With Ash, 35-year-old Malinda Lo makes her debut as a novelist—and Cinderella makes her debut as a lesbian.
But Ash (Little, Brown) remains a PG version of the classic fairy tale. “Even though I describe it as a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, it's not really about being gay,” Lo says. “It's about grief, because Ash is grieving the death of her parents, and it's about finding love. Those are things anyone can experience, whether you're straight or gay.”
Why Cinderella? “I loved the fairy tale as a girl,” says Lo, who moved from China to the United States when she was three. “I even love the Disney version. [But] I've never really read a Cinderella fairy tale that spoke to me.”
After extensive research into various versions of the Cinderella fairy tale, Lo decided to name her heroine Ash. After all, Cinderella gets her name because she sits in cinders. And being covered in ashes is “symbolic of very deep grief,” says Lo. The character's full name is Aisling, which means “dream” in Gaelic. “I like the idea of Ash having lots of dreams,” says Lo.
Lo is no overnight success—Ash took eight years from conception to publication. Along the way, Lo wrote nonfiction for Lesbian News, Curve, and AfterEllen.com. In August 2008, after Little, Brown acquired Ash, Lo quit her job as managing editor of AfterEllen.com to write full-time.
Through her agent, Laura Langlie, Ash received five offers. “I went with Little, Brown because my editor there, Kate Sullivan, really got the book,” she says. “It wasn't a coming-out story. It was a coming-of-age story.”
Lo—who majored in economics at Wellesley College—says she loved Sullivan's suggestions. “She worked with me a lot on bringing out the theme in the book in which Ash makes the choice between death, represented by Sidhean the fairy, and life, represented by Kaisa,” she says. “The only thing that didn't change was the first sentence.”
Lo lives in Marin with her partner, lawyer Amy Lovell, and their black Labrador. Because of the dog, she gets up at 6:30 a.m. She meditates and then writes from 9 to 5 in her office, with a view of an oak tree. (She shuts off the Internet for two- and three-hour stretches so she can't look at her e-mail too often.)
She traces her love of literature back to her childhood, when she read many books—from Robin McKinley's fantasy The Blue Sword to Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light. Now she frequently rereads Pride and Prejudice and also likes lesbian writers Sarah Waters and Nicola Griffith.
As a teen, Lo says she wrote three novels: “I hope no one ever sees them.” After college, she worked in PR and as an editorial assistant to Joe Blades, who handled adult mystery fiction at Ballantine. Then, thinking that she would become a professor, she spent two years at Harvard, where she got her master's degree in East Asian studies, and two years at Stanford, where she got a master's in cultural anthropology.
It's been a big year: she wrote a widely read AfterEllen.com column—one that was pegged to the coming out of Cybill Shepherd's daughter Clementine Ford. She also made Out magazine's “Out 100” list. And she has just been named a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, given by the American Library Association.
Next up, in spring 2011: Huntress, a YA novel (not based on a fairy tale) about a girl hero's quest. The story, starring the first huntress in the kingdom, is set in the same world as Ash—but “maybe a thousand years earlier,” says Lo. “There are no crossover characters.”
“I will say that at first I did not want to write a lesbian Cinderella because I was afraid it would be unsellable,” says Lo. Apparently not.