author with book
WRITER - Zhao says she finds Los Gatos a great place to get creative work done. (Courtesy of Kyla Zhao)

When Amanda Brown, author of “Legally Blonde,” describes your book as “charming, compelling, and unapologetically fun,” and Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of Reese Witherspoon book club selection “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows,” calls it “a page-turner that brims with humour, snappy dialogue, and sharp observations of an industry,” you know you’re on the right track.

But you don’t have to trust the hype from pop-culture’s literati to get a sense of the chord Campbell resident Kyla Zhao has struck with her second novel, “Valley Verified,” the Penguin Random House story released earlier this year about a woman who makes the move from working at a fashion magazine in New York to a start-up job in Silicon Valley

Just head to a Santa Clara County Library District branch and see for yourself. Or, that is, you won’t see.

The fictional tale with elements pulled from her real-life transition from pumping out sartorial copy for well-respected titles, to getting down in the start-up trenches, to acclimatizing to South Bay suburbia, is in heavy demand.

On Monday, it had been checked-out from Gilroy, Campbell, Los Altos, Morgan Hill, Saratoga and Woodland libraries, with more on order for Cupertino and Milpitas, and eight holds on seven e-book copies.

Penguin Random House book
“Valley Verified” was released earlier this year by Penguin Random House. (Courtesy of Kyla Zhao)

It was also loaned-out from Los Gatos Library, too.

It could be that audiences, eager to read about the life of a dynamic Asian character in a category that’s historically told the stories of upwardly-mobile white fashionistas, like Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and Shopaholic’s Rebecca Bloomwood, are responding to the decisive and humorous protagonist, Zoe Zheng.

It could also be that Zhao manages to deliver breezy prose while reaching for deeper truths, without hitting you over the head about it.

It’s the type of story that seems better suited as the basis for a sharp, if a little fluffy, Hulu series than a Hallmark movie with nothing much to say.

It moves at a brisk pace reminiscent of Sophie Kinsella’s writing, causing you to drop your guard, until Zhao dishes-up a well-placed metaphor that says, I know exactly what I’m doing here.

Unlike many novels, it reads less like what someone wished working for a fashion magazine or a small tech company was like, and more like someone who’s lived those realities.

And that’s because she has.

Zhao grew up in Singapore and scored a prestigious internship with the Harper’s Bazaar office there while in high school.

“I’ve always been interested by how fashion is a form of storytelling,” she said, as the afternoon sun beamed off the metallic print in her book-adorned home. “Back then they didn’t even have a website. That was the heyday of print media.”

Her first assignment? A piece about getting ready for a wedding as a bride-to-be.

“I hadn’t even had my first kiss,” she said. “I felt like quite a fraud.”

She recalled how she assisted on photoshoots and attended various functions.

“It got my foot in the door,” she said. “I think the fashion industry is very insular.”

‘I’m very much my own person.’

—Kyla Zhao

Zhao headed to Stanford for college, where she would end up studying psychology and communications.

“I’ve always been really interested in people,” she said. “My master’s thesis was about influencer marketing.”

She returned home country after her freshman year and did an internship with Condé Nast’s Tatler.

“I was a different person,” she said. “The second time around, I felt more confident.”

But it wasn’t long before she dipped her toes into the start-up world, working for a contract management software company in the Sawtelle area of Los Angeles.

By the time she got a job at Vogue, the entire print industry had shifted.

“The website was the dominant source of traffic,” she said, looking back on the digital responsibilities she had on top of her print duties. “I was publishing 3-4 articles a week.”

author portrait
Zhao studied at Stanford, wrote for fashion titles and now works in tech. (Submitted)

She began pitching more, but eventually chose to heed Silicon Valley’s alluring call.

“I have a lot of admiration for the advancements that are being made,” she said. “I bought a one-way ticket back to the Bay.”

Suddenly, she was surrounded by programming wizards and data engineers.

“It was a very jarring transition,” she said. “That’s what inspired me to write ‘Valley Verified.’”

Crafting Zoe “with no middle name” Zeng was a useful way to channel her experience.

Zeng goes from writing about a brand with the slogan “Aspire, Inspire, Respire” for “Chic” magazine, to being named the “vice president of marketing” for a Palo Alto-based app.

In real life, Zhao has become an analyst for a b2b tech company.

Despite her success in the writing sphere, she isn’t chomping at the bit to follow this path full-time.

“I’m very much my own person,” she said, explaining she’d rather write the things she believes in, on her own time, rather than feeling pressured to turn out storylines that will sell. “I do a lot of writing in Los Gatos. I love the views.”

She already has her next release in the works. “May the Best Player Win,” about a girl who plays chess, is due out in September.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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