I couldn’t be happier to be part of the crew launching the 2010 Summer Blog Blast Tour today with Malinda Lo, author of the much-praised Cinderella-retelling, Ash. I loved this book. Read my review here, and then come on back. The New York Times called it “somber and lovely,” and Kirkus blessed it with a starred review, saying it is “exquisite and pristine.” It happens to be up for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award. Bottom line? If you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a moody and magical treat. Save it for just the right moment. You will be enchanted and you will become an instant Malinda Lo fan. So aren’t you lucky that she’s right here with us today? Welcome Malinda!
What first interested you about the prospect of retelling such a classic story? What surprised you about the process? What proved to be more challenging or satisfying about re-imagining Cinderella than you had initially anticipated?
The first first thing that interested me in retelling a fairy tale was most likely reading Robin McKinley’s Beauty when I was a kid. That retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” showed me how wonderful a fairy tale retold can be. I wanted to retell “Cinderella” because it has always been my favorite fairy tale, but I had never read a retold version of it that I really enjoyed.
When I started thinking about how I would retell “Cinderella,” I thought it would be relatively simple because, well, I knew what happened! But the most surprising thing about retelling it was the realization that actually, no, I did not know what happened. Figuring out what happened — the plot — turned out to be the most challenging part of writing Ash.
One of the real pleasures for readers of your book, is the mood you create throughout – a little magic, a little darkness, romance and loneliness all mixed together. So here’s a million dollar question: how did you do that? On your website, you share a playlist that you listened to during the writing process. What else did you do to help you get into the right writing space as you worked on Ash?
I wrote Ash on and off over a period of eight years, so I did a lot of different things — I was always chasing that mood! Looking back on it, I think I was experimenting a lot with techniques that would put me in the right writing space. One of the things that definitely did help was music. I own every single Loreena McKennitt album now because listening to her brand of Celtic music was so helpful in getting myself into that Ash place! I also learned that I write better when I can do it for long stretches, as opposed to an hour at a time. So I began to block out four to eight-hour chunks of time to work.
Back then, I was working full-time but had a flexible schedule because I was a self-employed freelance writer. I scheduled every Friday afternoon and evening as Ash writing time, and I did this for a couple of years. It did mean I sacrificed part of my social life, but it was worth it. And honestly, you can do plenty of socializing on Saturday night!
There could be some potential readers out there who as soon as they hear the words “lesbian retelling of Cinderella” think that Ash will live happily ever after in the LGBT section of libraries or bookstores, and that if they aren’t LGBT themselves, this book might not be something they’d be interested in reading. Why do you think this story has broad appeal for teen readers?
You know, I get this question a lot, and I understand why. I would ask it, too. I don’t think that many minority writers would want to be ghettoized by having their books placed only in a special interest section. At the same time, I recognize that having those special interest sections was once a mark of progress. In the not-so-distant past, LGBT books weren’t even carried in most mainstream bookstores, much less in LGBT sections. So while I’m glad that Ash hasn’t been relegated to that dusty corner of the bookstore, at the same time, I feel like it’s a privilege for it to be categorized in the LGBT section. Many of the other books in that section paved the way for my book to be published, and I’m thankful for them.
Of course, I do hope that Ash has broad appeal. I can’t say for certain whether it does or not — I’m no Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer! But I do think that Ash is a love story told in a fairly mainstream voice. Yes, Ash falls in love with another girl, but the gender of her love interest is almost incidental. The book isn’t about being gay or coming out; it’s about falling in love.
Tell us about what inspires you most. If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?
1. My grandmother, Ruth Earnshaw Lo, who was a writer herself. She encouraged me to tell stories even before I could write them down.
2. The aforementioned Beauty by Robin McKinley, which definitely inspired me to retell a fairy tale.
3. Falling in love! I think this has to be one of the most important inspirations for pretty much any writer writing about human relationships. The good, the bad, and the ugly of it — all of it is inspiring.
4. The woods near my house have been a great source of inspiration for me, both in describing the Wood in Ash, and in helping me to break through stuck moments. If I feel blocked, I go for a walk, and being in nature almost always helps.
5. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and teacher. I’ve found her books to be so inspirational. A writer encounters a lot of roadblocks, ranging from rejection to bad reviews to writer’s block. Chodron’s teachings really help me to see the bigger picture.
What do you think Ash discovers about herself during the period of this story? What did you discover about her that you would never have predicted when you first started writing?
I think that Ash discovers that she is worthy of being loved. But I never would have predicted that she would be loved by Kaisa!
In the first draft, I actually had Ash falling in love with the prince. After I gave that draft to a friend to read, she told me that she didn’t think the prince and Ash had much chemistry, but Ash really seemed to like this other female character. That totally shocked me! Upon rereading the manuscript, though, I realized my friend was right. I ended up rewriting the book entirely to bring out the real romance.
What was the most unexpectedly thrilling thing about having your first book published?
Seeing the Library of Congress cataloguing information on the copyright page! I know that is totally dorky, but when I saw that, I thought, wow. It’s really real. I think it’s often been more amazing for me to see my book in libraries than on bookstore shelves. And I swear I’m not even trying to brown nose librarians! I’ve just always loved the library.
Best writing advice you’ve ever received: Don’t wait for inspiration.
Best writing advice you would give: Believe in yourself, and don’t give up!
What is the most difficult part of writing for you, and what aspect of writing is the most fulfilling?
Beginnings of books are the most difficult for me. When I first start a project, the characters are new to me, and I’m trying to find the voice or tone of the novel, so sometimes I feel like I’m feeling around in the dark trying to find something that I can’t quite remember. But at some point, those elements — characters, voice, plot — all come together, and that’s the part of writing I love the most. The moments when I can be so entirely focused on storytelling that I write without even being conscious of my fingers on the keys. Even if what I’ve written is total dreck (and sometimes it is), that doesn’t detract from the feeling I get of being completely uplifted by the work. I love that feeling!
You’ve said that there won’t be a sequel to Ash, which I suppose we will all have to accept. ☺ But could you tell us where you see this character going after the story ends? Describe her happily ever after (because I’m guessing hers is a happily ever after sort of life).
Ha, well, I’d love to describe it for you, but unfortunately Ash hasn’t told me what happens!
Honestly, I haven’t thought about it at all. I know that she does indeed have a happily ever after, but I have never been curious to figure out what it is. I feel like her story is told, and whatever happens next is, um, private. I realize that sounds kinda crazy since Ash is a character that I invented, but I’m a writer, so I get to be a little eccentric, right? ☺ I can assure you that she has a grand and wonderful life!
If you’re in a secret-revealing kind of mood, could you tell us a bit about your next book, Huntress? (Pretty please!)
Sure! Huntress is set in the same world as Ash, but about a thousand years earlier, and it tells the story of the first huntress in the Kingdom. When the book begins, the Kingdom is undergoing a difficult time; spring hasn’t come after a particularly bad winter, and war is brewing in the south. Two girls are called to go on a journey that will put them in the path of plenty of danger … and romance! I’m excited to share it with readers.
Thanks a bunch for joining us for Day 1 of the SBBT Malinda!
Be sure to check out the rest of the interviews happening today:
(Author photo credit: Patty Nason)