For Kyla Zhao, becoming a published author is an accomplishment she did not foresee. Described as a cross between Crazy Rich Asians and The Devil Wears Prada, her debut novel, The Fraud Squad, was written at the height of the pandemic while she was studying in California—before being acquired by publisher Penguin Random House in a six-figure deal.
“The book started out as a secret passion project. For the longest time, I didn’t tell anyone else I was writing it. Honestly, I was never really confident that I would finish it,” Zhao admits. Set in Singapore, The Fraud Squad centres Samantha, a working-class woman who infiltrates high society to earn a dream opportunity at her favourite fashion magazine.
To Zhao, who has interned and written for fashion publications in Singapore since she was 16, the local fashion scene was both compelling and familiar to explore. The decision to tell the story with a full cast of Asian characters was also something she fought for. She explains, “I wrote the book during the pandemic, when racism against Asians was at its peak. It felt like every time I went online, Asian people were being attacked. Reading was an escape for me, but the more I read, the more aware I became that there wasn’t much Asian representation in books either—which made the fictional world feel almost as isolating as the real world. I couldn’t find a book with Asian characters in a really fun story, so I thought I would try writing my own.”
Here, Zhao shares more about her experience navigating the international publishing scene as a young Asian author—and what she hopes to achieve through her writing.
What was publishing a book as a university student during the pandemic like?
Because I never intended to show it to anyone else, writing the first draft was a surprisingly carefree experience. It was the first time I could execute my own vision without worrying about other people’s expectations. And when I showed the story to a few of my friends, one of them, who knew a little bit about the publishing industry, suggested that I try to get it published. I did some research, but in hindsight, I’m grateful for my ignorance, because I might not have tried it if I’d known how tedious it would be. Editing the book ended up being much harder, but writing the first draft was a great experience.
You have interned and written for a few fashion publications in Singapore. Did your experiences influence the book?
I got a behind-the-scenes perspective into the industry—which means I got to see both the glamorous and less glamorous sides of things. The job also brought me up close with socialites, and I realised how they all come from very different backgrounds despite being clustered under the same term. The industry is filled with so many different kinds of people, and that was something I wanted to convey in my book.
“I want Asian representation that is vibrant and diverse”
What has your experience been like as a young Asian woman in the global publishing industry?
For the most part, people have been very supportive. I’ve met fellow Asian authors who have given me really helpful advice on how to navigate this industry as a minority. But I’ve also had some potential agents who were interested in representing me ask if I would consider setting the book in America, or making one of the characters white so the book would be more appealing to the American audience. I just knew they didn’t really understand the heart of my book or why I wrote it in the first place.
What do you hope to see from Asian representation in the media?
I want representation that is vibrant and diverse. There’s a tendency for non-Asians to see Asian people as a monolith, and to assume that we all have the same experiences, but that’s completely not true.
What is your ultimate goal as an author?
To write the kind of stories I wish I had when I was younger. I grew up on books mostly written by white authors, and in hindsight, I internalised a lot of the Eurocentrism in those books. It took me a long time to learn to appreciate my Asian features—for a long time, I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes like the characters I read about. I want Asian children to grow up in a world where they see more characters who look like themselves in the media, which is why I also have a children’s novel coming out in 2024. I want to write for all age groups, so everyone can see characters whom they identify with.
The Fraud Squad is available for orders on Amazon now, and in bookstores starting January 18.