By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Katie Zhao to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel How We Fall Apart, out August 3, 2021! Read an excerpt of How We Fall Apart below.
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.
Katie Zhao’s YA debut is an edge-of-your-seat drama set in the pressure-cooker world of academics and image at Sinclair Prep, where the past threatens the future these teens have carefully crafted for themselves. How We Fall Apart is the irresistible, addicting, Asian-American recast of Gossip Girl that we’ve all been waiting for.
J.R. IS SO PERFECT IT, PISSES ME OFF. I WOULD’D MIND IF SHE DISAPPEARED. PERMANENTLY.– ANON
It was easy stepping into her skin. Wearing it as well as she did was another matter.
Jamie Ruan. A name—a legend—to which nobody could ever live up. In the eleven years I was friends with her, I’d known Jamie to have no weaknesses.
Everyone feared her. Everyone wanted to be her. Of course they did. She was top of the elite junior class at Richard Sinclair Preparatory School, or Sinclair Prep for short. Class president. Captain of the girls’ volleyball team. All that in addition to being wealthy, beautiful, ambitious, and smart.
I could match Jamie’s ambition and intelligence. Slip into her skin and pretend I was her. But I could only wish, like so many other girls, to be as effortlessly perfect as her. That the stars would align for me as obediently as they did for her.
Because in the end, I was no Jamie Ruan.
Jamie could get away with anything, do away with anyone. Could ruin your life with a single whisper to her wealthy, influential father.
There was Pam Jenson, who got the solo in choir over Jamie during sophomore year. Jamie bullied her into leaving before she could sing it. The year before, Karen Outa made varsity volleyball instead of Jamie, but mysteriously had to switch schools before the season started. Countless more in middle and elementary and Chinese school, names and faces we’d long since buried like ghosts in our memories.
Tonight, I’d hoped that for once, maybe Jamie wouldn’t be the center of attention. Tonight, in Sinclair Prep’s century- old auditorium, over a hundred pairs of eyes were trained on the brightly lit stage. Trained on me, and the students sitting behind me.
Principal Bates was taking his time getting the sound system and projector set up. But in the lull, the whispers rose up and surrounded me. Everyone wondering the same thing. “Where is Jamie?” Two seats to my left, Louisa Wu huffed to Kiara William. “I haven’t seen her since AP World, and she hasn’t even read any of my texts.”
“Maybe she fell asleep. You know how stressed she’s been,” murmured Kiara. Louisa and Kiara were Jamie’s latest hanger- on-slash-BFFs.
“This is Jamie Ruan we’re talking about,” piped up Isabel
Lim, who sat right behind Kiara. “I don’t think she ever sleeps. Maybe Jamie’s too ashamed. I wouldn’t show up to give a speech in front of all the parents either if everyone knew my father was an embezzling, low-life, no-good crook—”
“Students, please!” Principal Bates turned around with a glare, raising a finger to his lips. The whispers quieted, but didn’t stop. Here at Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stopped. That was why some students liked to theorize that these archaic halls were haunted, inhabited and troubled by ghosts. My cell phone buzzed in the sliver of space between the waistband of my skirt and my skin. Students weren’t supposed to have electronics on stage. This meant, of course, everyone around me texted subtly in their laps.
Once Bates turned back around, I slid my phone out.
Krystal: Nancy! Best of luck with the speech *smiley face emoji*
Akil: Break a leg bro
Alexander:*thumbs up emoji*
Nancy: Thx guys. Just wondering why Jamie didn’t show up to give the speech herself
Krystal: It isn’t like her to not show up for a chance to show off . . .
Nancy: Yeah I’m worried. Remember how earlier she asked us to meet her at Bethesda fountain cuz she wanted to tell us something, and she didn’t come to that either? It’s really not like her
Alexander: Maybe Jamie needed a day off. I mean we’ve all been cramming for AP tests this entire month, plus the girls’ volleyball team won states. I wouldn’t blame her if she sleeps until graduation lol Akil: Or maybe Jamie’s dead. Like on top of her dad being an embezzler, he’s a murderer too
I shuddered at Akil’s text. All the whispers traveling around me, and these auditorium lights creaking above like phantoms, and now this talk of death. It was enough to spook anyone.
Nancy: Omg don’t even joke about that. Alexander: Mr. Ruan’s been in jail for months tho. There’s no way he could do anything to Jamie.
Akil: Ask Louisa Wu, maybe she knows. Isn’t she BFFs w/ Jamie now?
Nancy: Louisa doesn’t know either, heard her saying that.
“Nancy!” The principal waved me over, an invitation to join him at the podium.
I stood and took a deep breath, shaking my head to clear my thoughts. Focus. Concentrate. Nothing matters except this speech. I tried desperately to channel Jamie’s powerful aura as I left my seat and stepped up to the podium in her place.
“Welcome,” Principal Bates announced, “to the 92nd Junior Honors Night of Richard Sinclair Preparatory School, the preeminent private high school in the United States, home to a centuries-old tradition of the very highest academic excellence. Here at Sinclair Prep, our students strive to uphold our values of earning a merit-based education, celebrating our differences, and together exploring the achievements of mankind. I am proud to introduce this evening’s student speaker—distinguished honor student Nancy Luo.”
Polite applause followed the principal’s introduction. Per tradition, the privilege of speaking at honors night went to the top-ranked student of the grade. For our class, that had always been Jamie. But tonight, Jamie wasn’t here, which meant that responsibility fell to me.
Principal Bates gave me the microphone and PowerPoint clicker, gave me a tight-lipped smile. Behind me, the giant projector screen flashed with the opening slide of the presentation Jamie had painstakingly prepared for this night.
WE’VE MADE IT, CLASS OF 2023! read the title slide. Below it, the subtitle of Sinclair Prep’s motto: In inceptum finis est.
And below that, our junior class photo, which had been taken in the fall. The deadened eyes and glazed smiles of my classmates stared back at me from the slide.
When she’d originally emailed her PowerPoint to Bates weeks ago, the principal had forwarded it to me, so I’d taken a look at it before tonight and had an idea of what to say. Still, it was impossible not to be nervous speaking in front of this audience. The families here were among the wealthiest and most powerful in the country: CEOs, film directors, political leaders. Their kids would go on to run the country five, ten years from now.
Located at West Ninety-Sixth Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side, Sinclair Prep was a three-story, grey- bricked elite high school that ranked number one in every area imaginable: university entrance rates, debate championships, number of alumni who went on to become U.S. presidents.
Whispers, loud, from the students sitting behind me. Whispers, from the walls, from everywhere. Saying I didn’t belong up here, didn’t deserve to give this speech. After all, I was a lucky scholarship student attending this elite high school. The daughter of two immigrants who’d fought tooth and nail to make it to the States, only to spend years struggling to make ends meet.
Tendrils of my long, straight black hair clung to my neck. A bead of sweat trailed beneath the grey collar of my black, long-sleeved shirt, down the black skirt that came down to my knees. I wore this uniform every day to class, but now it felt uncomfortably hot and stiff.
Jamie would ignore the whispers, if she even heard them.
She would own the floor.
So I envisioned myself as Jamie: top of the class, confident, unbreakable. I envisioned the look of envy that would’ve replaced her usual smugness if she could see me now, taking her coveted place. The nerves melted away. The whispers quieted.
Like I’d practiced in front of my bedroom mirror, I slid Jamie’s confident, perfect smile onto my face. “Good evening. It’s been a long journey to this night.”
Three years, to be exact. Three years of exhaustive work and misery. Of clawing our way to the top academic ranks at America’s top private high school.
We’d worn ourselves to the bone to make it to this night. Sacrificed hobbies. Neglected personal health. All for the chance to call ourselves the nation’s top students. All for the chance to have everything.
I clicked through to the next slide. SINCLAIR JUNIORS OUTRANKED 97% OF THE NATION IN STANDARDIZED TESTING! “This year, our academic achievements . . . ,” I started, then faltered. What was the point of me getting up here to regurgitate a bunch of statistics? All this information was no doubt already on the school website.
Silence permeated the auditorium. Principal Bates turned toward me with a nervous look.
Whispers, louder. Whispers, urging, in my head. Tell them how you really feel.
“Junior year hasn’t been easy,” I blurted out. I didn’t know exactly where this speech was going now. But I held the microphone. I controlled this moment. “Over the course of the year, we’ve . . . said goodbye to several classmates.”
Faces swam before my vision, replacing the actual audience. So many classmates who’d succumbed to the pressure. Left with their heads hanging in shame. I didn’t know whether Sinclair had created their depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, or if this place and the competition exacerbated it in anyone without the iron will and drive to cut it here. Jamie hadn’t put that information in her presentation.
My fingers gripped the microphone so tightly that my knuckles turned white. I wouldn’t let that happen to me. Wouldn’t disappoint Mama, who’d struggled balancing odd jobs for years so I could stand on the stage tonight. Wouldn’t disappoint myself.
“The accomplishments we celebrate tonight represent all of us juniors. We’ve worked hard. We’ve earned our places on this stage. And as we finish out the school year and apply to colleges, we’ll continue excelling into senior year.” I clicked the button to move to the next slide, which was about our class’s extracurricular achievements. “Besides academics—”
A collective gasp from the crowd drowned out my voice.
And the whispers, the whispers grew to a crescendo. “What—what is the meaning of this?” roared Principal Bates.
My heart thudded when I looked—really looked—at the slide. I remembered this slide as showing the picture of our varsity debate team hold a first-place trophy from the state championship a couple of weeks ago. I remembered sitting in the center when that photo was taken—me, secretary of the debate team, worn to the bone from juggling extracurriculars and academics, but still managing a painful smile. A smile full of relief that I’d ended the debate season with awards to pad my résumé.
Now, instead of showing the varsity debate team, this slide showed a scanned photo of a pink page. It appeared to have been torn out of a notebook.
On it was an alarming message scrawled in bold red ink.
The whispers grew louder. The noise reached me as though from a distance, my mind at a time and place far from this auditorium.
These hands, picking up that blood-red pen.
These hands, carving those sentences, as if doing so would tattoo them into my own skin. Hissing each word, like a promise of revenge.
Splitting myself open to bleed an oath onto the page:
I WILL END YOU, JAMIE RUAN. MARK MY WORDS.
How We Fall Apart is solidly a part of the category often referred to as “dark academia.” How do you think this book and its characters fit into dark academia? In what ways does the book break the mold or do something different?
The dark academia sub-genre is gaining popularity and the definition is broadening, especially in the past year. My understanding of the genre, as it currently stands, is that it encapsulates the passion for obtaining knowledge, learning, reading, writing, and is traditionally very Eurocentric and focused on the Western classics. Another trait of dark academia is that something dark occurs at the school—a secret society, mystery, murder.
How We Fall Apart is set at an elite prep school where a murder mystery occurs, as well as centers around the students’ borderline obsession for educational achievement, so that’s what makes it dark academia. However, I would say that this book departs from the Eurocentric leanings of the genre. There isn’t much romanticization of the Western classics, and it’s more concerned with critiquing the way that high schools—and the education system as a whole—pressure students to a breaking point. How We Fall Apart unravels these seemingly high-achieving students to make a point about the toxic, competitive mentality that’s found in these school environments, especially for students of color, who face further barriers and are often pitted against each other for limited spots.
Tell us about the world-building in HWFA. How did you build Sinclar Prep, and the world that Nancy and her friends inhabit? Is Sinclair Prep based (even loosely) on a real prep school or the experiences of prep school students?
While I attended a public high school rather than a private school like Sinclair Prep, my high school was in a small town and was one of the top schools in the state. My experience there was similar to what I’ve heard of elite private schools. Among the top students in my grade, there was much competition to get the best grades in order to secure the few, coveted Ivy League admissions. My school only sent off maybe 1-3 seniors to the Ivy Leagues every year. Though the Asian population was small, especially compared to cities like San Francisco or New York City which boast of higher Asian populations, the few Asian students at my school tended to be more academically inclined and ambitious.
Sinclair Prep is based loosely off of Stuyvesant High School, a specialized top-ranked school in NYC known to be very rigorous, and Detroit Country Day School, a private school in Michigan near my hometown, which was known to provide the elite education of top boarding schools while letting students return to their families at the end of the day (like Sinclair Prep). Finally, I was inspired by the documentary film Looking for Luke, which is about a bright, high-achieving, well-liked Harvard sophomore named Luke Tang who died by suicide. Luke’s story was one of many that I knew of were brilliant students, many of them Asian students, were silently suffering at these elite institutions, and didn’t have the vocabulary or resources to treat these issues before it was too late. Combining all of these elements of a pressure-cooker top prep school, cutthroat academics that ruin mental health, and the consequences of the “model minority” stereotype, I created Sinclair Prep and the story of How We Fall Apart.
You’ve said that HWFA explores how the model minority myth and the pressure facing Asian Americans who attend highly competitive schools. Why did you want to explore this and why did you choose a story involving murder, intrigue, and dark academia to do so?
As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to dark and thrilling stories, especially if they’re set at schools. I adore school settings in any context. The reason I wanted to explore the dark academia genre from an Asian American lens is that I’ve never seen it done before, and I’m utterly convinced that dark academia is a very BIPOC story. Who faces the most academic pressure, the most microaggressions, the most barriers overall in academia?
It’s the students of color. For students who have immigrant parents, like the Asian main cast in How We Fall Apart, the pressure to achieve stellar grades can often stem from a place of making sure that all of their families’ sacrifices to get to this country were worth it. This mindset doesn’t apply to all of the Asian diaspora—we aren’t a monolith. But certainly for myself, and many of the Asian Americans I grew up with, we held ourselves to an impossibly high standard—and in turn, were held to even higher standards by the schools themselves.
The question I wanted to explore with How We Fall Apart was, how far would these Asian American students be willing to go to maintain their perfect GPAs and statuses, to bury their dark secrets in the past so that nothing got in the way of their brilliant futures? With family sacrifices on the line, would murder, would anything be out of the question? These students appear perfect on paper, appear to be “model minorities,” but get to know them, and there’s something much different lurking beneath the surface.
If the characters in the last TV show that you watched had to help you figure out the situation at Sinclair Prep over the course of How We Fall Apart, who would you have on your side? Do you think you’d be able to solve it and make it out alive?
The last TV show I watched was a Chinese historical revenge drama called Nirvana in Fire. I would definitely want the main character Mei Changsu on my side, because he’s a master of disguise and strategy, and exacts his revenge on the royal court brilliantly. With Mei Changsu by my side, we would not only be able to solve the mystery of How We Fall Apart, but we’d also take over the world shortly thereafter, and it wouldn’t even be lunchtime yet.
This book is a departure from the MG novels you’ve written and published. What was it like writing and revising a YA? How did it differ from The Dragon Warrior series and Last Gamer Standing?
So funny story—I sort of stumbled into writing MG, even though I’ve now sold six MG novels and only two YAs to publishers to date. YA is the genre in which I started writing novel-length fiction. I wrote Figment and Wattpad YA novels as a teen. When I drafted my MG debut THE DRAGON WARRIOR, I actually thought it was a YA at first, but was told by critique partners that I’d actually written a MG. I was stunned! After pushing back against that idea, thinking that I hadn’t been a kid in so long and couldn’t possibly know how to write for children, I eventually realized they were right. I aged down the characters and themes in The Dragon Warrior to make it properly MG —and it ended up landing me my agent and first publishing deal! All this to say, while I love MG and am very glad to have debuted with a MG series, YA is very familiar to me, and it’s always been my dream to publish YA.
For me, the biggest differences in writing YA versus MG are voice and theme – especially handling darker themes. The middle-grade voice is younger and often very humorous, and while humor is present in young adult works as well, I tend to find that YA does take itself more seriously and that the handling of the humor is different. For example, a middle-grade character might shout out something very silly during a serious battle moment, but we don’t typically see that happen with serious moments in YA. Additionally, the themes in middle grade skew more toward kids finding their place in the world, and YA expands on that theme with more focus on coming-of-age too.
Typically YA doesn’t shy away from darker themes like death, grief, mental health, etc. but it’s rarer to find middle grade that confronts these darker moments. How We Fall Apart skews to the older, darker end of YA. Thematically and genre-wise, it couldn’t be more different from my fun, funny MG books The Dragon Warrior and Last Gamer Standing. I find, though, that I love writing across genres and trying out different voices—as a reader, I love reading in any category, and I like to issue myself a challenge with each new book, daring myself to test out something I haven’t written before.
A major theme in HWFA is the ways that people fall apart and how that can be exacerbated by external and internal pressure to be perfect. Did Nancy come to you as the perfect protagonist for this theme or did you discover her journey after envisioning her as a character?
You’ve nailed the theme of this book perfectly. I wouldn’t say that Nancy initially came to me as a fully-fledged protagonist—when I write, I typically have to re-write and revise a lot before I understand the heart of the story, which means understanding the heart of my characters— their stories, their goals, what drives them, what unravels them. Nancy is more similar to my teen self than probably any other character I’ve written, though. She embodies the dark, ambitious, driven high school student I was, but those personality traits are amplified to make her morally grey, to drive her to make poor decisions to protect her ambitions. Though I didn’t know just how morally grey Nancy would be from the conception of the story idea, while rewriting and revising the book, I was compelled to push boundaries with the development of her character.
If you could build your dream panel for this book, what would it be about? What other authors would you love to have on it with you?
I would love to be in conversation with Maureen Johnson (Truly Devious), Leigh Bardugo (Ninth House), V.E. Schwab (Vicious), Victoria Lee (forthcoming A Lesson in Vengeance), and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé (forthcoming ACE OF SPADES). I’m fortunate enough to have read all of these dark academia titles and admire these authors tremendously. The panel topic would be about all things dark academia—why we’re drawn to this genre, and what themes we tackle in our books.
If the characters from How We Fall Apart showed up on your doorstep, who do you think you’d get along super well with?
I’d probably get along with Akil the best, because he’s the most easy-going out of all the main cast, and I could see myself trusting him more than the others. Though, this isn’t saying much given that none of the characters are who they appear to be. Trusting Akil or any one of them would no doubt lead to my downfall.
What other books do you see How We Fall Apart as being in conversation with?
Summer 2021 is truly the season of dark academia supremacy, and there are three other upcoming titles by marginalized authors that I believe would be in conversation with How We Fall Apart: Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades, Ryan Douglass’s The Taking of Jake Livingston, and Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
Well, I’ve already rambled about these forthcoming titles in previous answers, but just to drive the point home—Ace of Spades, The Taking of Jake Livingston, and A Lesson in Vengeance should be on every dark academia fan’s radar. Courtney Gould’s The Dead and the Dark is another thriller that I’m currently reading and loving, and shares the same book birthday as me (August 3rd!) This next title is MG, but Kwama Mbalia’s and Prince Joel Makonnen’s forthcoming gaming book Last Gate of the Emperor is another book I was fortunate enough to read early and am excited for others to read.
For already published mysteries/thrillers with dark academia vibes, Karen McManus needs no introduction, but I love all of her titles, from One of Us is Lying to the most recent The Cousins. Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn is a great urban fantasy King Arthur retelling with dark academia vibes. Diana Urban’s All Your Twisted Secrets is another fantastic YA thriller. Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series was my introduction to the dark academia genre, and it’s still one of my favorites. V.E. Schwab’s Vicious and Vengeful are among my all-time favorite books. And of course, Donna Tartt’s iconic The Secret History is the blueprint for dark academia.
Outside of dark academia, a few books I’ve really loved in the past year are Stephan Lee’s K-Pop Confidential, Suzanne Park’s Loathe at First Sight, Lyla Lee’s I’ll Be the One, Francesca Flores’ Diamond City duology, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy Wars trilogy, Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights, Christina Li’s Clues to the Universe, B.B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers, Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah series, Ashley Shuttleworth’s A Dark and Hollow Star, Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir trilogy, and June Hur’s The Silence of Bones and recent The Forest of Stolen Girls.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I wish people would ask me more about my favorite animes/mangas. The answer would be Prince of Tennis and Major, both of which are character-driven shonen sports stories (tennis and baseball), which also happens to be my favorite genre. This is ironic because I’m terrible at sports in real life, and I practically fell asleep at the only major league baseball game I’ve ever attended.
Katie Zhao is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She 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 photo-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their three literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.