Not many Singaporean students can claim to have written a novel while still at university—at the height of the pandemic thousands of miles away in California, no less—and have it acquired by an international publisher in a six-figure deal. For Kyla Zhao, who’s never thought about being an author, it was an unexpected accomplishment.
“I became really lonely and homesick so I started writing as an escape from pandemic reality,” says Kyla, who was a student at Stanford University at a time of lockdowns and anti-Asian hate. She tapped into her experience writing at several fashion magazines—Kyla also wrote for Campus (check her article here)—to write her first novel, The Fraud Squad.
We caught up with Kyla to ask her all about her amazing journey from university student to Penguin Random House author.
When and where did you start writing your novel, and what inspired you to do so?
I started writing my book in my third year at Stanford University. It was at the height of the pandemic and I really wanted to go back home to be with my family in Singapore. But I was also interning with a company in California then and they didn’t allow me to work from outside the country. So I ended up living alone for most of 2020 and didn’t see people for months on end because everything was in lockdown.
I became really lonely and homesick so I started writing as an escape from pandemic reality. I wanted to create something fun and light so that I can lose myself in this fictional world. 2020 was also when anti-Asian racism got really bad, and seeing so many news reports and social media posts that cast Asians in a bad light made me long for a really vibrant and positive story where Asians can be the stars.
That’s the kind of book I was looking for, and because I couldn’t find one like that, I decided to write my
Who or what were the inspirations behind your characters? How did your experience at fashion mags shape your story?
I’ve worked at several fashion magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Tatler. Through those
experiences, I got to meet and interact with various socialites. I’ve seen both the glamorous and also the not so glamorous parts of the upper echelon, which helped me craft an authentic high society setting, and characters in my book.
None of the characters were based directly on one person I’ve met in real life, but were instead inspired by an amalgamation of different personas. I also wanted to convey the sense that even though many of these characters come from very privileged backgrounds, they all have unique desires, fears and motivations, and each and every single one of them is a fraud in their own way.
How did you connect with an international publisher, and break into the worldwide market?
After I finished the first draft, I showed it to a few friends and they encouraged me to think about giving
publishing a shot.
So I started researching what it would take to be published by one of the big publishing houses and it’s actually a really long journey. I started writing this book in June 2020, so 2.5 years would have passed before it’s released on January 17, 2023. I discovered that to even have your book be considered by a publisher, you have to first get a literary agent. So I sent my book out to different agents, got a few bites, and eventually signed with the Creative Artists Agency. Then, one day before my 23rd birthday, she sent my book out to various publishers. I was just hoping that even one person would want to buy my book, and I was really fortunate that I got several interested offers.
Ultimately my agent set up an auction where every publisher sent in their best bid. I was in Singapore at that time and because of the time zone difference, the auction only closed at 2 AM. So I drank a lot of coffee that day to stay awake. Getting the news that I’m actually gonna have a book out in the world is the most incredible feeling. And in a very cool full-circle moment: I got to announce my book deal
exactly one year after I started writing The Fraud Squad!
Have you always wanted to be an author?
I’ve never thought about being an author.
I have done quite a bit of writing for magazines in the past, but I think that’s a very different ball game from writing a novel. For one, magazine articles are a lot shorter, and I wasn’t really writing my own story—instead, I was writing about other brands or people, and had to align with the voice of the magazine.
Also as a major book lover, I read a lot and there are a lot of authors I admire very much. So even today, I feel funny calling myself an author because I don’t know if I can ever match up to them. Writing is also not a career path that most Singaporeans would be exposed to when they are young, so I never imagined myself becoming one.
Describe the process of writing, as well as working with an editor to finish the novels.
When I was deciding which publisher’s offer to accept, one of my most important criteria was to find the editor who really got the heart of my story and respected what I was trying to do with it.
And when I first met my editor, Angela, I immediately knew that she understood the core of my book and how I wanted to shine a spotlight on characters of color and my own culture. That said, I was still pretty nervous about working with a big publishing house because they would have the final say over my book once they have bought the rights from me. I’ve heard horror stories of authors who were asked to change their titles, their plots, their characters because the publisher didn’t like something.
However, I was really lucky that my publishing team is so easy to work with—they offered suggestions but they always understood that it’s my vision and never pushed me to do something I didn’t want to do.
I think a lot of people are surprised by how long the publishing journey is. After I sold book in June 2021, I edited it for a few months. But the one year between me finishing my book and my book actually coming out was filled with a lot of behind-the-scenes activity, like cover design, marketing and publicity. There are a lot of people working on my book and I hope they would get the recognition they deserve. It truly takes a village to put a book out in the world.
The Fraud Squad is best compared to Crazy Rich Asians and The Devil Wears Prada, and stars a working-class woman impersonating as a socialite in order to work at Singapore’s poshest magazine. But as she sinks into this glamorous new world, her fears of being exposed as a fraud also deepen. Kyla Zhao’s The Fraud Squad is currently available on Amazon and will hit bookstores starting January 17.