Creative Capital: The Singaporean who wrote her first novel to escape loneliness during the pandemic
Publisher Penguin Random House bought two books from 23-year-old Stanford University graduate Kyla Zhao – The Fraud Squad and an unwritten second book – for six figures each.
Kyla Zhao’s story is like something from a storybook. A smart young woman, separated from her family, lonely and lost due to the pandemic ravaging the world, sits down and starts a passion project. That project, which she originally intended to be something private, catches the attention of others and soon, before she knows it, she has become a star.
For Zhao, a 23-year-old Stanford University graduate, that project was a novel, which is so potentially hot, that her literary agent – chosen from a field of nine who wanted to sign her on – set up an auction through which interested publishers bid for their right to publish her book. Penguin Random House, one of the world’s most respected publishers, won the auction and has not just bought the rights to The Fraud Squad, but has already commissioned a second novel from Zhao.
While it will be a few years before we actually get to read The Fraud Squad for ourselves, we should all celebrate the success of this young Singaporean and new local literary star.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR INTEREST IN WRITING AND LITERATURE.
I've always loved books – I was in the Humanities Programme in both Nanyang Girls' High and Hwa Chong Institution – but never thought I would write one. Before this book, I think the last “major” piece of fiction I wrote was Harry Potter fanfiction back in 2010. Hahaha. I do a full-body cringe when I read it now, but I was really proud of it then.
I never thought I was creative enough to produce a fiction piece longer than two pages, and the thought of writing a few hundred pages of anything just seemed incredibly daunting, so I stuck to snappy non-fiction writing, starting with an internship at Harper's Bazaar Singapore when I was just 16, then at places like Straits Times and Tatler Singapore subsequently. Now, I write for Vogue Singapore. I've also done a few communications internships at places like the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Tencent America – again, non-fiction writing.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR OWN FAVOURITE BOOKS GROWING UP OR IN MORE RECENT YEARS?
Growing up, I read Enid Blyton books and the Sweet Valley series. Even today, I can recite from memory the description of the Wakefield twins (the protagonists in Sweet Valley): silky blonde hair, blue-green eyes, natural Californian tan, and a perfect (the author’s word) size six.
Those books definitely sowed a love for reading in me, but I didn’t realise until I was much older how much I had internalised the euro-centrism in them. When I was younger and tried writing short stories, those almost always featured a white character. It was only starting last year that I consciously veered towards books written about Asian characters, and why I decided to make all the main characters in my book Singaporean.
One thing that might surprise people is that I love reading Chinese historical fiction, and my favourites in this genre include Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and Anchee Min’s Empress Orchid duology. I’ve read 113 books so far this year and my favourites are My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell) for fiction and Crying in H Mart (Michelle Zauner) for non-fiction. Right now, I’m reading Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also A Star and Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun and really enjoying both so far.
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ARE THERE ANY SINGAPOREAN AUTHORS IN PARTICULAR THAT YOU LOOK UP TO?
I loved Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girl. Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, who is from Malaysia but now based in Singapore, was also very fun and easy to digest. The next Singlit book on my to-read list is Akshita Nanda’s Beauty Queens of Bishan.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE LITERARY SCENE IN SINGAPORE AS A WHOLE?
I think it’s gotten so much more vibrant in recent years, with many up-and-coming talents in this field. Reading Singlit has opened my eyes to so many nooks and crannies of the country I thought I knew well; I’m constantly learning new things about our little red dot and the people in it from both the past and present. I’m also subscribed to this Telegram group that covers upcoming local literary events and there are so many of them! It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a writer here.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?
The Fraud Squad is the first book I ever wrote. I started writing it last June when I was living alone in California at the height of the pandemic, feeling very lonely and lost. I craved an escape from reality and, as I always do, I turned to books. Books that are indulgent, fun, and just very different from how despondent the world was in 2020. But with the exception of Crazy Rich Asians, most of the books in this fashion are written by white authors, with white characters and Western settings. And that was how I got the idea of writing my own book, one with Singaporean characters and settings that I could relate to – it was a way of capturing a slice of home while living alone 9000 miles away.
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I googled the word count of an average novel, learned it was 50k, and decided to make that my target. I never expected myself to stick with this project, so I only allowed myself to tell my family about it after I crossed the 50k mark – I figured that if I’ve already written so much, it’s unlikely I’d give up then. Still, I kept this project very close to my chest. Before I announced my book deal, fewer than five friends even knew I had written a book.
I definitely didn't think I was going to complete the novel. When I started it last June, I was interning full-time. And once school started in September, I became even busier, trying to complete two degrees at the same time while also interning. And there were many times when the general malaise in the world got to me: for instance, the US presidential elections; the idea I'd be graduating in a pandemic; anything to do with the pandemic; not being with my family. But writing this book was the one thing in my life that I was doing just for me, with no obligations to or expectations from anyone else, so I stuck with it.
I finished the first draft within two months. I posted a short description of it on a writing subreddit and another Redditor reached out to me because she’s also Singaporean and was drawn to the local setting of my book. She offered to give feedback and thanks to her help – and the help of other writing friends I later made—my book became much stronger than what it originally was. I love how writing has introduced like-minded friends into my life.
Editing my book took much longer than drafting it for two reasons. Firstly, I wrote the draft during summer when all I had was an internship. But when I started revising my book, I had just begun my final year of university, so I was juggling writing, studying for two degrees, and another internship. Secondly, revisions took a long time because there was so much to fix. To be fair, I had dug my own grave because I completely pants-ed the novel – writer lingo meaning I wrote by the seat of my pants, with no outline and no prior planning. I was literally making up the story as I drafted, so there were many plot holes I had to go back and fix.
Almost every day for 11 months, I wrote and revised knowing that there would be a very high chance this book might never see the light of day, that most writers never find an agent, much less a publisher. The process taught me patience and determination on a level I didn’t think I was capable of, and it also taught me what it means to do something purely out of interest with no expectation of reward.
AS YOU MENTIONED, GETTING AN AGENT AND GETTING PUBLISHED IS A RARE OCCURRENCE. HOW DID YOU SWING YOUR DEALS?
Honestly, I don’t know! When I completed my manuscript, I sent it off to book agents in the US, amazingly got nine offers, then signed with one in April. I was surprised by the interest because I didn’t think any US agent or publisher would be interested in a book set completely in Singapore. In hindsight, I think a big reason why my book attracted interest is also the reason why I wrote it in the first place – it’s fun and escapist, which I think everyone could do with after the past one and half years. I’m also grateful for the authors of colour who came before me and showed publishers that there is a market for books like mine.
My agent started pitching my book to publishers in May. It was a strange feeling letting go of something that I had worked on for so long and that had given my life so much meaning and vibrance. It’s also incredibly scary surrendering a passion project for judgement and critique.
HOW LONG WAS IT FROM SIGNING ON AN AGENT TO THE ACTUAL BIDDING WAR?
After I went out on submission, I was actually bracing myself for a long wait. Good news takes very long since acquiring a book requires the approval of many people at the publishing house, whereas a rejection can be as quick as a few hours since it just takes one ‘no’. In fact, I set the quote “No news is good news” as my phone wallpaper and screensaver. But surprisingly, I heard the first sign of interest within a couple of days, and things moved quickly afterwards.
To my surprise, I received interest from multiple publishers, so my agent set up an auction where everyone could send in bids. The auction closed at 2am because of the time zone difference between New York and Singapore, and my agent wanted to tell me the offers over a video call so she could see my live reaction.
I chugged massive amounts of cold brew on that day so I would stay awake – that’s why my agent and I call ourselves the #coldbrewmagic team now – but I quickly realised that was unnecessary because I was buzzing with so much nerves, anticipation, and excitement the entire day that it would have been impossible for me to fall asleep anyway. At 1.40am, I pulled up a 20-minute meditation video to try to calm myself down, but gave up after 2 minutes. I’ve never been a pacer, but I was pacing nonstop around my room from 1.42am to 2am.
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Before I got the book deal, one thing I struggled with was whether I could call myself a writer. I believe that anyone who writes is a writer, but since we live in a world that prizes measurable achievements, it was hard for me to tell people I was a writer when I didn’t have anything to show for it – I knew that if I introduced myself as one, the natural follow-up question would be: “Are you published?” Now, I can call myself a writer openly, but I wish it didn’t have to depend on getting a book deal.
AM I ALLOWED TO ASK ABOUT THE FINAL BIDDING PRICE?
Penguin Random House bought two books from me – The Fraud Squad and an unwritten second book – for six figures each.
TELL US ABOUT THE NOVEL.
The Fraud Squad is about a Singaporean woman in her first year in the workforce, trying to figure out her career, her identity, and where she fits in the country's socioeconomic landscape. Samantha Song wants to break free from her family's difficult financial background and write for a high-society magazine, since the glamourous world covered by that magazine is so unlike the one she comes from.
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She enlists a socialite friend and a wealthy heir to help her break into Singapore's most elite set, but gradually loses herself amid the glamour. In the end, Samantha learns that all that glitters is not gold, but finds a way to pursue her ambitions in a manner that's truer to herself.
ARE YOU A FAN OF CRAZY RICH ASIANS? HAVE YOU MET KEVIN KWAN YET?
Yes, a big fan! It’s really such an entertaining and breezy read that reminds me not to take life too seriously. I wish I could meet Kevin Kwan someday – that’d be so exciting.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAMILY’S REACTION TO THIS SUCCESS?
I think they are quite bewildered by everything! There’s a lot about the publishing process that is incredibly confusing, with lots of jargon thrown around. Therefore, although I did keep them updated on the major developments, I didn’t tell them much so as not to overwhelm them. Also, writing this book was simply a side project for me – I didn’t make a big deal out of it, so my parents didn’t either, which was why they were astonished when they realised there were actually people interested in buying and publishing my book.
That said, they are very proud of me, and I’m just really excited to dedicate this book to them once it’s out! However, there are still a lot of aspects of publishing that I’m trying to get them caught up on, such as why it takes so long between selling the book to the publisher and for it to actually be out in bookstores.
HOW MUCH IS SAMANTHA SONG A REFLECTION OF YOU?
When I wrote Samantha, I consciously wanted to avoid inserting myself into her character; after all, this book was meant to be a respite from my real life. I think having a healthy distance from Samantha helped in two big ways. Firstly, I wasn’t afraid to make her flawed, which I might not have dared to do if I saw her as a reflection of myself; and secondly not being too attached to any character and to the story itself allowed me to be very decisive when revising my book – I wasn’t afraid of cutting entire subplots, characters, and chapters.
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That being said, my experience in the magazine industry meant I was able to write very authentically about that world. Some of the settings, plot points, and characters were inspired by my personal observations. I studied psychology in university and I’ve always been interested in figuring out people’s desires and motivations, so I think Samantha’s hankering for a better life and how she tries to escape the constraints of her background to climb up the ladder would appeal to people from all walks of life.
WHEN WILL THE BOOK BE PUBLISHED?
It will be published in January 2023. One thing that surprises a lot of people – including myself before I fell into this industry – is how long the publishing process takes. I used to think that after a book gets sold to a publisher, it will be out on shelves within a few months.