S'porean author, 24, secures 6-figure book deals over the course of pandemic

Respect the hustle.

Fasiha Nazren | April 28, 2022, 09:29 AM

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At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a lot of us combated cabin fever with hobbies like baking, growing plants, or making our own bubble tea.

24-year-old Kyla Zhao, however, spent a good part of it writing a book. And we're not talking about a personal journal.

Photo courtesy of Kyla Zhao.

Six-figure book deal

The California-based Singaporean wrote a fiction book "The Fraud Squad", which scored her two book deals with Berkley Publishing for a cool six figures per book.

"The Fraud Squad" is an escapist fiction that draws inspiration from "Crazy Rich Asians", "Gossip Girl" and "The Devil Wears Prada".

The book, however, is set in Singapore and tackles cultural themes and relationship dynamics that she hopes would be relatable to Southeast Asians.

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A post shared by Kyla Jiayi Zhao (@kylajzhao)

Speaking to Mothership, Zhao said:

"I definitely want more Asian representation in books, media and films. I don't think any of my books really made race the main factor. My characters are Asian, but they get to lead very diverse, vibrant and colourful lives. Not every book centred on characters of colour have to be trauma books."

Zhao only started penning the book in June 2020 simply because there was "so much time", especially since she was stuck living on campus at Stanford University with nothing much to do thanks to Covid-19.

"Senior year is always the year when we will have the most fun, so honestly, I would probably have been going to parties and hanging out with my friends a lot [if not for the pandemic]. I don't think I'd have the discipline to sit down and write a few thousand words every day," she shared.

Nine offers from agents

She finished writing a draft of her book in Mar. 2021 and pitched it to different agents in hopes of getting published.

Photo courtesy of Kyla Zhao.

Much to Zhao's surprise, she received nine offers from agents who were vying to represent her.

It took her by surprise, especially since she didn't think a lot of agents would be interested in a book that is set in Singapore.

"I remember one agent wanted to speak to me there and then. It was 4am [in New York] and it was, I think, afternoon [in Singapore]."

Eventually, she signed with the last agent to get in touch with her, who had read her book within two days.

"Within a few days, we heard back interest and within a couple of weeks, publishing rights to my book were sold in an auction among multiple interested publishers," she told Mothership.

"The Fraud Squad" is set to hit the shelves in Jan. 2023, but you can preorder it here.

Calling her an overachiever would be an understatement, because she is also in the midst of editing her third book, a children's book titled "May the Best Player Win".

While it is meant for children, Zhao shared that it was tougher to write as the book explores heavy themes like racism and mental health.

"I actually found writing this book quite hard, like harder than 'The Fraud Squad' because I had to find a balance between talking about really emotionally challenging themes, but still retaining the voice of a child. So that was a delicate balance to strike."

Biggest cheerleaders

But a younger Zhao never intended to make writing her career.

She accidentally found her interest in writing when she had an internship with a fashion magazine in Singapore.

Photo courtesy of Kyla Zhao.

"Back then, I didn't know I was interested in writing per se, but I was very interested in fashion, that's why I worked a lot in different fashion magazines. When I was part of the publishing world, I thought wow, this was really exciting because there's something new every single day," she explained.

From there, she took on more gigs at various publications, honing her writing skills.

Going into the creative field is also a route less trodden in her family.

Jokingly labelling herself as the "humanities outlier" in her STEM-focused family, the Hwa Chong Institution alumni told us that her family are pursuing careers in computer science, physics and engineering.

Nonetheless, Zhao's family has always been supportive of her doing what she loves.

"They have always been my biggest cheerleaders [...]. My parents got really used to me just running to their rooms every time I got an offer."

Handling burnout

It may seem that her journey as an author has been pretty peachy, but there have been bumps along the way.

Like many others in the pandemic, Zhao faced some emotional burnout.

"When I was revising my book, it was also during the U.S. Presidential Elections and the peak of anti-Asian racism. I think it just really got me in a way that I didn't even expect and at some point, my book actually became really dark. I don't know why but I internalised a lot of problems in the world and I kind of channelled it out into paper.

After that, I was reading my book again in January and I was like, wait, this is so dark. This is not the direction of the book that I want to go with. So I kind of had to scrape the whole thing and write it from scratch. Because the world was so gloomy and troubled in 2020-2021, I wanted my book to be the exact opposite of that, so I made it as fun, breezy, and juicy as possible."

Of course, she had to stand her ground several times to maintain the integrity of her book.

For one, a potential agent suggested changing "The Fraud Squad" to be set in the U.S. instead of Singapore.

She added:

"There were people who said 'Oh, this is so cool, but what if you make one of the characters white, what if the main character's half white, or if she has a white best friend...' It completely goes against the whole point of writing this book."

Juggling a job and writing books

While getting two book deals in her early 20s is no small feat, it's even more impressive that she began writing while pursuing her bachelor's and master's degrees.

Now that she's graduated, Zhao is juggling writing her second adult novel while working full-time for a tech company in Silicon Valley in California, U.S.

"I think if I were to make it a full-time job, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much [...] I work with data and research a lot, so I feel like writing is kind of the perfect way to balance that," she said.

So how does she juggle working full-time on top of writing her books?

As boring as it sounds, she starts writing as soon as she knocks off from work.

"I'm trying this new Pomodoro Technique [...] I don't set word count goals, I think that stresses me out. My motto in life is 'Done is better than perfect', so I will just write for 25 minutes and even if it's absolute trash, it's fine. Even if it's not a good first draft, at least there's something to improve on," she said.

True blue Singaporean

Having lived in Singapore for most of her life, Zhao faced a bit of a culture shock when she first moved to the U.S. at 19.

The self-confessed introvert was initially surprised at how extroverted people can be in the U.S.

"I remember the first time I went grocery shopping looking at apples and this person I didn't know at all came up to me and started a whole conversation about apples. He was telling me about a trip his family took to an apple farm, and I just stood there listening for 20 minutes."

She admitted that she has become more extroverted since living in the U.S., mostly because she's craved human company because of the pandemic.

But while you can take a girl out of Singapore, you cannot take a Singaporean out of a girl.

Photo courtesy of Kyla Zhao.

To Zhao, nothing compares to the local food back home.

"I love mala and yong tau foo, you cannot find it here at all. There's just no good Singaporean food unless it's overpriced. There's this place that sells nasi lemak for S$23, which is honestly insane."

But her one true love in Singapore? Frozen yoghurt.

"I swear, none of the frozen yoghurt places [in the U.S.] are like Llaollao and Yole. I miss Llaollao and Yole so much, it's the first thing I get every time I get back home," she said.

Top image courtesy of Kyla Zhao.