Nina LaCour Talks With Malinda Lo About The Legacy Of Her Lesbian Cinderella Retelling 'Ash'

By Nina LaCour
Nina LaCour, photo courtesy of Kristyn Stroble; Malinda Lo, photo courtesy of Sharona Jacobs

Each month, the Bustle Book Club asks an author to recommend a book they think everyone should read. In June, We Are Okay author Nina LaCour recommends Ash by Malinda Lo. Follow along with the book club on Bustle and join the conversation on Goodreads.

This month, Bustle Book Club is reading Ash by Malinda Lo, a retelling of Cinderella in which the main character grieves her dead parents, finds her power, and falls in love with another girl — the King's huntress, Kaisa. The book, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2019, comes recommended to you by the Printz-winning author of We Are Okay, Nina LaCour. Here's what she said about the book:

Malinda Lo’s Ash is the best kind of fairy tale. It’s dark and moody even as it glitters with golden fairy dust. It trembles with hope and longing and magic. And even though it’s grounded in the familiar elements of the Cinderella story we all love — the dead mother, the cruel stepfamily, the prince in search of a wife, and, of course, the girl herself, so beautiful and good — it surprises us with its lyricism and its newness, especially when it comes to the King’s huntress, Kaisa, who gives Ash more than she had ever dreamed of having.

In the Q&A below, LaCour and Lo reflect on why this novel has resonated so strongly with readers for the last decade:

Nina La Cour: Ash has resonated so profoundly with so many readers. I still remember the first time I read it and how it moved me. There is so much in it that I want to talk to you about but I'd like to begin with what might be the most fundamental question: How and why did you choose Cinderella as the fairy tale to reimagine?

Malinda Lo: Thank you so much! I'm so honored to talk with you about Ash because I'm such a fan of your writing. I still remember reading your wonderful first novel, Hold Still, 10 years ago, and I'm so excited that it was recently reissued too. But I'm getting off track.

I also naively believed that because I was retelling a fairy tale, I already knew what would happen. However, the story I wanted to tell turned out to completely surprise me,

LaCour: No, I'm so glad you mentioned that! It was such a magical time. We were both living in the San Francisco Bay Area, both publishing our debuts the same year, nominated for the same awards, going to the celebrations for them. It was really special. But yes, go ahead!

Lo: I agree, it was an amazing year to look back on now! Thinking back, I chose to retell Cinderella because it was my favorite fairy tale as a child, and my favorite writer, Robin McKinley, never retold it. She reimagined several other fairy tales, but not Cinderella, so I decided to write the book I wanted to read. I also naively believed that because I was retelling a fairy tale, I already knew what would happen. However, the story I wanted to tell turned out to completely surprise me, which just goes to show that writing is never a straightforward process.

For me, Cinderella's story was about coming out of very deep grief. Falling in love was part of that journey, but not the point of it.

I've always loved retellings, too. I still remember the thrill of first reading Anne Sexton's Transformations and how she wasn't afraid to lean into the darkness in fairy tales. And that's one of the aspects of Ash that I find so powerful. You really show how wounded Ash is by her family, and that's part of what makes the love story so powerful. I'd love to hear about that — and also about what aspects of your story took you by surprise!

For many people, when they hear "Cinderella" they think of it as a story about a girl who marries Prince Charming. That's certainly part of the story, but as I researched the tale I realized it begins when a child loses both of her parents. Additionally, the cinders that cover her and give her the name "Cinderella" can be read symbolically as a sign of mourning. For me, Cinderella's story was about coming out of very deep grief. Falling in love was part of that journey, but not the point of it. And that's where the surprise happened.

In my first draft, my Ash did fall in love with Prince Charming, but when I asked a friend for some feedback, she told me that she felt that Ash didn't have much chemistry with him. My friend felt that Ash was in love with a female character in the story. I was so, so surprised to hear this! I had to reread it and determine for myself that yes, my friend was right: I had written a subtextual lesbian romance into my Cinderella retelling. Deciding to go for it and make that subtext overt was a difficult decision because I was worried that would make the book unsellable. I've never been so happy to be wrong!

And now you have swag that proclaims, "My brand is lesbians"! YA has come a long way over the past decade in terms of queer representation, thanks a lot to that decision you faced and the direction you chose to take. I can't imagine a version of Ash where she doesn't fall in love with Kaisa. What was it like to reenter the manuscript for revision after you made the decision to have Ash and Kaisa fall in love on the page?

Haha, yes! "My brand is lesbians" was a jokey thing I liked to say on book panels, but it turns out it makes a great bookmark. And clearly I couldn't convincingly imagine a version of Ash where she doesn't fall in love with Kaisa, either. It wasn't for lack of trying. At first I tried through revision to make the prince more charming, but nothing I tried worked. That failure was key, because it showed me that the true story was about Ash falling in love with Kaisa .Once I made the choice to tell that story, I never regretted it. It's not as though everything fell into place smoothly, though. I still had multiple rounds of revision to go through once we sold the book to Little, Brown, and my editor pushed me to think very deeply about a lot of issues. Interestingly, those issues were not about homophobia or coming out. They were about grief and depression, which are the real problems that Ash deals with. After I allowed Ash to fall in love with the right character, I was able to focus on the heart of her story.

I think it's really important to consider how the story made you feel. And then: did it change the way you feel about anything?

Yes and the fullness of Ash's character — the fact that she goes through this rich inner transformation —made the love story even more powerful for me. When we have identities that aren't depicted in mainstream media we're often willing to go with whatever representation we do get; the hunger to see our identities reflected back to us is so great. But to have such a beautiful and human story in Ash, to follow this multifaceted character along her journey of becoming whole (that moment where she feels the cobblestones beneath her feet and the heat of the bonfire!) — and then to have her find love with another woman, It just swept me away! I hadn't realized how much that kind of fairy tale ending would mean to me before then.

I'm thrilled to hear that, Nina. I've felt that way myself about other books (including yours!), and I'm so glad Ash has done the same for others.

Okay, last question. As you know, Ash is the Bustle Book Club pick for June. What do you hope book clubs will talk about when they discuss your book?

I hope they feel free to discuss how it made them feel. I'm in a book club, and we talk about a zillion different things when it comes to the books we read, but I think it's really important to consider how the story made you feel. And then: did it change the way you feel about anything? That's the truly amazing thing about books, for me. They put you in the minds and hearts of other people — sometimes people who are nothing like ourselves. It's real-world magic.

Follow along with the book club on Bustle and join the conversation on Goodreads.