With her debut novel Ash, a queer retelling of Cinderella, former AfterEllen.com editor Malinda Lo immediately established herself as an exciting new voice in Young Adult literature. In 2009, Ash was a Kirkus Best Book for Children and Teens and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/ Young Adult. Lo’s follow-up novel, Huntress, is set in the same world as Ash, only centuries before. We recently spoke to Lo about her book, the state of queer YA literature and her participation in the upcoming Diversity in YA tour.
Photo by Patty Nason
AfterEllen.com: Huntress is the prequel to your debut novel Ash. How did you come to write the books in that reverse order?
Malinda Lo: When I wrote Ash I didn’t have any intention of writing anything else set in that world. Huntress kind of snuck up on me because I had to write a second young adult novel — I had a two-book contract — and I found myself thinking a lot about one thing Kaisa says to Ash. She tells Ash that, in the past, the King’s Huntress was kind of like an ambassador between the human kingdom and the land of the Fairy Queen. I started to wonder what exactly Kaisa meant by that, so I began to flesh out the story that is now Huntress. It’s about the first huntress in the Kingdom, so it’s kind of an origin story.
AE: You’ve said that the Chinese text The I Ching influenced Huntress. Can you talk about that?
ML: Sure! The I Ching is a foundational book of Chinese philosophy that has deeply shaped and influenced Chinese society over thousands of years. It’s a philosophy about change, which is probably why the title is often translated into English as Book of Changes. The I Ching was used in ancient times as a divination tool, but the thoughts within it have also influenced other Chinese philosophies, such as Taoism, which is also a major influence in the word of Huntress.
From what I understand, The I Ching is about dealing with the fact that the world is in constant flux. Everything changes, and so we as human beings and as actors in the world need to learn to adapt to that change. There are lots of complicated, interesting issues entwined within The I Ching, such as fate vs. free will, self vs. the greater society, etc. These things do come up in Huntress as the main character, Kaede, tries to figure out what her path in life is, and whether or not she can change her destiny.
AE: You capture a frighteningly real dystopia in Huntress. What inspired this vision?
ML: Thank you! I love dystopian novels, actually, and I’ve definitely been inspired by them. But I think the idea of an unending winter is quite a familiar motif in fantasy. The thought of a land wasting away is very symbolic. Also, I started writing the book in the middle of winter, so maybe that was part of it!
AE: The creatures that occupy this world are very detailed and imaginative. Did you have to sketch them first? I have this image of you writing at a desk surrounded by drawings of fairies.
ML: Well, I didn’t sketch any fairies, but I did have images of fairies to look at. I have this wonderful, giant coffee-table book called The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and Other Little Creatures (written by Pierre Dubois, illustrated by Claudine and Roland Sabatier), which I’ve pored through repeatedly. It has amazing illustrations of fairies and magical creatures from all over the world. I got some great ideas from that book.
AE: It seems like this must have been an interesting book to write because there is such a wide range of scenes and characters and worlds. What did you enjoy writing in this book? What was challenging?
ML: Huntress was really challenging for me to write; it was definitely the most difficult book I’ve written so far. I think that’s because I was working on it right when Ash was published, so I would get all this feedback online about Ash that contributed to my feeling a ton of pressure to live up to people’s expectations for my next book. I had never dealt with that before, since Ash was my first novel. I’m very happy that Ash has been so well-received, of course, and in retrospect I think the pressure forced me to learn how to step back from all the Internet commentary and focus on what I personally wanted Huntress to be like.
Most of the parts of Huntress that I love the most were extremely hard for me to write. I love to write romantic scenes, but making the romance work was so hard! I love to write action, but I put the characters in some really hairy situations that even required me to diagram out what was happening (like little football charts). I’m very proud of what I’ve done with this book, though. I learned a lot!