Kyla Zhao – The Fraud Squad

Women At Work is a new series where we uncover females making waves in their respective industries, carving out an inspiring career for themselves and for others. 

When the pandemic hit its peak in 2020 and the world went into lockdown, many of us lived in uncertainty and fear. With online school and work from home becoming a norm, we scrambled to find something to do with the extra time at home. Admit it — we may have tried a TikTok dance or two, or even a dalgona coffee recipe. 

For Kyla Zhao, a 24-year-old Singaporean who went to California to pursue her degree, the pandemic lockdown was extra hard on her. She was unable to return home and felt helpless as anti-Asian racism rose in the US. But she channelled these negative feelings into something positive by writing a novel — something that she never expected herself to do. 

Her novel, The Fraud Squad, was eventually sold to Penguin Random House in a six-figure deal and is now available worldwide. We spoke to Kyla Zhao to find out more about what it means to be a young Asian creative and learn about her struggles along the way, from living alone in California to navigating the publishing industry which is traditionally dominated by white men.

The Fraud Squad

Kyla Zhao The Fraud SquadKyla at her alma mater, Stanford University

Can you give us a brief introduction of yourself?

I’m Kyla and I’m 24 years old this year. I was born and raised in Singapore, lived there until I was 19, and came to California for college. I graduated from Stanford University in 2021 and studied psychology and communications. 

Now, I work at a tech company in Silicon Valley and I write novels on the side. Besides writing, my hobbies include kickboxing, eating ice cream and watching Modern Family.

As the author of The Fraud Squad, can you share with us what the book is about?

This book is kind of like Crazy Rich Asians meets The Devil Wears Prada. It’s about a working class woman who really wants to write for Singapore’s poshest magazine, but because of her socio-economic background, she’s gatekept out of an exclusive world. So, she comes up with a plan of pretending to be a socialite to infiltrate high society and impress the editor-in-chief. 

But as she falls deeper into her glamorous fraud, she also starts becoming very afraid of being exposed — especially when there’s a mysterious gossip columnist who’s always hunting for dirt, and other socialiates who are determined to bring her down. 

Living alone in California and getting inspiration

Kyla writing the first draft of The Fraud Squad in 2020

What inspired you to write this book?

When I was in my third year of university, the pandemic hit. Everyone around me was going home to be with their families. But I was interning with a company that was based in California at that time, and they couldn’t let me work remotely from outside the country. 

For most of 2020, I was living by myself in California. The only way I kept in touch with my family was through social media and I went months without seeing a single person. I was very homesick and lonely. In the media, I was seeing a lot of people, especially politicians, say hateful things about Asians who look like me. 

Especially in the US, there were a lot of stories of elderly Asians being victims of hate crimes. I really wanted something that was joyful and fun to turn to, and I guess some people found that in TikTok, but I found it in books.

A lot of the books then, at least the ones that I was aware of, featured mostly white characters. That was where I got the idea of writing my own book with a story that I would want to read — The Fraud Squad was born. 

Even though I’m not a fraud or anything, I was very heavily inspired by my own sense of imposter syndrome to write my main character. She grapples with feelings of being an outsider who doesn’t really belong in this glamorous new world. 

I moved here from Singapore to California to attend Stanford University, which is a predominately white elite institution. A lot of my schoolmates were from ultra wealthy families and seemed very sophisticated. I constantly had to try to fit in and pretend that I belonged even though I didn’t, so I drew upon these feelings while writing my book. 

Kyla Zhao The Fraud SquadKyla living alone in the US

How did your family feel when you were alone in California during the pandemic?

I was worried for them, but I think they were way more worried for me. Because I was the one in a foreign country while they were all back home in Singapore. I would tell them only the good things, but avoided telling them that I think I might be depressed and negative stuff like that — we just couldn’t really talk about it. 

At the end of the day, they are my parents, so I’m sure they sensed that something was off about me. 

What do you hope to achieve with writing this book?

I want people to find a sense of escapism. Writing this book pulled me out of a very dark spot in my life, one where I was spiralling mentally and emotionally. Because this book is so fun, even though I was living in sweatpants and eating leftovers at home, my characters were dressing up, going to parties and mingling with one another. 

I was living vicariously through these characters and it was nice to be able to step away from the pandemic reality into this make-belief world. I hope readers feel transported to Singapore, or are exposed to a new world that they might otherwise not know of.  

Did you feel that writing this book helped to resolve your own feelings of being alone?

Of course. Despite the pandemic, one silver lining of being alone was that I could block out everyone else. Back in school, I was constantly around people and always wondered what others would think of me if I tried something new. What if I failed? 

But when you are alone, no one knows what you’re doing if you choose not to tell them. I didn’t tell anyone that I was writing a book. It was a very liberating experience to do things that I never thought I would do and not worry about how it would end up.

When I announced my book deal a year later, everyone was like, “wait — you wrote a book?!” 

Kyla in Singapore

Are there any local inspirations behind The Fraud Squad?

Oh my god, yes. A very pivotal scene in my book takes place in a kopitiam over kaya toast. Kaya is my favourite thing ever and it’s so hard to get authentic kaya at affordable prices here. 

When my audio book narrator was recording, she emailed me a long list of words that she needed help with pronouncing because they were foreign to her. Things like the different kinds of kopi and places in Singapore like Serangoon, Clarke Quay and Bukit Timah.

The book features very grand hotels but also void decks. I think this was my way of dealing with homesickness and staying connected. Especially when I was looking at photos of these places to jog my memory, I was like, “wow, I remember this place.”

Clinching a 6-figure book deal

Kyla with her literary agent

The Fraud Squad was sold to Penguin Random House in a six-figure deal and was released worldwide on 17 January 2023. How did the deal come about?

The publishing industry is super complicated and the journey was very long, which is why it took me 2.5 years to get my book published. I finished my first draft in three months, but I did it in a very disorganised way, so I spent six more months fixing everything. 

In the beginning, I didn’t think getting it published was a viable path. But I made friends online who knew some things about publishing and they encouraged me to give it a shot. I did more research and realised that to get a publishing deal, you need to first get an agent. I basically cold emailed a bunch of agents and sent my main script out to them, hoping that someone would like it. 

I got some offers from different agents, and ultimately I signed with one from Creatives Artists Agency (CAA). I did more revisions and editing before my agent sent my manuscript out to different publishers. From then on, it’s a praying game. Since I had done everything that I could, it was just hoping and waiting that my story resonated with someone out there. 

How did you feel with the success of the book being published?

It’s very liberating. For the longest time, it was something so close to my heart. I felt like it was filling me up and I was going to erupt — OMG, this sounds so graphic. 

I’ve written more novels since then and I have more novels that are being published next year, but this is ultimately still my first novel. It was the first time I dared to try writing. No matter how it does, it will always be precious to me. 

Kyla Zhao The Fraud SquadA review of The Fraud Squad by Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association

The Fraud Squad has already gotten rave reviews from New York Times bestselling authors and trade publications. How did this make you feel? 

I really admire some of these authors. I’ve been reading their books even before I thought about writing my own book. The idea that authors I look up to are enjoying my book? That’s so mind blowing. Everything is just very humbling.

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Being an Asian in the publishing industry

Kyla (right) organising a Chinese New Year party for her dorm in 2020

Why is Asian representation in the media so important to you?

I grew up reading a lot of books and watching Hollywood movies that were written by white authors and featured white characters. To be honest, it really affected my perception of what beauty is, even though I didn’t really understand it at that time. The media was constantly glorifying a certain western-centric standard of beauty and I wasn’t really seeing other examples of how people who look like me could also be considered beautiful.

In recent years, there’s definitely a rise of Asian representation. Crazy Rich Asians was one of the first times we saw an Asian character become the star of a movie and not just a sidekick. That was really inspiring to me and I want to see more instances of this. 

I do think that there is strength in numbers, like the more representations we see, the more normalised it becomes. And people will no longer make a big deal out of it. 

As a woman of colour in the book publishing industry, which is traditionally dominated by white men, what are some struggles you faced?

I don’t know if it’s consciously or subconsciously, but I tend to surround myself with other authors of colour. At times, I would be in this bubble where I would think, “wow, there are so many authors of colour. This is amazing and there is so much representation.”

But when I zoom out, it’s still far from where we want to be. Even when it comes to the ones making the decisions on which books to buy and publish, the majority of them are still white. It does trickle down. I think there’s a lot of attention being brought to this, but there’s still a long way to go. 

I wanted to work with people who understood the point of my story and what I was trying to achieve. There were some bad apples along the way who made me feel like I should be changing certain parts of my book to make it more appealing to the western audience, but that wasn’t what I was going for. 

Any additional advice you can give to women of colour who are going through the same struggles as you did? 

It helps so much to find a community of people. Publishing and writing is such a solitary activity and it can be so lonely. I was very fortunate that I found a support network from the very beginning, and there were authors who were so generous with their advice. They told me some of the red flags to watch out for and helped me to navigate this very bizarre industry. 

If there are any authors of colour, especially females, who want to know more about the industry, I’m always very happy to talk about it. I do want to also pass on the help that I received at the beginning of my career. 

Plans for the future

Kyla Zhao The Fraud SquadKyla with her novel, The Fraud Squad

Any spoilers about your upcoming books?

I have a second adult novel that is coming out next January. It’s completely unrelated to The Fraud Squad and it’s set in Silicon Valley. It’s kind of like Legally Blonde, starring a woman who starts off working in fashion in New York City, but she is transplanted into the tech industry in California and has to adapt to a whole new world. 

I also have a children’s novel that I wrote in 2020, just a few months after The Fraud Squad. It’s about a girl who plays chess and makes a bet with a sexist teammate to prove that girls can be as good as boys too. I grew up playing chess, so this story is something that means a lot to me. 

Any personal plans for yourself?

I’m really hoping to travel and see my family in Singapore soon. I usually make a trip back around Christmas, but last year, there was just so much to do for the book so I couldn’t go. I’m excited to see my book in Singapore. I think it would feel very different from seeing it in America.

What advice do you have for fellow budding authors looking to publish their works as well?

Ultimately, understand why you are writing the story and write something that you want to read. When you have that kind of guiding principle, it might not shield you from all the criticism you will hear, but it will remind you of why you set out to do this in the first place. 

I love my story, but even then I’m sick of it after re-reading it so many times. You’ll have a very hard time if you don’t genuinely feel passionate about what you’re working on.

You’re probably going to hear tons of writing advice out there — like how you should or shouldn’t do certain things. Just ignore them — you’ll figure out through trial and error what works for you. It’s also okay if your writing process and preferences change. I’ve written three books and how I wrote them are all very different.

Kyla Zhao The Fraud SquadKyla’s novel, The Fraud Squad

Lastly, what is one quote you live by?

“Go slow to go fast.” 

I don’t even know who said this to me, maybe it was my manager, but I really liked it. I’m a very impatient person who wants to see results immediately. But with writing, you have to be patient with the whole process and make sure you pack your foundation right instead of rushing into it. 

Kyla Zhao Shares Her Struggles, Determination & Success As A 24-Year-Old Author With A 6-Figure Book Deal

Throughout the process of writing The Fraud Squad, Kyla also shared with us that her family is her biggest support. She wanted to show off her love through her book, and asked her publisher if she could write a part of her acknowledgements in Mandarin, so that her grandparents who don’t speak English could at least read that part. 

As a 24-year-old author who scored a six-figure book deal with her very first novel, Kyla’s success wasn’t an easy journey, but her determination and passion guided her along the way. We’re excited to see more of what the young creative has in store for bookworms out there who love indulging themselves in the fictional world as much as she does. 

You can purchase The Fraud Squad on Amazon or in bookstores islandwide. 

Follow Kyla on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

All images courtesy of Kyla Zhao.
Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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