Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Iron Widow has definitely been one of the more hyped releases of 2021, with its high-concept plot and strong aesthetics—and this time, all the hype has led us true. With the book’s breakneck action-packed plot, surprisingly tender romance, and compelling political intrigue, Zetian’s rage-filled journey is easily one of the best stories I’ve indulged in all year. As such, it’s a real joy today to have Xiran Jay Zhao back at the Pond again for an interview about their roaring debut!
For longtime readers of the Pond, you may remember Xiran from an older interview we did with them last year during Asian Pasifika Heritage Month, way back when the book didn’t even have a cover yet! This time, Xiran is visiting us as a calico cat decked out in Zetian’s full pilot regalia from the book. Behold their majesty.
Today, we’re discussing Iron Widow‘s themes, Chinese history, and looking back at Xiran’s author journey so far! (We may also get a few hints at what’s coming after as well… 👀) It’s always a fun time when Xiran’s at the Pond, so I hope you enjoy our discussion today as much as I enjoyed hosting this lovely interview! And if you’re just now hearing of the firecracker that is Iron Widow, a gander at the book’s cover and summary:
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall of China. It doesn’t matter that the girls die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But when she gets her vengeance, it becomes clear that she is an Iron Widow, a rare kind of female pilot who can sacrifice males to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her frightening yet valuable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest male pilot in Huaxia, yet feared and ostracized for killing his father and brothers. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will take over instead, then leverage their combined strength to force her society to stop failing its women and girls. Or die trying.
Author Interview: Xiran Jay Zhao
Skye: Hello Xiran, and welcome back to the Pond! Thank you for joining us here again to talk about Iron Widow—I can’t believe it’s been a whole dang YEAR since you’ve last visited. How have you been?
Xiran: HELLO SKYE!! Boy. 2020 and 2021 have been a ride, huh? It’s been really weird for me because so much in my life have changed career-wise (I’ve become a YouTuber with 325k+ subscribers?? WHAT??), yet at the same time, none of it feels real because I’ve done it all within the confines of my house. It’s a surreal experience, going through stuff like hearing my mom call for me to feed the cats only for me to have to mute the Zoom call and yell “I’M IN AN INTERVIEW WITH [insert major media outlet]!”
Skye: I recently got the chance to read an early copy of Iron Widow, and goddamn does the book live up to (and surpass) all of the hype that it’s gotten! Congratulations on writing such a stellar debut; I cannot wait for everyone to suffer when it releases. A key strength of Iron Widow, I think,has got to be the characterisation of our three protagonists: the fiery Zetian, the enigmatic and misunderstood Shimin, and soft boye Yizhi. How much of yourself do you see in our main trio’s narrative journeys, both individually and with each other?
Xiran: Since they’re based on historical figures (with Zetian being inspired by Empress Regnant Wu, Shimin being inspired by Emperor Taizong of Tang, and Yizhi being inspired of Empress Wu’s plethora of shady twink lovers), I didn’t have to put much of myself into them. I just characterized them as I felt would be “in-character” for them if they were reborn into this sci-fi world. I mean, this is basically historical real person AU fanfic. The characters guided me more than I did them. I actually originally wanted Shimin to be a sarcastic jerk, but that worked out so poorly that I had to delete his first chapters with Zetian and start over. Man, she would’ve just killed that first iteration of him in his sleep.
What excited me the most about writing these characters was slowly peeling back their complexities, which I derived from reading between the lines of the historical records. For example, take Emperor Taizong, Shimin’s inspiration: people frequently see him as this ruthless, intelligent badass, but look deeper in the records and you’ll see that he actually has a very sensitive personality, a deep appreciation of art, and loves to cry. I loved writing this more tender side into Shimin.
Of the power trio, the character closest to me is probably Zetian, but I’m not as invested in romance as Zetian, and she’s not as chaotic of a mess as me. Would Wu Zetian sit in a cow suit and sign books in a McDonald’s? I don’t think so.
Skye: The romance in the book absolutely made me feral, Xiran, oh my god. I vividly remember my heart clenching when one of the characters describes Zetian as their ‘polar star’—it is such a sappy romantic phrase in Chinese, but I don’t think think I ever expected to encounter it in a Western-published novel. The worldbuilding in this book is obviously very much inspired by Chinese history and mythology, but I was also taken by a lot of little details like these that make the story feel distinctly Chinese. This book is also coming out during a period in which Chinese stories are becoming more and more mainstream, what with the breakout popularity of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy and danmei fantasy novels (like the three MXTX series that were just recently licensed to be translated in North America). As a diasporic Chinese storyteller, what has it been like to bear witness and be a part of this cultural zeitgeist??
Xiran: HAHA, I actually feared that line was too cheesy! It’s actually a historical reference to when Empress Wu was nearly made Consort of the Polar Star, but the officials wouldn’t let her. So she was like “all right, I have no choice but to become empress then!!” *scheming ensues*
It’s been very strange to see Chinese stories become more mainstream for sure. I remember when I first realized a non-Chinese friend of mine was getting into c-dramas and webnovels, I was like “…WHY?” To me, Chinese media have always been this niche that I couldn’t discuss with my non-Chinese friends. I’m still not sure what exactly appeals to them about it, but I’m happy that so many people are now interested in me rambling about the cultural and historical backgrounds in these media.
I have to say though, I think I now understand how Japanese people feel about weebs.
Skye: There is so much going on in Iron Widow, and I love that all the action and drama are all driven by such a thematically rich core: the glitzy sci-fi world is rampant with sexism, wealth inequality, racism, etc… Zetian and co. have their work cut out for them! The ending also sets up a very interesting twist to the world we’ve been introduced to—and brings in the possibility for an interesting exploration of colonialism further down the road. 👀 Without getting too deeply into spoilers, what can we expect from the sequel?
Xiran: Oh, there will definitely be discourse about colonialism. It’s the chief conflict of the sequel, even. It ties into the Empress Wu retelling aspect because Empress Wu was historically not a warmongering ruler. She actively let go of frontier regions like Tibet that were constantly rebelling. I see a lot of people call her weak for this, citing stats about how much territory the Chinese Empire lost during her reign, but really? Size of territory is the best measure they can think of to evaluate an emperor, not how fulfilled the actual citizens were? As far as I know, the people were fine with her rule. So the sequel will get into her struggles against what people see as Strength and Might versus what she actually wants to do with her power.
Skye: So the last time you were on, we discussed how much of a challenge it was to get the story accepted by gatekeepers in the publishing industry across multiple different levels. Looking back at your time in the book community now, one year after, it’s been so wonderful and heartening to see all the hype and support that Iron Widow is getting because of its ‘unmarketable’ aspects—its wild, anime-inspired high concept premise as well as the polyamory representation. What would you say has been the most rewarding part of this long and arduous road to publishing?
Xiran: Hmm. I’m extremely, EXTREMELY grateful for all the hype and support for Iron Widow, that’s definitely the most rewarding part, but to be honest, the more hype and praise it gets, the sadder I become. The tremendous reader reactions have proven that this is a book a lot of people want to read, yet publishing didn’t see that back when it was on submission. What this has proven is that there’s a major gap between what the industry thinks readers want and what readers actually want. I lucked out because Iron Widow did manage to find a home, but how many books like it have died at the publishing gatekeepers? I used to feel vindicated, but now I just feel kind of crushed by this glimpse of reality at work. It’s one thing to KNOW writing a good book alone isn’t enough to have publishers fight over you, it’s another to see just how much corporate aspects like “marketability” play into the process.
Skye: Okay. Changing tracks a little: I’m dying to know more about your next MG project, which is about Chinese history and AR gaming and is Yu-Gi-Oh-inspired?! Is there anything you can tell us about it yet?
Xiran: Yes!! Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor comes out summer 2022, and it’s about a Chinese American boy, Zack, whose AR gaming headset gets possessed by the spirit of the First Emperor of China, who compels Zack to go on a trip across China to heist real artifacts and battle figures from Chinese history and myth. I went absolutely WILD with this book. I hope that Chinese readers will scream in delight at all the familiar names and non-Chinese readers will get interested in all the figures that make it into the book.
Some things that happen in it: Li Bai and Qu Yuan get into a magical poetry slam. Jing Ke chases the First Emperor on a motorcycle. The protagonists ride sharks into battle. The Great Wall gets used as a magical race track.
Oh and by the way, the cover is AMAZING. I legit could not stop staring at it when it first landed in my inbox. I cannot wait for it to be revealed!!
Skye: Looking forward to the future, what’s your wildest pie-in-the-sky writer dream?
Xiran: An anime adaptation of Iron Widow?? @NETFLIX PLS
Skye: Closing on a sunny note! What is something—big or small—that’s been bringing you joy lately, despite everything else currently going on?
Xiran: My cats, Kokochin and Temujin, who I have adopted since our last chat. They are the light of my life…when they’re not knocking all my things to the floor or taking sneak bites of my food. (Temujin even eats rice?!)
About the Author
Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-gen immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.