A geometric rendering of a woman with purple hair on a blue and gold background.
Design by Jennie Vang.

At only 26 years old, author Katie Zhao has already published five young adult and children’s books, with another (“The Lies We Tell”) due to come out later this summer. The Michigan Daily sat down with the University of Michigan alum to learn about her writing career, her influences and the importance of representation in youth literature.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

When and why did you start writing? And when did you decide that you wanted to write for children and other young audiences?

I always kind of knew that writing would be a big part of my life, I just didn’t know what form it would take. I remember in first grade or second grade, I had just started reading, and I really enjoyed it. One of my teachers gave us an assignment to write a short story, and I still have very vivid memories of it — I don’t remember anything else that early on in my life, but I do remember I really loved the story that I wrote. I just remember feeling, “Oh, this just feels very right.” Nothing else had struck me so strongly. And from then on, I just immersed myself into reading as much as I could, writing and just got a lot of practice. I remember my teachers would give us notebooks at the end of the school year, and they would tell the students, “You should spend the summer just writing stories or whatever thoughts that you have.” And I actually filled those notebooks, from the front page to the back page, cover to cover. I was always the kid who had a new book almost every day in school, and I was always writing. A lot of it was secret because I didn’t really want people to know how important it was to me because I didn’t know many other people who were that into writing, but writing just always followed me.

And then I started posting online in my teen years because at that point, I felt the feedback that I would get in class wasn’t really conducive to helping me improve in what I wanted to do, which was writing novels. So I started posting on this website called Pigment, which I don’t think is up anymore. I was posting short stories, and I posted my first one or two novels on there. And it was really great because finally I wasn’t just writing for classmates who would critique my work. I was writing for people who really wanted to read what I was putting out there. And I just kept going with it. When I went to U of M, I had already attempted to query agents because in my senior year of high school, I researched the traditional publishing process and realized that I would need a literary agent if I ever wanted to get a book deal with one of the major publishers. But I wasn’t successful in getting an agent with the first manuscript I queried, and so I just gave up for a little bit. And also (as I’m sure you’re aware), school was just so busy, and it was just such a different life experience that I wanted to fully immerse myself in campus life at U of M. So that was it. Writing wasn’t really a priority for me, but I did study English, and I was still constantly reading and still taking creative writing classes. I was still hoping I would find my way to writing. I considered journalism, I considered social media writing, even technical writing that would have me writing for something or someone else, I think I would’ve been happy with.

And then what happened was that my mother, who is very traditionally minded, was very worried that I was graduating with an English degree and a minor in political science and nothing that she saw as skill-driven work. And so I ended up doing a one-year master’s of accounting, also at U of M, under her direction. And I just hated accounting so much that I had to get back into writing. And it was almost like revenge writing because I was still doing my other coursework, but I sacrificed my social life. Every waking moment that I didn’t spend doing accounting, I was writing. So I wrote another novel, and I revised it and queried it, and I got my agent with it. We’ve been together ever since.

As to why I’m particularly interested in writing for kids, I don’t know if I ever set out to write middle grade or write young adult. It was just that my first 18 years were when I had the most time to read and write. So with that gap where I wasn’t writing as much in college, when I returned to writing, what I remembered was young adult novels and middle grade novels. So I was just capturing the feeling of me being a teen again and writing those kinds of stories again.

But now I really love writing mostly for kids. It’s almost like an emotional release for me because I’m able to look back on my teen years. And I’m still a young-ish adult, so I feel like when I write for an adult audience, I don’t have as much to say. But for kids and teens, I’ve been there, I’ve been in their shoes, and I have a lot to tell them. That’s how I think of my writing — me imparting the messages that I’ve learned on to the younger generations. I just think kids and teens are so smart, and we don’t give them enough credit for that.

And I think literature that’s written for younger audiences is just more fun. A lot of adult literature takes itself very seriously, and I think there’s a great market for that. But as someone who doesn’t take herself seriously all the time, I just think it’s fun to be able to experiment more within genres, which kid lit lets you do.

Were there any authors that particularly inspired you, or did you have any important mentors that helped you along this journey?

Right off the bat, I would say Rick Riordan. The “Percy Jackson” series was the series that I grew up with. I remember “Book One: The Lightning Thief” came out when I was in sixth grade, and Percy was in sixth grade, and every year, there was another Percy Jackson book. So I just grew up with him.

And I debuted with a middle grade fantasy series that we compared to Percy Jackson because there’s a lot of mythology and magic and a quest narrative.

And right now, I feel like kid lit is having a really great moment where there are a lot more authors of Color who are emerging now. I didn’t have that as much back then. So a lot of my fellow debut authors really inspired me a lot. Amélie Wen Zhao, who published the “Blood Heir Trilogy,” we came up at the same exact time, and she’s really inspired me a lot with her writing. And Tomi Adeyemi, who wrote “Children of Blood and Bone.”

It’s just really great to see how wide of an audience their work is reaching because it’s showing how much people really want diverse stories. And I also have to shout out Lisa Yee, who wrote the Stanford Wong and Millicent Min books. I feel like those titles aren’t as well known because they came out before publishing realized, “Oh, we should invest in books by people of Color.” But they were the very first kid lit books I saw with Asian American characters on the cover, and that really impacted me. I still remember being in the library as a teen and just being shocked to see a cover with Asian people on it.

What was it like developing your voice as a writer and then trying to use that voice to break into the publishing market — particularly as a young woman of Color and one that writes primarily about non-white characters?

When I was doing writing assignments as a kid, I was always told by my teachers, “Your voice and style is the strongest part of your writing.” Plot wasn’t really there — I don’t know what else might not have been there — but they always said my voice and style were very strong.

And I think I just always held very strongly to my voice. I don’t really hold back, which I think some people don’t really appreciate, but I don’t sugarcoat. I just tell it as it is, I tell the world as I see it, and that means exposing some more difficult truths. Especially with my young adult novel, “How I Fell Apart,” that meant critiquing our school system and critiquing the way that these systems are set up to push students to their limits and disregard their mental health, and how toxic it is for students of Color, especially.

In terms of how I came around to writing primarily about Asian American people, I didn’t for a long time when I was growing up. Into my senior year of high school, I was writing about all-white casts pretty much. All my stories were about white people. I was writing novels, and it was funny because I was enjoying writing these books still, but I didn’t feel any kind of strong urge to finish them or get them published. I really took my time writing these books, and I never looked at the manuscripts and thought, “Hey, I really actually want to try to get this published.” It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I wrote a novel that had a Chinese American character that that changed — I wrote it in a month or something crazy, and I was like, “I really want to get this published.” I just felt so strongly about this book. And even though that book didn’t go anywhere, it made me realize that identity was what I was meant to write about because I’ve always been very vocal, very passionate about social justice issues. I realized that marrying the two of them just made me feel like I was doing what I was meant to do. It lit a fire under me. Now, I’m a very fast writer, to the point where it kind of scares my agent and publishers. But it’s making me money, it’s making them money, so I think we’re all happy.

What advice do you have for others who are trying to enter the publishing industry?

I think now it’s harder to sell a debut novel, which is unfortunate, but it is easier to find and connect with other writers who are aspiring to become published authors. I remember when I was growing up, nobody I knew had any idea how publishing worked, and there wasn’t really a community of writers where you could all sort of figure out how to do it. I didn’t know anything until I joined Twitter in 2017. That was when I began making connections with writers and with agents. So that would be my main advice — to not necessarily get on Twitter but just get on a social media platform where you can find writers and just talk to each other and read each other’s work, critique each other’s work. The best thing I did for myself was to reach out to other writers on social media and just make those connections because you never know who’s friends with an agent or who’s friends with someone at a publisher and might be able to help you get more information or connect you with somebody. Publishing is like any other very old, traditional industry where it often is who you know, so just get out there and network. I know that’s hard for writers because a lot of us are very introverted, but if you want to be published, you just have to make yourself.

I also wanted to ask you about the marketing aspect. You’re very active on social media promoting your books, and I was wondering how you decided to take on that very active marketing role and what that’s been like.

Whew. This is a loaded question. It’s not what I expected. Truthfully, the real reason why I pursued traditional publishing so hard was because my hope was that the publisher would take care of all the marketing, all the business stuff, and I could just sit at home and write. But I think the days of that are kind of gone. In earlier days of young adult, we saw people like Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth, and adult authors like E. L. James — a lot of people blowing up really quickly without even having to do their own marketing because their publishers were pushing them so hard. That’s mostly gone. And I think it’s for a number of reasons. Mainly, I think that publishers have taken on way more than they can chew.

A lot of debut authors now are finding it really, really hard to break into the industry. A lot of authors that I’ve talked to talk about burnout. It’s just so much work to do, to not only write the book but also get a literary agent and make it to the stage of getting a book deal — and then to realize that you’re also sharing the burden of social media marketing. It’s just a lot. That being said, since I was sort of forced into it, I just kind of adopted the role of being my own social media manager. And I discovered I really like it because it’s another way to be creative. TikTok especially, you’re basically just writing jokes on there, quick little jokes that sometimes go viral, which is really cool. But it also helps you actually talk to your readers, which I think has been really cool because I think I would feel very lonely if I were one of those authors who never talked to anybody, never did any marketing, just wrote their books and then didn’t even know if anyone was reading them. It’s cool to be able to interact with readers and see their reactions and talk to them about what I wrote.

So there are pros and cons. I think it’s really just a different world we’re seeing now because there are so many people and on social media, everyone’s trying to promote something. It can be hard to make a name for yourself, but I think if you’re smart about branding and smart about your message and you add value, then people will definitely listen to what you have to say.

On that last point about branding and messaging: When promoting your book “How We Fall Apart,” you use the terms “dark academia,” “thriller” and “Asian American cast” in just about every post. How did you settle on exactly how you were going to market this?

Basically, I knew dark academia had been a trend, but I actually didn’t know that what I had written was considered “dark academia” until readers told me. I remember when I announced the book in early 2019, and it went up on Goodreads, some people immediately started commenting, “Oh my God, it’s dark academia with Asian characters, I’m so excited.” And I was like, “What the hell is dark academia?” I just had to Google it, and then I thought, “Oh, wow. I didn’t know there was this whole aesthetic.” And then I didn’t think about it that much until I had to start thinking about promoting the book in 2020, and I realized more and more people were talking about dark academia. It was a whole subgenre on TikTok and everything. And so I realized that the smartest thing I could do for marketing this book was to really just use that term and push it out.

But I don’t think there are any other dark academia novels with Asian characters (unless I’m totally unaware of one, which is possible), and so I wanted to also push that this book is specifically about Asian Americans and the Asian American experience because that would help attract more Asian readers, or just readers in general who are interested in reading about Asian characters.

And I think YA thrillers have always been really hot. “One of Us Is Lying” is the biggest one I can think of right now, and I think it helped launch a bunch of YA thrillers that have sold in the aftermath and that have published around the same time I did.

So I think if you just pay attention to the trends and what readers, especially teen readers, are talking about and excited about, then you’ll find ways to market your books. And hopefully if you have been paying attention, then the stuff you’re writing is already what they want to read.

What’s next for you as an author?

I really love the fantasy and thriller, dark academia genres, so I’m probably going to keep writing more in both of those. I’m hoping to sell an adult fantasy that I’ve been working on for several years now, probably not anytime soon, but hopefully in the next couple years or so. And just keep going from there. I’m still very early on in my career, so I don’t want to limit myself to one genre, one niche, yet. I just want to write stories that have very strong voices and messages and write stories that are very fast paced because that’s what I enjoy reading and writing, and write stories that feel very authentic to me and to the Asian American experience.

Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at bregoss@umich.edu