Interview with Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo

Photo courtesy of Patty Nason.

YARN editors were thrilled to interview Malinda Lo, the brilliant and witty author of “Ash.” If you haven’t yet had a chance to read “Ash,” (which you definitely should) it’s the Cinderella story retold with a fairy/lesbian twist. Malinda’s prose recreates an ancient world, where fairies dominate the forests alongside farming villages, and carriages carrying want-to-be-princesses clatter down cobbled streets leading to the castle. When you read “Ash,” you travel into the world of the fairytale with all five senses.

“Ash” is is a nominee for the Andre Norton Award, was a finalist for the 2010 William C. Morris Award, and was a Kirkus Best Young Adult Novel of 2009. Prior to writing “Ash,” Malinda worked in publishing, as an entertainment reporter for, and earned Masters degrees from both Harvard and Stanford. “Huntress,” Malinda’s second book is due out in April of 2011. Malinda also blogs regularly.

On “Ash”

YARN: Many fairy tales and folk legends carry a message for young boys and girls about how they are expected to behave in society and the consequences if they fail.  American children grow up to idolize Disney princesses who win their prince with a beautiful face and a charming song. Your blog notes the many versions of Cinderella which served as research when you wrote “Ash.” What specific choices did you make while writing Ash’s character to make her different from the Cinderellas of the past?

ML: A tongue-in-cheek but accurate list: (1) She does not talk to animals; (2) she does not sing while cleaning the house; (3) she is not a blonde; (4) she does not fall in love with the prince.

More seriously, I didn’t really think too much about how Ash should be different from other Cinderellas. I actually tried to find the common threads among those different versions. The one thing that is true across all Cinderellas is that she is a young girl who loses both of her parents. That’s where Ash’s character began.

YARN: You mention on your blog that the first version of the novel had Ash fall for the prince. Was Sidhean present in that version of the story? How did the fairy conflict evolve within your tale and what research made you first consider using the magic of a powerful and seductive fairy instead of a plump, maternal fairy godmother?

ML: Yes, Sidhean was present in the first draft. All of the main characters were present in the first draft.

When I began my research for the book, I knew that I wanted a fairy in it, but at the time I didn’t know much about fairy folklore. I was an anthropology graduate student, so I began to read 19th century folklore about fairies in Ireland and England. That folklore leads directly to a concept of fairies as powerful and seductive supernatural creatures. The plump, maternal fairy godmother is a much more recent development.

My decision to make the fairy a male instead of female was probably my first big choice in terms of differentiating my version of Cinderella from others. I’m pretty sure I chose to make Sidhean male because I liked the idea that fairies shared traits with vampires, and I was a big fan of Spike on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Sidhean started out as a Spike-like figure, but he did change and evolve as I got to know him. (For example, he is not as funny as Spike.)

YARN: What role do fairy tales have in defining our ideas of love and companionship? Do you see “Ash” as an important step in reclaiming and redefining those ideals?

ML: This is such a complex question, and I encourage readers who are interested in exploring this further to check out Marina Warner’s “From the Beast to the Blonde,” as well as Jack Zipes’ numerous analyses of fairy tales.

Briefly, I’m sure that many readers can think of fairy tales in which the main female character is saved by a prince, or is rewarded for being good by marrying a prince. This does underscore both heteronormativity and class hierarchy; in other words, a girl should marry a rich man. But I do want to point out that fairy tales can actually be very complicated things, and there are different ways to interpret them.

I think that “Ash” is part of a long history of women reclaiming stories for themselves, and of queer women writing themselves into stories. “Ash” hasn’t even been out for a year yet, so I can’t predict how important it will be in the long run. But I’m happy to be part of that history.

YARN: You’ve noted that the point of the novel is that “Ash” falls in love, not that it’s with a woman.  Can you explain why this is a significant distinction?

ML: If the novel were about Ash falling in love with a woman for the first time, it would be a coming-out story. A coming-out story typically involves dealing with homophobia, facing others who don’t accept one’s sexual orientation, and learning to accept oneself. (I’m generalizing here!) The main point is: In a coming-out story, homophobia usually exists.

I say that “Ash”s about falling in love, period, because there is no homophobia in Ash’s world. The gender of Ash’s love interest is irrelevant. She doesn’t have to come out, because it’s totally normal for her to fall in love with a woman. It is very much a fairy tale, especially for queer readers.

YARN: Can you tell us a little about “Huntress” which is being published in Spring 2011?

ML: “Huntress” is set in the same world as “Ash,” but several centuries earlier, so there are no crossover characters. It is about the origin of the first huntress in the kingdom, and it’s fantasy. I think of it as a hero’s quest, except with two girls as the main characters. And there’s adventure and weapons and romance and lesbians!

On Writing

YARN: You mention on your blog that when beginning a book, you try to write 1500 words a day. Is this only when you’re working on a new project? Do you write everyday, even when not working on a novel or editorial piece? Do you keep a journal or diary?

ML: The 1500 words/day goal is only for when I’m writing a rough draft, when the point is to just get the story out on the page. I have to keep moving forward during this stage, and having that word count goal helps me to do that.

I don’t write fiction every day. Although I do write emails, blog posts, etc., daily; and I have noticed that if I don’t work on fiction a couple of days a week at least, I start to get antsy. That’s a fairly recent development, though.

I do keep a journal. I actually keep two: one for writing about my current novel, the other for writing about anything. One is basically more personal than the other.

YARN: How much does outlining and research play a role in your writing process prior to drafting a novel?

Huge! I love to research and I do a lot of it before I start. The research really helps me to conceptualize the story and the characters. I have to write outlines for my publisher, but I would write an outline even if I didn’t have to. I like to plan out the story in advance. That doesn’t mean the finished book is just like the outline, but it’s a great pre-first draft draft.

YARN: Can you tell us a bit about your revision process? Does your editor see your first draft? How much time does revision take? Any advice for our teen writers about revision?

ML: I think of the first draft I write as a rough draft. Nobody sees that except me! (The very idea of it horrifies me!) I clean it up a bit before I send what I call the first draft to my agent and editor. Revision can take a long, long time, but I suspect it varies depending on the book. I worked on “Ash” for eight years, but I had a day job at the time, and I wasn’t working under contract (i.e., with deadlines) the whole time. I worked on “Huntress” for one and a half years.

I like to encourage all writers to not think of revision as a horrible thing. Revision is really the most important part of writing because this is where stories begin to sing. This is where you shape the story, hone the characters, and sharpen your prose. Revision is writing.

YARN: As a career writer in many forms, there must have been one point at which you had a piece that either you didn’t want to write, or the writing didn’t come easy. Any advice to our teen writers who might be facing writer’s block?

ML: I think there are a few different kinds of writer’s block, and in order to deal with it successfully, you have to figure out which one you’re facing. Here are some different types:

1. I don’t wanna write this crappy report! — This is the kind of writer’s block I encountered when I had to write articles about subjects I was just tired of (e.g. reality television). However, I was a working writer and I had deadlines, and if I didn’t write the article I wouldn’t get paid. So in this case, the only solution is to suck it up and write the thing. The sooner you write it, the sooner it’ll be done. (This kind of writer’s block often afflicts students forced to write academic papers on topics they didn’t choose.)

2. I have no idea what to write! — I used to have this kind of block, and I think it stems from liking the idea of writing, but not actually having written enough. If you’re stumped as to what to write, you might be a beginning writer. The solution here is to grab some of those writing books that have exercises, and do them. Just write about whatever. Also, keep a notebook where you can note down ideas. The more you write (and the more ideas you jot down), the less you will have this problem. These days, I have the opposite problem: There are way too many things I want to write!

3. I’m totally stuck in this scene and don’t know what to write next! — I deal with this a lot myself. The thing that works for me is taking a break from writing by doing some sort of physical activity: exercise, yard work, painting, whatever. Just stop thinking about the place where you’re stuck and let your subconscious do the work. At some point, the solution will float to the surface.

On Reading

YARN: After reading “Ash,” and while waiting for “Huntress,” are there any YA books you would recommend to our readers?

ML: “Beauty” by Robin McKinley – My favorite retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

“Rampant” by Diana Peterfreund – A group of girls fight killer unicorns. Seriously awesome! And the sequel, “Ascendant,” comes out this October. I even blurbed it I loved it so much.

“Silver Phoenix” by Cindy Pon – An Asian-inspired fantasy adventure with mouth-watering food descriptions and fantastic magical creatures.

YARN: A while back, you wrote an article for about the evolution of LGBT young adult fiction. How do you see the genre continuing to evolve? Are we moving in the right direction?

ML: I think that publishing is still on the track I noted in that article: moving away from typical coming-out stories and including more LGBT secondary characters. Personally, I’d love to see more books about lesbian/bisexual teen girls (there still seem to be more books about gay boys than girls), and I’d like to see more LGBT teens in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction). I have high hopes!

YARN:  Thanks, Malinda, and good luck with “Huntress”!  We can’t wait!

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