Meg Cabot is the bestselling author of over 80 books for children and adults, including The Princess Diaries series, the latest installment of which, Royal Wedding was published last month. The book features 26-year-old Mia Thermopolis, a royal wedding and lots and lots of (very tastefully done) sex.
I spoke to Cabot on the phone about her latest book, what it’s like to write about an all-grown-up Mia (now the same age as many of her early fans) and the changing trends in both young adult and women’s fiction. Cabot, whom I’ve been reading since she first started publishing (although I haven’t gotten through the nearly 100 books she’s released), is as warm in conversation as her prose suggests that she might be. She was open about her process, the struggle to get her early work published, and the fact that this latest Princess Diaries book is not only inappropriate for kids but potentially even a little hot for adults to handle. Princess Mia might be getting married, but that doesn’t mean she’s doesn’t have fireman fantasies.
I read recently that you actually have to look up where Mia Thermopolis lives [because you forget sometimes].
I used to think I was the only author who was way, but I feel like when you write this many books... I’ve been talking to other authors who’ve written a lot, and they all do it, so I feel a little less bad about it. Sometimes I think that the kids—I call [my readers] the kids, although now a lot of them are old enough to have their own kids, which is really upsetting—think that I had somebody else write my books. But it’s genuinely just that I can’t remember.
Right. Well, there are so many books.
You’re probably the same way. As soon as you’ve written something, then you move on to the next thing, and everything from the last one just goes right out of your head. Sometimes they put quotes of mine up on Twitter, and I’m like, “I never said that.” Although, truly, I think I never did. I think people like to quote from the movie.
Will there ever be another email book?
Yeah. It’s so weird, but they are, worldwide, the most consistently best-selling of my books. People really like those email/text books, because... I don’t know, I personally think it’s because they’re told in little short bursts, and so they’re very easy to put down, is what I like to say.
But my editor’s like, “Stop saying that.” I think people also like them because they’re like a diary book. You feel like you’re looking into somebody’s personal, private life. You’re reading their emails and their texts. They really sell well in Japan, where people are so into texting and reading those kind of books that are told in text.
The Princess Diaries is different from that. You only get it from Mia’s point of view. Tell me more about the new book that just came out.
Well, it’s Princess Mia grown up. She’s 26 and she’s actually the age of many of her readers now. They were kind of her age when the book came out and now it’s 15 years later, so they’re going out into the work world just like she is. Graduating from college. Some of them are actually even getting married, just like her.
Although none of them—that I know of—are having a royal wedding like her that’s going to be filmed in front of a billion people, so her life is slightly different. But not much. They’re all trying to find themselves and they’re all trying to find their place in the world. The only difference is that her place has been pre-destined because she has to rule a country.
Is Grandma still alive?
Oh my God, yes! Of course her Grandmother, who tortures her daily, is still there and has taken over the wedding, due to a huge royal scandal that has occurred, and is blowing it completely even more out of proportion than it would have been, in an attempt to cover the scandals up.
Is there going to be a third movie?
I can’t comment on it. If it happens, as Anne Hathaway said on her Instagram, “Miracles happen,” so we’ll see. I think it would be great. It would be wonderful. We need more princess movies, obviously.
Did you like the movies?
It was my first experience with Hollywood. They actually bought the film rights before the book even came out, so this was my first experience dealing with any of that and it was really wonderful and I have to say—I’m not just saying this—it was amazing. Everyone involved was super pro-lady and pro-princess and stuff. They were great about keeping me notified about what they were doing, even when they were like, “Hey, we gotta kill the dad,” and I was like, “Woah! What’s going on there?” In the books the dad is the one who tells her she’s a princess, but then the line ended up going to Julie Andrews.
I was like, “Well, anything you can do to give Julie Andrews more lines, I’m all for. Go ahead and kill the dad!” You’re making what, a 300-page book into an hour and a half movie, I totally understood why they had to do that. But it confused a lot of readers, I have to say. It was very different.
I had the first two books in a “Mia Tells It Like It Is” edition, which I bought after seeing the film and they were very different from the films. I could see some fans getting a little bit upset.
Yeah, because the books are rated definitely PG, almost PG-13. The movies were rated G. They really, really made them so that they were for very young kids. The movie was for all ages, but the books were definitely not. I got a lot of hate mail, let me tell you, from parents who went out and bought those books for their 6-year olds. Then immediately, I think the very first page of the first book, there’s French kissing mentioned.
That’s why, with the middle school princess series, I made it geared toward much younger readers so that parents could go out.
Your books became popular at the same time as Louise Rennison’s and Carolyn Mackler’s in the early 2000s. I noticed that time is when teen fiction started being more open about things like kissing and sex. How do you think the young adult literary world has changed since you started writing these books?
I had a hard time getting the book published. It was rejected by basically everyone, because there was this feeling when I was first trying to get it published, that you couldn’t talk about that stuff. I think you probably remember when. I don’t know how old you are, but—
You’re very young. You’re just a baby.
In my mind, you will always be about 35. I don’t know how old you are but I’ve always imagined you as 35.
Thank you, because I did that thing where you put your photo into that website where it tells you how old you look, and it always said 35, so that’s it. I’m sticking to that.
We’ll go with that. You look exactly the same as you do on all of your book covers.
Oh, my God. Thank you.
But so, when I grew up, all the teen books had to have one of those messages—except for Judy Blume obviously, who was not like that. In contemporary YA at the time, if you had sex, you either got pregnant or you died in a horrible car accident Like those After School Specials. Always something terrible happened to them if they did anything that was not super kind of Christian-y.
I hated that. I thought it was so stupid, because that’s not how it goes in real life. I felt strongly that I was just going to write this book. I really wrote it for my friends and I, and when I gave it to my agent, I assumed it was going to be for adults and she’s like, “No, this is for teens.”
It just kept getting rejected because it didn’t have what they considered strong, positive moral values. I felt it did. Finally it got to Harper Collins and they were like, “No, we love this. It’s going to be great.” It can be entertaining but also, I felt it had this message of “You’re a good friend to the people who liked you before you were a princess.” That just happened to be right on the cusp of when YA exploded, and we were just there at the right time.
Is Mia going to have sex in this book?
Is Princess Mia going to have sex? Of course! Oh my God. Yeah, that’s a huge problem, because she’s very paranoid about her diary being found by the wrong people.
She doesn’t have an iPhone, right?
No, she does not because she’s very paranoid about the Cloud being hacked so she’s not allowed to have an iPhone. On her birthday, she gets a bunch of iPhones, but she gives them to other people. She only carries a Blackberry of course, because it allegedly can’t be hacked.
And there’s a lot of sex. It doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail, but we do find out she’s into role-playing. I’m not going to tell you too much about that. It has to do with some firemen. I don’t want to talk about it too much.
Didn’t Mia live in a converted firehouse?
Yes, in the movie she did. It’s a little meta.
Is the newest book true to the other Princess Diaries books? When Sweet Valley Confidential came out, with the Wakefield twins being much older, the plot and characters were very, very twisted. I’ve been reading that people are wondering if you’ll have changed Mia’s image completely because she’s now an adult.
No. Not at all. I actually had to go back and read the earlier books, which was murder—nobody wants to really read their old writing. I actually had some of the really big mega Princess Diaries fans who’ve been reading the books since they were 11, who are now 26, read it as well. To make sure I got all the details right. I got one wrong, about when she met Michael, but that’s okay.
What do you think it is that’s kept Princess Mia so popular over so many years? It’s not often that you find a heroine who will just stay popular.
I think she’s very relatable. She’s a bit of a hypochondriac. She’s not completely problem-free. She even mentions in the book, “I thought that when I became an adult that all of my problems would go away, and life would be perfect.” It’s not. She now has a whole new set of problems, which is that her family is completely insane.
There actually are some current events that have been brought into the book, which is that there’s a fictional country in the Middle East that has a dictator, who’s oppressing the women basically in the country. They are all flooding into Genovia. I read a few readers are upset about that. They’re like, “Why do you have to choose a made-up country in the Middle East, and have it be a Muslim-ruled country? What’s wrong with us?” I’m like, “Dude, have you read the paper? This is actually happening in Europe.”
I live in Key West, which is never on the national news, but every single week we have boatloads of Cubans that are actually showing up here, looking for sanctuary in the US. It’s a little bit of a microcosm of Genovia. What is our moral obligation with these people? Do we send them back where they’re going to be imprisoned? Or do we let them stay?
What do you hope readers will take away from the book? Do you want them to become activists?
I just want them to think a little bit. Then just be aware that this isn’t just a book about a princess. It’s a book about a woman who is actually really taking a job and doing it. Making a change in her world. I was a Girl Scout, and this sounds so stupid, but one of the Girl Scout rules is that you have to leave your campsite a better place than you found it. I think that that is our job in the world, is that we have to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. That’s something that Mia is trying to do.
People talk about chick lit, and how chick lit is just pure drivel and entertainment, but I really think that people don’t look at it closely. I find that, when I read romances all the women in them are not just looking for love, they’re looking for their place in the world. What are they here for and what are they supposed to do? In almost every single one they are actually looking for a job, and a meaningful job—something that they can do that will leave their mark on the world.
It sounds like Mia, if she has more books, may not go the traditional route or the traditional gender role of being a stay-at-home ,om or something. She may not have children; she may continue working, right?
A lot of readers are like “Oh, is she going to have babies?” I’m like, that’s probably not going to happen. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how I would write about that. If there’s a next book and she has kids, she’ll definitely have nannies, because she’s going to be in a palace with a lot of staff. Maybe Michael will raise the kids.
It is very different in terms of the trend in lady lit. For instance, Sophie Kinsella added a baby to the Shopaholic series. Jane Green sometimes plucks a baby out of nowhere. It seems like that’s the trajectory most characters follow, and Mia’s not following that trajectory.
It makes readers very happy because so many readers can relate. One thing I did in the Heather Wells mysteries was I got a lot of mail from readers who have infertility problems—which I have too. And it’s not that I found this out in the process of trying to have kids. They told me, if you ever try to have kids you won’t be able to. But don’t worry, that’s not going to be a problem.
What’s next for Princess Mia?
I don’t really know what the future holds for Princess Mia. Maybe she can solve mysteries in the palace? What if there’s a dead body behind the throne? I think that Mia will be around for a while, but I don’t actually have any plans right now to do any new ones. Right now I’m just working on more email books because those are really fun.
Those are my favorites.
That’s so funny.
Let me ask you this then. Which one of your books is your favorite, would you say? Or your series? You’ve written enough.
I don’t like to answer that question because I have favorite authors myself. I like to go to their book signings, I like to sneak in. Whenever they answer that question and they say what their favorite book is, it’s never the one I like and it always freaks me out. I’m like, what’s wrong with that author? So I never tell people because it’s always a book that isn’t their favorite.
Do you consider your characters to be feminists?
Oh my god, of course, because I’m a feminist. It freaks me out that occasionally I hear people act surprised, they don’t think I’m a feminist and that bums me out. Some of the books are so old, because I’m so old, and they were written so long ago that I think that there might be some stuff in there that might not be considered politically correct. I do worry about that sometimes.
Is there anything in particular?
Oh my God. I believe that Mia may have called herself retarded. I’m pretty sure.
I think I remember that.
I actually think I may have said that someone was a she-male in one of the books. Perhaps I think one of the email books. I don’t know, someone mentioned that I said something, and I don’t even know what word it was.
Your views have evolved?
I just didn’t know. I think it was just also because I come from a small town in Indiana. Then I moved to New York. Also the internet got created.
Are there any books you wish you could be completely revised for their 20th anniversary or something like that?
Yeah, all of them. That’s the problem. I don’t know how artists, when they have their paintings hung on a wall, can stand to look at them. I’d constantly be wanting to go up and just change them all the time. That’s the problem with reading your own writing. There’s always something that you want to change.
Do you still doubt yourself?
There are probably some writers who don’t doubt themselves, but I don’t want to be friends with those writers.
How have you written so many books? Do people ask you that all the time?
Yeah, they do and I don’t know the answer. I’ve has ADD since I was a kid, and that was the only thing that I was good at. I just concentrated on the one thing that I was really good at, and I would get praise for. I think that when you grow up like that, then that’s just what you do. Thank god eventually I got published and it all worked out. I don’t know what I would be doing if that hadn’t happened.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Lisa De Tulio Russell