Book Beat chats with Cindy Pon about Want, the power of #cuteAsianboys and changes in publishing

Next Month, Cindy Pon’s futuristic thriller, Want drops. You want this stylish thriller on your reading list! I caught up with author Cindy Pon at YALLWest and chatted about this Blade Runner meets Oceans 11 story, cute Asian boys and how much publishing has changed.

Want takes place in the near future when the environment is so bad that the average life expectancy is cut in half. The only people who live to see their children grow up are the ultra-wealthy who can buy custom environment suits and a live a privileged life. Want is a story about the have and have-nots, the environment and a corrupt government. Sounds incredibly timely, right?

Actually, Want began as an experimental short story years ago. “I wrote a short story for a two book anthology called Diverse Energies,” Cindy begins. “It’s my first time writing first-person narrative and first time writing a contemporary teen boy voice and the only reason I was willing to do it was because it was a short story and it didn’t sound scary. It was such an intriguing world and I loved it.”

She worked on expanding the short story into a book, but Want was put on hold when her second series Serpentine, sold to a publisher. That series finished with the publication of Sacrifice last year so she shifted back to Want and found that the world’s headlines shifted as well. Cindy laughs at the irony Want is now a “a retro near-future story, because everything was in the news headlines. I was plucking all the news from headlines in China with the pollution. As Veronica Roth was so kind to blurb the book, it’s so timely as far as the haves and have-nots and the divide with who gets to live healthy and who doesn’t get to have everything that’s provided to you (health care and clean food and water and air). I think that’s very timely.”

“Silver Airped” by Jason Chan

Amid these conflicts, a group of teens band together to take down the big, corrupt corporation by infiltrating and destroying the company.  Cindy fondly describes them as “a bunch of rag-tag fringe kids who try to fight the world and take on whoever is in charge (the government, the corporations) and try to right the wrong because they love their city and they see it going into the dumpster.”

Their beloved city is Taipei and Want is one of the first YA fantasies to be set in this modern capital city. Cindy clearly loves this city of her birth: “Taipei is all neon lights and frenetic energy and so much good food. It’s non-stop people out 24 hours a day and taxis and mopeds. And the vibrancy of the city! It’s an ode to my birth city because I love it so much and I don’t get to visit it that much. You go back and the juxtaposition between the old and the traditional versus the very modern and high tech. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition and I wrote that into Want.”

Taipei is the center of Mandarin-speaking pop culture, but it may not be the first city people think of when they think of Asia. Cindy believes “people would be surprised by how advanced it is. There’s every luxury. There’s a 24 hour book store! To me, that’s the height of civilization. There’s a very friendly, happy, well-educated people. There’s good food. The island is very beautiful.”

For me, one of the clear differences between someone writing about Asia and an Asian writer writing about Asia is how hungry I get while reading. Food is a huge part of many Asian cultures and I was craving something fierce while reading Want! This is no accident as Cindy adores the food: “You can’t walk 10 steps without some good food somewhere. Its such a food-oriented culture for sure. There’s such good food! The food is one of the strongest ties to the motherland.”

From the beginning, she knew she wanted to set this story in Taipei and also feature a cute Asian boy. #CuteAsianBoy was her hashtag for the book and also inspired the cover: “I had an incredible editor that acquired Want, Michael Strother. I was just tweeting at him with the hashtag #CuteAsianBoy and he thought ‘Maybe a cute Asian boy on the cover.’ He said that! I was like ‘What?!’ and then ‘Everything you say on Twitter is binding!’ And sure enough, he sent me the cover and the artist is Jason Chan, amazing, incredible Chinese-American artist. I just feel so lucky.”

Covers are always very tricky to get right and books with Asian main characters don’t always get their faces on the cover. Cindy laments the lack of representation on the covers: “Other than Axie Oh’s book coming out in October (Rebel Seoul), there isn’t an Asian boy on the cover. I don’t think there was one last year. I think there’s more Asian girls than Asian boys but that’s like 3 Asian girls and 1 Asian boy. That’s what it feels like, especially in speculative fiction! There’s more in contemporary with Jenny Han and Maurene Goo. I’m always looking for more fantasy and science fiction with more inclusive adventures. That’s what I love. That’s what I grew up on, but looking back, none of them were Asian.”

YALLWest was Cindy’s first event where she signed advance copies of Want and she was so enthusiastic about the readers who came to the signing: ”I had so many Asian American teen readers in line! It felt so good! That was super cool.”

Publishing has changed since her debut with Silver Phoenix in 2009 when “there wasn’t any conversation on inclusivity or diversity or anything like that. I felt that they didn’t really know what to do with my book. And it was a hard year to debut because 2009 was right the economy tanked so a lot of the new debut authors struggled to do well. It felt like my book fell into an abyss. No one really noticed.”

Since then, the landscape has changed and the door is more open: “I feel like the conversation is so different. Malinda Lo has been writing diversely since 2011 and even then, there wasn’t much conversation.  It was when We Need Diverse Books exploded and went on to have a lot of presence at the cons and scholastic book fairs and things like that. It became more main stream almost. I think that it’s not just about writers saying ‘I’m going to write more diverse,’ it’s about publishers and editors saying ‘we want to acquire more diverse.’ If they’re not looking into it, if they’re not aware of it, if they’re not asking for it, it’s not going to get published. The conversation went to booksellers and librarians and actual editors. There are some editors that acquire the same things because they are in a bubble. But those that choose to be aware and choose to be active and effect change know their position as gatekeepers. I have seen more editors actively say that ‘I want more inclusive books’ whereas, back in 2008, when I was querying, no one asked for it.”

“I’m stubborn and I do believe in the stories I write. I’m not getting these huge lines with all the fans because I’m not getting that kind of push behind me. Not that many people know me or my books. But the handful of readers who have found me, read my books, have somehow influenced them in a positive way, they’re fantastic readers.”

Silver Phoenix reached not only readers, but inspired the next wave of writers: “Now, 8 years later, I’m getting these young Asian American writers coming up to me and saying ‘I read Silver Phoenix when I was a teen. You showed me that it was possible.’ That was less than 10 years ago.  It didn’t fall into an abyss and they were able to find it and read it and it effected them.”

“It’s so weird how limited you can be because of what the media tells you is the narrative norm. As fantasy writers and science fictions writers, you would think that anything’s possible, but you kind of replicate what you see and, if you’re younger, you don’t even realize that’s a possibility and that’s weird and sad.”

“I met a lot of the writers at RT actually. I met a posse of 20-something Asian writers. Axie was there. They were so cute and enthusiastic. It was like seeing the next generation. To see them creating and to keep the dream alive. You have to keep pounding on the door. When you see the next generation and its more people and more people and more people, it feels like it’s a movement for sure.”

Join the movement and pre-order your copy of Want which releases on June 13th! (Head to your local indie bookstore or your favorite online retailer like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.)

Can’t wait? Want to win and advance copy? Head to Goodreads and enter!

Thanks to Cindy for a fun chat and cute Asian boys!



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