comes up in the mind of a female protagonist. I’m not saying it should be cool for women to deceive their partners, but I hoped to show that you don’t necessarily have to bind yourself with society’s rigid standards for romance and relationships. Through clear and healthy communication, the Iron Widow trio enter an arrangement that makes them all happy. If no one is being deceived, what’s the harm? The story of Iron Widow is all about shattering rigid gender binaries and gender roles. A polyamorous romance felt like the perfect addition.
Q: What were some of your previous WIPs before Iron Widow, and are you working on something new?
My first 3 books actually didn’t have Chinese protagonists. It was only after I finished my 3rd book that I had 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. Look out for Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, my MG debut that’s coming May 3, 2022! It’s like Yugioh meets Chinese Percy Jackson, about a Chinese American boy Zack who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but then the spirit of the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset, and so he’s compelled to go on a journey across China to heist real artifacts and fight figures from Chinese history and myth.
Q: I know you love anime, and I think all of us are always looking for recommendations, so what are some of your favourite animes, and have they impacted the Iron Widow storyline in any way?
Asides from Darling in the Franxx, it’s inspired by a lot of high-action shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z, Saint Seiya, and Attack on Titan. Though I would say it’s almost a deconstruction of the shonen genre? I love shonen to death, it’s my favorite kind of anime, but it does NOT treat its female characters right. So this is like, a world that’s built from the ultimate teen male fantasy, but the story is about a girl who aims to tear it all down.
Q: Even though you’ve mentioned that Iron Widow isn’t a historical fantasy, but rather based on historical elements, and people, how did you work on doing all that research about these historical figures, and incorporating it into your sci-fi world?
I did plenty of research about Chinese history and myth to fill my story with Easter eggs. I’m actually not that good with coming up with concepts from scratch, so I always need concrete inspiration. And hey, when you get inspiration from myth and history, people think you’re smart instead of ripping stuff off!
Q: I can’t stop screaming about how much I loved Iron Widow, so what advice would you have for other aspiring authors out there?
This is gonna sound unconventional, but don’t form too much of an emotional attachment to your projects. Be practical. This will allow you to take critique a lot easier and to let go when it’s clear that publishing doesn’t see it as viable. The worst thing you could do as a baby writer is to wrap yourself around a single project for years and years and years. Move on! I guarantee that your next project will be better, because the very foundations of it will be born from a more sophisticated instinct for storybuilding. When people say “don’t stop writing!!” they mean don’t give up on the craft itself, not individual projects. Publishing is too fickle to depend on those “you just need one person to like it!” exceptions when you’ve already run a book through most agents or editors. I wrote Iron Widow off the tails of a project I revised over and over for 3 years. My betas very quickly told me that it was INFINITELY better of a book. Yes, it’s sad to give up on your babies, but you’ll feel better when your next projects take you to far higher places than you imagined. Trust me.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Xiran!