Hey, mersquad coven!
I know I usually do author interviews in conjunction with blog tours, but I had the opportunity to interview the amazing Katie Zhao, author of The Dragon Warrior and its upcoming sequel The Fallen Hero! This was so exciting and I can’t wait to share with you what we talked about here.
The Fallen Hero comes out on October 13, 2020, so you have a little over two months to get ready for this amazing story. Want to know more? I’ll include some book information for both books here to get you wanting more. I mean, I know you’re gonna want to read this awesome MG Fantasy duology ANYWAY, so you might as well just prepare yourself.
If you’ve never met the lovely Katie Zhao, you definitely should! Here’s Katie’s bio from her website, where you can learn more.
Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of Chinese #ownvoices middle grade fantasy THE DRAGON WARRIOR (Bloomsbury Kids, October 2019 & 2020), as well as a young adult author. She is a mentor for Author Mentor Match. She is currently open to freelance editorial services for young adult and middle grade manuscripts.
This interview focuses more on the sequel, The Fallen Hero, but doesn’t have any spoilers besides what was in the synopsis on Goodreads. Enjoy at your own risk.
This novel takes place after the events of its predecessor, and our main character Faryn is dealing with the repercussions of the betrayal of her younger brother Alex. Did you always intend for Alex to betray Fayrn when you were planning out this novel? What did you want readers to take away from this betrayal?
This is such a great question, because the sibling dynamic between Faryn and Alex is one of my favorite parts of the DRAGON WARRIOR series. Yes, I did always intend for Alex to betray Faryn. I wanted to show how younger siblings are the worst. Just kidding! What I really wanted to explore was how two siblings who grew up together without a father or mother figure in their lives, facing bullying from other warriors, could love each other but at the same time, make very different decisions when they reach a crucial fork in the road. In THE DRAGON WARRIOR, Alex justifies betraying Faryn and the warriors’ cause to save the humans by reasoning that the other humans have never treated them well, unlike the gods, who want to give the siblings power. For so much of their lives, the siblings never felt like they were truly welcomed in the warrior society, and that exclusion could breed anger and hurt. Faryn understands her brother’s feelings, but rather than lashing out against humans, she still aims to do what she believes is right—by saving all the humans from the gods’ wrath. Two siblings, two choices, two paths. It’s up to the readers to determine which of the siblings they believe is right (or perhaps to decide that they are both right, in their own ways).
The legend of The Monkey King has been adapted in numerous TV shows and movies, and is now in your novel! Did you use any inspiration from classic movie renditions of The Monkey King in your version of him? Were there other places that you used inspiration to make this version your own?
The legend of The Monkey King is my favorite classic Chinese tale. Growing up, I watched and re-watched the cartoon series adaptation, called JOURNEY TO THE WEST. I was so enraptured by the fast-paced, fun, funny storyline, and of course loved learning all about Chinese mythology and culture through the TV series. In THE FALLEN HERO, I wanted to have the warriors encounter the mischievous Monkey King, adapted for a modern American context, who serves as both an obstacle and helping figure along their quest. As for other influences that helped me create my own version of the Monkey King—I read F.C. Yee’s YA novel THE EPIC CRUSH OF GENIE LO (incidentally, I highly recommend this book and the sequel), which also features the Monkey King character in an American setting, although he’s even more modern (not to mention cooler) because he goes to public school and gets into all sorts of trouble. These were a couple of influences that helped me shape my own adaptation of the beloved Monkey King figure in THE FALLEN HERO.
Many authors of color have discussed the concept of diaspora while incorporating it into their novels today, including yours. Do you feel like the depictions of diaspora in your series helped Middle Grade readers understand the concept more? What kind of discussions about diaspora do you want younger readers to have when reading your novel?
First of all, thank you for picking up on the discussion of diaspora in THE DRAGON WARRIOR and THE FALLEN HERO! When I wrote these books, it was extremely important to me to explore different diaspora experiences, from the older generation of warriors who immigrated from China and settled in Chinatowns, to their children who were born and raised in America, to the half-Chinese warriors Faryn and Alex who are the main characters. By exploring the topic of diaspora, I hoped middle grade readers would understand that there isn’t just one “Chinese” or “Chinese American” narrative, and that we aren’t just the monolith that Western media often paints us as. Chinese Americans can have very vast, nuanced experiences that alter the way they’re treated and how they view their place in the world. Finally, I wanted to touch on the topic of colorism in Asian culture, and how those with darker skin, like Faryn and Alex, are often held in lower regard or even excluded from conversations about Asian diaspora.
Was there ever a moment where you were considering making this series for the YA age range? What made you decide to make it MG?
This is such a funny question, because I actually thought this series was YA when I first wrote it. I had never written MG before, and in fact didn’t think I could write an MG, since it’s been a little over a decade now since I was actually in that age range myself. After finishing the first (very awful) draft of THE DRAGON WARRIOR, I sent it off to some critique partners, and almost every single one told me that the voice and themes of the story struck them as MG and not YA. At first I pushed back against that feedback, thinking they had misjudged my work since I couldn’t possibly write MG—the several novels I’d written before my debut had all been YA. But after taking some time to read MG novels, and looking over my book again, I finally realized that my critique partners were right. I revised the novel to lower the ages of the main cast. Luckily, MG can be a lot sillier and fun to write, so I wrote even more silly jokes into the storyline this time around. I’m so glad my critique partners made me see that this story was supposed to be a MG, and that publishing evidently agreed, since my agent sold the story quite fast in a market that was (and still is) very hungry for diverse MG fantasies.
After the story of Faryn and Alex comes to a close, would you consider writing another MG Fantasy novel/series inspired by Chinese mythology? What aspect of mythology would you want to focus on next?
Yes, absolutely, I would. Chinese mythology is so complex, and the legends that are explored in THE DRAGON WARRIOR and THE FALLEN HERO are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s like you read my mind, because I’m actually working on a new project right now that’s MG contemporary fantasy, and it delves even deeper into Chinese folklore with new legends and new adaptations of classic figures. I hope to share more soon!
If more books like this came out when you were growing up, what kind of emotions do you think you would have had after reading it?
THE DRAGON WARRIOR series is so special and close to my heart, because it fuses my greatest childhood loves of middle grade contemporary fantasy (PERCY JACKSON and similar series) and the classic Chinese cartoon JOURNEY TO THE WEST. As a kid, once I fell in love with a book or TV show, I could rewatch it until my eyeballs fell out—just ask my parents, who would often ask me why I was rereading PERCY JACKSON or rewatching JOURNEY TO THE WEST yet again! I like to joke that I’m a kid at heart, but I don’t think it’s actually that much of a joke, really, because I feel like I never outgrew the young Katie who found so much joy in stories of adventure, action, humor, and heart. If I’d been able to grow up reading MG fantasy inspired by Chinese mythology, discussing Chinese diaspora experiences, I probably would have read and reread and re-re-read those stories, too. I hope young Katie would have been extremely touched to see her diaspora experience reflected in a fun, action-packed adventure novel, because I wrote this story for her—and for the many children like her now.
What kind of advice would you give your younger self knowing what you know today about writing #ownvoices novels? What would you tell other aspiring authors wanting to tell their stories but are afraid that it won’t “be marketable”?
Write what you love. Write the stories of your heart. Write fearlessly, write unapologetically, write authentically. And above all, write for you. THE DRAGON WARRIOR is the 6th novel I’d ever completed, but out of those 5 novels I wrote before my debut, only 2 of them were #ownvoices. I’ve been writing short stories since I was 7 years old; I graduated to writing novels when I was 13. But I didn’t start writing #ownvoices until I was 18 years old. It took me over a decade of writing to realize that I could write stories about Asian Americans, because I’d scarcely seen it done before. When I finally let myself write heroes who looked like me—when I discovered the joyous freedom in writing #ownvoices, in writing the stories of my heart—I fell even more in love with writing, and my craft improved significantly as a result of my renewed passion for my craft. When I let go of any expectations that publishers would ever want stories that weren’t about white people, I became the writer I was supposed to be. Life works in very strange and mysterious ways. It was only in letting go of any hopes of being published, that I unlocked my unique writing voice, which I believe was my key to being published. So for aspiring #ownvoices authors out there, my biggest piece of advice is this: be true to your heart when you write, and life will work out everything else. Trust me.
If there was one thing you wanted all readers to take away from The Fallen Hero, what would it be and why?
When writing THE FALLEN HERO, I did my best to weave in many themes that I hoped would speak to middle grade readers—themes of love, loyalty, family, making our own choices. Ultimately, I would want readers of THE FALLEN HERO to take away the message of appreciating family, whether it’s blood-related family or found family. As the warriors undergo a difficult quest, they learn to understand each other and their differences and form a found family. In addition, Faryn’s quest through the Chinese Underworld leads her to meet family members that she never knew in life, and they all have to work together in order to save the world. The family unit is central to Asian cultures, so I hope readers will come away from THE FALLEN HERO with a newfound appreciation for their families, no matter who they consider family.
Oh man, I feel like this was one of the best interviews I’ve had to date. And not only that, but I don’t think I’ve ever related to an author and their answers so much either. I feel like this is one of the reasons why maybe I should be more open to getting out of my fear of asking for interviews, and start trying to take more chances.
Maybe. I was still pretty intimidated coming up with these questions and hoping that they would be engaging enough to not sound like a typical interview. So I hope that this was pretty fun for you all to read! As promised, I’ll include the book synopsis for both The Dragon Warrior and The Fallen Hero below. Let me know your thoughts and if you already read them!
The Dragon Warrior
by Katie Zhao
Series: The Dragon Warrior #1
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Kids
Release Date: October 15, 2019
Genre: MG Fantasy
As a member of the Jade Society, twelve-year-old Faryn Liu dreams of honoring her family and the gods by becoming a warrior. But the Society has shunned Faryn and her brother Alex ever since their father disappeared years ago, forcing them to train in secret.
Then, during an errand into San Francisco, Faryn stumbles into a battle with a demon–and helps defeat it. She just might be the fabled Heaven Breaker, a powerful warrior meant to work for the all-mighty deity, the Jade Emperor, by commanding an army of dragons to defeat the demons. That is, if she can prove her worth and find the island of the immortals before the Lunar New Year.
With Alex and other unlikely allies at her side, Faryn sets off on a daring quest across Chinatowns. But becoming the Heaven Breaker will require more sacrifices than she first realized . . . What will Faryn be willing to give up to claim her destiny?
Inspired by Chinese mythology, this richly woven contemporary middle-grade fantasy, full of humor, magic, and heart, will appeal to readers who love Roshani Chokshi and Sayantani DasGupta.
The Fallen Hero
by Katie Zhao
Series: The Dragon Warrior #2
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Kids
Release Date: October 13, 2020
Genre: MG Fantasy
Faryn Liu thought she was the Heaven Breaker, a warrior destined to wield the all-powerful spear Fenghuang, command dragons, and defeat demons. But a conniving goddess was manipulating her all along…and her beloved younger brother, Alex, has betrayed her and taken over as the Heaven Breaker instead. Alex never forgave the people who treated him and Faryn like outcasts, and now he wants to wipe out both the demons and most of humanity.
Determined to prevent a war and bring Alex back to her side, Faryn and her half-dragon friend Ren join the New Order, a group of warriors based out of Manhattan’s Chinatown. She learns that one weapon can stand against Fenghuang–the Ruyi Jingu Bang. Only problem? It belongs to an infamous trickster, the Monkey King.
Faryn sets off on a daring quest to convince the Monkey King to join forces with her, one that will take her to new places–including Diyu, otherwise known as the Underworld–where she’ll run into new dangers and more than one familiar face. Can she complete her mission and save the brother she loves, no matter the cost?
Stay tuned for my reviews on The Dragon Warrior and The Fallen Hero coming soon! I’ll post my review for The Fallen Hero closer to release date, but I’m hoping I post my review for The Dragon Warrior sometime in August! We’ll see how it goes, but I’ll definitely have them ready for you before October 13th!
I hope you enjoyed my author interview, and let me know about your experiences doing author interviews. Give me some tips on how I can get over my fear of reaching out. I know I’ll definitely need help with that!
See you soon, fam!