From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The One-armed Tribe and the Land of Women: Interview with Cindy Pon

(Warning: contains spoilers for Cindy’s Silver Phoenix. Go read the book first!)

How did you go about researching folklore to use with Silver Phoenix? Were there specific books that were particularly useful?

I based many of the strange lands that Ai Ling wanders into from an ancient chinese text translated by Strassberg titled A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures From The Guideways Through Mountains And Seas. It describes many legendary creatures and tribes. Some of them seem based on reality, but many are very fantastic. The one-armed tribe and the land of women are examples from the book.

What were the most challenging things about using mythology? Where did you create your own variations on tradition?

The serpent demon is a very common folklore and there are many ghost stories written based on this myth by the Chinese. But the Chinese bestiary book is much more esoteric and not very well known at all. All the lands and creatures really inspired me for the later parts of the novel–when they wandered off course into lands beyond Xia.

The anecdotes in the ancient text are brief, so there isn’t as much written or told about them as something like the serpent demon, which any Chinese would be familiar with. The challenge was to
flesh out and create their kingdom using what is given in the brief description. I guess this was a challenge, but also, the most fun part of writing–when you can allow your imagination to expand and make a world richer.

The life seeker was a creation of my own, but based on something very similar to the serpent demon–beautiful women who are out to seduce a man, then reveal the monstrosity that they are. i was simply much more blatant in my characterization of the life seeker.

What’s your favorite scene from Silver Phoenix and why?

i’m the type of writer who is much more comfortable writing action scenes. and i think this is reflected in my debut. but one of my favorite scenes would have to be the one that takes
place in the bamboo forest with Chen Yong, Ai Ling and Li Rong. It’s a quiet scene, but many things happen: Ai Ling shows her new found friends her power, something she is almost frightened to do. Chen Yong reads the letters from his birth father, who he never knew. You also see how Ai Ling is really falling for her hero.

What is your favorite mythological creature?

Oh wow. This is a really really tough one. and it may sound funny, but i’m going to have to go with the mermaid. I was enchanted ever since reading Hans Christian Anderson’s very tragic The Little Mermaid tale. I’m afraid of the sea myself. I think she is dangerous, mercurial and possessive. But to think there may be people living in kingdoms beneath the waves who have tails delights and intrigues me to no end.

What were the ghost stories or fairy tales that most scared you growing up?

I’m such a chicken. I can’t even watch horror films! i know, incredible given some of things I’ve written. Blue Beard made an impression on me for certain as a child. I started reading Stephen King as an early teen, and his It terrified me. but i also loved reading it. The protagonists were nearly my age. so well done.

What were your favorite YA novels growing up?

There didn’t seem as much young adult when i was growing up. I remember reading Sweet Valley High (ha!) and also some historical YA romances with the one name of the heroine as the title and she always had to choose between two men! I read a lot of Agatha Christie (only Poirot) and Anne Frank’s diary as well as V.C. Andrew’s Flowers In The Attic certainly made an impression on me. i remember enjoying Piers Anthony’s incarnations of immortality series as well as Anne Rice’s vampire books as a teen.

Middle grade books definitely made more of a lasting impression on me: Island of the Blue Dolphins by O’Dell, A Little Princess by Burnett, A Wrinkle In Time by L’Engle, Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes by Streatfield. All favorites and continue to be so.

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