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Interview: September 12, 2017

New from New York Times-bestselling author Marie Lu comes WARCROSS, a dazzling adventure set in a future not too far off from our own time. In the world of WARCROSS, people worldwide are constantly logging into Warcross, a virtual reality combat game. Teenage hacker Emika Chen is a great player, but an even better bounty hunter. Struggling to make ends meet, she hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championship and becomes an overnight sensation. Convinced she is going straight to prison, Emika panics, but she soon receives a call from the game's mysterious billionaire creator --- and he has an unusual offer that she simply cannot refuse. In celebration of the release of WARCROSS, we interviewed Marie Lu about her inspiration for the book, her love of gaming, and what she hopes readers will take away from the scientific developments that make Warcross possible. Read below to see her answers. Like your Legend series, your new book, WARCROSS, is set in a futuristic world. Unlike Legend, however, WARCROSS is set in a future not too far off from our own. What made you decide to focus on the near-future as the setting for this book?

Marie Lu: Since much of the tech mentioned in WARCROSS --- virtual reality, augmented reality, self-driving cars, auto-translators, drones --- is tech that either already exists today or is in the process of being refined, I always knew the story had to be set in our near-future. In some ways, it made writing WARCROSS more challenging because the science fiction aspects had to seem like they could happen within the next ten years. Hopefully, it also makes the story resonate more with readers because they can recognize the plausibility of this technology and see how it could happen in their own lives.

TRC: For the characters of your book, playing Warcross (a virtual reality combat game) every day is just a normal facet of life. When reading about the game, I was reminded of the first month or so of the Pokemon Go launch, when it seemed like everyone was out playing. I already know that you love gaming, but were there any similar games that inspired you to invent Warcross?

ML: Oh man, Pokemon Go! What a fascinating phenomenon to watch; I remember seeing everyone in my neighborhood out and walking around, playing that game --- myself included. The actual game of Warcross is kind of like a cross between Overwatch, Mario Kart, and Quidditch. The championship tournament aspect of it was also inspired by League of Legends!

TRC: In the game of Warcross, players identify themselves using Avatars, super colorful and often over-the-top icons that represent their real faces. What would your Avatar look like?

ML: I think my avatar would look similar to my real self--but maybe with colorful hair. And giant wings. And a corgi sidekick.

TRC: Although WARCROSS is a work of fiction, the science and technology behind the game feel just real enough to be fact. How did you do your research to make these advancements seem so real? What was the most interesting thing you learned?

ML: I read a ton of articles and talked to friends who work in the tech industry. Almost none of the technology mentioned in the book is entirely fictional; it all exists in some form in the real world. Elon Musk even recently announced the creation of Neuralink, a company working on implantable brain-computer interfaces! Talk about hitting it a bit on the nose. I'm constantly astounded by the capabilities of science and technology today.

TRC: Now let’s talk about your main character, Emika. Emika is a teenage hacker with rainbow hair and tattoos who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants. She is good at the game, but she also has a great deal of emotional intelligence and common sense that help to guide her in her bounty-hunting outside of the game and in the tournament as she watches her teammates. Can you tell us more about Emika? Are there any people in your life who served as inspiration for her?

ML: Emika's talents were inspired by my mother, a software developer with an incredibly analytical mind and an unreal level of determination. In many ways, Emika is like a young version of my mother --- minus the dyed hair and tattoos, which is more my personality!

TRC: Emika is used to operating alone and on her own terms, but when she is selected to join the Warcross championship, she must learn to depend on others and open herself up to a team. What do you hope your readers will learn from watching Emika develop these relationships?

ML: Emika's struggle with opening up to others is absolutely modeled on myself. There's a moment in the book where one of Emika's teammates tells her how important it is for friends to be able to ask for help from each other --- and that moment was based on a real conversation a close friend of mine had with me. There are so many reasons why it's hard to ask for help; sometimes it's pride, or lack of trust, or the fear that you don't deserve to take up someone else's time. But true friends want to know that they can lean on each other, and I hope that readers take comfort in seeing Emika learn this.

TRC: The creator of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka, is a mysterious young billionaire who is sure to be one of this year’s most popular Book-Boyfriends. Without giving away any big spoilers, can you tell us more about what drives him to become so successful at such a young age? Do you think he has any heroic flaws that will cause problems in future books?

ML: Hideo was simultaneously fun to write and difficult to wrangle. I don't think I can reveal too much about him, except to say that I find creative passion and drive extremely attractive!

TRC: At the heart of WARCROSS lies a dangerous conspiracy involving the Dark Web, online betting, and, when these villains move past their screens, murder. Along with the many, many joys of the Internet, we’ve also seen too many terrible instances of cyber-bullying and dangerous connections with strangers occurring through the Web in the past few years. What do you hope teen readers will learn about the possible dangers of the Internet and augmented reality from reading WARCROSS?

ML: I grew up in that weird time when the Internet was still new and strange. Remember asking "a/s/l" in early online forums? There were unsavory people I encountered back then, and the Internet was definitely still dangerous --- but I can't imagine what it's like to grow up today, under the glare of social media and the evolved Dark Net. It's easy to forget to be kind when you're protected behind a screen, and people can turn cruel in a way that they might never be in person. Be careful who you give your information to and how much of yourself you share online. But much more importantly, don't be that cruel person.

TRC: One of my favorite things about your book was the diversity of your tournament players. Although the game takes place in an alternate reality, its players represent a very real variety of individuals. While Emika herself is Chinese-American, the captain of her tournament team is in a wheelchair and all of the other players demonstrate a wide variety of races, languages, sexual orientations and interests. Why do you think it is especially important to represent diverse characters in fantasy and science fiction books?

ML: It's important because we exist, which is reason enough. Stories are about humans and humans are diverse. Realistic world building can't be done without incorporating a wide range of individuals. It's just good storytelling. The other answer is that we don't write our books in a vacuum. Every story, no matter how far-fetched, is birthed from what we know of our own, real societies --- and that includes all of our unconscious biases, discriminatory thoughts and stereotypes about races, genders and physical abilities. It takes a lot of work to fight against those biases, to incorporate realistic diverse representation in a way that is respectful. I am constantly learning how to do better.

TRC: WARCROSS ends with a crazy twist that many readers will not see coming.  Without giving too much away, what can readers expect from the next book in the series?

ML: I know this is super vague, but...returning characters, new characters and all the conflicts that come with them!

TRC: Many of our readers are aspiring authors themselves. Do you have any advice for them?

ML: You can’t perfect something that doesn’t exist. Let yourself write a bad first draft. Mine always are! Once you have a completed manuscript down, then you can go back and rip it up, take chapters out, add chapters in, fix your characters and so on. But you can’t work with something that isn’t there. Finish first, then worry about perfecting it. Best of luck! You can do this!