At only 24 years of age, Singaporean Kyla Zhao is about to have her first novel published by Berkley Publishing, a Penguin Random House imprint, the first of two books that were both bought for six figures each after an international bidding war.
“I never thought I would be a novelist. However, I’ve done plenty of non-fiction writing in the past — specifically, journalism. I have bylines in the Singapore editions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler, and The Straits Times, and was also a communications intern at organisations like Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and Tencent America,” explains Ms Zhao.
“However, I never thought I was creative enough to write fiction, much fewer hundreds of pages of it! So I always stuck to reporting on the world I already knew instead of going to the trouble of creating one.”
Luckily for avid readers, the arrival of the pandemic created an opportunity for Ms Zhao to take a stab at writing fiction finally.
“The pandemic hit, and I found myself interning and studying alone in California, interacting with others mostly only over Zoom. It was a very lonely time, so I tried to cling onto any comfort I could, and that usually comes from books for me,” says Ms Zhao.
“But the genres I love reading are dominated by white authors and books starring white protagonists, and that just made me feel even more isolated, especially when there was a lot of anti-Asian racism happening all around the world, and perhaps especially so in the United States. At the same time, I was far away from my family in Singapore, with no idea when was the next time I would see them because of travel restrictions.
“All of this meant I really wanted to immerse myself in a world with settings I could recognise and characters I could identify with, and since I couldn’t find those in the books I had access to, I decided to write my own. All the negativity in the world then drove me to create a story that was as fun and glamorous as possible — like a beach vacation I could escape into.”
Ms Zhao’s first novel entitled The Fraud Squad, is described by Publisher’s Marketplace as being a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Crazy Rich Asians: “... a woman who dreams of having her own byline in a high society magazine enlists the help of friends to infiltrate the Singapore socialite scene, but finds belonging to the elite set may mean losing herself in the process.”
The recent success of the film Crazy Rich Asians highlighted the global yearning for more diverse representation. While Ms Zhao focused on the world, people and culture that she was homesick for, the focus on Asian protagonists and contexts did develop into something more.
It was my way of alleviating my homesickness while living 9000 miles away from home during the pandemic, but I also think Asian representation in the media is something the world could do with a lot more of.
“When I was younger, I was rarely exposed to books centred on people of colour, so I found it hard to imagine that someone who looked like me could have ‘main character energy’ (to borrow a TikTok phrase). I think it’s so important for kids to grow up with media figures they can relate to and identify with."
“Even though there is more Asian representation in books now, there are still many people who collapse the entire Asian diaspora into a monolith and judge a very diverse group by one label. While my book is made up of an entirely Asian cast of characters, there are significant differences in their experiences, desires, motivations, and fears."
“I really want to highlight what incredibly diverse and colourful lives people of colour can lead and show that one’s ethnicity should not pigeonhole them into certain storylines or tropes that Caucasian readers expect.”
Ms Zhao has also used her previous experience in Singapore’s high fashion magazine world to great effect.
“It’s so funny because I was only 16 when I got published in a fashion magazine for the first time: I was writing about weddings for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, and that was before I’ve even had my first kiss and definitely nowhere close to being married!” laughs Ms Zhao.
“I think my experiences with the magazine publishing and public relations worlds have shaped certain settings in my book as well as inspired some of the characters’ backgrounds. My understanding of high-fashion and high-society events also helped me out with all the fun descriptions of what the characters wore and how they socialised with one another!”
While Ms Zhao has clearly been writing professionally from a very young age, she says that initially, she was rather shy about showing anyone her first fiction work.
“When I first wrote it, I never intended to show it to anyone except myself and maybe a few close friends. That was awesome, because there were no expectations from anyone else for me to turn this into something big, so I was able to write as messily as I wanted and experiment freely,” she explains.
“However, friends encouraged me to try to get it published after they read it. But because I didn’t think of releasing my story to the public, I didn’t hold myself to any strict standards while drafting it. I never bothered coming up with an outline or plan, so the first draft was (sic) very chaotic, to put it mildly."
“I churned out a complete draft within two months, but editing it took much longer because there were so many plot holes I had to fix and so many kinks to straighten out. It also didn’t help that I had already started my final year of university when I started editing my book, so that definitely slowed me down.”
Still, Ms Zhao is excited about being a published novelist, despite the trials and tribulations of publishing.
“Being a novelist has also given me a much greater appreciation for how much work goes into producing a book, and I am truly in awe of the immense creativity and passion my fellow writers have,” says Ms Zhao.
The Fraud Squad will be published worldwide in January 2023, but there is also another novel to plan: “I don’t have an idea of what my second book will be yet—it could be a sequel or spin-off of The Fraud Squad, or about something completely unrelated. But I definitely hope to still write about settings and contexts I identify with.”