Interview with Katie Zhao, author of How we fall apart, on her YA dark academia thriller debut and dreams for HWFA!

We can really start counting down the days until How we fall apart by Katie Zhao is out in the world now! There’s barely four weeks left until we can all dive into this dark academia thriller, and I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be more excited! It sounds like such a fun and twisty story, yet one that also discusses really important topics like hyper-competitive school environment and being Asian-American!

To celebrate her upcoming novel, I’ve invited Katie over here in booktopia to chat about How we fall apart a bit! We talked about the themes in HWFA and the dreams she has for it, so what do you say? Let’s just take a walk, but first: here’s some more about the book!

How we fall apart by Katie Zhao
Publisher: Bloomsbury YA
Release date: August 17th, 2021
Genre: YA thriller
Representation: Asian-American main characters
Trigger warnings: abuse, self-harm, violence, parental neglect, panic attacks, drug use, mental illness, an inappropriate student/teacher relationship (not shown as acceptable), racism, suicidal thoughts.

Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.

Hi Katie! Thank you so much for joining me here in booktopia for this interview today! For anyone hearing about you for the first time, could you introduce yourself and your work a bit?

Thank you so much for having me in booktopia! I’m the MG and YA author of THE DRAGON WARRIOR series, HOW WE FALL APART (forthcoming this summer), LAST GAMER STANDING (forthcoming this fall), and WINNIE ZENG series (forthcoming in 2022). I write in every age category, and have written in the fantasy, sci-fi, and contemporary thriller genres. HOW WE FALL APART is my YA debut dark academia thriller novel.

How we fall apart discusses hyper-competitive school environments, which is such an important subject to talk about and fits almost perfectly in a dark academia thriller. I’m very happy to see this included in the book! What inspired you to write about this and the other themes in this book?

The theme of examining toxic competitive academia was what came to me first; this book was always meant to be an examination of the way schools and families push their students to a breaking point. While the events and people in HOW WE FALL APART are purely fictional, the emotions I poured into the book are real.

When I was seventeen years old – Nancy’s age – I came up with the idea of a murder mystery involving high-achieving Asian Americans, probably when I was stressing over AP exams and finals. I knew I wanted to write the story of Asian students offing each other to get to the top of their class, because I’ve always been drawn to dark academia or other school-related murder mysteries, but never saw any reflecting Asian characters (which I thought was silly, given how intense so many of us are about grades!). Back in 2018, I finally sat down to write HOW WE FALL APART once my agent approved the pitch, and now it’s become a published novel.

How we fall apart’s release date is finally nearing, and I know I’m not the only reader who’s been waiting for it! It’s different from your debut The Dragon Warrior in many ways, like the fact that TDW is middle grade, whereas HWFA is young adult. Have you noticed any distinct differences between these while writing or during the publishing process?

Writing middle grade is very different from writing young adult, in terms of voice, themes, length, etc – they couldn’t be more different, really. It’s definitely not easy to write across both categories. When I switch from one age category to the other, I always spend at least one full day reading a book in that genre to switch gears and get myself into the right headspace. Most writers I know feel as though their strength lies in one age category or the other (if I have to be honest, I actually feel like my voice and style works better for middle grade generally, because I like to write humor).

During the publishing process, middle grade marketing is geared toward schools and libraries. It’s much less flashy on social media. Young adult marketing is primarily targeted toward social media and other flashy bookish events. This actually works out well for me, because I couldn’t handle having two “flashy” novels coming out in the same year – but balancing the intense social media promo of HOW WE FALL APART (YA, August 2021) and the much less intense promo of LAST GAMER STANDING (MG, September 2021) has been surprisingly manageable.

What is your wildest HWFA dream at the moment? And what’s one that might seem small, but would be really special to you?

In my wildest dreams, I would absolutely love to see HOW WE FALL APART produced as a TV series one day, or maybe a movie on the big screen (but I think it would work better as a series, like GOSSIP GIRL or PRETTY LITTLE LIARS).

A small but special dream would be to have one special edition of the book! I love special editions and have yet to receive any for my books, I think mostly because MG doesn’t typically get special editions, and I would love for my YA debut to have a special edition.

And lastly, what’s a book you’d recommend to everyone reading this? Tell us all about it so we can get lost with you!

I actually just finished a book yesterday that I could not put down – it’s adult contemporary fiction, and not typically what I gravitate toward, but MALIBU RISING by Taylor Jenkins Reid got me absolutely immersed in the messy lives of her characters. I guess I should call myself a Reid fan now, since I was similarly engrossed by THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO when that book came out.

Reid has a way of writing character-driven stories that make you really care about these characters and their lives. As someone who’s always more drawn to character-driven versus plot-driven stories, I can only aspire to that level of talent.

With HOW WE FALL APART, it’s a character-driven story that appears to be plot-driven on the surface, which is what I think (or at least hope) works well with that book; each of the main cast carries a piece of me with them, and if I’ve succeeded in making them magnetic, then readers will come to care for the characters and what happens to them by the end of the book. Anyway, I hope everyone reading this will at least put one of Taylor Jenkin Reid’s books on their TBR – they’re a masterclass in character-driven storytelling! 

Thank you for chatting with me, Katie! I wish you all the best in the future, and let’s hope that TV-show and special edition both become a reality soon!

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 THE DRAGON WARRIOR series (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming HOW WE FALL APART (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming LAST GAMER STANDING (Scholastic), and forthcoming WINNIE ZENG series (Random House Children’s Books). She is represented by Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management. She’s a passionate advocate for representation in literature and media.

Website | Goodreads | Instagram | Twitter

I hope you’re just as excited for this book as I am now! Be sure to pre-order it if you can and if you live in the US or in Canada, you are eligible to receive some beautiful, exclusive pre-order swag along with the book. Though I haven’t read the book yet, I already think this would make a good TV-series…but what about you?

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23 thoughts on “Interview with Katie Zhao, author of How we fall apart, on her YA dark academia thriller debut and dreams for HWFA!

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