Former lesbian entertainment reporter Malinda Lo forays into young adult fiction with her debut novel Ash.
Take one part Cinderella. Throw her into a world of magic and whimsy, fairies and princes. Subtract one handsome prince. Then add the Kaisa, the King’s beautiful huntress and object of Ash’s affection. Out comes Malinda Lo’s debut novel Ash, a dark and magical love story, written for young adults but engrossing for all ages.
As a young girl, Ash loses her mother then her father and suddenly finds herself serving her evil stepmother and step sisters. As she loses herself to a world of books and magic in the Wood behind her house, she meets a fairy named Sidhean, who seems like he could solve all of her darkest problems. He tempts her with promises to take her away from her harsh life to a better world. However, Ash comes to realize that the the fairy holds an unhealthy power over her (a relationship Lo eventually calls "queer," the only time the word is used in the book). There is, of course, a handsome Prince in this Cinderella story, but he fades into the background as Ash becomes enamored with a strong female character, the huntress:
Ash led the huntress up the garden path and into the kitchen, and she poured some water from the pitcher on the scarred kitchen table into a clean goblet. When she handed it to her, she took care not to touch Kaisa’s hand with her own dirtied one. She watched the huntress’s throat as she swallowed, and she wondered if Kaisa could hear the pouding of her heart. She was nervous, afraid that she would do something wrong…
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Lo, former managing editor of lesbian entertainment web site Afterellen.com, says she has always dabbled in fiction and thought retelling Cinderella for her first novel would be easy. “Famous last words,” she says. Ash is anything but simple. But despite the complicated worlds Lo has created, the reader moves effortlessly between Ash’s fantasy and reality as she discovers herself falls in love.
What’s striking about Ash is that it’s not a “lesbian” book as much as it is a story about a young woman who quite naturally falls in love with another woman. Ash’s characters and relationships are so honest, it’s no wonder Lo says she identifies with all of them. Lo's own struggle with depression after she came out, difficult relationships and the passing of her grandmother while she wrote the book all helped her understand Ash's complicated, and often conflicting actions.
The author began working on the novel in 2003, after leaving a Stanford PhD program to write full time. In her first draft, the main character fell in love with the prince but after a friend called him “boring,” she rewrote the story to allow Ash to fall in love with Kaisa. “When I had that idea, I had to sit down and thought ‘Oh my god, I’m going to write a lesbian Cinderella’” she says.
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Yet Lo says she didn't encounter any difficulty in trying to publish a book featuring a lesbian character. On the contrary, many agents actually told her the book wouldn't sell because Ash was "just gay" and it lacked a grand coming out story. She pitched the book until she found an agent who liked that Ash is "just gay." "My agent thought it was wonderful that it was just about her falling in love with someone," she says.
The book is written for young adults, but Lo says she hopes lesbian, bisexual and queer women will read it too: "I think we want to meet our Prince Charming as much as any straight person, it just so happens that our prince charming isn’t a prince."
Ash, written by Malinda Lo and published by Little, Brown, comes out September 1. Read the first chapter here.