Cindy Pon on Writing Monstrous Beauties in Serpentine

Cindy PonSilver Phoenix author Cindy Pon’s brand-new fantasy introduces readers to the Kingdom of Xia, and to Skybright, a teenage girl who’s growing to realize she isn’t who or what she thought she was. Skybright is in possession of a dark power, one she’ll need to learn to embrace if she’s going to let herself be loved. Here to talk about writing the “monstrous beauty” that is Skybright is Cindy Pon.

When I sat down to write Serpentine, my focus was on a coming-of-age story, a personal journey for my heroine Skybright, who wakes one night to find that the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of monstrous beauties, prevalent in almost all cultures, many of whom are temptresses and murderers. They are used as a warning to men, to be wary of women who are too beautiful, too desirable, or, heavens forbid, too sexualfor they are a threat, indeed.

Visually, I’ve always been very drawn to Medusa of Greek Mythology. Medusa was a very beautiful women before her transformation into a monster with serpents for her hair, but became so horrifying she could turn men into stone with just one look. I watched Clash of the Titans repeatedly as a child, and can easily recall my fascination and horror with Medusa in that film: ugly, inhuman, terrifying. She slithered among the pillars, searching for her next victim to turn into stone, dragging her long serpentine body behind her. That image has stayed with me for decades, so compelling I’ve transferred the potency of it into my own novel.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Medusa. She was transformed into a monster through no fault of her own, and her one true downfall was that she had been too beautiful, desired even by a god. (It never goes well for the woman when she’s desired by a god in Greek mythology.)

But what about Chinese mythology, Cindy? you ask. When I began writing Serpentine, I was much more familiar with Medusa’s story than I was with Lady White Snake, the most well-known serpent demon tale in Chinese folklore. In fact, it is a classic. In the story, Lady White Snake takes on the form of a human woman and falls in love with a mortal man. Their marriage is a blissful one, but the lovers are separated by a vengeful monk intent on destroying Lady White Snake and the happiness she has found.

I didn’t know the entire story until well after I had written Serpentine, and actually watched a wonderful play about it a few months back. I was very pleasantly surprised by the sympathetic way Lady White Snake was portrayed, as someone who truly loved and wanted to stay with her husband in the mortal realm. Because as strange and frightening as Skybright’s plight is in the novel, I hope that you, too, as the reader, will sympathize with her.

I know a serpent demon heroine is unusual in young adult fantasy. But as a writer, I’m drawn to the unusual. And no matter what, I keep returning again and again to the coming-of-age story, the journey to discovering your true self, in every book that I write. I hope you’ll pick up Serpentine, and enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Serpentine is on sale today.

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