Interview – Meg Cabot

Author Meg Cabot has published more than 40 books, most of which have been dubbed “chick-lit” for teenagers and young adults. Her best-known novels are those in “The Princess Diaries” series. They’ve been published in more than 35 countries and sold over five million copies worldwide. The series includes 10 full-length novels.

Last week, as part of her Asian tour, Meg was in Hong Kong to meet, and answer questions from, her young local fans.

While she was here, she spoke to The Works’ Diana Wan.

We presented edited highlights of that conversation in the show. This is the full interview.

Diana Wan:
How did you find the Hong Kong fans’ response to you and your reading of your work?

Meg Cabot:
It’s fun. It’s always different. Because I’ve noticed that every different audience all over the world is a little bit different. And they laughed at different parts. And it’s true in America too. In different parts of America people laugh at different parts. So It’s funny.

Diana Wan:
Do you see Mia as an example for your readers?

Meg Cabot:
As a heroine who does something very brave, yes. I write about girls I would like to be. I’m not necessarily that brave or royal but, yeah, all of my books are about a girl who is seeking to find herself in some way. And trying to figure out what her place is in the universe or in the world. So that comes first, and sometimes she may or may not find romance.

Diana Wan:
So romance doesn’t come first in your stories? How about in the books you admire?

Meg Cabot:
There’s “Jane Eyre” for instance, “Pride and Prejudice” for instance. And some of my favorite stores aren’t necessarily romance first. I think they are more about the heroine finding herself and kind of, as I was saying, her place in the world. And then by doing that, she is able to find romance. That’s how I think of my books.

They are primarily books where the heroine is able to really grasp who she is, and when she does that and realises what she is meant to do in the world, then she is able to find romance. So I think that’s funny, what I think people call “chick-lit”. And that’s, I think, really what I do, although in my “chick-lit” a lot of the time the heroines have psychic powers, which isn’t true of all “chick-lit”.

Diana Wan:
How did you start writing?

Meg Cabot:
I always wrote. Gosh! I don’t remember ever not writing stories. I do remember not being able to write and not knowing how to write, and drawing stories. I was obsessed with narrative, I don’t know why, ever since I was a little kid. I think I wrote my first story when I was seven. It was called “Benny The Puppy”. And Benny has horrible disasters happened to him and his family. And I have just been writing ever since.

Dian Wan:
Did you feel you were an overnight success?

Meg Cabot
It was really weird for me because I read so many stories about writers that turned their manuscripts in, and the next day they got a huge cheque and they were overnight successes. And that didn’t happen to me. It was a very slow progress. And I think maybe it’s a little bit better to go the slow route because you really learn to appreciate it.

I think it’s really given me a sense of gratitude towards, certainly, my readers because I really just appreciate how they’ve stood by me through all the weird name changes I’ve been through. They’ve been able to find the books. And certainly my publishers going back and re-publishing books that I wrote under other names under my real names has been great. I’ve been so appreciative of that. So I think it’s certainly given me … gosh! I just feel so lucky. It’s been really great!

Diana Wan:
Did those rejections make you want to give up?

Meg Cabot:
I was frustrated certainly. The thing about it is I just knew I was just going to write, no matter what. Even if I hadn’t – I shouldn’t say this because I don’t want my publisher to know – but even if I hadn’t been published I would still have been writing because I love it so much I’d have kept doing it.

I did keep doing it while I kept getting rejection letters every day in the mail for years. I continued to write in spite of that, because I considered it as a challenge to keep on trying to get published. And even now that I am being published, I’m still challenging myself to write, you know, what I consider better and better stories, and to try to get more and more readers, and different kinds of readers. So it was really upsetting. Sometimes I’d get frustrated, but I sort of just saw it as a challenge that I needed to overcome and I just continued to do it. What else was I going to do? It’s what I love to do! So I had to keep doing it.

Diana Wan:
Many writers draw on autobiographical elements in their work. Are there elements from your life in “The Princess Diaries”?

Meg Cabot:
Everything that happens to Princess Mia in high school. I’m not a princess actually, and “Grandmere” is made up. But everything that happens to her: the boy problems, and the parent problems, and all the problems with the best friends, are totally taken directly from my diaries. Even the notes that the girls passed back and forth in schools, which now been turned into text messages, are notes that I did save from high school and that my girlfriends and I passed back and forth. So yeah, sadly, a lot of it is really true.

I just saved all my notes like I just said, but I also think it doesn’t really change. You retain it. At least I retained it from when I was a kid. Because I had such a horrible time being a teenager. it’s kind of ingrained in my memory. I don’t know, I guess I’m really interested in teen stuff because I just think that is such an interesting time in your life, as you are growing up. Because they haven’t really, teenagers …. they are fascinating to talk to, they are really fun to hang out with.

Sometimes I’d rather hang out with teenagers than adults. Actually, most of the time. So when I’m going to an adult party, I always end up in the kids’ room talking to the kids. So I’m the person who is, I don’t know, everybody’s big sister, who’s always hanging out with the kids. And I guess that’s why I’m able to retain that youthful voice.

Diana Wan:
Do negative reviews of your work affect you?

Meg Cabot?
I don’t really read the reviews that much. You know, as many bad reviews as there are, I know there are good reviews because my agent does send me the good ones. So I don’t really care. It means more to me what my readers are saying, and my readers love them. I constantly get emails from girls and some boys, mostly girls, saying: “I never wanted to read and I didn’t like reading until I opened up your book and I started reading it.”

To me the fact that I am able to write a book that is accessible to someone who hated reading and is now suddenly reading a book … that means more to me than anything. So I don’t really care what anybody else says.

Diana Wan:
The Disney film of “The Princess Diaries” has been criticised by some fans for not being close to the book.

Meg Cabot:
I think it stays true to the spirit of the book. And I understand that the changes that they made, they made for specific reasons – like killing off Mia’s father who is alive in the book. So I do get letters from little kids saying, “Just to let you know, I saw the movie of your book and read the book and you got the book wrong. The father is supposed to be dead!” So that was really funny. Actually I thought it was cute. They did make the second movie which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books, which is really funny. So sometimes people think, when they buy the book, that’s how it’s going to go, and it’s not. Because Disney just make their own versions. So there are two Princess Diary versions. There is mine and there is Disney’s. Disney’s is really nice, and mine is the right one. It’s great! It’s the greatest one. The movie really brought more readers into the series and people write all the time that they wouldn’t have heard of Princess Mia and now they’ve seen the movies and are reading the books and can’t stop reading them. Its fantastic!

Diana Wan:
What’s your favourite place to write?

Meg Cabot:
I do love to write in my bed with my cat at my side. I don’t really get under the cover, but I like to write in my neatly-made bed. And that’s really my favourite place to write, with my laptop, just having everything be nice and quiet. But I do listen to loud rock music on my headphones.

Diana Wan:
Do you have as much time to write as you’d like?

Meg Cabot:
I’ve just been really lucky I guess. I don’t have any kids, so I don’t have any responsibilities at home. My husband is a great chef, so he does all the cooking and he does the taxes! So it has been great, and all I do is to concentrate on writing which is just really, I’m living my dream which is really fantastic. And sometimes I worry that it will all come crashing down and I should take advantage of it while I can. So I’ve just been really lucky I guess.

Diana Wan:
So do you live like “a princess”?

Meg Cabot:
People always ask me that, but they don’t know I still clean the cat box and do all that kind of stuff. My husband won’t do that part of it. I guess in a way I’m living in a kind of dream. It’s true we all know, unfortunately as people know reading the Princess Diaries, being a princess isn’t always fantastic. So in a way though, yes I am, since it’s something that I dreamed of when I was a kid – that I could be a writer and now I am actually doing it. Then yeah, I do feel like a princess a little bit.

Diana Wan:
Who exacty are your readers?

Meg Cabot:
Now we are bringing in younger readers and I have books for older readers as well. It’s funny because “The Princess Diaries” started about ten years ago, or maybe eight years ago. The readers who started out when they ewere ten or eleven are now going off to college, so it’s really funny to see these mature young ladies and they grew up with the books, so it makes me feel quite old. It’s a little sad actually.

Diana Wan:
I’ve read that “The Princess Diaries” series is taking a break after ten books.

Meg Cabot
It actually is 16 books, because there are little half books in between. So technically it is 16 books. Actually I realised I didn’t have enough stories for 16 full-length novels. So it actually did work out. Although there are 10 full-length novels and there are some half books, and there are some little guides on how to be a princesses.

I realised I actually have more. There is more. There is more! So I’m taking a break for now, but I may have to go back and do some more because I love these characters and I do think it will be fun to do “The Princess Diaries, The College Years”. So we may not be done with Princess Mia but we are certainly done with her for a while because we both need a vacation for a little while.

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