Get ready for some bookish fun! The six authors of the five books on the 2010 Morris Award shortlist have all agreed to be interviewed at the YALSA blog. Once a week, there will be an interview here, leading up to the Big Day: January 18, when the Morris Award will be awarded at ALA’s Midwinter Youth Media Awards.
The Morris Award Committee on Ash: “Consumed with grief after the death of her father, Ash’s only escape from her harsh life and cruel stepmother comes from re-reading the fairy tales that her mother once told her and hoping against hope that the fairies will appear to her. When the fairy Sidhean appears, Ash hopes that he will steal her away to his enchanted world; but when she meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, she realizes that staying in her own realm can also lead to beauty, romance, and perhaps even love.”
YALSA Blog: Congratulations on being on the shortlist for the Morris Award! Where were you when you found out you’d been shortlisted for the Morris Award? And who was the first person you told?
Malinda Lo: I was at home, about to take my dog for a walk, when the phone rang. I’m so glad I answered it! I was totally shocked when I heard. I think my first words were, “No way!” The first person I told was my partner, Amy.
YALSA Blog: Ash is a re-imagining of Cinderella. Why Cinderella?
Malinda Lo: Cinderella was my favorite fairy tale when I was a little girl. I even loved the Disney version! (My excuse is that I was 6.) As I grew up, I read a number of fairy tale retellings, especially those written by Robin McKinley. I always wished she would retell Cinderella, but she never did. So, I ultimately decided to write the book I had always wanted to read.
YALSA Blog:In Ash’s world, fairies are real but only country folk, like Ash’s mother, still believe. City folk, like Ash’s stepfamily, do not. Could you share with us some of the inspirations for the fairy world you created?
Malinda Lo: A lot of the fairy tale atmosphere in Ash is inspired by Irish and British folklore about fairies. The rules for how to deal with fairies, the warnings about them—these are all traditional folk beliefs.
I have to admit that Ash’s world is a bit of a multicultural stew of inspirations, though. The funeral for Ash’s mother was inspired by traditional Chinese funerary rites (I studied Chinese anthropology in grad school). The woods that Ash walks in are lifted, pretty much directly, from the woods near my own house in Northern California.
YALSA Blog: Ash doesn’t just live in a world where fairies are real; she loves fairy tales, that is, stories about fairies. In fact, those books and stories keep her going at some of her darkest times. A whole new book could be made just using those stories. Where did the stories Ash reads come from?
Malinda Lo: The fairy stories were based on folklore collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by folklorists such as Katharine Briggs and Lady Wilde. The tale of “Kathleen” in particular was based on a specific story about a girl of that name.
The other tales, especially the ones about hunting, I invented, though I tried to give them the same sort of feel as the more traditional fairy tales.
YALSA Blog: Ash has been called a lesbian Cinderella. At what point in the writing process did you realize that Ash and the King’s Huntress were meant to be together?
Malinda Lo: The first draft of Ash was actually straight—Ash fell in love with the prince. I gave that draft to a friend to read, and she told me that she felt that Ash didn’t have much chemistry with the prince. She did, however, seem to really like this other woman in the book!
I was really startled by this at first. I reread that draft and realized that yes, I had somehow written in some kind of lesbian subtext. I did initially try to make the prince more charming, because I didn’t think writing a lesbian Cinderella was a good idea. I thought it would make the book unsellable. But no matter what I did to the prince, Ash remained uninterested in him. I finally decided to go for it, and in the second draft I changed about 90% of the book, allowing Ash to fall in love with Kaisa.
YALSA Blog: The Morris Award is for a “first time author writing for teens.” Why do you write for teens?
Malinda Lo: I didn’t actually write Ash with a particular audience in mind, other than myself. It wasn’t until was ready to submit the book for publication that I realized it would work well as a young adult novel.
Since the book’s publication, I’ve heard from a lot of teens, and I have to say that teens are such wonderful readers to have. They’re so enthusiastic and supportive, and are so ready to be inspired. I’m happy to have teens reading Ash!
YALSA Blog: Ash is your first book. What was your writing process for Ash – outline or just see where Ash took you?
Malinda Lo: I had actually written three fantasy novels when I was a teenager, but then I went through a long dry spell in terms of writing fiction. When I began to work on Ash, it had been about 10 years since I’d written fiction consistently. So I went back to what I did when I was a teen.
I did outline the story, and came up with long character questionnaires. At the same time, I was an anthropology graduate student, so I approached worldbuilding from an anthropologist’s perspective. That means I thought about rituals—cultural practices that can mark major changes in one’s life, like birth, marriage, and death. I also read a lot of cultural studies analysis of fairy tales, and social history about the roles of women, particularly stepmothers.
Of course, even though I had written those fantasy novels when I was a teen, I was a very rusty writer of fiction. So despite all this prep work, Ash often took off in directions I didn’t expect. It was an eight-year process, and I think I wrote about eight drafts of the book.
YALSA Blog: One thing I’ve heard authors say is that in revising and editing, they have to “kill their darlings,” that is, remove parts of the book they really love but that just don’t work or belong in the final book. Is there any particular scene or character you had to “kill” from Ash?
Malinda Lo: Of course, there were times when I initially resisted changing things, but in retrospect, I’m very happy with all those decisions. And I want to add that I actually don’t see judicious editing as killing anything. It’s not about tearing out living, breathing parts of the story—it’s about removing the dead weight. Judicious editing makes the book even more alive. It brings the focus to the right moments.
YALSA Blog: What are you working on now?
Malinda Lo: Currently I’m writing another young adult fantasy, titled Huntress, due out in spring 2011. It’s set in the same world as Ash, but many hundreds of years earlier, so there are no crossover characters and things are quite a bit different. The book is my version of a hero’s quest, and it’s about the very first huntress in the kingdom.
YALSA Blog: What three books do you think are must-reads for teens?
Malinda Lo: These weren’t necessarily written for teens, but I read them all for the first time when I was a teen, and I think they are definitely must-reads:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — I read this for the first time when I was 14. I’ve reread it so many times since then, and each time it’s different!
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley — A hero’s quest, starring a girl, and it’s brilliant.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier — Fans of Gothic suspense should go here first, because Du Maurier really shows you how it’s done.
YALSA Blog: Thank you!