Today’s interview is with the author of the upcoming Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao!
And we’re back with another author interview! I’m beyond excited for today’s post. Iron Widow is one of my highly anticipated books and I’m looking forward to bringing you a *tiny* bit closer to finding out about this book if you haven’t already. I got the chance to interview Xiran Jay Zhao and to chat with them about their book, author advice, which character they would swap places with and much more!
Read on for more fun!
So many readers are excited for Iron Widow (Including me) and I wanted to know what inspired you to write this?
Xiran: Honestly? It came out of my disappointment in the anime Darling in the Franxx, LOL. Franxx had so many elements I loved to death and opened my eyes to how dual-pilot mechas can be used to explore themes of adolescence and sexuality, but it ultimately didn’t take it as far as I wish it would have. Iron Widow was born out of my rants to a friend about how Franxx could’ve done things differently, which ultimately became SO different that I was like “Oh my god, this is its own thing now. And I need to write it.”
Can you give a brief summary of what Iron Widow is about for those who haven’t come across it yet?
Xiran: It’s a Pacific Rim x The Handmaid’s Tale x Girls of Paper and Fire reimagining of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history! She lives in a society under siege by Hunduns, these sentient mecha aliens, while humanity’s only hope of fighting back are Chrysalises, giant mechas piloted in boy-girl pairs. Except the relationship between pilots is not equal. There’s always a danger of one pilot mentally overloading the other in the battle link and killing them, and this danger disproportionately falls on the girls. For this reason, male pilots get to be worshipped as celebrities, while female pilots are seen as disposable and serve as lowly concubines. The protagonist Zetian’s sister Ruyi died as one of these concubines, and so Zetian snaps and embarks on a mission to turn the system upside down.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Xiran: This is gonna sound unconventional, but don’t form too much of an emotional attachment to your projects. Be practical. This will allow you to take critique a lot easier and to let go when it’s clear that publishing doesn’t see it as viable. The worst thing you could do as a baby writer is to wrap yourself around a single project for years and years and years. Move on! I guarantee that your next project will be better, because the very foundations of it will be born from a more sophisticated instinct for story building. When people say “don’t stop writing!!” they mean don’t give up on the craft itself, not individual projects. Publishing is too fickle to depend on those “you just need one person to like it!” exceptions when you’ve already run a book through most agents or editors. I wrote Iron Widow off the tails of a project I revised over and over for 3 years. My betas very quickly told me that it was INFINITELY better of a book. Yes, it’s sad to give up on your babies, but you’ll feel better when your next projects take you to far higher places than you imagined. Trust me.
What did you love most about writing Iron Widow?
Xiran: The mecha battles. They were sooo fun to write. The mechas are inspired by East Asian myth creatures like the Nine-Tailed Fox, the Moon Rabbit, the Vermillion Bird, etc., and they’re powered by traditional Chinese medicinal concepts like qi and acupuncture. It makes for a really wacky magical-science system that I hope isn’t too confusing to non-Chinese people, HAHAHA.
If you could swap places with one of your characters for a day who would you choose and why?
Xiran: …It says something about my setting that my gut reaction to this question was OH NO. I wouldn’t swap with any of my protagonists. I’m not gutsy enough to pull off the schemes and battles they do in the book 😂. So I’d swap with an antagonist instead, probably Gao Qiu, the richest man in Huaxia. I’d use his fortune to right injustices instead. Suddenly, Gao Qiu’s not sexist anymore! Surprise!
I read the synopsis of your book on your site and I’m over the moon about it. It gives me anime vibes and I wanted to ask, are there any specific animes that inspired Iron Widow? Are there any we should watch to tide us over until the book releases?
Xiran: Well, asides from Darling in the Franxx, it’s inspired by a lot of high-action shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z, Saint Seiya, and Attack on Titan. Though I would say it’s almost a deconstruction of the shonen genre? I love shonen to death, it’s my favorite kind of anime, but it does NOT treat its female characters right. So this is like, a world that’s built from the ultimate teen male fantasy, but the story is about a girl who aims to tear it all down.
So, let’s say you’re stranded on an island and you only have three books with you. What would those three books be?
Xiran: Muse of Nightmares – I know this is a sequel, but it’s so exquisitely written and the character arcs are so PERFECT that I keep reading it over and over, even though I’m just stuck in my house, not an island!
And I Darken – Another book that holds up to serious rereading because of the sheer number of historical details in it. When the rescue helicopter comes for me, I’d probably be spouting facts about the Ottoman Empire nonstop. (Though oooobviously I know it took a lot of artistic liberties.)
25 Histories – Who says you can’t take non-fiction? This is a book I have that’s basically the entire history of China. So I won’t eve be bored, HAHAHA.
Any future projects that we should look forward to?
Xiran: I’ve got a Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh middle grade book in the works 👀 It’s about a Chinese American boy, Zack, who grew up without a connection to his heritage because his dad was killed by the Chinese government and his mom was forced to flee with him to America as political refugees. But what none of them knew was that Zack was born to be the mortal host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a mission in the modern world. Due to Zack’s lack of connection to Chinese culture, the Emperor botches the possession and possesses Zack’s AR gaming headset instead. So now, with this infamous tyrant yapping in his headset, Zack has to go on a journey across China to complete the mission while defeating figures from Chinese myth and history using his newfound dragon powers (which is command over water and storms). Fingers crossed that this can get published!
One of my favorite interviews ever! I hope it got you excited to check out the book, and please do add it to your tbr here! 💛
About Xiran Jay Zhao
I’m a 20-something meme-loving weeb from Vancouver, Canada who is somehow becoming a published sci-fi/fantasy author. Most of my books are mashups that contain tropes from both genres. I’m a 1st generation immigrant from small town China, and I’m currently in between undergrad and grad school for biochem / disease research. I spend too much time and money on skincare and makeup. If you’re not careful, I could talk to you for hours about anime, books, or Chinese history.