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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Malinda Lo Talks About Her Science Fiction Thriller, “Adaptation”

Malinda Lo‘s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her young adult science fiction duology, beginning with Adaptation, will be published in September 2012. Visit her website at

Photo credit Patty Nason

SF Signal had the opportunity to chat with Malinda about her new novel, Adaptation, and is proud to bring that interview to you today.

CHARLES TAN: Hi Malinda, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. Let’s talk about your latest novel, Adaptation. What made you decide to write a science fiction thriller?

MALINDA LO: The idea came to me in a dream! Seriously. I had a dream in which I was in an airport while birds started falling dead from the sky. When I woke up I wrote it down immediately in my writing journal, because I thought that it would make an awesome beginning for a book.

I’ve always had very vivid dreams, some of them totally crazy, but this is the only one that has ever inspired me to write a novel. I had a really strong gut feeling about it, and I’ve come to respect my gut when it comes to writing. I try to do what it tells me.

CT: How different was the writing process, at least compared to your previous novels? Do you think there’s a significant difference in writing science fiction vs. fantasy?

ML: Adaptation was my third published novel, and I remember that from the very beginning, it was a much smoother writing process than my first two novels. I had more experience under my belt, of course, but there has always been something very fast-paced about this book and its sequel (there is a sequel, coming out in fall 2013).

That’s not to say there weren’t any difficult points. I did have to struggle to understand some characters, and I also had to experiment a bit with voice since Adaptation is set in the contemporary United States, not a secondary fantasy world. But I think every book has to find its own voice, regardless of genre.

The main difference between science fiction and fantasy, to me, has been in word usage. I can use scientific words and contemporary slang with Adaptation, but I couldn’t in Ash and Huntress. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of slang and scientific jargon!

CT: How did you first get acquainted with science fiction?

ML: I read it as a teen. My first sci-fi reads ranged from William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. They all made different impressions on me. I remember discovering James Tiptree, Jr.’s short stories in the library when I was in high school and finding them to be completely amazing. I’m sure I didn’t understand half of what was going on in them.

CT: What were the challenges in writing the book?

ML: The plot! It’s one thing to say you were inspired by a dream, but what it really means is that you have to figure out how to make the plot make sense. Dreams don’t have to make sense, but books do. These two books (they’re really one big story, with Adaptation being the first half) are the most complicated plotting I’ve ever done. It was extremely challenging to build in the mystery and all its reveals at the right places. At least, I hope they’re in the right places.

While the story takes place in various cities around the US, a lot of the action takes place in San Francisco. What made you use San Francisco as a setting?

I live in the Bay Area just north of San Francisco, and I used to live in the city, which I love. Writing the book allowed me to write about many of my favorite places. I also wanted to set it in a location that had pretty progressive beliefs about sexual orientation, because I knew the book was going to include queer relationships and I didn’t want to deal with too much coming out. San Francisco is, after all, the Gay Mecca.

CT: How did Reese become your main protagonist and how did her personality develop?

ML: Reese was one of the characters I really had to struggle to get to know. For the entire first draft of Adaptation, I was sort of just putting her through the plot and trying to make her do things. I knew what she looked like on the outside and I could see and hear her doing things, but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until I essentially rewrote the whole book during the second draft that I really figured out who she was.

I think that part of the reason I had such a difficult time with her was because Reese, as a character, doesn’t understand her own emotions at first. She’s very closed off to herself, and it took me a long time to grasp that and discover how to show that on the page without making her completely irritating to the reader.

CT: Will you be writing other novels set in the same world?

ML: Only the sequel!

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

ML: This fall I also have two short stories being published in two different anthologies. The first came out at the end of August: “One True Love,” which is in Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction edited by Carrie Ryan. It’s about a princess who is locked in a tower by her father, and winds up falling in love with her stepmother.

In October, I have a dystopian short story called “Good Girl” coming out in Diverse Energies, edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti. That one is about a girl in a post-apocalyptic New York City searching for her brother with the help of a criminal.

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology. His fiction has appeared in publications like The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. He designs eBooks for Twelth Planet Press and blogs at Bibliophile Stalker and SF Signal.

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