Monday, March 1, 2010

An Interview with Malinda Lo

Tarie interviews Malinda Lo

Why did you choose to retell Cinderella? What did you find compelling about it?

The short version is, I loved "Cinderella" when I was a little girl, and as I grew up, I wished that my favorite author, Robin McKinley, would retell it. She never did, so I decided to write the book that I wanted to read.

For a longer version, feel free to check out my FAQ, where I answer this question here

What was the research and writing process you used for Ash? Did you do a lot of research on the different versions of Cinderella? What literary and non-literary influences and inspirations did you draw from while writing Ash?

When I began working on Ash, I was a graduate student studying cultural anthropology, so I used a lot of that training in my research. I did read many different versions of "Cinderella" from all over the world. I also read critical analyses of fairy tales that unpacked the meaning of these stories. I especially enjoyed Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde (, which delves into the storytellers behind the stories, as well as feminist criticism.

I also read a lot of folklore collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain and Ireland. I'm especially indebted to the work of British folklorist Katharine Briggs. Those stories heavily influenced the kinds of fairies that are in Ash, as well as the fairy tales I tell in the book.

My other literary inspirations for Ash include Robin McKinley's Beauty, Rose Daughter, and Deerskin, three amazing fairy tale retellings; and the fairy tale retellings of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber (not for children!).

Of all the different versions of Cinderella you read, which one did you like the most or find the most interesting, and why?

I'm sorry to say I don't really remember liking one particular version better than any others. During my research phase, I wasn't reading them to see which ones I liked; I was reading them to see what they did differently from each other. I wanted to see which elements of the tale repeated across retellings, which ones didn't, etc.

However, I also watched a lot of Cinderella movies (there are a ton), and among these, I did really like Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore. It was sweet and kinda cheesy, but enjoyable. And I thought it did a great job of making the prince into someone interesting.

What were a few of the things that were repeated across the retellings and a few of the things that weren't?

Well, it's interesting to look at what the source of magic is in each Cinderella story. In the Disney version, which is based on Charles Perrault's retelling, the magical element comes in the form of a fairy godmother. But in the Grimms' version, it's in the form of a tree that Cinderella plants over her mother's grave. That tree, and the birds that land on its branches and ultimately peck out the eyes of the wicked stepsisters, could be seen as extensions of Cinderella's dead mother, who sort of comes back from the grave to help her daughter. In a Chinese version of the story, the magical element is in the form of a fish. So, you get the picture! Choosing how the magical element would be incorporated into Ash — in the form of Sidhean, the male fairy — was one of the first decisions I made.

As for what's not in all the versions of the story ... in some cases, Cinderella is made to perform a series of near-impossible tasks before she can go to the ball, such as pick out a hundred lentils thrown among the ashes of the fire. In other versions, she just gets to go to the ball. In one draft of Ash I did have her do some kind of impossible task, but that was cut out because it bogged the story down. The idea of impossibility was instead referenced when Sidhean gives her the medallion that enables her to call him, and he tells her, "Use this when you need something impossible."

Is there anything about Cinderella that you didn't like and made sure to change in Ash?

Well, most obviously, I wasn't really into Prince Charming. :) I think that he is the weakest part of the traditional fairy tale, actually, because he has very little personality. When I decided to retell the story, I knew that I would have to create a very believable and charming love interest, and initially I had some trouble with that character. In the first draft, Ash did fall in love with the prince, but their love was terribly unconvincing. It wasn't until a friend of mine, who read the first draft and pointed out that Ash was much more interested in this other, female character, that I realized who the true "Prince Charming" was.

And I have to say I really enjoyed developing the character of Kaisa. She was there from the first draft, but it took a few rewrites for me to really understand who she was. I think most of my favorite scenes in Ash involve her.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a woman writer of color?

One of the challenges for me is that not only am I a person of color, I'm queer. So juggling both of those minority identities can be difficult. I often feel like I'm being asked to choose between them, when in fact both are part of me, but neither of them comprise the whole.

Sometimes writers of color are expected to represent their own cultures and experiences, when that is not necessarily expected of white writers. I think that's a shame, because as writers and artists, I believe we write the stories that call to us. Sometimes that doesn't involve telling a story about being a minority, and being criticized for that can feel, well, unfair.

Of course, there are many rewards to standing up for who you are and sharing that with others. The emails and messages I've gotten from readers who identify with my book have been amazing. It's always especially wonderful when someone who is queer and Asian writes to me, and tells me that Ash made her day. Writing is all about connecting with others, and when that connection is made on such a gut level, I'm always deeply touched.

What are your favorite books by women writers of color?

A lot of the books I've loved by women writers of color are memoir or poetry. I still read through Alice Walker's Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990, every so often. Her poems can be so short, but so sharp.

And one memoir that I still remember years after reading it is M. Elaine Mar's Paper Daughter. It's about a Chinese girl who immigrates to Denver, Colorado, which is what I did, too. Her experiences of growing up in a predominantly white community really resonated with me.

This year, I've enjoyed Justina Chen Headley's North of Beautiful, a YA novel about a girl and her mother, beauty and love (and a great Chinese American boy); and Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix, a YA fantasy set in a China-like world. So much action and fun and food!


a. fortis said...

Great interview, Tarie! Thanks to you & to Malinda for taking the time to be interviewed. I have ASH on my TBR pile and look forward to reading it soon!

Tarie said...

So glad you enjoyed the interview, a. fortis! Malinda is really great. I hope you like ASH. =D

tanita davis said...

Excellent interview. All of us on the Cybils team really enjoyed Ash and it was definitely a one-of-a-kind, lyrical and beautifully written book.

Tarie said...

Thanks, Tanita. =D

malinda said...

@a. fortis -- Hope you enjoy ASH. :)

@tanita davis -- So glad you liked the book!

@Tarie -- Thanks for the interview invitation!

Tarie said...

Thank YOU, Malinda! I look forward to reading your next YA novel!

Jessie Carty said...

fantastic interview!

MissAttitude said...

Loved ash! Funny Malinda that you mention ever after is your favorite Cinderella retelling movie because I JUST read a review (Ninja Librarian blog) where she says that Ash reminded her a bit of Ever After. What a crazy coincidence =)

I can sort of understand where you are coming from about being pulled in two different directions, being a minority and queer. i think women of color are also pulled in different directions and i'm half Black, half Hispanic and I often feel pressed to be/celebrate one and not the other.

You can tell from some of the names in the book (Sidhean, Aisling) that they were influenced by British/Irish/Scottish folklore. They just have that ring to them :)

Thanks Tarie and Malinda for this interview!

Vasilly said...

What a great review. I'm definitely going to have to pick up Ash now. Alice Walker's Her Blue Body Everything We Know is one of my favorite books too.

Tarie said...

Jessie, thanks. =D

Ari, I love how your comments are always so thoughtful!

Vasilly, ASH is enchanting. =D

Anonymous said...

Tarie and Malinda, thank you sooo much for the interview. Malinda, thank you for your honesty about your struggles with outside expectations and your own identity. I haven't read ASH yet, but the book is definitely on my list.

I look forward to meeting one day. Maybe at an event today. :)

Lauren said...

Thanks for the wonderful interview. Ash is such a beautiful book, and one of my favourites of recent years. I think the scenes with Kaisa are my favourites too.

It's so interesting to hear about other versions of Cinderella, and makes me realise just how few I know about. Makes me want to do some research.

Tarie said...

I've been thinking... I honestly can't choose a favorite scene in ASH because I just really like anything to do with Ash herself. I really enjoyed "watching" Ash grow up and really develop as a character/person. :o)