Meet the Singaporean author who clinched a six-figure book deal at 23 

Through her debut novel, The Fraud Squad, Kyla Zhao champions Asian representation and connects with her homeland while living abroad.

By SGN | 13 Jan 2023

It was never Kyla’s dream to become an author. 

From the time she was a little bookworm hanging out at the Woodlands library with her grandparents to her teenage years of getting hooked on tales of the Wakefield sisters in the Sweet Valley Twins series, she had the idea that books were basically Western stories in Western settings written by Western authors.

“I just always thought that writers were white people. I never imagined it to be a viable career path,” she says. Even the author of the Mr Midnight and Mr Mystery series that she loved – Jim Aitchison, who goes by the pseudonym James Lee – turned out to be a Caucasian man from Australia. 

At 16, she ventured into a different kind of writing when she became an intern at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first article: a list of workout app recommendations for brides-to-be, which she admits was “kind of bizarre” for someone at that age to take on. Two more magazine internships would follow in the years to come: one at Tatler during a summer break from college at Stanford University, and another at Vogue upon graduation.

Of those brief yet exhilarating stints, Kyla shares, “Contrary to popular notions that people in the fashion world are very snobbish, I met a lot of very kind people who were willing to mentor and take a chance on me.”

Kyla was an intern at magazines such as Vogue Singapore.

A longing for reconnection

2020 was a pivotal year – to put it mildly. As the world got upended by the coronavirus, Kyla was stuck in Silicon Valley, having to fulfil a couple of internships while living alone and terribly missing family back in Singapore. “The pandemic was awful. I got so homesick and depressed,” she recalls.

At the time, anti-Asian racism was on the rise across the States, and when she turned to books for solace, it struck Kyla more than ever how there was a dearth of Asian characters. “Not seeing characters I could identify with or relate to made me feel even lonelier,” she says. It seemed little had changed since the days of reading about the “blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and perfect California tans” of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield.

And so Kyla hatched a bold idea: She would write her own book, one starring Asian characters with Asian experiences in Asian environments. “Setting it in Singapore allowed me to feel connected with my loved ones back home, at a time where I didn’t even know when I would get to see them again,” she says. 

Since getting more plugged into the publishing world, Kyla has made a concerted effort to read more works by Asian authors. Recent favourites include Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief, Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart and Anna Qu’s Made in China. “Growing up, I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of them,” she says. “And that kind of shaped a worldview that in hindsight was very narrow and very lacking.”

Kyla began writing her first novel while an undergraduate at Stanford University.

Good at keeping secrets

The leap from magazine articles to full-length novel was a daring one, and Kyla didn’t have the fuzziest idea how to get started. She Googled the approximate word count she had to hit and decided to keep the project a secret until a full draft was produced – just in case she had to abandon ship midway.

Despite being a planner in most aspects of her life, Kyla dived into writing the novel without a plan. “I had no outline. I didn’t know where the book was going. I just came up with the story as I went along,” she says. This created a lot of plot holes, however, that she would have to patch later, the second draft taking over twice as long as the first to complete. 

In January 2021, Kyla was finally able to fly home. She kept her return a surprise, even through the two-week quarantine in Singapore, such that her parents were both stunned and overjoyed at the reunion. 

She then finished her final semester remotely – keeping odd hours – while working on the second draft of the novel. “It was just a really nice feeling being back home and writing a book about my hometown – writing in my childhood bedroom, at the Starbucks where I used to study for my A Levels,” she says.

With her friends’ encouragement, Kyla sought to get her book published, a process that was unexpectedly long and complicated. She secured an agent (from nine offers), who set up an auction for interested publishers.

“Honestly, I thought it’d be more exciting than it actually was. I imagined people in a room raising little cards, but no, it was all done over email,” she says. Because of the time zone difference, the auction took place while she was sound asleep. Eventually, in June 2021, she accepted an offer and signed a six-figure contract with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

(Left) Writing the first draft in 2020; (right) Kyla with her literary agent, Alex Rice of Creative Artists Agency.

Everyone’s an impostor

Inspired by her experiences as a magazine intern, The Fraud Squad centres on Samantha Song, a young woman who penetrates high society to snag a job at a posh magazine but gets swept up in the glamour while gripped by fears of becoming exposed.

“I think a lot of people will be able to relate to feeling like a fraud, like an outsider, and wanting to get into this very exclusive world,” Kyla says. She shares how she’s had to cope with impostor syndrome as a new arrival in America, a freshman at Stanford, and a green intern in data analytics (her degree is in communications and psychology). 

The novel also draws on past interactions with socialites who, to her surprise, were genuine and down to earth. “I wanted to convey that there isn’t really a single idea of what it means to come from a wealthy family,” she says. 

And how close is the character of Samantha to Kyla herself? “To be honest, she’s a lot bolder and cooler than I am,” Kyla laughs. “I think she’s a great girl, someone who’s very easy to root for. Because even though her actions are sometimes misguided, she always has the best intentions at heart.” 

Singaporean readers can look forward to references to familiar locales like Orchard Road and Clarke Quay, plus local dishes like cai fan (rice with side dishes) and kaya toast. “My stomach lives vicariously through my characters. It’s so hard to find good, affordable kaya in the US,” Kyla laments.

The novel is also peppered with Singaporean lingo such as atas (posh), kampong (village) and karang guni (rag-and-bone man). “I had a fun time teaching the audiobook narrator how to pronounce these words!” she chirps.

Kyla with her first published book, The Fraud Squad.

Writing will always be a hobby

As the book’s release date approaches, Kyla is in the thick of doing her promotional rounds. She’s taking interviews, speaking on podcasts, writing essays, posting on social media, visiting bookstores in her vicinity – all while holding down a day job as a marketing analyst in Silicon Valley.

“I’m still not a full-time author or anything like that,” she clarifies. “I think writing will always be a hobby. It’s one of those things where, once it becomes a full-time job, I’m not going to enjoy it as much. I don’t want to turn something I love doing into something I feel like I have to do.”

This way, Kyla says, writing also serves as a nice change of pace. “Sometimes when I don’t want to be thinking of numbers anymore and want to do something a little bit more creative, I switch to writing. And when writing gets overwhelming and I don’t know what path to take or decisions to make, I switch back to data analysis, which is very black-and-white.” 

Incredibly, Kyla has two more books in the works. Like The Fraud Squad, they are based on her life experiences. “Frankly I don’t have the patience to do research like some authors, so I’m always writing about what I know,” she confesses. 

Her second novel, coming out in November 2023, is set in Silicon Valley and partially involves the fashion world. A children’s book, out in 2024, is about chess, which Kyla grew up playing competitively.

In the meantime, she can’t wait for the current book promo obligations to be over so she can fly back to Singapore once again. “I want to see my parents as soon as possible – and perhaps eat some kaya toast and yong tau foo!”

The Fraud Squad

Kyla’s propulsive debut novel is about a young woman who infiltrates Singapore’s high society to fulfill her dreams but risks losing everything in the process – including herself.

About Kyla

Kyla Zhao is the author of The Fraud Squad, which she wrote and sold to Penguin Random House in a six-figure deal while she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. 

Connect with her on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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