Kyla Zhao ’21 on finding inspiration and her debut novel, ‘The Fraud Squad’

Feb. 2, 2023, 4:30 p.m.

“My clearest memories of Kyla are about her thoughtfulness and her penetrating questions. She was sensitive, in the best sense of the word; an old soul,” says public policy and psychology professor Laura Carstensen. 

Kyla Zhao ’21 M.A. ’21 graduated from Stanford in the midst of much pandemic-related uncertainty. She released her debut novel, “The Fraud Squad,” on Jan. 17 and is already working on her second, which is set to be released in November. 

For Singaporean-born-and-raised Zhao, questions from publishers such as “What do you think about setting a story in America instead of Singapore?” or “What do you think about making one of the main characters white so that it will be more appealing to American publishers and readers?” were reflective of how challenging the publishing process can be from the very beginning. Zhao said she knew right away that, “those were not the type of people I wanted to work with because they didn’t really understand the heart of my story and why I was telling it in the first place.”  

In spite of these dismissive comments, Zhao was able to secure a deal with Penguin Random House, signing with their imprint, Berkley. Berkley’s long history of working with female and BIPOC authors was important to Zhao. 

“I really want to work with people I trust, and whom I think would have my best interests at heart. They wouldn’t see me just as a product,” she said. 

Asian representation in the media is also at the forefront of Zhao’s work, including this novel. The tendency for people to fall into a limited, static perspective of Asians is reflected in how stories by authors of color all seem to be about the same depressing topics, Zhao said. “They think that we all have the same experiences and we can only tell the same stories.” 

She also recalled drafting during the November 2020 election and how the cynicism over the future of America pivoted her towards wanting to create a happier and lighter story to share with the world.

Zhao wrote for fashion magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar when she was a teenager and during her college years. There were limitations, however:  “I was always telling someone else’s story. I was always executing someone else’s vision, and you kind of have to write in a voice that suits the magazine… different magazines have very distinct voices,” Zhao said. 

When it comes to her profession, Zhao considers writing to be her “five-to-nine job after her nine-to-five.” Her work has grown beyond just a hobby: now there are deadlines, meetings and teams of people that are tied to her responsibilities as an author. Regardless, it’s an aspect of her life that she still loves deeply. 

It hasn’t always been easy balancing authorship and her corporate day job. At some times, Zhao had to drop everything to focus on her day job, at others, she transformed into an author the moment the clock struck five. 

A day job in marketing at a Silicon Valley tech company — crunching numbers and analyzing data — provided a unique contrast to working as an author. “With a book, you have no idea what’s going to happen next. It’s kind of up to me as the author to make all these decisions. But when it comes to analytics… numbers are laid there so nicely for you. You don’t have to think too much about it,” she said. This respite was especially comforting for her when she faced writer’s block and was able to switch to a different form of work.

 “There are also times when I feel like the numbers are too rigid and too structured. And that’s when I appreciate writing even more: because it’s free-spirited and allows for more flexibility and room for creativity,” Zhao added.

Chady Hamida ’21, who has been a close friend of Zhao since they were both freshmen, revealed that although he knew Zhao loved reading and writing essays, he hadn’t expected her to already have a full novel completed. By the time he found out, she had already finished the book’s first draft. “I think ‘The Fraud Squad’ has taken such a huge place in Kyla’s life (and mine) that I sometimes forget it’s not even out yet. I have no doubt that people will love it, and I can’t wait for Kyla to see all the responses,” Hamida told The Daily prior to the book’s publication in January.

Hana Dao is a vol. 264 Science Technology News desk editor. In addition to writing for the Daily, she enjoys discussing fashion and having picnics on campus.

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