By Samantha Leong
In a YA thriller that is Crazy Rich Asians meets One of Us is Lying, students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.
Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.
They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.
Have you experienced any differences leading up to your YA debut that you hadn’t for your MG debut? How are they similar or different?
Certainly, the experiences of launching a MG and a YA have been very different! With my MG debut The Dragon Warrior in 2019, the promotion leading up to release was much less focused on social media. I had an in-person tour to visit different schools and book festivals across the country. I was also working a full-time accounting job back then, so I really pulled back on social media time in general due to lacking the bandwidth.
With my YA debut, there was no chance of doing in-person events due to the pandemic. So I knew social media was my best bet. Watching other YA authors who debuted in 2020, I was able to study what did and didn’t work for them. Due to my observations, as well as the extra time I have now that I’m writing full time, I put together a detailed social media marketing plan. I’ve created a street team, launched a preorder campaign in conjunction with my publisher, and will be doing blog tours and more social media-focused marketing activities in the lead-up to the launch of How We Fall Apart. So far it’s worked out alright for me despite all the uncertainty of the pandemic. Plus, my YA is a contemporary that uses aspects of social media in the book, so it’s been really fun and easy to promote the book on platforms like Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter.
What was your favorite part about writing HWFA? What was the most challenging part?
Can I say that my favorite part was typing “the end?” Ha. In all seriousness, my favorite part was writing the characters Nancy (the protagonist) and Jamie (Nancy’s ‘friend’ or ‘nemesis’, depending on the day) and their dynamic. I love reading and writing complicated, messy characters, and I especially love writing girls who are fiercely ambitious— even if to a fault. Two characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want and make their parents proud, even if it means ruining each other. I’ve rarely seen Asian girls written in such complex, messy ways, so I wrote Nancy and Jamie. From the beginning, I didn’t mean for them to be likable. People of color are often only accepted by white people because we’re “likable” or fit into their “acceptable” molds. I wrote these characters to push back against the idea that Asians, and specifically Asian girls, must conform to these notions of “likeability.” While it’s challenging training my people-pleaser self to prepare for the inevitable criticism that these characters are unlikeable and horrible and what-have-you, I stand my ground firmly in this case.
The most challenging part of writing HWFA was reliving the trauma of my intense high school experience through these characters. The initial idea for HWFA came to me in my senior year, when my school-related stress was at an all-time high with college applications. Even though I didn’t even attempt to draft this book until years later, I was surprised by how much the writing of this book forced me back to a dark period of my life. I even cried writing a few scenes in this book. I don’t regret reliving those emotions, though. Writing HWFA helped to heal old wounds that never quite closed.
Each character in Nancy’s friend group has a secret they are hiding, even from each other. How did you reconcile their bond and trust in each other with the distrust and suspicion that started brewing after Jamie’s death? Is that tension similar to the competitive nature of academic rankings and grades?
As an anonymous figure on social media blames Jamie’s death on the four friends, tensions in the friend group run at an all-time high. The bond and trust between these four characters is not unlike the bond between Nancy and Jamie, in that they really only trust each other to a certain degree. Nancy suspects her friends at various points in the story. Even though we’re only seeing the story from Nancy’s POV, it’s safe to say that if she’s having those thoughts, then the others are likely suspecting her and the others, too. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” as the saying goes. However, Nancy and her friends also realize that while they’re all being pinned for this crime and other students are turning on them, they can only rely on each other to team up, catch the true killer, and clear all of their names. So they have to put on an appearance and continue working together, but who knows what they’re all thinking under the surface.
I do think this dynamic is similar to the competitive nature of academia. Obviously, not every student can rank at the top of the class, but “teamwork makes the dream work,” as another saying goes. It’s natural for students to study together even while they’re all trying to get the best grades and rank. This is a theme that’s central to HWFA—exploring how the toxic competition in academia, and the extra barriers placed upon students of color, can cause rifts in friendships. In the book, these rifts lead to very extreme situations.
Even though her mom doesn’t know much about everything Nancy is dealing with throughout the book, Nancy is always aware of parental pressure to succeed. How does Nancy’s relationship with her mom change by the end of the book, if at all?
Throughout the book, Nancy pushes herself to live up to her mother’s impossibly high expectations. To her, the idea of disappointing her mother, and herself, is worse than anything else, including…well, some unspeakable acts that I won’t name here because spoilers. By the end of the book, Nancy and her mother reach more of an understanding that the pressure Nancy’s mother has always placed upon her, a pressure that is often placed upon children of immigrants, is extremely damaging to her, and has strained their mother-daughter relationship. The book doesn’t fully resolve the relationship conflict, but it does hint at Nancy and her mother moving toward a more healthy relationship in the future.
We follow Nancy all around Manhattan. Is any of that based on your own experience, and if so, did you have a favorite spot that made it into the book?
Yes, definitely! While I was still living in Michigan when I initially drafted and sold HWFA, I moved to Manhattan while revising, and it helped me solidify the setting and world-building in the book. Manhattan’s Chinatown, for example, is a prominent setting featured in HWFA, and it’s very special to me. I also visited the fountain at Washington Square Park with friends, and later ended up rewriting the ending of the book so that there’s a scene that takes place at that fountain. There’s a really great and affordable pho spot named Saigon Shack near Washington Square Park that unfortunately didn’t make it into the book (there wasn’t an excuse to fit it in without making it obvious that the author was just indulging herself), but I highly recommend checking out that restaurant nonetheless.
Do you have a writing playlist or listen to anything while writing? What are a few songs that embody HWFA?
Great question, because my street team has actually been creating fantastic playlists that embody How We Fall Apart. I have a playlist that’s just for writing in general, but it’s more of epic fantasy music than dark academia/thriller music. While drafting and revising HWFA, I was really into EDM at the time, so I listened to a lot of sad EDM artists like Illenium, Gryffin, and Seven Lions. My street team has definitely come up with playlists that resonate more thematically with HWFA, which I plan to use for writing my next dark academia titles! A few songs that really embody this book: “no body, no crime” by Taylor Swift; “Money Power Glory” by Lana Del Rey; “Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Lorde.
If Nancy’s grades and Faryn’s Ba’s notebook were on the line, who would win in a fight? Alternatively, do you think they would be friends?
I almost feel bad answering this question, because it’s not a debate, really. Nancy’s grades would win. Faryn is a strong warrior who’s triumphed over demons and gods, but she’s never faced down a prep school student who will stop at nothing to achieve perfect grades. Faryn’s also not willing to stoop as low as Nancy to get what she wants, which means Nancy is at a slight advantage. So I don’t think Faryn would stand a chance, really, even with gods and warriors on her side.
I do think Nancy and Faryn could be great friends, though. Both of them are very strong in their own ways, and they fight for their family. Nancy and Faryn would go to the ends of the earth for their family – Faryn does so quite literally – and they would respect each other very much because of it.
Is there anything you hope that readers will take away from reading HWFA, especially if they are also facing similar pressure to excel at everything? (Besides getting rid of the top-ranked student, of course.)
If there’s only one thing HWFA accomplishes, I hope that it reaches the readers who need it most – to reach the isolated, intense, grade-obsessed, on-the-verge-of-breaking-down students, as I once was. I hope HWFA makes them realize they are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with them for not being able to achieve everything they’re asked to do. In high school, I didn’t have anyone or any book to tell me that being imperfect was okay, that getting a poor grade or not getting into an Ivy League wouldn’t mean the end of the world. I know this mindset seems very extreme. It was. And I wish that all students, especially those who are under immense familial pressure to succeed, understand that the “success” they dream of can often come at a very high price, and one they may regret paying.
Is there anything you can tell us about your next YA book? Is it a sequel to HWFA?
At the time I’m writing my responses to this interview (early May), my publisher and I have not yet formally announced YA #2 yet, though I’ve been dropping hints everywhere on my social media. Hopefully, the details have been revealed by the time this interview is live! So I’ll just say what I can at this point in time.
My next YA is not a sequel to HWFA, but it’s written in a similar vein. YA #2 is another dark academia murder mystery/thriller that examines social themes specific to Asian diaspora—Asian girls in particular—in elite institutions. Right now, I’m pitching the book as Truly Devious set on a college campus. Just as it did in How We Fall Apart, social media plays a central role in the mystery. I started drafting this book while in college, as the political atmosphere was growing more polarized, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the US was becoming less safe for people of color. I can’t wait to talk about this book more as we get closer to its release (August 2022), and I can’t wait for others to read it.
Katie Zhao is the author of the Chinese-inspired middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She’s also the author of the forthcoming Asian American young adult thriller How We Fall Apart and middle grade sci-fi Last Gamer Standing. Katie grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.katiezhao.com • @ktzhaoauthor
Samantha Leong is a Special Sales sales assistant at Ingram Content Group. She has previously interned at Scholastic Library Publishing, Candlewick Press, and Simon and Schuster. Her favorite genre is fantasy, and she loves to bake.