Malinda Lo is the author of Ash and the just-released Huntress, both from Little, Brown. Lo will be crossing the country with Cindy Pon, author of Fury of the Phoenix (Greenwillow), to celebrate the publication of their new novels. These two friends and fellow authors are calling this the Diversity Tour. PW caught up with Lo at home in Los Angeles, on the day her next manuscript was due to her editor.
Both Ash and Huntress feature star-crossed romances between two girls. Can you talk about the role of romance in your storytelling?
My books were always going to be between two girls—I didn’t make a radical choice to do this. I’m not interested in heterosexual romances. I just wrote Ash and then Huntress as a romance, and what’s funny to me about this is that I have never really enjoyed reading romances. Though I really love books that have romance in them as an element and in YA, romance is really king.
I ended up enjoying writing this aspect of the books. The romance in Huntress in particular I love a lot, but it was very hard to do. It starts off by telling you these two girls are going to be in love—sets an expectation for the reader—so you really need to make it feel real, and the two main characters didn’t come to me that easily. I felt like I knew who Taisin was from the beginning but I didn’t really know Kaede at all. I’m not really a character–driven writer. I need to write the whole book before I get to know the characters, their motivations, and how to build them.
That experience taught me a lot about writing romance. I ended up reading a lot of romances that I loved to get a sense of how to do write one—the most unsappy romances I could find. I looked for books with understated romance to try and figure out why they worked for me. I read Persuasion by Jane Austen, for example. When I wanted to figure out sexual tension, I read adult books. YA romances don’t work for me—they’re mostly straight. I re-read Waters’s Tipping the Velvet to analyze why the sexual tension in the story worked for me and then tried to apply this in a YA context. During this process I realized that I really loved the romance in that book—at the beginning it’s actually very sweet, so the whole first part of the book is quite lovely in terms of building up a first romance.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always knew—it just took me a long, long time to get up the nerve to do it. I grew up in Colorado but I came to this country from China when I was three-and-a-half. My mother is a pianist—she was a professional musician in China. When she came to the United States she had to work a lot of odd jobs she didn’t like but eventually she quit her job and became a piano teacher. My parents wanted me to be able to support myself and I never thought being a writer would be a viable job opportunity and my parents drummed it into me that I must have a job! And even though I always wanted to write—I wrote my first novel at age 13 and then two others shortly afterward, all of them fantasy (they weren’t good but a load of fun to write)—in college the pressure to get a job thing was very powerful. I even majored in economics at Wellesley and tried to become an investment banker. One of these investment banking firms interviewed me. Then they called me afterward to say I didn’t get the job, but good luck in my career as a writer.
After college I moved to New York City without a job and eventually landed an editorial assistant position at Random House. It didn’t take long for me to realize I didn’t want to be in the business as an editor.
So what happened to change your mind about writing as a career?
Well, I did a masters at Harvard in East-Asian Studies—I had this idea I could do Chinese business-y stuff—an attempt to tell my parents I was serious about getting a job. Then I was going to do a Ph.D. in anthropology at Stanford. But once I got there I switched over almost immediately to American Popular Culture. I ended up getting a masters degree in cultural and social anthropology. I had fun, but what I really learned was that I did not like grad school. Basically, I had to go to grad school and hate it so much that dropping out to freelance sounded like a better idea. Initially, I got some jobs doing business writing, and then a friend asked me to write an article for her new website, AfterEllen.com—it ended up being the start of my career as an entertainment reporter. AfterEllen is now the biggest website for lesbian entertainment. It was a great experience and I did a lot of writing about television. Then I left in 2008 to write fiction.
Who influences you most in your writing?
Definitely Robin McKinley—she was clearly an influence in writing Ash but also with Huntress. I kept trying to think of how many YA fantasies I’d read where a girl goes on a hero’s quest and there are hardly any aside from Robin McKinley! Also, I’d recently read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. And I do love Sarah Waters. As a lesbian writer, she really gives me a lot of inspiration. Her writing is so unabashedly gay and she’s had so much success with her books—both critical and commercial. Then there is Holly Black’s Curse Worker series which I really loved. She does first-person narrative so well and I’m just so impressed with those books.
How does Chinese culture influence your writing?
I knew I wanted the world in Huntress to have a more overtly Asian influence than in Ash, which is very Celtic in feel—even though Chinese funerary rites are the basis for the rituals in Ash. But in Huntress I wanted to bring the Chinese influence out even more, in terms of the magic system. I wanted to use Chinese practices and philosophies in the rituals embedded in the book.
But for me, I think the Chinese-ness of Huntress is much more a matter of spirituality in practice. The academy of sages that Taisin attends is really based on the Chinese scholar examination system. In Imperial China only boys would study to be scholars, but in my world, only girls do. Taisin’s beliefs are lifted from Taoism. The epigraphs are based in the I Ching. And when Kaede is practicing with her bow and arrow, these practices are based in Zen tradition.
Why did you decide to use fairies in the story? Do you see Huntress fitting into the paranormal trend?
There are fairy creatures in it, but I just see it as a fantasy, and as a somewhat traditional epic fantasy.
How is Huntress a prequel to Ash?
I thought I was going to write a gothic horror novel after Ash, but I think during the course of revising it, I realized there was a back story to the culture and country in Ash, and I was intrigued by writing a hero’s quest. Ash is a fairytale retelling and I didn’t want to do another of these. And the hero’s quest is so classic—I wanted to put my own spin on it.
Will there be a sequel—or prequel—to Huntress?
There is a short story that is set a couple of years after Huntress coming out at Subterranean magazine—they’re doing a special YA edition. It will be available this summer and online for free. But at this point I don’t have a plan to write a sequel to Huntress. I do know what I want to do after my next two-book project is finished, but I probably shouldn’t say yet. Anything can happen.
Can you say more about the project?
I’m turning in the first book today. It is YA, sci-fi-ish, and it’s called Adaptation. It’s set in the near-future United States when a bunch of planes crash from bird strikes, and these two teens are stuck in Phoenix, Arizona because all the airplanes get grounded. They have to get back to San Francisco and they rent a car. They drive through Nevada. It’s really fun.
It’s very different from my other two books. It’s not like I don’t love writing fantasy, I’ve just always really loved the X-Files and in grad school I did research on the X-Files, so I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. I’ve always loved sci-fi so I’m really excited.
How are you celebrating the release of Huntress?
Well, I’m going on a book tour in May and June that I co-founded with Cindy Pon called Diversity in YA. We both have Asian-inspired fantasies and we became friends because of this. We thought it was so cool and we wanted to celebrate. We are going to be in five cities—San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Boston and New York. We have some great authors joining us, too—Jacqueline Woodson in New York City and Francisco Stork in Boston. It’s a great list of people. All of the authors are either authors of color or write about characters of color or that are LGBT. In New York we have one event focused especially on LGBT, too. I want it to be a fun party kind of thing. We have a Web site! Check us out at DiversityinYA.com.
Huntress by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-04007-5