Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her second Xia duology, was published by Month9Books in September 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com. — [X]
Serpentine, though it is my first visit to the Kingdom of Xia, is not the first book you’ve set in that land. How did that world come about? What was the impetus behind revisiting the Kingdom of Xia through Skybright? Was it easy to sink back into this world?
I really wanted to focus on a strong female friendship for Serpentine. It was something that is lacking in my Phoenix titles. As a writer, I am always looking to challenge myself with each new project, and with Serpentine, I wanted to focus on character and relationships.
Since the Kingdom of Xia that is meant to be ancient what historical details did you rely on to guide your careful world-building? What kinds of historical details did you have to eschew?
I read many research books for Silver Phoenix, a lot of which made its way into Serpentine. Some of the books were visual by nature—gorgeous coffee table books that featured breathtaking scenery from all across China. But I also relied on books that detailed architecture, clothing styles, furniture, and every day objects. But in the end, my Kingdom of Xia is only inspired by ancient China, there is no specific locale or dynasty I use. This gives me more liberty for the novels I wanted to write. I mean, both Ai Ling (Silver Phoenix) and Zhen Ni (Serpentine) likely would have had their feet bound if I were to be historically accurate.
There are quite a few struggles that Skybright has to face: as an orphan, as a girl, as someone who is of a lower station than her mistress and best friend and, most strikingly, as someone who is half-human, half-demon in love with humanity. At first, these conflicts seem disparate but as the novel moves along, they are actually all very connected and demonstrate intersectionality rather wonderfully. How did you choose to focus on these particular issues? Or did you not choose at all? I suppose what I am really asking is how you came to write a character like Skybright?
What a wonderfully in depth and complex question. :) The origins of Serpentine were fairly clear to me. Much of the visuals in the book were inspired by the film Clash of the Titans (the old school one), in which eleven year old Cindy was both mesmerized and repelled by the scene featuring Medusa. She was horrifying, slithering and pulling herself amongst the pillars, the snakes hissing on her head. At the same time, I felt some sympathy for her, even as a child. As an adult, I’ve become more familiar with the idea of monstrous beauties—women who are to be feared, often too beautiful to trust or love, too beautiful to be even fully human. I love dwelling in gray areas when I write, and exploring Skybright’s journey allowed me that.
Serpentine is a novel that shines the spotlight on female friendships. What is it about relationships between women that draws you in as a writer and as a reader?
I’m not sure I’ve written enough female friendships to answer this question! I only knew that I wanted to focus on this in Serpentine, but I also knew that I wanted to complicate it. As authors do. ha! What if Skybright and Zhen Ni are as close as sisters, but the power dynamics are skewed due to class? What if at the age when they would begin becoming sexually aware and perhaps falling in love, one begins an affair with another girl? What would that mean for the girls, who are sequestered mostly within the inner quarters—within the women’s world?
So, the sequel to Serpentine comes out next fall. It’s a pretty long wait! Can you tell us a little about what to expect from the next novel?
The sequel is due to release September 27th, 2016! :) I think the sequel is more epic in many ways, and Skybright travels further than she ever thought possible, witnessing both wondrous and horrific sights. Zhen Ni also becomes a narrator in the sequel. She was a lot of fun to write.
You and Malinda Lo founded Diversity in YA in 2011 and have been curating it meticulously ever since then. It’s a fantastic website for book recommendations as well as a great resource for up-and-coming writers. How did you and Malinda decide to start DiYA? Was there a particular moment that pushed you both to start this? Or was the it the culmination of many other moments that weighed on you both?
Diversity in YA began because Malinda and I had Huntress and Fury of the Phoenix releasing close to each other in 2011. I kept joking we should tour together, and then we began to consider it more seriously! When discussing under what banner, the notion of diversity quickly came to mind. Back in 2011, the dialogue had been minimal since we debuted in 2009. We knew having TWO Asian inspired YA fantasies out from two big publishers was a rarity. (And in 2015, it still is, alas.) So we decided to celebrate that with a five city tour, and inviting authors to join us at each stop. We had so much fun, and Malinda and I felt the tour was a great success. Malinda is official webmistress for Diversity in YA, but I help with content and interviews as well. It is truly a labor of love.
From your writing and from your work with DiYA, it is pretty obvious that you have been observing the YA market rather keenly. What are you most excited to see more of in the YA fantasy scene? What trends are you most disturbed by?
We still are highly lacking with more inclusive stories and protagonists from marginalized backgrounds in YA speculative fiction. It is getting better, but really, we still need to work to find these titles whenever we are looking to do a genre feature. I would love to see more spec fic that have diverse main characters. I would also like to see more stories set in the future that are not filled with white, straight, and able-bodied characters. Where did the rest of us go? ha!
What is your writing process like?
When I am rough drafting (which is the hardest part of the process for me), I will set a word count goal and aim to meet it daily. Usually it is 1k words a day, which I can finish sometimes in 40 minutes or sometimes in four hours. I tend to be kind to myself when it comes to writing too. It is hard, and I am better suited for positive rewards than feeling bad about not meeting goals or some such.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Stephanie Tromly’s Trouble is a Friend of Mine. It’s a fantastic debut—mystery, dark humor, great characters and dialogue, all rolled into one.
Thanks so much, Cindy, for giving us your time and your words! We are so looking forward to September 2016! <3