By Hana Dao
Kyla Zhao ’21 recently secured a six-figure publishing deal with Penguin Random House for her debut book, “The Fraud Squad”, which is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2022. Zhao received her B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in communications at Stanford and is currently working in marketing. The Daily spoke with the recent alum on Asian representation, the publication process and her creative inspirations.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What should readers look to expect from “The Fraud Squad”?
Kyla Zhao [KZ]: Readers can look to expect Asian representation and characters who lead colorful, vibrant lives that are not pigeonholed whatsoever. I don’t want to prescribe a specific type of Asian representation to the wide Asian diaspora that is present today. My book offers a different side to Asian culture with an Asian as the male lead and an entirely Asian cast. There’s glamour, fashion, escapism and luxurious parties in the high society world of my book. Thriller is my favorite genre, so readers should be ready for lots of plot twists as well.
TSD: Given that “The Fraud Squad” was your first book and your first time publishing, what were the challenges you ran into during both the writing and publishing process?
KZ: Before this, though, I wrote a lot of nonfiction for fashion magazines, including Vogue Singapore and Harper’s Bazaar. My first by-line was for an article on wedding preparations, and I was only sixteen at the time!
When it came to writing this book, I was feeling very homesick and lonely while living in California as I worked on an internship. My family and friends were all in Singapore, so I was looking for a connection back home and to all the people I missed a lot.
Personally, I didn’t think I could write fiction, so when I started writing this, I thought it would just be fanfiction for a few friends to enjoy. Once my friends read it, they encouraged me to get published. Before that, I didn’t think a Singaporean could get published in the U.S, and I didn’t think that American publishers would be interested in a book entirely set in Southeast Asia with absolutely no white characters.
In terms of challenges, this was a personal project. I didn’t take it too seriously at first, so there wasn’t really a specific plot or outline. I just came up with stuff along the way, and I didn’t hold myself to a high standard at first so my initial draft was also very messy. I ended up accidentally creating a lot of plot holes in the beginning as well. The process of publishing was very overwhelming, so I was very grateful I didn’t know about all the obstacles before I took a shot at it because it would have deterred me from trying altogether.
TSD: Did you struggle to balance writing the book with taking Stanford classes?
KZ: For me, school and my internship had to come first. I struggled a lot since I was also going to be graduating during a pandemic, and the future that I had to prepare for was looking very bleak. My mental and emotional state felt all over the place. There was also the presidential election that happened which created a really tense atmosphere in America. However, all of this helped channel my angst into the book; the more angsty I felt and the bleaker life seemed, the more it made me want to make my story more fun. My book was like an escape for me, so I tried to make it as fun, light-hearted and glamorous as I possibly could.
TSD: You’ve previously mentioned that some of the inspiration for your book came from “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Devil Wears Prada;” were there any other sources you drew inspiration from?
KZ: Well, without revealing too much, “Gossip Girl” was also a source that influenced my book. For example, there are lots of twists and turns, so we don’t know who the bad guy is in my book. At any point, it seems like every character is up to some mischief. I love having flawed characters who are very believable and morally gray. More generally, books on high society and being stuck on the outside while trying to become a part of the inner circle helped shape the theme for my book. My own experience in the fashion magazine publishing world has also influenced me a lot.
TSD: If “Fraud Squad” was made into a movie, who would be a part of the dream cast?
KZ: I’m actually not really a visual writer, so I had no idea what my characters would look like, and they were just faceless entities. I was not the most descriptive writer the first time around which is something I realized I had to work on when it came to revising my book. Even when it came to naming them, I just looked at the names of authors on my bookshelf and decided that’s what I would name my main characters. Now, I know what my characters look like, but I never really had an actor in mind. I think that this inability to visualize them also stems from the lack of diverse Asian representation because there are always the same few names being cast in the film industry for Asian roles.
TSD: What kind of impact do you hope your book will leave on your readers?
KZ: I’m hoping to spread an understanding of how big and diverse the Asian diaspora is. You can’t just clump and cluster Asians under one label. You can’t assume all the same experiences because there are so many unique experiences based on your ethnicity, socioeconomic status or who your parents are. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one of my favorite books, so there are many similarities between “Crazy Rich Asians” and my book in terms of a glamorous setting. But once readers dive into my novel,, I think they will realize it is quite different. The main character of my book, Samantha, comes from a working-class background and the characters portrayed in my story all have different portrayals that are equally valid.
On a lighter note though, I’d like my book to be a dose of fun. It makes you feel like you’re on a beach vacation where you don’t have to take life too seriously even if things aren’t going that great.
TSD: As a recent college graduate yourself, what advice would you give to other young students who want to go into writing and publishing?
KZ: My advice would be to always write something that you would love and want to pay for, not just something that you think is trendy or what the market wants. Another tip is to read as much as you can because reading is the best way to get better at writing. Try to read books both from the genre you’re writing about or outside of your normal comfort zone. You might also find that your critical writer mindset will follow you even when you’re reading and not actually writing.
For me, writing was something that I was passionate about, but the day it becomes something that feels like a chore is the day I know I should take a step back from it. Writing can be stressful; however, it should never have a net negative impact on your life. You should never force yourself to write, so don’t be too hard on yourself. This book was something I truly believed in personally so when things were difficult, I was still motivated and able to keep going.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
This article has been corrected to reflect that the title of the book is “The Fraud Squad” and that Zhao ’21 currently works in marketing. The Daily regrets this error.