During much of Zoe Hana Mikuta’s senior year of high school in Boulder, Colorado, she spent her lunch periods writing. None of her friends had the same fifth period lunch, so Mikuta would take her lunch to the library, sit by the window on a very uncomfortable stool, and write. There was, she remembered, a dramatic view of the Rocky Mountains, which seemed like an appropriate backdrop to creating a new world. “I felt very writerly,” she remembered.
Now a 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of Washington, Mikuta’s grateful for those quiet lunches: Before heading off to college, she signed a two-book deal with major publisher Macmillan, with the movie rights quickly optioned. The first of those books, a young adult science fiction novel called “Gearbreakers,” comes out June 29; in it, two teen girls fighting on opposite sides in a futuristic society fall in love. A sequel will follow next year. Earlier this month, she received her first box of printed copies of “Gearbreakers” at her U District apartment and burst into tears. “When I was 17 and started writing it,” she said, “I was like, this is what I’m thinking of.”
UW English professor Shawn Wong, who calls himself “not so much her mentor as her fan club,” spoke of her talent. “She’s willing to take artistic risks, to try something new, and she has great narrative voice,” he said. “For somebody that young, she has a great sense of her own voice and what she wants to say. She also understands something that I think is really rare: I think because she’s a great reader, she understands what’s missing from the YA market.”
Mikuta, who grew up in D.C. and Colorado as “a huge reader,” said she began writing “Gearbreakers” for a simple reason: She wasn’t seeing characters like herself — biracial (she’s half-Korean, half-white), queer teens — on the pages of the books she loved. “I hadn’t come across a book with my exact demographic like that, and so I wrote it,” she said, laughing. “It was like a ‘Why not?’ situation. Someone like me, younger than me but like me, could find themselves as the protagonist of this book. It’s very important to have that possibility out there.”
“Gearbreakers” actually isn’t Mikuta’s first novel; that was “a terrible long zombie apocalypse novel” that she wrote earlier in high school and “didn’t even edit.” Writing comes easily to her, as an outgrowth of her love for reading. “I’ve always had such comfort in books — the same type of feeling when I’m writing,” she said. “I can do anything with it.”
The zombie novel, unpolished as it was, was just an appetizer; with “Gearbreakers,” Mikuta said, “I settled into my voice.” She began with the idea of “a very classic sci-fi setting” in the very distant future, post-nuclear war, in which gearbreakers — rebels against a tyrannical ruler with giant mechanized weapons — went hunting in a desert. “I had this contrast in my head — white, flat desert, and this metropolis in the middle, connected by train tracks. I really liked that image: the city like an antagonist, sucking the life out of everything around it.”
After finishing the novel, Mikuta began sending out query letters to agents (finding templates for them via Google). Just a week before arriving in Seattle to start at UW, she got a call from an agent. “I didn’t tell my parents until I had already signed,” Mikuta said, laughing. “They thought I was getting scammed!” (She admits to telling “kind of a lie” in her letters, saying that she was already a UW student. “I figured I would already be there!” she said, admitting that she was afraid that she wouldn’t be taken seriously if prospective agents knew she was a teenager. The ruse worked well: Mikuta said her eventual agent at first assumed the young author was a graduate student.)
Associate editor Emily Settle of Feiwel & Friends (a children’s book division of Macmillan) recalls being dazzled during her initial read of the manuscript, by “its amazing world-building and wonderful characters. It’s a rare book that can physically make my heart pound, yet Zoe’s did that for 400 pages straight.” Settle said the publishers were aware that Mikuta was a teen and that her age was included in the pitch; for an author to sign a book deal at this age, she said, was “unusual, but not unheard of.”
The movie option — meaning producers purchased the right to shop the book around to studios in the hope of setting up a film — shortly followed, announced in September 2019. Mikuta is aware that not every option leads to an actual movie — “It’s definitely not the basket I’m putting all my eggs in!” she said — but is excited by the prospect nonetheless. Currently, she said, the project has several producers (including Don Murphy, of the “Transformers” franchise) and is looking for a studio home. “I have trouble conceptualizing it,” she said, admitting that she does let herself, late at night, imagine what the movie might be.
More concrete is “Gearbreakers” the book, numerous copies of which are now happily ensconced on a shelf in her apartment. When the box arrived, “my heart was beating really, really fast,” Mikuta said. “I put it on my floor and left it there for a couple of days. I just thought, if I open it, it’s real and I want it to be real but I don’t know if I can handle it.” Many tears later, she’s just “very, very happy” to be looking at them. She loves the cover, for which she provided the designer with physical descriptions of her book’s two heroines.
Meanwhile, Mikuta — who’s majoring in English-creative writing and minoring in history of religion — is happily anticipating returning to in-person classes in the fall at the UW (she had to take a quarter off, due to financial difficulty). She’s enjoying life in Seattle, where she’s found community through a campus club of queer and nonbinary students.
And more books are on the way: The “Gearbreakers” sequel is completed, as is a fantasy horror book — it’s “a gothic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ retelling meets [Japanese manga series] Attack on Titan,” finished during the pandemic. She’s now at work on another novel, a contemporary sci-fi about “kids illegally brawling homemade robots in the undergroundscape of Seattle.”
Most of all, she’s finding joy in writing, in continuing the work done by that teenager in the quiet library. “The concept that I can just be world-creating, as a career — it just gets me giddy every time I think of it,” she said. “I’m having such a blast.”
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