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Last week, I spoke to author Katie Zhao about her writing career and experiences with the publishing industry. This week, we’re delving into her book “How We Fall Apart,” a young adult thriller that targets an older audience and grapples with some difficult topics. Set at a private school in New York, “How We Fall Apart” follows Nancy, an Asian American student, as she attempts to keep a grip on her perfect grades, her social life and her many secrets — all while someone is out to ruin her and her friends’ lives. Zhao discusses how her upbringing influenced the characters she created, why writing this story was so important to her and what she hopes young readers will take away from it.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

An overarching theme in “How We Fall Apart” is familial relationships, and particularly the immense pressure parents place on their children. What made you want to explore this so deeply in your work, both the expectations themselves and the children’s responses to them? How do you see this playing out in real life?

The reason I wrote this, why I wanted to drive that theme home, was because this was something that played out in my life. A lot of the main character Nancy’s thoughts and emotions are very real, they’re taken from my high school memories, because I grew up in Michigan. I grew up in a town where there weren’t that many people of Color, although there was a small Asian community. So, my parents were friendly with a lot of the Chinese families, especially in the area. And the way that they raised us, I felt was very similar. They were all very traditionally-minded and placed these expectations on their children to perform really well. It wasn’t enough to get average grades and just enjoy your childhood. Sure, they wanted you to enjoy your childhood, but they thought enjoyment meant getting straight As and being on the debate team and being amazing at whatever sport and playing piano. So that, to me, felt like a very restrictive childhood. Like Nancy, I really did try my best to meet these standards, but it felt like every time I met a standard, the standard would just raise. I would get an A, and they’d be like, “Why not an A+?”

That’s something I think a lot of Asian kids can relate to. And in college, I joined a lot of diversity organizations at (the University of Michigan). I joined an Asian American a cappella group and then an Asian American social justice kind of group. And in talking to all these other Asian Americans, I realized so many of us have had a very similar experience where we were forced to be high achievers, essentially because our parents just expected so much. Part of me is upset about that, but I can’t fully be upset because I don’t understand how (my parents are) thinking, how they’re feeling. What I can see is that they worked so hard to get here to the States and the reason they did that was so that we could have better lives. And so of course, if you’re the child of immigrants, you would want to repay your parents and make sure that those sacrifices were worth everything. But that often does come at the price of sacrificing your own happiness. And then it gets kind of twisted because then the question is, “Well, wasn’t the reason that our parents came here in the first place to make sure that we would be happy? So why are we making ourselves miserable in this process of trying to live up to these impossible standards?”

That was an issue that I had never seen explored in a YA novel, and the idea for this book has been with me since high school. I always knew in the back of my mind, I wanted to write something that would capture the very intense turmoil of being an Asian American high school student.

The other thing was that I have heard a couple stories since graduating high school about very high achieving Asian students in high school and in college who committed suicide, and their families were left wondering, “Why did they do this? When they were the perfect student, literally perfect on paper, how could they have been unhappy?” And there was this documentary called “Looking for Luke” and it explored this kid, Luke, who had committed suicide even though he was the perfect Chinese American son. Basically it just showed how deeply unhappy he was because of all this pressure, this need to constantly succeed and be perfect. So that was something that I wanted to put in this book. I wanted to show how all the characters’ need to be perfect and succeed for their parents ends up costing them so much. I think that’s something that we don’t really talk about, and it’s something very real that’s affecting a lot of teens today, and I just feel it’s a very necessary conversation to have.

Along those lines, could you talk more about your portrayal of mental illness in the book? You bring in that topic in so many different ways — not just the symptoms of suicidality and burnout, but also drug addiction, poor anger management, self-harm, bullying and all these different mental health-related issues. I was wondering what went into your decisions on how you were going to portray mental health in different characters.

When I was in high school, I was struggling a lot, a lot, a lot. Not on the academic level — my grades were good, everything looked good on paper. But on the inside, I was dying. I was thinking, “There has to be more than this.” I was very miserable trying to be this perfect daughter that I thought my parents wanted. And back then, I didn’t even have a term or a way to talk about my feelings because to my parents and to a lot of Asian families, mental health or mental illness, none of that is real and it’s not something that we talk about. I also remember one of my siblings had to be diagnosed for something in her college years. Even though she kept telling my parents, “I think I have this condition” when she was younger, they just disregarded it because it’s not a conversation that they understood or knew how to have.

I think taking care of your mental health is a very Western idea, but it’s a very important idea that should be universal because human beings weren’t meant to be pushed beyond their limitations and be pushed to the point of burning out so much. And I guess I just really wanted to show how all the characters have different reactions. I’ve witnessed in my own life how siblings and friends had very different reactions to the same extreme pressure. I wanted to make sure that I showed that it’s not just a one-dimensional conversation. I think that’s a dangerous narrative to have, too, because not everyone is going to show their pain in the same way. For some people it’s very subtle, for some people it’s more obvious. A lot of people will just try to hide the fact that they’re really suffering because they want to present this image of perfection, and that in the end is what destroys all these kids. They all kind of want to keep up this image, even when they know deep down that they’re crumbling and they can’t keep it up, so they turn to different methods to just try to keep it going, but in the end it all falls apart. Hence the title.

I also wanted to ask you about the role class plays in this novel. Nancy faces a lot of poor treatment and deals with internal struggles relating to being of a lower socioeconomic status, and I was wondering how you think classism functions differently in Asian American communities and why this is important to portray.

I really, really wanted to discuss class in this book.

One of the comparison titles for this book was “Crazy Rich Asians.” My agent and I were very strategic about that because it was the fall after the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie had come out and, of course, it was a huge success. And so my agent and I were like, “Okay, strategically the best way to get a publisher to buy this book is for us to use a huge title like that,” because there were not very many Asian titles being bought at the time.

We were successful, but, at the same time, I knew I didn’t want this to be a book about rich, rich Asians, because we already have a few different books about that. And not only is it not accurate, but it, again, kind of plays into the model minority myth of all Asians being able to be successful, because they’re somehow the “good minorities,” which is not true at all.

So I wanted to show someone like Nancy, who is way more reflective of the people I grew up with, the people I know. She’s attending this fancy school, but it’s on scholarship. And as she maneuvers this world of the ultra rich and elite, she continually is pounded over the head with the message, “You don’t belong here, you’re not good enough to attend this school.” And although I didn’t go to a prep school, I feel when I went to (the University) so many of my classmates were just living totally different lives from me, because I came from a very humble, middle-class background where my parents were very frugal. I didn’t have that much growing up, and it was just wild to see how out of place I felt sometimes among other students who had so much more. I really wanted to capture that feeling.

And again, just try to push the message out there that not all Asians are rich. In fact, there are a lot of Asians who are in the very poorest level of wealth, here in the U.S. After I moved to New York, I’ve seen in parts of Brooklyn, parts of Chinatown, a lot of immigrants who have just come from Asia, and they’re very, very poor. I don’t ever see that representation really. And I think it’s important to show that within the Asian diaspora, we’re not a monolith and we have so many different experiences. And we’re definitely not model minorities. 

Another thing I noticed in this book was your portrayal of gender dynamics, especially within different sets of parents. What went into your decision to portray gendered relationships and labor a certain way?

It wasn’t really a conscious decision. It’s just really hard for me to write a book that doesn’t somehow take from my own life, because my writing comes from a very personal place. And so Nancy’s relationship with her mother is a lot closer than her relationship with her father, who’s absent. And I would say that’s pretty true to my life, and also pretty true of a good number of Asian people that I know. Their fathers are very stoic and don’t know how to emotionally connect with their daughters, especially. And so I don’t know if that was a conscious decision, I think I just wrote what I knew and what I knew happened to be very true for a lot of families.

Along a similar vein, the way you portrayed Queer relationships in this book really stood out to me. None of the couple’s peers thought twice about them dating, and it was very casually brought up, but the idea of telling their parents was never even mentioned. What was your thought process when you were choosing how to portray that relationship, especially with those generational differences?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question. I thought a lot about that relationship, wondering how best to write it. Because as somebody who hasn’t really labeled myself, it would be very poor for me to write a Queer pain narrative when that’s not something I’ve experienced. I think that’s best left to people who experienced that. So I didn’t want the relationship to be some kind of horrible thing or something making them come out.

I wanted it to just be, because I feel that’s what I’m seeing now in the teens of today. They’re so open with their sexuality, and a lot of their parents are millennials who are very open to it, a lot more open to it than what I saw when I was growing up. So to me, it felt more true to today to have it not be a big deal. Like, “Hey, we’re together,” and everyone’s cool. But on the other hand, I have seen how very traditional Asian families will react to the idea of their children being Queer. And so it didn’t feel right to me either that they would be cool with that in their families. It’s a very complicated and tricky situation and a very complicated conversation to have. So again, I just kind of wrote what I had observed. It made sense to be an unspoken thing that these characters knew, “Oh yeah, our parents can’t find out about it.”

But also, it’s not just Queer relationships. My parents are really, really strict and I know this about a lot of other Asian families too. Especially with Asian daughters — they didn’t want you dating anyone in high school. High school was purely for getting good grades and getting into a good college. So I think they would’ve been mad if they found out they were dating anybody, period. 

My last question is about the romantic relationship between Nancy, who’s in high school, and her teacher, Peter. What was it like writing about an immoral relationship from the perspective of the younger partner, who doesn’t really understand why the relationship is wrong? What you were hoping younger readers, especially teen girls, would get from reading about this relationship?

That was a really tricky relationship to write. I wanted to write not directly from my own experience, but about something I’ve seen. I think many girls and young women are realizing that a lot of older men are preying on younger girls — not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s a worrying trend.

And it’s a weird relationship because at the same time, Nancy does kind of know what’s going on, and she allows it to happen — but also she’s a minor and it’s not really her fault. It’s the fault of this older guy who’s essentially preying on her. I wanted to show how a girl could get herself in this situation. Even though it’s not her fault, part of her does think that this is what she needs to do if she wants power. I think that’s the way that some girls or young women are thinking, like, “Well, if I want power or status or money from this man, I guess this is the only way I can do it.” That’s something that I’ve seen from talking to other young women. I think it’s just a really unfortunate occurrence, and writing this relationship made me extremely uncomfortable. I hope that readers also felt very uncomfortable (reading) it. This is not a feel-good book. It’s not a book to lift up anyone’s spirits. It’s a book that really goes after a lot of very uncomfortable truths that I see happening in today’s world that I don’t feel like enough people are talking about. So I hope with writing that relationship, I’ve been able to shed light on some of the very troubling power dynamics that I see between young girls and older men in society and how terrible it can be.

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