Interview with Malinda Lo

The second of my interviews with Andre Norton Award nominees brings us Malinda Lo, whose book (with its gorgeous cover) is now on the shelves in my school library, and I wasn’t even the one to purchase it!

Interviewed by Tehani Wessely on April 02 2010 – first published at the Nebula Awards website.

Malinda Lo is nominated for the Andrew Norton Award for her novel Ash.

Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, has been shortlisted for a whole BUNCH of awards and recommended reading lists and it’s only your first (published) novel! Have you been surprised by the reception for the book? What can you tell us about where the story came from and how it has been received by the general public?

Have I been surprised? Absolutely, totally surprised—and overjoyed, obviously!

Before Ash was published, I worked in the LGBT media, reporting on the representations of lesbians and bisexual women in TV, film, music, and books. Books in general are loads more progressive than Hollywood, so I hoped that Ash might be well-received, but at the same time, I am very well aware of mainstream beliefs about LGBT people. Young adult fiction has seen an increasing number of books about LGBTQ teens in recent years, but not so many in fantasy.

So, you know, it was within this context—which I was aware of—that Ash was published. I think that many readers have responded incredibly positively to the fact that being gay is totally normal in Ash’sworld. Many queer teens I’ve spoken to have especially liked this. I’m also happy that Ash has found so many straight (heterosexual) fans. That was something I was worried about; I did want Ash to be accessible to everyone, straight or queer.

Where do you go after such success? Huntress is the forthcoming companion novel to Ash. Can you tell us a bit about the new book?

Well, luckily I wrote the first two drafts of Huntress before Ash was published. Otherwise, I think I would have been totally blocked by fear of failure. In fact, writing the third draft of Huntress was extremely difficult at first, because I was doing that while I was promoting Ash. That experience, though, really forced me to separate my identity as a writer from the accolades that Ash has gotten. Obviously, I’m so happy that Ash has been so well-received. But it’s only my first published novel. I do hope that Huntress is better. I hope that I continue to write better books. The only way to do that is to put my nose to the grindstone and work.

Huntress is a book I love so much. In Ash, hunting is a major sport; each hunt is led by a Huntress. The novel Huntress, which is set several centuries before Ash in the same world, is about the firstHuntress in that Kingdom. It’s a heroine’s quest about the power of love and loss. And there are weapons and monsters and magic and lesbians!

We’ll definitely be looking out for Huntress! Have you any other projects in the works you can tell us about?

I’m superstitious, so, um, no. smile

You posted on your blog that while you personally identify your characters Ash and Kaisa as Asian, you don’t feel that Ash is necessarily identifiable as a book with characters of colour. Obviously though, sexuality, another aspect of mainstream literature that is often defaulted to a certain type of “normal”, is a big part of the book. What are your feelings about the importance of how these two issues are being represented in mainstream literature, and particularly in Young Adult literature?

I’d like to clarify that I see Ash and Kaisa as looking Asian in appearance, not as Asian in descent, because there is no Asia in Ash‘s world.

I think that the recent discussion in the YA blogosphere about the representation of people of color in YA fiction has been incredibly stimulating and useful. I think there are books being published with people of color as main characters, but often they fall through the cracks. The advantage of having this ongoing discussion is that it highlights some of these books and gets readers thinking about their own reading habits.

As for the queer stuff … YA has increasingly included LGBTQ characters over the past few years. There are still more books about gay boys than gay girls, and I’d like to see that balanced out. There is a giant need for more books about transgender teens. In general, though, I think things are moving in the right direction, and I’m very excited to be part of that movement.

There’s a growing understanding among publishers, libraries, schools and the reading world in general that it is absolutely essential for there to be realistic portrayals of race other than white, and sexuality other than straight, in young adult fiction. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that including diversity in all forms of media (adult as well as young adult fiction, TV, film, etc.) is very important, and it’s great that more gatekeepers are aware of this these days.

Have you come across any fallout among parents or librarians because of the sexuality portrayed in this YA novel?

I’d say 98% of the reactions I’ve heard about have been positive. (I don’t google myself, though.) I have read a couple of reviews in which the reader was obviously uncomfortable with the lesbian story line, but that’s to be expected.

However, two things have happened that remind me that some people are still not OK with gay folks.

At one library event a teacher told me that she was unable to bring several of her students because their parents objected to my biography. I think she meant the copy on the book flap that says I was awarded the Sarah Pettit Memorial Prize for Excellence in LGBT Journalism—that’s the only thing I can think of that might have raised a flag, because it has the term “LGBT” in it. The cover copy of Ash itself does not trumpet the fact that Ash falls in love with a woman.

I was really shocked, actually, to hear this—probably because the teacher was so blunt about it. I am happy that she came and brought other students (oddly, younger ones) whose parents did not object to my bio.

I also had an amusing experience last fall. The Pacific Sun, a local newspaper, did a cover story aboutAsh and illustrated it with an image of two Disney princesses dancing together. (You can see it here:http://www.malindalo.com/2009/11/we-have-news/) Many parents wrote into the newspaper to object to that image, saying it was inappropriate for their children to see two girls dancing together. So, it wasn’t about Ash at all, but about a perception of sexuality where frankly there was none. In response to these parents’ letters, many other people wrote in and defended the image.

In 2010, there seems to be an expectation on authors that they play a big role in the online marketing of their books through blogs and other social media. What are your thoughts on this? You have a background in blogging; do you think this gives you an advantage in this area?

I think that every author should do what she can handle and what she’s comfortable with, while knowing that there is a limit to how much you can do on your own. Also, it’s much more important to write your next book than spend all your time promoting your last one.

I do think my background in working online helped me figure out what I wanted to do, but actually, the fact that my background was in online journalism helped even more. I came to this knowing enough about how the media works that I think I had realistic expectations of the kind of coverage I could get for Ash. And, honestly, I had some contacts in the media who helped me out. The fact that I worked in gay media was even better, because Ash has gay content. So, in a way I was perfectly prepared to promote Ash online.

On the other hand, I had never been a “young adult author” before, so I had no idea what that truly entailed. Figuring out what that means has also affected the way I view blogging and promotion. Basically, I’ve learned that writing has to come first, before any promoting, because I plan to be in this for the long haul.

Malinda Lo is the author of Ash (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), which 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. Formerly, she was an entertainment reporter, and was awarded the 2006 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for Excellence in LGBT Journalism by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and has master’s degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities. She has lived in Colorado, Boston, New York, London, Beijing, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but now lives in a small town in Northern California with her partner and their dog.

This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.