Interview With Author Xiran Jay Zhao About Their Upcoming Novel, Zachary Ying And The Dragon Emperor

Xiran Jay Zhao interview
Photo Credit: XIRAN JAY ZHAO

On sale May 10, this breakneck adventure is a queer Percy Jackson with Chinese history and culture front and center that manages to be sarcastic and cheeky while vulnerable and oh-so-relatable. ZACHARY YING AND THE DRAGON EMPEROR is the first book in an action-packed, laugh-out-loud fantasy series about a Chinese-diaspora boy who must journey across China to seal the underworld and save the mortal realm, all the while developing a deeper connection to the myths and history of his Chinese heritage.

Xiran recently spoke with Geek Vibes Nation about their upcoming middle-grade debut and the process of writing the book.

Xiran Jay Zhao interview
Photo Credit: XIRAN JAY ZHAO

Hello Xiran! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Geek Vibes Nation about your upcoming middle-grade debut, Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor. Could you tell our audience a bit about yourself and about the book? 

Hi, Tristian! I am Xiran Jay Zhao, and I write sci-fi and fantasy books and run a YouTube channel where I talk about Chinese history and culture. Zachary Ying is a middle grade adventure I pitch as Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh. It features a 12-year-old Chinese American boy Zack who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but after the spirit of the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset, he’s compelled to go on a journey across China to fight historical and mythical figures and heist real artifacts.

What inspired you to write this story? 

My friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the Not Even Bones series, first gave me the encouragement to dip my toes into middle grade when I was going through a period of intense hyperfixation on Chinese history and myth and wouldn’t stop talking to her about it. My YA books weren’t catching the attention of agents back then, so she suggested I try a different genre. Mythology is super popular in MG, after all, and surely I could spin all those legends in my head into a fun adventure. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on Yugioh, the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic. The idea of Zachary Ying then budded in my head, and I wrote it as soon as I could.

Your young adult novel, Iron Widow, was such a major success. Did you have any worries about crossing over into middle-grade fiction? 

I was a little worried because Zachary Ying is my first stab at writing MG, but it ended up coming easier to me than Iron Widow. I honestly think Zachary Ying embodies me as a person much better. I got to show the fun side of my personality that didn’t really get a chance to show up during the bleak brutality of Iron Widow.

What would you say are some of the major differences when it comes to writing for the middle-grade audience vs. the young adult audience? 

You can’t swear in MG, that’s one thing! And you can’t go as dark in the story. Also there’s a bigger focus on friendship over romance. And you have to come up with better excuses to get the parents out of the way of the adventure!

I love the use of technology in Zachary Ying. What made you include the AR gaming headset as such an instrumental part of the plot? 

I really love media that play with how magic and science can mix together. A lot of my favorite anime, like Yugioh, do exactly this, and it always blows my mind when the science-y characters use technology to “hack” magic, such as when Seto Kaiba came up with the idea of hologram monsters after seeing Yami Yugi use magic to bring the monsters in their card game to life. Qin Shi Huang possessing Zack’s AR gaming headset is my take on the weirdness that can come with magic colliding with science.

The novel is full of so much interesting Chinese history and historical figures. How did you decide what to include? 

Honestly, I just found any excuse to talk about my favorite facts and anecdotes. There were so many of them in my first draft that I really had to cut down on them. I kept whatever I could not let go of.

What would you say is the biggest message you want readers to walk away with after reading this novel? 

Don’t squeeze yourself into a box you don’t fit in for the acceptance of other people – live your own legend!

Will we get more Zachary Ying adventures in the future? 

Yes, there will be at least 1 sequel!

What advice do you have for young writers? 

Know the ending and overall character arc your protagonist needs to go through before writing a story. This way, your writing will always have momentum, because there’s a distinct direction it’s heading toward.

Where can our audience connect with you online? 

I am @XiranJayZhao on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, and YouTube!

Bonus Question: If you could assign yearbook superlatives to three characters in Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor, which characters and what would their superlatives be?

Let’s do the kid trio!

Zack: Most likely to utterly SNAP one day

Simon: Most likely to become a househusband

Melissa: Most likely to be a tabloid sensation

Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them) is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.

Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor will go on sale May 10th. Be on the lookout for Geek Vibes Nation’s review of the book later this week.