Interview with MALINDA LO Author of HUNTRESS
Malinda Lo was born in China and moved to the United States as a child. Ash, her first novel, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/Young Adult, and was a Kirkus 2009 Best Book for Children and Teens. 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 now lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog.
Gigi: What were the challenges of having not one but two strong girls in Huntress? How did you manage to keep the story grounded in both girls? Without giving anything away (I hope), they become closer than close over the course of their journey. Did you ever find in writing Kaede and Taisin that it was difficult to keep them distinct from one another?
Malinda: This is an interesting question, because immediately it makes me wonder: Is there an assumption that only having one strong girl would be easier? Does having more than one girl make a story unbalanced somehow, and thus require the author to do some sort of fancy maneuvering? I think there is a perception in our society that girls don’t work well together — they’re queen bees, not teammates. I even grew up being told by well-meaning adults that I should watch out for other girls, because they were likely to stab me in the back, whereas boys could be better and more loyal friends.
My best friends are all strong girls-turned-women, and yes, when we get together, there is often a battle of wills. That’s what happens when women — or human beings, for that matter — with strong personalities interact. It allows for fantastic, challenging conversations, and also for some amazing chemistry. That’s what happens when you have two strong characters interacting; the fact that they’re both girls is irrelevant.
Kaede and Taisin both have strong personalities, and my goal was to bring them both out and allow that interaction to be as big as they are. I did that through several different revisions. In earlier drafts, Kaede came through more clearly. In later drafts, Taisin emerged. I always saw them as very different people, though, and their personalities are essentially the opposite, so it was never difficult for me to keep them distinct.
GA: Kaede and Taisin totally do bust through some of those thickly rooted perceptions about girls that you mention. What I’m most curious about is from a craft perspective. Are there challenges in having two protagonists?
ML: That’s interesting, because when I think of “two protagonists” I absolutely have a different answer! I’ve thought about this before, because many YA novels have a central romance in it, but the books tend to be more clearly about one character than the other. Possibly because the books are often told in first person? I’ve realized, though, that when I write a romance, each character involved must have a very distinct personality and has to be developed enough and have enough page time to seem like a main character. I don’t know whether this is because I’ve been writing same-sex romances or not. I think the difficulty of keeping the characters distinct might be more of a problem when a book is told in alternating first-person POV, because then both characters must have a different voice. Since I’m writing in third person, I don’t have to worry about that aspect.
I think it’s also interesting to see the connotations that can slip in when the question is about “two girls” rather than “two protagonists.” :)
GA: What, in your opinion, makes Kaede and Taisin strong girls? What do they offer your readers?
ML: They are strong, first and foremost, because they have opinions. Kaede especially has strong opinions about her father’s plans for her. I think Taisin keeps her opinions to herself more often because of her position in the world (she is less privileged than Kaede), but she still has quite a backbone.
As you might guess, I don’t think strength is defined by physical prowess, but I don’t see why a girl can’t be physically strong, too, and Kaede is. So is Shae, another woman in the story who is a guard. Taisin is pretty strong herself, since she grew up on a farm and is used to hard work. But although Kaede is very grounded in her body and likes to do physical things, she’s not an expert. She spends the course of the book learning how to rely on her body. She doesn’t start out being an awesome fighter; she learns how to do it.
As for what they offer readers, I hope they offer readers a great story.
GA: I felt such an appreciation of and concern for the earth in Huntress, especially from Taisin, but also in the way you describe the natural world. In some ways, even, their connection with the natural world strengthens Kaede and Taisin and increases their capacity to succeed on the journey. What role does nature play in your life and happiness? How can nature help girls stay strong on their difficult journeys?
ML: I grew up in Colorado, which is all about nature, but I actually hated living there. I went to a camp in the mountains during middle school in which they showed us documentaries about people freezing to death while hiking in the Rockies. It scared me; nature scared me. I had to move away from Colorado to the big city (I’ve lived in Boston, New York, Beijing, London, and San Francisco) before I found my way back to nature.
For a long time I was a city person. I carried a lot of that fear in me from my childhood, and also a bit of an urbanite’s disdain for the wilderness. But after I moved to California, I went camping for the first time. I went to the beach. I started to hike in the redwood and oak forests here. And I became a Buddhist. Discovering Buddhism gave me a newfound appreciation for nature, and now I actually live in a small town surrounded by woods. I still love cities, but there’s something deeply peaceful about the woods that you can’t find in an urban environment. It’s very grounding, to be close to the ground!
I think that when people are having a difficult time, it can be very healing to spend time in nature. Without the distractions of modern technology, you have to face yourself and your problems. It can be scary, for sure, but it’s important to be able to look yourself in the eye. It strips away the distractions and can allow you to find your own strength.
GA: You write about archery and horses with real beauty and precision in Huntress. Do you have experience in these two areas? What kinds of research did you do to make the archery and riding scenes so vivid?
ML: Thank you! I have ridden horses and I have shot a bow, but not for a long, long time. (These experiences were part of my childhood in Colorado — yes, it was the Wild West!) What I did, honestly, was a lot of reading. I read a lot about archery in particular, and looked at videos and photos of Japanese archery so I could envision the way it would look. And then, when I was writing those scenes, I thought carefully about how it would feel physically.
It was also extremely helpful to meditate. This sounds weird, but meditation is truly about being fully in your body, and it’s through meditation that I’ve been able to become more aware of how my body works, and thus, better able to describe those kinds of scenes.
GA: Would you share more about your meditation practice as it relates to writing? Do you incorporate various types of meditation and do you specifically relate your sitting practice to your writing or does your practice by its nature make you more aware and present and, as a result, your writing benefits?
ML: Honestly, right now I’m not meditating regularly because my office is in transition and my meditation space is being taken up by two assembled (and beautiful) but empty bookcases! In the past, I’ve integrated my meditation practice with writing by meditating first thing in the morning before I write. I just sit for about fifteen minutes, and I’ll either do a counting meditation that focuses on the breath, or a body scan, or “just sitting” (vipassana) to become aware of my body and what’s going on inside and around me.
When I started meditating back in 2003 I noticed immediately that it had a direct relation to creativity. I often came up with ideas during meditation (even though I was supposed to be just sitting!), and afterward I would feel much more closely connected to my imagination. Because of this, I went on two silent meditation retreats focused on creativity, which were held at Spirit Rock north of San Francisco. The first of these retreats was transformative; it really helped me to rediscover my love for fiction writing (I did the retreat while I was revising my first novel). It combined painting with writing, and it was a truly amazing experience.
Overall, meditation and Buddhism (the Buddhism part is really important; these are practices integrated with a specific spiritual philosophy) do serve to make me more present. This is beneficial both in terms of writing craft — I am better able to pay attention to the way things are and thus describe them accurately — and also in terms of mental health. Publishing can be a difficult business to be in because you’re constantly being judged and compared to others in public. My practice gives me perspective, and I think I don’t get upset as much as I would otherwise. I still have emotional ups and downs, but meditation absolutely grounds me and reminds me of what’s most important in life, and it’s not who gets the biggest deal or the most stars.
GA: What are some of your favorite books that celebrate girls?
ML: Recently, I read and adored Sister Mischief by Laura Goode, which she describes as an interracial gay hip-hop love story. It’s about a teen girl who falls in love with her best friend, and it’s also about politics and feminism and friendship and race through the lens of hip-hop. It’s a fun, frank, awesome book. And there are four main characters, all of them girls, all of them strong in their own ways.
One of my all-time favorite YA novels is A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, which is about one girl, Vicky Austin, as she comes to grips with mortality and love and growing up.
GA: Are there upcoming projects you’d like to tell us a little about?
ML: My next book is a YA sci-fi novel in the vein of The X-Files that comes out next fall. I’m currently in the midst of madly revising it! It’s a lot of fun; in fact my goal with this book is to do as many fun things as I can.
GA: What are you reading now?
ML: I just finished The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, a friend of mine, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a contemporary YA about a girl who is date raped, and it was a gripping read! I’m in the middle of reading Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden, a classic YA about a lesbian teen, which I’ve never read before.
GA: Complete this sentence: Strong girls ____________________________.
ML: kick ass, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
TO WIN A COPY OF MALINDA LO’S HUNTRESS, ADD A COMMENT BELOW WHERE YOU COMPLETE THIS SENTENCE: STRONG GIRLS_______.