When I saw the amazing cover for ZACHARY YING AND THE DRAGON EMPEROR (illustrated by comic book artist Velinxi), I knew it was a book I wanted to devour. Which is why I’m so thrilled to interview the novel’s author on From the Mixed Up Files today. Xiran Jay Zhao is the New York Times best-selling author of the young adult novel IRON WIDOW, and ZACHARY YING is their debut middle-grade novel. Billed as a Chinese Percy Jackson, here’s the book’s description:
12-year-old Zack never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.
The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.
And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.
What was your inspiration for this book?
Xiran Jay Zhao
I was inspired to write this story when my friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the NOT EVEN BONES series, encouraged me to try my hand at writing MG, since I’d been hyperfixating on Chinese history and myth, and myth stories make for very good MG novels. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on Yugioh, the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic. And thus ZACHARY YING was born!
There’s such intricate detail about the history in China. Tell us about your research.
I didn’t need to do much fresh research since I already had so many historical and mythical stories in my head that I couldn’t wait to tell, so I basically just double-checked that my facts were legit. Whenever I saw an opportunity in the plot to bring up a fun anecdote, I went for it. My first draft was actually stuffed with many more of them, and I had to cut a few out to make the book less overwhelming.
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you discovered in your research, and if you didn’t use it in the book, why not?
The First Emperor was so dramatic of a person that there are a lot of stories about him that didn’t make the cut simply because I couldn’t find a good place to tell them. My favorite is the time he went up on Mount Tai, a sacred mountain in China, to proclaim his supremacy after unifying the seven warring states, then a huge rainstorm hit him on the way down and he had to take shelter under a big tree. Then he proceeded to make that tree an official rank-5 minister?!
Wow! I love the idea of the spirits of these legendary characters staying alive and powerful because of the belief people have in them. What inspired that?
There’s a lot of interconnection between myth and history in Chinese culture, and I’ve always found that fascinating! The Chinese pantheon of gods is very vast; there are basically no rules to who can become a god, as long as a group of people agree and make you a temple. Because of this, many early historical figures have been enshrined as gods, such as Guan Yu of Three Kingdoms fame, who somehow became the god of money. I thought it’d be cool to have magic fueled by legends.
Yes. So cool! I also love that you used a videogame as a way for the spirits to communicate. So fun! Are you gamer? And was Mythrealm inspired by a particular game?
I’m not a gamer myself, but the vast majority of my friends are. Mythrealm is specifically inspired by Pokemon GO (remember those two weeks after it came out, where it felt like we achieved world peace?), but with myth creatures instead of Pokemon.
I could see the similarities to that game! Is there a character who’s most like you? And if so, which one and why?
Zack drew heavily from my awkward, self-conscious 12-year-old self, though nowadays I’d have to say I’m more confident and self-assured like Melissa. It was a long road, going through this transformation!
That’s something a lot of middle schoolers will be able to identify with (not to mention a lot of adults. 🙂 ). Your debut novel, IRON WIDOW, was for young adult readers. Did you find it challenging to write for a middle-grade readers? How did your process change, if at all?
I actually didn’t have much difficulty transitioning to MG. Writing ZACHARY YING was easier for me, even. I honestly think ZACHARY YING embodies me as a person much better. I got to show the fun side of my personality that didn’t really get a chance to show up during the bleak brutality of IRON WIDOW.
And finally, what can we look forward to next from you?
I’m working hard on the sequel to my YA debut IRON WIDOW, which will hopefully release Summer 2023!
We can’t wait!
Learn more about Xiran Jay Zhao at their website, XiranJayZhao.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @XiranJayZhao for posts about Chinese history, Instagram for cosplay, TikTok for short videos, and YouTube for more information about Chinese history and culture.