Stephenie Meyer is a Phoenix, Arizona, mom who still thinks of parenting as her full-time job and writing as just an avocation — even though her first book, “Twilight,” made it to number 5 on the New York Times Children’s Bestseller List, and her new book, “New Moon,” is already number 1.
Meyer’s move from unknown, anonymous mom to top writer of children’s fiction happened at lightning speed, so she may not have adjusted yet to her new role. She wrote the first three books of her trilogy back to back in just a year, and that was only three years ago.
It was all a bit of a surprise to Meyer, who will appear at a book signing for “New Moon” at Barnes & Noble MarketFair on Wednesday, September 27. Writing, after all, was not a life-long ambition. Although she majored in English at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she graduated in 1997, she says, “I didn’t think about going the creative writing route — it was too nervy for me. I am a shy and quiet person.”
Her series for young adults, which is about vampires, was just the logical follow-up to a dream she never wanted to end — literally. “The reason I wrote the book,” says Meyer, “was because I had a dream about a vampire and the main character.” Being a typical brain-dead mother of babies and small children, she jotted down the dream because she was interested in its characters. That dream became Chapter 13 in her first book, but once she picked up the pen, she found she couldn’t stop.
Meyer’s “family” of vampires are not the kind of vampires one might expect. They do yearn to suck blood and have to spend a lot of mental energy to fight off the impulse to do so, but otherwise they are nice, well-socialized, ethical almost-humans. Her books, says Meyer, are decidedly not horror novels. “I don’t even like scary movies.”
Vampires are created by biting a human. If the person is not killed, then the transformation occurs over a three-day period. Meyer describes the process almost as if she has gone through it herself: “It is a physically painful process; you feel like you are burning alive.”
Her vampires look human, sort of, as long as you don’t get too close and feel their ice-cold skin. But they don’t have a heartbeat or circulatory system; their bodies are like stone. And they are much stronger and faster than the rest of us, and have sharper senses. Given the vampires’ enhanced abilities, Meyer believes she was more influenced by super heroes than horror stories.
Since she had never read about vampires, she was on her own as she created them. “I was creating a mythology and creating my own world,” she says. As her vampires took shape, they had to make sense to her: “My vampires don’t have fangs. Why would they? Just because they have been bitten, why would their teeth change when nothing else does?”
Her characters are their own people — well, mostly vampires — and although she believes firmly in their independence, the character development and her themes clearly grew out of her own life experience and her Mormon religious beliefs.
Meyer’s family played a part in her books’ development, both as support and as models for some of the interactions in her books. “I enjoyed having a large family — you have friends built in,” she says, adding, “I’m lucky. I have really good parents, and it’s something I don’t take for granted.” Her family showed up her book in a way that surprised her a little. “I realized my family is like the vampire family — a great father; a sweet and loving mother; kids who get along, every so often have a tiff, but love each other. I hadn’t done that on purpose.”
Her mother, whom she describes as her “best friend,” is a romance junkie. “I can’t put enough romance in the book for her,” says Meyer. Her mother reads everything she writes and is a good editor, according to Meyer. “She could have done anything with her life, but she decided to dedicate her life to her kids.”
Her dad, she says, is her biggest fan. When she got her three-book deal with Little, Brown, his response was, “I’m so proud of you, but I’m not surprised.” She thinks his enthusiasm is partly a consequence of all the books they read together when she was growing up. “His bookshelf determined my taste in what I was reading,” she says. “Having a daughter who is a writer is a dream come true for him.”
Her siblings also make appearances in her books, mostly by way of their names. When she had already named Jacob Black, her brother Jacob “started crowing that he was in the book.” Since she already had an Emily, she added Seth, and on from there. “Paul is the only one where his personality comes through,” she says, and when he complained about his role in brotherly fashion — “Nice, making me the werewolf with the self-control problem” — she responded, “Well, you do have a temper.”
She suggests that the heroine, Bella, may have developed as kind of an obverse of her own life — something different that seemed natural to have in a fantasy world. Bella is an only child, whereas Meyer comes from a big family. Bella lives in a rainy town in the Pacific Northwest, whereas Meyer is from Phoenix, where it rains only every now and then.
If the characters have been influenced by Meyer’s life in a big happy family, her themes come out of deeply-held beliefs. The first is the existence of free will, that no matter what your life situation, you always have a choice, even in the extreme case of being a vampire. “That’s what we’re here for, why we’re on this planet,” she says, “making choices and doing the best with what we have.”
Another idea is that both our humanity and our bodies are gifts. In struggles between the heroine and hero, Bella takes her body and her humanity for granted and is ready to give it all up to become a vampire, but Edward, her vampire boyfriend, argues forcefully for her remaining human.
Meyer wrote “Twilight” during the summer of 2003, while the kids had swim lessons, she says. “I had the plot in my head, little notebooks with me, and I lived in that story.” That is, as much as she could in between changing diapers and potty training — her youngest sons were then one and three and the oldest was six.
What she loved about that time, looking back, was writing in complete freedom, without editor or agent. “Writing for myself was so cool. You got to live it and didn’t care what anyone else thought.”
But it wasn’t so easy for her family. “I was really bad, very obsessive,” she admits. It was very frustrating for her husband at first — he didn’t know why she was on the computer all the time or why she wasn’t sleeping. She didn’t tell him she was writing a book, partly because she didn’t know herself. “I didn’t think about finishing,” she says. “It is way out of character for me to finish things.”
Not only didn’t she know she was writing a book, she hadn’t thought of asking anyone else to read what she was writing, and she certainly had no idea of publishing it. But her older sister knew something was up because Meyer wasn’t calling her on the phone. Eventually her sister, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, wormed it out of her, and Meyer started E-mailing her chapters to read. When Meyer finished the book, it was her sister who egged her on to get it published.
Although the process of finding a publisher was complicated, Meyer stuck it out. The first step was to find an agent. The reason you need a literary agency, she now understands, is because real editors are too busy to look at a manuscript not filtered first. They rely on agents to pass on something promising, and when a good agent tells them he or she has something good, they listen.
Meyer submitted 15 queries to agencies, and got nine rejections and five no answers. But she got an acceptance from Writers House, which she describes as the “dream agency” on her list, like the college you apply to assuming you won’t get in.
She sent the agency her first three chapters, and Jody Reamer, her agent, called and asked her to sign at the end of October. They polished up a thing or two and changed the title from “Forks,” the town where the hero and heroine lived, to “Twilight,” and by Thanksgiving, two weeks after she started working with Jody, she had a publisher. “It’s not the typical way you get published. It was the dream Cinderella way of having it happen.”
At that point Meyer was still a real novice. She was surprised that things had moved so quickly, but still had no idea how big “Twilight” was going to be. That is, until her editor came in and asked for an exclusive and offered her a large advance — because nine other companies were also interested. Little, Brown offered Meyer a reportedly $750,000 three-book deal. And the first thing Meyer, a self-described car addict, did was buy a brand new Infiniti G35 coupe “with a spoiler and all the extras.” The film and foreign rights were sold even before the book was officially published in fall, 2005.
Having an editor was tough, even if her books were the better for it. Meyer says she went into the editing process thinking that it would be like framing a painting — making it look nice. What she found instead, in a process she describes as difficult, invasive, and strenuous, was that the writer is asked to “change the color of the sky, take the house out, and put cows in the foreground. It’s hard not to take it personally when someone wants to change your characters,” Meyers says.
During the editing process for “New Moon,” she was asked to make a change that sent ripples out to many other parts of the finished novel. Originally the heroine didn’t know there were werewolves. “I intended it to be obvious to the reader, but not to the heroine,” Meyer says. But she was asked to have her heroine discover the werewolves earlier on, requiring an additional 70 pages of exploration in the middle of the book, which of course changed events that followed.
She has now learned not to write her sequels too quickly because edits to an earlier book may require drastic changes in the ones that follow. The third book in the Twilight series, “Eclipse,” is currently slated for a fall, 2007, release.
After weathering the editing process, writing has also changed for her; it is not as free and easy as it once was. “When I started writing the sequel,” she says, “I felt like I had my agent on one shoulder and my editor on the other.”
But in the end she is driven to write. “I write because of the characters,” she says. “Once a character starts forming up and rounding out, their personality is so strong that there is only one set of actions they can follow. Those are my favorite characters — the ones who grow.”
With success, Meyer says her identity has changed somewhat. “It’s split into two,” she says. “I’m still Stephenie and mostly a mom. But I have to be that other person who is brave enough to talk to interviewers, make appearances, go on tours, and handle the business side.”
Although her oldest son, now 9, is a little embarrassed at his mom’s notoriety, her middle son takes it in stride. “For little kids, your mom is the standard of normality,” says Meyer, and she shares a story about her middle son, for whom she sometimes has to “translate” because of a small speech impediment. One day as she was sharing what he was saying with another little boy, she realized with some surprise and amusement that her son’s friend was asking, “Which book does your mom write?”
Stephenie Meyer, Wednesday, September 27, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Presentation and booksigning by author of “Twilight” and “New Moon,” both New York Times bestsellers. Most of her fans are teenagers. 609-716-1570.