Katie Zhao on high school, dark academia and her thrilling YA debut, How We Fall Apart

"Writing How We Fall Apart helped to heal old wounds that never quite closed"


Fast paced, twisted and addictive, Katie Zhao’s YA debut, How We Fall Apart, is a must-read for readers wanting to get their teeth into a gritty and truly page-turning thriller. Having flown through this brilliantly gripping story in a matter of sittings, we were so excited to have the chance to chat to Katie all about it.

Hi Katie! We’re so happy we get to chat to you today all about your gripping new YA novel, How We Fall Apart. For readers unfamiliar with its premise, how would you sum it up in just three words?

Deadly, twisty, unrelenting

Could you tell us a little about the inspirations behind How We Fall Apart?

Some of the novels that helped inspire How We Fall Apart are Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Crazy Rich Asians, and One of Us is Lying. Aside from being inspired by other YA thriller and boarding school novels, much of the book comes from my own high school memories. Though of course all the characters and events are fictional, there are bits and pieces of my teen self scattered throughout the book, and they form the backbone of the story—the emotions and message that I wanted to convey.

How We Fall Apart had me totally hooked from the first page until the last. What do you think is the key to capturing a readers full attention when writing a thriller?

The key to capturing a reader’s full attention when writing a thriller, or just any genre of story, is to make sure they’re invested in the characters. I’ve noticed that the stories that captivate me the most are the ones where the characters are so well-developed that they speak to me on some level, and I want to know everything that happens to them. In addition, having a fast-paced plotline certainly helps. I made sure that every scene that made it into the final draft of How We Fall Apart was essential to propelling the plot forward.

How We Fall Apart has been classed as dark academia, a sub-genre that’s been gaining in popularity over the past few years. What do you think a book has to achieve to be classed as dark academia and what do you think readers find so enticing about it as a genre?

The dark academia sub-genre is gaining popularity and the definition is broadening, especially since 2020. My understanding of the sub-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. Of course, this is a working definition, and the sub-genre seems to be expanding every day. As readers, we tend to be nerds and usually enjoy school to some degree, so the romanticizing of education would of course be appealing. At least for me, my daily life is boring, and the idea that something could go horribly wrong in a school environment is at once terrifying and intriguing.

Having previously written two wonderful middle grade novels, how was it switching to writing for young adults? Did you face any surprising challenges at all?

The funny thing is that I started out writing young adult novels, but the novel that got me an agent and traditional publishing deal was a middle grade novel—and my first, at that. So it was a roundabout way that I came to write middle grade! For me, switching from one age category to the other is pretty natural. The biggest differences in writing across age categories are voice and theme – especially handling darker themes. The middle grade voice is younger and often very humorous, and 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.

How We Fall Apart superbly balances exploding topics such as culture, class, academic expectations and the model minority myth, whilst also being a fast paced and twisted thriller. How did you go about finding this balance whilst writing?

Thank you so much! The themes were always meant to be engrained in the book. Generally, when I get a story idea, I will only pursue it if I already have the themes and heart of the story figured out, and have a deep need to see this specific story out in the world. It wasn’t easy finding the balance between engaging with difficult themes while also writing an engaging story and incorporating world-building, but I did so ensuring that the core of the story was always threaded through every scene, etc.

I loved the use of confessions from Sinclair Prep students as chapter headings. How did you go about coming up with these and are there any that secretly come from yourself?

Honestly, I just thought back to my own days as a high school student, and the sort of thoughts that I would have while in class. Some of the confessions actually came from my own memories (though I won’t say which ones…) and some of them are purely fictional.

High school is an… interesting time for most but dangerously so for Nancy and her friends. How did you find your own high school experience and what do you think high school Katie would think of How We Fall Apart?

“Interesting” is certainly one way to put it. I won’t sugar-coat—high school was easily the worst time of my life. Perhaps that’s why my YA debut ended up being a murder mystery/thriller about high-achieving students who might murder to stay at the top of their class. Because of this, writing this book was very challenging. I had to relive the trauma of my intense high school experience through these characters. The initial idea for HWFA came to me in my senior year, when my school-related stress was at an all-time high with college applications. Even though I didn’t even attempt to draft this book until years later, I was surprised by how much the writing of this book transported me back to a dark period of my life. I even cried writing a few scenes. I don’t regret reliving those emotions, though. Writing How We Fall Apart helped to heal old wounds that never quite closed. I think high school Katie would be very glad that How We Fall Apart exists in the world, but she would also say something like, “Dang, girl, you should have just gone to therapy instead.”

How We Fall Apart ended with some mind blowing revelations! Did you always know how it was going to conclude or did it come to you as you wrote?

I didn’t know the exact ending. I knew the general shape of the story as I wrote, but many scenes and characters changed through multiple rounds of revisions. Though, the perpetrator was the same throughout each of my drafts. I like to think of my first draft as the very imperfect “zero draft” that I then tear up and put back together in revisions, so it’s very rare that I know how my books will conclude from the start, and actually stick to that conclusion.

Finally, the ending of How We Fall Apart definitely concluded with a hint at a second book (maybe about the Golden Trio?) Do you have a sequel/prequel in the works at all and if so, do you have anything you can share with us?

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. If I’m able to write a sequel or prequel one day, I will of course let the readers know!

Get your copy of How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao here.

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