Interview: Katie Zhao, Author of How We Fall Apart

Please Note: I received an electronic review copy of How We Fall Apart and was monetarily compensated in exchange for composing and hosting an interview with the author. This compensation in no way affected my opinions.

Title How We Fall Apart
Author Katie Zhao
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller
Publication Date August 17th 2021 by Bloomsbury YA
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book DepositoryBarnes & NobleIndieBound

In a YA thriller that is Crazy Rich Asians meets One Of Us Is Lying, 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.

Katie Zhao’s YA debut is an edge-of-your-seat drama set in the pressure-cooker world of academics and image at Sinclair Prep, where the past threatens the future these teens have carefully crafted for themselves. How We Fall Apart is the irresistible, addicting, Asian-American recast of Gossip Girl that we’ve all been waiting for.

Katie Zhao

Katie Zhao is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new photo-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramGoodreads

1. How We Fall Apart is your young adult debut novel, having previously published two middle grade novels (The Dragon Warrior and The Fallen Hero) with another, Last Gamer Standing, still to come in 2021. How does writing for a young adult audience differ from writing for a middle grade audience? Is there a target audience you prefer writing for?

Young adult and middle grade are certainly very different age categories, and there isn’t a ton of crossover in the readership. For me, the biggest differences in writing across age categories are voice and theme – especially handling darker themes. The middle grade voice tends to skew younger and humorous. While humor can certainly be (and is!) present in young adult works as well, I tend to find that YA does take itself more seriously and that the handling of the humor is different. For example, a middle grade character might shout out something very silly during a serious battle moment, but we don’t typically see that happen with serious moments in YA. Additionally, the themes in middle grade center around kids finding their place in the world, and YA expands on that theme with more focus on coming-of-age too. Typically YA doesn’t shy away from darker themes like death, grief, mental health, etc. but it’s more rare to find middle grade that confronts these darker moments.

I don’t think that I have a preference one way or another. My natural writing voice is more humorous, which lends itself more easily to middle grade (which is why, I think, my first middle grade novel The Dragon Warrior ended up being the book to break me into the industry, versus the several young adult novels I drafted before that went nowhere). But I love writing both middle grade and young adult for different reasons. It’s just so great to get to connect with young readers of different ages, and see parts of my younger self reflected in them.

2. How We Fall Apart has been described as being part of the ‘dark academia’ sub-genre. How do you define dark academia and what do you think are some essential elements of this category of fiction that How We Fall Apart incorporates into its story? Why does Nancy’s journey work so well in this setting?

The dark academia sub-genre is gaining popularity and the definition is broadening, especially since 2020. My understanding of the genre, as it currently stands, is that it encapsulates the passion for obtaining knowledge, learning, reading, writing, etc. and is traditionally very Eurocentric and focused on the Western classics. Another trait of dark academia is that something dark occurs at the school – a secret society, mystery, murder, etc. How We Fall Apart is set at an elite prep school where a murder mystery occurs, as well as centers around the students’ borderline obsession for educational achievement, so that’s what makes it dark academia. However, I would say that this book departs from the Eurocentric leanings of the genre. There isn’t much romanticization of the Western classics, and it’s more concerned with critiquing the way that high schools – and the education system as a whole – pressure students to a breaking point. Nancy’s journey works well in this setting, because How We Fall Apart unravels these seemingly high-achieving students to make a point about the toxic, competitive mentality that’s found in these school environments. Nancy’s story makes a point that this is even more true for students of color, who face further barriers and are often pitted against each other for limited spots.

3. Secrets and confessions play a pivotal role in How We Fall Apart. Each chapter begins with an anonymous confession by a student at Richard Sinclair Preparatory School, and Nancy and her friends have their darkest secrets revealed by an adversary over the course of the novel. What’s one secret or fun fact about yourself that others might not know?

Even though I write about teens who have deep, dark secrets, I’m a very boring person myself. I wish I could share a juicy secret, but I don’t really have any. (Though, I suppose that’s probably something that someone who does have secrets they don’t want to share would say…)

A fun fact, though, is that I also really love singing. I did choir all throughout school, and then a capella in college. When I was young I even considered a music career (very briefly). I decided against it, because I have too much stage fright for that life, and singing would have to be what I loved most in the world for me to pursue it. But as an introvert whose head is always in the clouds, writing is my one true love.

4. Despite her incredible accomplishments, hard work and dedication, Nancy often struggles with feelings of alienation and imposter syndrome, never truly feeling like she belongs at the competitive private school she’s attending. What would you say to young readers who are struggling with similar feelings?

Honestly, I just want them to understand that it gets better. Life gets better. But I know that at that age, I ignored all the advice from others who said life would improve after high school, that we’re more than our grades and college acceptances, so I feel as though my advice now might not reach the people who need to hear it most. But I hope that if they read How We Fall Apart, they will see their struggles reflected in these characters, and through that understand the message I’m trying to tell them.

5. In addition to the aforementioned feelings of alienation and imposter syndrome, Nancy also puts a great deal of pressure on herself to perform to the best of her ability and achieve success at any cost, even at the expense of her own health and well-being. This pressure seems to be informed, at least in her part, by her identity as an Asian American and as the daughter of immigrants, as well as by the myth of the ‘model minority’. Can you speak a little about this aspect of the story?

How We Fall Apart is infused with themes that are often tied to Asian American upbringings, like family sacrifice, American dreams, diaspora musings – and the discussion, or lack thereof, of mental health. Traditional Asian households tend to dismiss mental illnesses as “made-up” or “laziness”. In my experience growing up in such a household, perfection was the standard, and anything less than that was seen as “not good enough”. ADHD, mental illnesses, any condition that might make someone unable to learn and/or grow at the pace society has deemed standard – all of that was chalked up to laziness. There is no such thing as learning disabilities. It also doesn’t help that American media is obsessed with portraying Asians as studious and nerdy, as “model minorities” and overachievers who all attend top schools. Such pressure leaves no room for error for Asians teens – and certainly no room for taking care of one’s mental health, or diagnosing mental illnesses. This level of perfection has spawned incredible work ethic among a lot of kids and teens, but it also creates an impossible standard by which young people, especially young children of immigrants, are measured and valued.

Thus, in How We Fall Apart, I wanted to explore what happens to these Asian teens who are thrust into the privileged, pressure-cooker, competitive, toxic environment of Sinclair Prep. Despite the fact that they’re so young and have all the time in the world to prove themselves, there is a crushing amount of pressure on them. The characters are desperate to make it into top universities, to fulfill their families’ American dreams – and it really ends up destroying them. I wanted to critique just how toxic it is for Asian Americans to be brought up in this sort of environment.

6. Nancy could arguably be described as an unreliable narrator. She hides the truth from the reader and from herself and I often found myself questioning her motivations and transparency. What are some of the joys and/or challenges of crafting an incredibly complex and morally grey character like Nancy?

I had a blast writing Nancy. I haven’t tried writing an unreliable narrator before. It was fun hiding truths from the readers, making them question what’s real or not, and creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and illusion in an already dark and atmospheric novel.

The greatest challenge of writing a morally grey character was trying to decide how far I could allow Nancy to push the boundaries, before she would become purely unlikable to readers (especially since Nancy is female, and we know what society thinks of morally grey female characters…) Also, for me personally, it has been a challenge accepting that How We Fall Apart is a love-it-or-hate-it book for this reason, unlike my fun, funny middle grade. There will be readers who drag this book through the mud, and they are well within their rights to do so. I had to mentally prepare myself for How We Fall Apart to receive a very different reception than my previous novels. But I did my best to write the book I wanted to see on shelves. I did my best to write a morally grey protagonist by striking a balance, showing Nancy’s motivations to make the terrible decisions that she does. I only hope that the readers who love morally grey characters will love Nancy too.

7. Despite being a victim of murder early on in the novel, Jamie Ruan is an important, powerful character whose presence lingers on every page and in the lives of those she left behind. To many, the enigmatic Jamie is intimidating, cold, calculating and even cruel, but the reader is also given glimpses of moments of insecurity and vulnerability where it becomes clear there is much more to Jamie than initially meets the eye. Who is Jamie to you, and what do you think drew Nancy and the rest of her friends to Jamie in the first place?

Jamie is one of my favorite characters (even though I know authors aren’t really supposed to choose favorites…) so I’m really glad you asked this question. Jamie was written to be Nancy’s foil, someone with similar drive and ambition but wealth and resources that Nancy lacks. Nancy fixates on the disparity between hers and Jamie’s socioeconomic statuses, which creates tension in an already tense friendship. But still, Nancy and her friends (and everyone at school, really) are drawn to Jamie because of her charisma, popularity, and status. She’s the person they all want to be, and they see her as flawless. By the end of the book, of course, we see that Jamie’s perfect image actually takes a great deal of effort to maintain, and comes at a terrible price.

8. Ghosts and hauntings play a prominent role in How We Fall Apart, which I found really intriguing. Nancy and her friends are haunted by the immortal words of the school’s founder, Richard Sinclair (“In inceptum finis est” or “In the beginning, is the end”), the failure of previous students, the death of Jamie Nuan, the secrets which threaten to destroy everything they’ve worked so hard for, and the pressure and expectations of their peers, families and themselves. Why was this element of the story so important for you to include and how does it compliment the novel’s central themes of achievement, expectation and failure?

I’m really impressed with how well you read into the themes of the story, even the school motto In inceptum finis est and its symbolism. Ghosts and hauntings are often elements of gothic and/or dark academia literature, but at Sinclair Prep, these “ghosts” are really the horrific reality of what this cutthroat school has done to its students. The sense that I wanted to create is that Sinclair Prep is a very insular, circular environment. What comes around, goes around, and though students may graduate, they never truly escape what they endured to achieve excellence. I feel as though I am haunted by my own high school experience, and I wanted to explore that sense in this novel.

9. How We Fall Apart explores a number of incredibly important topics, including racism, mental illness, self-harm, anxiety, drug use and inappropriate and/or abusive relationships. What’s one thing you hope readers will take from the novel?

I would want readers to understand that there are indeed moral lines that should not be crossed, even for those of us who strive to do our best, even for those of us with immigrant parents for whom we want to give the world in return. Do not become so wrapped up in becoming a hero, that you instead become a villain.

10. The conclusion of How We Fall Apart is absolutely satisfying but I was so engrossed in Nancy’s story I was sad to see it come to an end! There also seem to be a couple of lingering secrets and unanswered questions I’d love to see explored further. Can eager readers like myself look forward to a continuation of Nancy’s story in a sequel in the future?

I don’t know about a sequel, but I do have a prequel idea in mind that would follow the story of the Golden Trio and their scandals at Sinclair Prep two years previous (if you know, you know). I ended this novel on an open note because I wanted to give the sense that the story, and all the drama surrounding Sinclair Prep, lives on after this conclusion.

2 Responses

  1. Great interview. I read Katie’s debut book, The Dragon Warrior, and really liked it. Can’t wait to read How We Fall Apart. I love mysteries and thrillers. Natalie @ Literary Rambles

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!