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Interview with Cindy Pon Author of The Silver Phoenix


When we were setting up for author interviews, I immediately claimed Cindy for my first author interview at EI. After all, not only are we both Asian American, but we also share the same agent, the fabulous Bill Contardi. And having read Silver Phoenix in one late night sitting I was eager to bombard Cindy on everything, but I restrained myself and limited the interview to a few questions. 

Ello – Thank you for humoring me and all my questions and congratulations on your debut! So Cindy, what was the impetus that drove you to write this story? How did the story come to you?

Cindy - I had been writing since I was a pre-teen, starting with bad poetry and moving on to short stories. But I stopped writing all through my twenties--got too busy with college, marriage, grad school and life in general. It wasn't until I had my two bubs and began staying at home full time that I returned to my first love, writing. I took a few classes at the local university extensions and decided I would try writing a novel to challenge myself. Fantasy had always been my favorite genre and I had begun to become very interested in Chinese culture and history. I thought I'd combine these two interests when I wrote SILVER PHOENIX.

I wrote the novel in cycles, as I'll explain later. But I really didn't know my own story till I wrote it--and went back to revise. In fact, diamond plops (my term for those a-ha moments while writing) kept happening through my revisions with my editor, Virginia.

Ello - Silver Phoenixis rich with Chinese culture and it is also different, can you discuss some of the differences and why you chose to change them? (For example, you didn’t include foot binding.)

Cindy - I didn't choose to change things on a conscious level. When I began writing, I really struggled with historical details-- when I finally realized that I wasn't writing a historical. I was writing a fantasy novel based on a Chinese like culture. Like so many fantasy authors before me, I took a bit of real life to ground the story and also add fantastic elements from my own imagination.

It didn't make sense for my heroine to have her feet bound-- it just wouldn't work for this novel. I think I kept a lot of the thinking of ancient Chinese culture (filial piety, the women's place within the inner quarters), but made it so it wouldn't have been an absolute impossibility for Ai Ling to take the journey that she did.

I do hope to write a historical one day. But for this novel, it was too limiting for what I wanted to do with my story.

Ello - You always talk about how food is important to you, and it is clearly important to the book too which was also one of my favorite parts. I think my absolute favorite scene was when Ai Ling actually got worried that Chen Yong and his brother would out eat her. At that moment, I thought, I love that girl! When you look back at these characters, how much of you is in them? What of your own characteristics or traits that you admire the most did you  share with them?

Cindy - I think especially with first-time novelists, we tend to use many of our own traits in characters because it's the most natural and easiest resource to draw from. I think I put a lot of my characteristics in Ai Ling. She loves her food--as do I and she also is a student of brush painting. She's stubborn as I am, but she certainly isn't me. She is her own self. Ai Ling is much more rash than I could ever be. I think she may be more brave as well. I'm not sure I would have been as resolved to set off on my own in the same circumstances.

I have a crush on my own hero, Chen Yong. But he intimidates me on a certain level--he's an enigma to me at times. They say that an author should know everything about her own characters. I can't say that this is what I've discovered in my own writing. My characters keep secrets. They surprise me. In my first drafts, I really kept Chen Yong at arm's length. Revising with Virginia really helped to bring him out in the story.

Li Rong is a character that is so instantly likeable to me. I found him very very easy to write. I love him as he brought humor to my story.

Ello - Was there ever any point in this process that you ever lose it in a bad way? Lost heart or hope or got depressed? If yes, why and how did you bounce back?

Cindy - I wrote forty pages of the novel and realized there was at least two hundred and fifty more pages to write. That terrified me. I had leapt in thinking, hey, I'll write a novel. Fun! Ha! Yeah! And then I started to WRITE A NOVEL and liking my characters and my story. I had absolutely no idea how to face the dreaded MIDDLE. To this day, it's what I hate the most. I can write the beginning and the end, it's all that stuff in between! =) So I stopped writing for six months.

It wasn't until I went to my first writer's conference that I got the courage to face my manuscript and story again. And I decided I would most definitely finish this novel--at least try.

Also--querying for agents was really difficult. I queried over one hundred and probably got just as many rejections. It's one of the most heart wrenching, knife in gut processes any writer can go through. There were a lot of times when I felt that I was just deluding myself in thinking SILVER PHOENIX was actually good enough to get representation--much less to get published. I always felt in my heart the novel was good. But good enough? Those were difficult times. But I'd always allow myself to mope and then jump back in to "revenge query." =)

 Ello - At what point in the process did you lose it in a good way? Go crazy in celebration? Hug a random stranger from absolute joy, etc?

Cindy - When I got the call from Agent Bill, I really truly could not believe it. Afterward, I jumped up and down in the kitchen like a crazy person and my bubs thought Mommy had lost it. Ha!

 Ello - How did you come up with the strange and mysterious creatures that populate your  story?

Cindy - Some are grounded in Chinese folklore, like the snake demon. But creatures such as the three-breasted concubine were solely from my own imagination. You can actually see what some of my phobias are by the monsters that I've created.

Ello - You didn't initially envision your book having a sequel when you began writing it, right? When you found out that they wanted a sequel from you, what was your gut reaction? How different has the first book and the sequel been to write?

Cindy - When I finished writing SILVER PHOENIX, I realized there was, in fact, a sequel there. But I really couldn't bring myself to write it unless I knew my debut would sale. I'm practical like that. But I didn't know the exact details of the sequel--other than the continuation of my hero and heroine's adventures. It wasn't until I began revising with my editor that I realized how much richer I could make the novel and some of the characters. It's very exciting for me-- and also a challenge. The sequel will be a pre-sequel, twining two storylines from different times together to form the main story.

Ello - What about your picture book? What would you like to share about it?

Cindy - Making the picture book dummy was so much fun. I think it really challenged me and helped me grow as an artist. I really went into the project with a blank slate in my mind. It's a story about a lost chickee, and I'm looking forward to revising the text and art with Virginia when the time comes!

Ello - If there was one message you could share with every person who read your book, what would that be?

Cindy - I'm not sure I have a message. I think when authors begin to write with a "message" in mind, it can really interfere with the story and the characters. I'm leery of stories that do that. Having said that, I really enjoyed Ayn Rand's Fountainhead--which I know she wrote with her personal philosophy in mind. With my novel, themes arose themselves--which did surprise me in a way, but whether readers will perceive or interpret them the way I saw the story is entirely out of my control. I don't write to hit people over the head with anything—I think as an author, you have to come to terms with the fact that readers will take what they want from your story, whether it was your intention or not. We all have our own filters, our own experiences.

Ello - Clearly your culture is a huge part of your writing - do you feel like you are an ambassador for Chinese culture in some fashion? Is it a pleasure or a burden?

Cindy - I don't feel like an ambassador. I know it's a wonderful thing to have an Asian influenced fantasy out there. I feel that writers should write what they are passionate about. and for me, it just so happened to be fantasy and taking elements from my own culture, which I found fascinating. It could have been something I would have loved to have read as a teen. I never read a book that had Asian or Asian American characters in them when I was younger. So I'm very happy I wrote a book for myself to fill that void--twenty years later.

As with stories, I'll be perceived by others in ways I can't control. If the fact that I'm a Chinese-American writer who wrote an Asian fantasy inspires them somehow, I think that's wonderful. Or if I introduce a teen reader to something they never thought they'd enjoy reading (either fantasy or Asian-based fantasy) that would be fantastic as well.

But ultimately, I'm a very selfish writer. I wrote SILVER PHOENIX for myself.

Ello – Last question. If there was one book you could have written, what would it be?


Cindy - The novel I wish I had written is the Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'dell, a childhood favorite of mine that has been read multiple times. As an adult, I almost “never” reread books. Even ones I really enjoy.


Ello – Thanks Cindy for a great interview! May you have a spectacular debut!

Tags: asia, cindy pon, ellen oh, interview
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