'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 26 February 2010

Interview: Author Meg Cabot

Princess Meg

Kids Book Review is absolutely thrilled to welcome outrageously successful kids' author Meg Cabot! I hope you enjoy this fun interview as much as I did. Love your work, Meg!

Tell us a little bit about You. Hi! I’m from Bloomington, Indiana, which is a small town in the middle of America surrounded by cornfields! I couldn’t wait to move away. Although there is a big university in the center of it at which my father taught, so when I was older, I got to go to school there for free.

I got so used to living on a university campus that when I graduated and moved to New York City to be an artist (my dream), I got a job as a college dorm administrator at New York University to support myself until my dream of being an artist came true (I had many other jobs as well, including a salad bar attendant, receptionist, and nanny!), because that’s where I felt most comfortable.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it happened) my dream of being an artist didn’t work out. No one liked my drawings very much, but everyone liked the stories I wrote to go with them!

How long have you been writing? I’ve written stories since I could hold a pen. I always illustrated them. I didn’t try to get just a story, not an illustrated story, published until my dad died, when I was 26. Before that, I was always busy trying to be an artist.

When my dad died, I realized that if you’ve always wanted to try something (and I did always want to try getting a novel published—I had a lot of them stuffed under the bed; I was just too shy to show them to anyone), you had better hurry up and do it. You don’t have much time on this earth.

What genre do you write in? I guess I write what’s called 'women’s fiction' and children’s books (also young adult fiction). Sub-genres of this include mysteries, paranormal and humorous fiction.

You write several highly successful series for young people, including The Princess Diaries. Having recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Stage Fright, I’d love to know how you came up with your Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series? I had so many younger sisters of readers of my books for older girls and women ask “When are you going to write something my mom will let ME read?” that I thought I’d better hurry up and do it. So I came up with Allie, who is a little bit based on me when I was a girl! She has two younger brothers, like I do, and her parents work at a university, like mine did.

Which of your series is your very favourite and why? Oh, I really couldn’t say. Just like your mother loves all her kids the same (or so she says), I love all my books the same.

How often do you write and how does a typical writing day go for you? I’m very lucky because writing is my favorite thing to do, and to be able to do what you love all day is the definition of a happy life (while also being around people you love). The icing on the cake is that I actually get paid to do it! Of course I used to do it for free all the time anyway, but I try not to let my publishers know that!

Why do you write? Oh, I don’t know. It’s just so fun to make things up. When I was a little girl, I used to spend every evening plotting out the elaborate games of Barbies or Star Wars action figures I was going to play with my friends the next day. Then I would force them to act out the plots exactly the way I’d planned. I realize now that’s why I had so few friends!

How have you dealt with your phenomenal success and what are the positives and negatives of being so well known? Of course it’s wonderful to be able to do what you love and have people give you positive feedback for it, and I love my readers for that. But for a long time I didn’t get any positive feedback at all (my books were rejected for many years, and I wrote books under other names for a while that had very few fans). I still wrote, because I loved it.

So I think it’s important to keep in mind that success is cyclical and what’s important is not what others think of what you do, but that YOU love what you do.

Also, I’ve found that that Pussycat Dolls line from their song When I Grow Up is really true: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. Once you get a bit of fame, people who hated you in school suddenly claim to have always been your best buddy!

What originally made you decide to write children’s books? You know, that was never a conscious decision. I wrote The Princess Diaries for adults. My agent said it was for children. I was surprised to hear that. My friends and I are always having a laugh over it.

What do you love most about producing books for children? The letters from readers. They’re amazing. I answer every one. Not in a timely fashion (and it’s almost impossible to answer all the emails, Facebook messages, Tweets, etc, though I try). But the handwritten ones get answered.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Yes, it was called Benny the Puppy, and I wrote it when I was 7. I illustrated it, too. Benny’s family perished in a freak prairie tornado. But it was OK because he was raised by a kindly Native American tribe.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey? Hmmm. Sorry, long answer: I know people might expect me to say rejection, and I did get rejected for many years, and I still do get rejected sometimes (all the time; my own publisher in England just rejected my latest book, actually! But another publisher there snapped it up, so that’s OK).

But rejection just makes me angry and fuels me to write more! I always say, “Make your haters your motivators!”

I think one of the blocks people who want to be writers don’t expect or even think about is, “How do you juggle a full time day job and being a writer?” Because the truth is, very few writers receive enough money from their books to support themselves on writing alone. Which is surprising, I realize.

Not everyone can be JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer and have a huge hit book right away. Most authors write for many years before they earn enough money from their books to live from. This was certainly true of me.

I wrote on the side for ten years as well as working a full time job to support myself, so I know…it’s HARD! People ask me all the time: How do you write so many books? Easy: I gave up vacation time, weekends, nights out with friends, visiting my family, having kids, everything, in order to be able to find time to meet my deadlines and also pay my rent and have health insurance.

Balancing it all is a juggling act. You really have to respect people who love writing so much that they’re able to give up so much to make it work.

How has the children’s literary scene changed in the past decade? Well, certainly when I started out writing, paranormal wasn’t as popular as it is now, although I had a paranormal series (The Mediator). My original publisher fired me from writing it for lack of sales! So that’s quite a difference. Now my inbox is inundated with emails from readers begging me to continue the series. So I’ve started two new paranormal series (Insatiable, to be in US stores in June 2010, and Abandon, in US stores next April 2011).

What advice would you have on writing stories for children and teens? Write the kind of book you’d love to read, but don’t write for the market—the market changes as quickly as we change the ringtone on our mobile phones!

Don’t ever copy someone else’s voice—or style. Your voice is what makes your book unique! Let it come out in your writing.

For more tips on writing, visit the FAQ section of my website, or the Writing Forum of my message boards.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? Oh, I’d love to work at Urban Outfitters or a place like that. I love clothes combined with loud rock music! More realistically, I’d love to be a teacher. I think that would be difficult, but incredibly fulfilling.

Less realistically… a police dog handler! I know that’s crazy, but my brother is a police sergeant and he saves people’s lives every day. He just got an award for saving a 15-year-old girl’s life the other night by giving her CPR after she had an asthma attack at her birthday party.

But I’d still only do it if I could have a police dog, because I love animals.

What books did you read as a child? Oh, I read everything I could get my hands on—adult books, kids books, comic books, whatever. Mainly books my parents left lying around (spy thrillers and mystery novels—my dad, and classics and women’s fiction—my mom). Not strictly kid books, but I think kids know what they’re ready for—anything that looks interesting to them! If I didn’t understand something, I’d just ask my mom and she’d tell me what it meant. This was how when we got to the 'classics' in school, I’d already read them. So I was bored a lot in school—that’s how I got interested in art—I was always doodling in class!

Name five of your favourite children’s books of all time: Wow! This is so hard.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett.
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
I also remember loving anything by Susan Cooper

What are some of your favourite interests? I’m interested in creative writing and art—of course. I love stringing words together, kind of the way some people like to bead necklaces. Only to me, the beads are words! I like to try to make them fit exactly right. Drawing is the same way: making the picture tell the story exactly how you want it to.

I also like TV. Everyone needs a break! After I spend hours making words fit just the right way in order to tell my story, I like to take a break and see how OTHER writers tell THEIR stories (every television show has a writer—even 'reality shows').

I like reading. I’m very picky about the books I read, just like I am about the words I choose! The book has to be just right! It can’t be too long or boring.

I’m interested in the environment—I live in Key West, Florida, home to the most extensive living coral barrier reef system in North American waters, and the third largest coral reef system in the world. We’re working to preserve it.

I also love animals, just like my character, Allie Finkle! I have two cats, both of whom were strays! One, Henrietta, only has one eye, because as a stray kitten she had a terrible infection. She’s fine now, but she can’t see out of that eye. The other cat, Gem, only loves my husband, and follows him everywhere.

Describe your perfect day. Oh, this is boring, but: waking up late, having nowhere to go, eating Nutella on toast, drinking tea, taking a bath, getting dressed in snuggly clothes, getting back in bed, writing a few chapters of my book, getting back out of bed, and going down to a lovely meal cooked by my husband (he’s a trained chef), eating it, then watching TV, maybe a good movie, and then going back to bed (to watch more TV)!

Although I LOVE visiting with my readers, I have to travel so much for my book tours (to very far off places likes Los Angeles, Singapore, London, South Africa, Brazil, and New York) that my ideal days are when I just get to stay home and write and hang out with my husband and cats (and maybe go shopping with a friend or two)!

Describe yourself in five words. Oh my goodness. Well... Will work for pretty dresses (sad but true).

What’s next for Meg Cabot? Well, more Allie Finkle books, of course, and then the last book in the Airhead series, Runaway (in US stores April 20), and the first books in my paranormal series already mentioned - Insatiable and Abandon.

Visit the lovely Meg and see more info and upcoming book news at megcabot.com.