Here’s part of the *Starred Review* from Booklist:
First-time novelist Pon has a screenwriter’s talent for producing a sweeping saga, and in this, the first of two books…17-year-old Ai Ling faces demons, monsters, and gods as she tries to fulfill her destiny…the story sometimes takes a backseat to the action, but Pon doesn’t stint when it comes to her characters. Ai Ling is a clever and determined heroine…Pon’s writing, both fluid and exhilarating, shines whether she’s describing a dinner delicacy or what it feels like to stab an evil spirit in the gut.
Cindy has been hard at work on the prequel/sequel, but she was gracious enough to take a break and answer some of my questions.
There seem to be a lot of books coming out with really strong, physical female characters (Katniss in The Hunger Games, Katsa in Graceling). What do you think makes Ai Ling a unique protagonist?
ai ling isn’t physically strong. she’s definitely an ordinary girl by those standards–other than the ability she had been given. i think she’s unique as a heroine because she is unique to me as a character. katniss and katsa are all girls influenced by their environment and upbringing–by the worlds that their authors created for them. and ai ling is definitely shaped as a character by the xian culture.
Ai Ling is not a traditional female character in any country. How did you come up with her character?
she sort of told me who she was as i wrote the story. i knew that she was stubborn and could be headstrong, but was also influenced by her upbringing and shy on a certain level. other than her ability, i actually find her quite ordinary. haha! =)
You have a lot of historical realism mixed in with fantasy elements. How did you create that mix?
the setting and story is definitely inspired by ancient china. but other than the use of certain mythical figures, everything within the world was made up by me. i did what came naturally to me, to have a world to refer to so i could ground the reader but also have the freedom to use my imagination which is one of the best parts of writing fantasy.
You reference a number of ancient texts (The Book of Making, The Book of the Dead, The Book of Lands Beyond). Do these books have similar real world versions?
not that i know of. i did read that often, there would be sexual images put into embroidered shoes for new brides.
I’ve read that you queried 121 agents before signing with Bill Contardi. How long did your query process take and how did you keep your spirits up throughout?
i queried from the end of january through early april, when bill agreed to represent me. i feel for anyone who is going through the process but s/he must realize that nearly every published writer that they read and admire has gone through the same process of rejection. i approached querying like a sort of personal war that i needed to win. and in the end, if i couldn’t get an agent, i considered going to publishers who would be willing to accept manuscripts from unagented writers. it was simply a matter of loving my story and asking myself, have i done enough? if no, i’d keep going.
How long after you signed with your agent did you sign a contract with HarperTeen?
about five weeks. which is pretty fast. i was fortunate in that i had multiple edtiors interested in Silver Phoenix.
I have to say, Silver Phoenix has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen. As a first time author, how much input were you given?
i’m so fortunate. thank you. my editor consulted me on costume, hairstyle, her necklace, etc. we also looked at models together. so i was part of the process almost from beginning to end.
Do you outline beforehand or do you just plunge in?
as i said in a recent interview, i’m an “idea jotter downer”. ha! i have a document just filled with various scenes, phrases, reminders, dialogue, etc. whatever i think of that needs to go into the novel. i cannot outline, as i find it restrictive. but neither can i face the page without having an idea where i’m going.
NaNoWriMo helped you finish the “dreaded middle” of your book. What was the hardest part about writing the middle?
it’s the longest part of the darned thing. haha!
Do you still make yourself write a certain number of words each day (ala NaNo)? Describe a typical writing day.
i did for the debut. i averaged about 1200 – 1600 words between 40 – 60 minutes of writing. i think i wrote five days a week during nano. six on a good week.
the sequel didn’t come as easily. i was very engrossed and distracted with the release of Silver Phoenix and trying to promote the book. so i’m writing a lot slower, with a lot more “stuff” going on in my head that is non-writing. since my bubs are in school now (i wrote after they went to bed at night with Silver Phoenix) i try to write in the mornings. i usually don’t write for more than 2 hours, but have been increasing that to 3 hours when i can now that i’ve got a deadline hanging over my head. ha!
I’ve heard the follow-up book called a prequel as well as a sequel. Which is it?
the sequel is actually a “pre-sequel”. there will be two storylines, one involving silver phoenix and zhong ye taking place three centuries before my first book, and the other following ai ling and chen yong across the seas to jiang dao.
Oh, good. The ending of the last book left me wanting to know more about Ai Ling and Chen Yong so I’m glad you aren’t done with them yet!
Do you have a critique group? If so, how did you find them?
i have two wonderful crit groups. i met one in a novel writing class and the other at a local writing conference. the book would not have sold without their help.
How involved are you in promotion or do you leave it all to your publicist?
i’m pretty active in promoting myself online, mostly. it’s where i feel most comfortable and easier for me since i’m also a stay at home mom–i can’t travel often or far. but i’m also doing local library visits throughout the summer as well as school visits in the fall. i’m very excited about that!
also attending various conferences when i can. i just returned from ala chicago, will be at san diego comicon and then scbwi in los angeles!
Excellent — I’ll be at SCBWI, too. We’ll have to touch base there!
What is the best piece of writing advice you were ever given?
read widely, in different genres and keep challenging yourself in your craft. you must write to improve and find your voice. believe in yourself, keep a positive attitude and always be professional when you begin to query agents. be confident enough so you can survive querying and going on sub to publishers, but humble enough to know that there is always so much more to learn.
thanks so much for having me, sherrie!
Thank you, Cindy! And congratulations on your fabulous debut.