I knew I wanted to interview Katie for a while. I’m not sure when I knew. Probably between seeing her amazing hair, hearing about the fantastic The Dragon Warrior or her unique brand of humor. Then finishing The Dragon Warrior, I knew I had to make this dream a reality.
The Dragon Warrior
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?
In The Dragon Warrior, family is a huge part of the book, was Faryn’s family situation always the same in all your drafts? If not, how did it evolve?
Faryn’s family situation was mostly the same throughout the (many) drafts of THE DRAGON WARRIOR. She’s always had (an annoying) younger brother and missing parents. The biggest change is that in the initial draft, Faryn’s Ye Ye, her grandfather, was a Nai Nai, or grandmother!
There’s great diaspora rep in The Dragon Warrior, was picking up from your own experiences difficult in some ways? Did it bring up memories you didn’t remember until writing?
This is a great question. Thank you, first of all, for complimenting the diaspora rep in THE DRAGON WARRIOR – that truly means a lot to me. Writing this book helped me become closer to my identity, and it certainly stirred memories I hadn’t thought about in years. Writing about Chinatown conjured the comforting nostalgia of visiting Chinatown as a child, dining in small, rundown restaurants full of delicious food, and grabbing the best bubble tea on the way out. Writing the relationship between Faryn and her brother Alex also conjured the heartfelt and protective emotions I feel toward my own younger siblings. I teared up while writing one particular scene, and that moment made me realize just how fiercely I treasure my siblings, even though, just like Faryn and Alex, I might not say it in words so much as actions.
One of my favorite parts of the book was Faryn’s relationship with Moli, did you always know Faryn was going to quest with her ex-best friend? Why do you think that relationship is so important to Faryn?
I’m so glad you asked this question, since there’s an interesting story behind it! Actually, no, I did not always know Faryn was going to go on a quest with her ex-best friend Moli. In fact, in the first several versions of THE DRAGON WARRIOR, the character Moli did not even exist. I was on the fourth or fifth revision when I realized that the cast of the story felt empty, and I had the idea to write an entire character just to [spoiler] at the end. Let’s just say I added Moli as a foil with the purpose of aiding to Faryn’s character development, which is why their tumultuous relationship is very important to Faryn and to the story development. But please don’t tell Moli – she definitely would not be happy with me if she knew that!
Which god/goddess are you most similar to if you had to pick one?
If I had to pick, I’d say I’m most similar to Guanyin Pusa, the goddess of mercy. Even though I do like to joke around sometimes, I’m fairly mature for my age, and have an instinct for looking out for others, probably due to the fact that I’m the eldest sibling with two younger sisters. Guanyin is definitely the gentle, kind motherly figure to Faryn and Alex that the siblings never had growing up, always looking out for them both.
What were some of your favorite MG or earlier books while growing up?
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling was my ultimate favorite – I lost count of how many times I read and re-read it, but it was upwards of 15 times per book. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan was a close second. I also loved the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, just to name a few.
How has the process differed for you writing The Dragon Warrior versus your upcoming YA book, How We Fell Apart?
THE DRAGON WARRIOR is a middle grade fantasy, and HOW WE FALL APART is a young adult contemporary, so already the stories are very different. They probably could not be more different, in fact. This required me to shift into a very different writing mindset between the two books. The voice of THE DRAGON WARRIOR is younger, so the good thing is I had the luxury of making more silly jokes that didn’t translate well to HOW WE FALL APART (although, me being me, I definitely tried – just ask my CPs, who have told me on more than one occasion that it’s an innappropriate moment in the story for a meme-y joke). Writing THE DRAGON WARRIOR required more research into the fantastical, specifically Chinese mythology. Writing HOW WE FALL APART also required research, but more on the contemporary side, where I studied real life accounts of high-achieving Asian American students. I learned how to truly revise while writing THE DRAGON WARRIOR, and wrote probably 3-4 more drafts than I did for HOW WE FALL APART, which I wrote later.
Have you learned anything about yourself since the beginning of your publishing journey? If so, what/how?
My publishing journey began when I got serious about my writing, back in 2011 when I was still in middle school. In these 8 years, I have grown so much as a person, and as a writer. Specifically related to writing, I gained confidence in my skill as a writer. I learned what I want in life by targeting specific author goals. I learned the discipline to work hard toward my dreams. I learned how to stubbornly persevere through any obstacles that emerged along the way. I learned how to ignore the naysayers who told me I couldn’t do it (hardest of all was hearing that from loved ones). I learned how to handle rejection and to not let it impede me from moving forward. Most importantly, I learned how to be proud of my Asian American identity, which in turn solidified my writing passion and voice.
About the Author
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.