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One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Malinda Lo

2013 June 27
by Julie Bartel
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This is the third interview in a series; check out the previous interviews with Melina Marchetta and David Maciniss Gill.

I love unique riffs on fairy tales, and when I heard about Ash I was totally excited. This is partly because Cinderella is one of my least favorite fairy tales and I’m always hoping for a retelling that transforms the story elements I dislike, that redeems the too-familiar plot points and often-stagnant setting, and that offers a new twist or memorable characters. Malinda Lo’s Ash and its companion novel Huntress certainly didn’t disappoint. And then came Adaptation, a contemporary science fiction novel (the first in a series) that hits all my freaky conspiracy theories and aliens buttons perfectly.

While waiting for the sequel, Inheritance to be released this September, I’ve spent a lot of time over at Diversity in YA, the site Lo and author Cindy Pon created to explore and “celebrate young adult books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability.” If you haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. (And if you’re going to be at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Chicago this weekend, make sure you add the APALA President’s Program, “Pushing the Boundaries: Presentation and Representation of LGBTQ Members of/by Asian/Pacific American Writers” to your schedule!)

Thank you so much, Malinda, for talking with me!

Always Something There to Remind Me

mlo2_bypattynason_hiPlease describe your teenage self.

Exploding with feelings. Suffocated.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer because I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s the one thing that has been a constant my entire life, so there is no why; it simply is.

What were your high school years like?

I went to high school in Lafayette, Colorado. I did not enjoy myself there, and while I somehow have become an author of young adult novels, it’s certainly not because I loved being a teenager. I remember yearning impatiently for adulthood. I could not wait to get out of high school and start my life as an adult.

What were some of your passions during that time?

I read widely, and some of my favorite authors were Robin McKinley and Madeleine L’Engle. I also read some highly questionable but highly addictive series such as the Dragonlance Chronicles (my favorite character was the sickly mage, Raistlin), and the Robotech novelizations by Jack McKinney (space opera!). My favorite bands, at least in public (to prove I had appropriate tastes), were Depeche Mode, The Cure, and the Beatles. I did like those bands, but in private, I also liked Madonna and Janet Jackson.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

I blogged about what haunted me at 17 in honor of Nova Ren Suma’s most recent book release, and that seems rather relevant to this question.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

I wrote three complete fantasy novels when I was a teen. I did that almost by accident — because I didn’t know I couldn’t. So now I know that I have no excuse to not finish any novel I’ve started writing.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?

I would advise my teen self to be more patient: that what I wanted would come to me eventually. But I know I would never have listened.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?

Nope.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

Nothing.

Every Day I Write the Book

Lo_Adaptation_HC_600x900I understand your graduate research at Stanford University was on the television show The X-Files, which is awesome. What drew you to that particular series and what did you discover during your studies? Did The X-Files influence your novel Adaptation in any way? Do you have any other pop culture passions and have any of them influenced your writing?

I started researching The X-Files because I loved the show! I soon realized that plenty of cultural studies scholars focus on television and fandom, and I was completely hooked on this stuff. I still am hooked on it — I love thinking about popular culture and how it works and what it all means.

When I studied The X-Files I managed to get myself on set for an entire week in Los Angeles, and I interviewed all the show’s executive producers. What I found most interesting was the producers’ complex relationship with their fans. They loved and hated them simultaneously. The fans obviously were the reason the show was so successful, but fans could also be relentless in their criticism. The X-Files was one of the first shows to become super popular on the internet, and it was fascinating to watch the producers negotiate the new and shifting boundaries between cultural production and cultural consumption. That happens all the time now that the internet is so social — on Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, everywhere there are fans engaging directly with creators. It happens to me, too, as a writer!

The X-Files definitely influenced Adaptation. In fact, in many ways Adaptation and Inheritance are love letters to The X-Files

Your books are often “labeled” (for lack of a better word) as “novels featuring LGBT characters” or “books with non-white protagonists” or “feminist fantasy/SF” — labels that are applied by booksellers, librarians, teachers, and reviewers to highlight and support books that readers might have difficulty finding. How do you feel about your work being described in those terms? Does it feel like a useful guide for readers, an oversimplification that doesn’t necessarily reflect the richness and complexity of the book as a whole, or something in between?

I don’t mind, because I know that labels can be a useful way to find something you’re interested in. I also want LGBT teens — especially queer teen girls — to know that my books exist, and if those labels put my books in their path, all the better.

On the other hand, I don’t believe my books can be reduced to any one label or category, and nor can most books. I hope that people who categorize them in specific ways also understand that there’s more to my books than those categories. For example, if librarians like to note that my books have lesbian and bisexual characters, that’s great, but don’t forget they’re also fantasies, fairy tales, or science fiction thrillers.

Finally, it’s very important to remember that simply because a book has queer characters does not mean that only queer people can read them. I’m an Asian American lesbian, and I’m capable of enjoying books about straight white people. It works the other way around, too.

ash_malindalo_500huntress_arc_cover_webYou’ve written and talked a lot about challenging heteronormativity in YA literature and about the importance of celebrating diversity in terms of race and identity and sexual orientation. Your books include those elements, but are not necessarily about those elements in the same way as say, a realistic coming of age novel or a so-called “problem novel.” Do you think genre fiction gives you more freedom to create the world as you’d like it to be, in respect to diversity?

Genre fiction can be freeing in many ways, but it also has plenty of restrictions. Obviously if you’re setting a book in a secondary invented world, you can create social structures in that world that are different from those in the real world. But I don’t believe that writers of realistic fiction have no control over the representations in their stories. I disagree with the sometimes popular notion that writers have little control over their characters. Writers create their characters and the context for those characters. Writers are responsible for the words they put on the page, including diversity or the lack thereof.

inheritance-arc-cover-200x299Your next book, Inheritance (the sequel to Adaptation), comes out in September 2013. Is there anything you can tell us about it that isn’t a spoiler? What will you be working on next?

Inheritance picks up minutes after the end of Adaptation, because the story I’m telling is really one big story that was cut in half. So Inheritance answers a lot of the questions that were raised in Adaptation, though I can’t promise it answers everything! Inheritance also picks up the thread of the romance between Reese, David, and Amber, and brings that to a conclusion — though maybe not the conclusion you’re expecting.

What I’m working on next is very different than anything I’ve written before. That is all I can say about it! It’s still very early days.

Just Can’t Get Enough

This question comes from David Macinnis Gill: “You have written that ‘LGBT is a problematic term’ because it blurs the distinction between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Can you explain how that may have an effect on teen readers and the literature they have access to?”

Let me refer to a specific example: the ALA’s Stonewall Book Award, which honors books for “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.” In 2013, the winner of the Stonewall Book Award in the children’s and YA category was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. While I haven’t read it, I’m sure it’s a wonderful book. The problem arises if and when Aristotle becomes identified as “LGBT YA,” when in fact it’s about a gay boy. The “G” is only one letter in “LGBT.”

Let’s say you have a queer teen girl in your library who’s looking for a book that might speak to some of her own experiences around sexuality and sexual orientation. I’m sure she’s capable of enjoying and appreciating a book about gay boys (as I said above, you don’t have to be exactly like the main character to identify with them), but there is a special intimacy that comes from reading about someone who shares your own experiences. It’s validating and empowering, and it can show you that you’re not alone in the world.

Within the range of YA books that feature LGBT main characters, there are many more books about gay boys than girls, and transgender characters are the least represented. I would encourage librarians who acquire books for their libraries to remember that LGBT includes four letters that represent four very different experiences. Because there are fewer books about queer girls and trans characters, you have to look harder to find them, to ensure that lesbian, bisexual, or trans students can also have the benefit of diving into a fictional world starring people like them.

Malinda has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Elizabeth Knox. Watch for an interview with her in July.

Malinda Lo is the author of several young adult novels, including most recently the sci-fi thriller Adaptation, which is a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Book Award and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013. The sequel, Inheritance, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on September 24, 2013. Malinda is co-founder along with Cindy Pon of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. Malinda’s first novel, Ash, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/Young Adult, and was a Kirkus 2009 Best Book for Children and Teens. Her second novel, Huntress, is a companion novel to Ash and was a Lambda Award finalist and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

Before she became a novelist, Malinda was an economics major, an editorial assistant, a graduate student, and an entertainment reporter. She was awarded the 2006 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for Excellence in LGBT Journalism by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association for her work at AfterEllen. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and has master’s degrees from Harvard and Stanford Universities. She now lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. You can find Malinda at her website or on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.

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