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Author Interview: August 2006

August 16, 2006

Meg Cabot is best known for such popular young adult series as The Princess Diaries,The Mediator and 1-800-Where-R-You.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Jennifer Krieger, Cabot discusses the biographical and autobiographical elements that helped shape her latest stand-alone novel, HOW TO BE POPULAR. She also talks about her own high school experiences, a moving encounter with a young reader, and details concerning future projects.

Teenreads.com: The "Rules to Popularity" that Stephanie "acquires" is wonderfully old-fashioned and mannered. With advice like "People are drawn to those who have the ability to make them feel excited whether about a car wash, a weenie roast, or a sock hop," it reads like an early "Miss Manners Guide for Young Ladies and Gentlemen." Yet there is something essentially familiar and timeless about the tips and tasks one must undertake to be popular. Do you think that, despite the onslaught of technical advancements and teens' extreme "computer-savvy," the rules for being popular are essentially the same now as they were 50 years ago?

Meg Cabot: Not only do I believe tips about how to achieve popularity in social settings like school are timeless, but they are actually very similar to the tips you see in how-to books for executives looking to advance in the workplace. The rules about being popular are the same for school as they are for the office! They're totally universal.

TRC: One of the most striking things about Stephanie is her uncanny ability to be hyper-aware, witty and articulate, but also insecure and unsure of herself. This makes her easy to relate to. Was Stephanie, as a character, meant to be easily identified with --- an "every girl" --- of sorts?

MC: Well, I pretty much just based her, as I do all my main characters, on myself when I was her age. I wasn't QUITE as unpopular as she is, but I definitely never got invited to a party in four years of high school, if that tells you anything.

TRC: Stephanie's family and friends, from her donating-happy grandfather to her raisin-wary friend Jason, are all humorously and vividly described. As a reader, I could really see them. How do you come up with your supporting characters? Do you start out with a cast of personalities that you want to put down on the page, or do they develop as the story itself does?

MC: I truly do base ALL my characters on people I know --- although I try to disguise them so the people they're based on won't recognize themselves and sue me. I do this by giving them characters traits that other people I know have. So no one character is truly based 100% on any one person, but a mix of a lot of people. I do think that's why they seem so realistic, though --- because all of their traits really do belong to someone in real life.

TRC: In The Princess Diaries series, you do a wonderful job depicting New York City. In HOW TO BE POPULAR, Stephanie's Podunk town of Bloomville, Indiana is described in laugh-out-loud descriptions and observations. What strikes me is how adept you are at describing two very different settings with equal vibrancy, capturing each place's odd quirks and characteristics. What role does setting play for you in your books? Do you make a concerted effort to really get into describing a place, or is it something that comes naturally to you?

MC: Thanks! I do think the setting of a story is important --- where we live does shape our lives, in many ways. I debate long and hard about where I'm going to set a novel, do research on it once I've decided, and try to set it in a place I've actually been (unless of course it's a made-up place). The more details you can add about a setting (so long as they enhance the story), the more realistic your story will seem to readers.

TRC: You grew up in Bloomington, Indiana and Stephanie is such a strikingly well-drawn and believable character that it's hard not to imagine that some of her and her story is based on your own experiences growing up. How much of Stephanie and her experiences is autobiographical?

MC: Well, like I said before --- almost all of it. My campaign to become popular wasn't quite as calculated or set on as wide a scale as Steph's --- I wanted only to become friendly with people within a certain clique in my school (the drama "freaks," as we were called by the jocks, who were the popular kids). But by devoting all my Saturdays to set building, and all my weeknights to rehearsals, I finally did manage to weasel my way into their group and make friends --- although ultimately I decided the theater was not for me.

TRC: Following that, what were your high school experiences like? Were you popular? Were the rules outlined in Stephanie's "Guide to Popularity" things you wish you had known/practiced growing up? Do you think knowing them would have made any difference?

MC: I did know all or most of the rules in Steph's guide to popularity, because my mom told them to me when I was growing up --- she was popular in high school, so it all came very naturally to her and she could never understand why I had so many problems with it. Ultimately, though, being popular for the sake of being popular wasn't ever one of my goals --- getting to be friends with people I admired was, and I achieved that just by being myself (with the aforementioned sacrifice of my Saturdays and weeknights).

TRC: We are saturated with images of teenage girls as "Queen Bees" or "Mean Girls." Yet even "A-listers" like Lauren Moffatt and her popular friends are not cruel or sadistic in the way teenage girls are so often depicted in our popular culture. What do you think the impact of all this negative press, compounded by the books and movies that perpetuate the image of them as conniving and mean-spirited, has on teenage girls? Do you go out of your way to avoid such portrayals? Do you think there is any merit to the now-popular conception of ultra-competitive and often cruel or manipulative young women running rampant in high schools across America?

MC: I don't actually think these portrayals are unrealistic. There were girls like that in my high school, and I hear from readers about girls like that in their middle and high schools. And I have to say --- as an adult --- there are women like that in my field (publishing and fiction-writing) as well. It seems unbelievable, but it's true. And with the age of the Internet, women and girls like this have gotten, if anything, even nastier and more manipulative than they were when I was growing up. However, I am a firm believer in karma, and I know whatever evil deeds these girls do will come back at them times three --- just as I have been rewarded by the universe for NOT being nasty to my peers.

TRC: You must get approached constantly by your readers, adults and young adults alike, and told how your books impacted, inspired and entertained them. Is there one interaction with a reader you can remember that had a real impact on you?

MC: I do get approached a lot and thanked for helping readers through difficult times, but there was one particularly odd one that I'll never forget --- a young Muslim girl in a headscarf who'd waited in a long line to get her books autographed. She approached my table crying hysterically --- so hard she couldn't talk. I asked her what was wrong but she didn't reply. She just gave me this huge hug and whispered "You don't know what you did for me, but I can't thank you enough," and ran away. I never found out who she was or what was up with the tears. But I'm glad I was able to help.

TRC: Could you see HOW TO BE POPULAR as a movie? If you could cast any young actress today as Stephanie in the film version, who would you choose?

MC: Ha! I don't play that game. If they do make a movie of my book, I don't want whoever ends up playing my characters reading this and then feeling like they weren't my first choice!

TRC: Do you see HOW TO BE POPULAR branching into a series? Where would you take Stephanie and her friends?

MC: I really don't see this book as a series. Generally when I think of a story that has series potential, I think of multiple plots all at one time. For Steph and the gang, it was always just this one book.

TRC: What advice would you offer to young adults who want to be writers? What writers inspired or still inspire you?

MC: Read a lot, then try to write the kind of books you like to read. 99% of writing a book is keeping your butt in the chair and finishing it. If you can do that, you can get it published. See the FAQ section of www.megcabot.com, or visit my online diary, for more tips.

TRC: What are you working on now, and what can we plan to see from you in the future?

MC: Right now I'm working on Princess Diaries 9Princess Diaries 8, as well as MISSING YOU, the final installment of my 1-800-Where-R-You series, both come out in December 2006, along with the sequel to my first adult mystery, SIZE 12 IS NOT FAT. Go to my online book club, www.megcabotbookclub.com, or my new MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/meg_cabot, for more info!