Patricia Cabot: Cross-Genre Phenomenon

(July 23, 2001)

2007 Meg Cabot interview

 

I discovered the joyful wit and sensuality in Patricia Cabot's writing with the release of her second book - Portrait of My Heart. Various AAR Reviewers have since reviewed her subsequent writings as Patricia Cabot and given them all grades in the B range. If you've been watching any television at all this summer, you've probably noticed commercials for the upcoming G-rated Princess Diaries, based on a novel by Meg Cabot. What you may not have realized is that Patricia Cabot and Meg Cabot are one and the same, and, oh yeah, so is Jenny Carroll. Patricia Cabot writes Young Adult fiction as Meg Cabot and Jenny Carroll and my daughter is hooked.

I decided to ask this one-woman whirlwind some questions about all this genre-jumping, and because my daughter is the in-house expert on her YA books, she asked some questions too. This is perhaps not the typical AAR Q&A, but we hope you like it anyway.

--Laurie Likes Books

You have had what seems to be an inordinate amount of success in a very short time, considering your first published book was in 1998. Does it feel that way to you?

Not at all! I have been writing stories and trying to get them published since I was in high school (for about the past 15 years or so). I have thousands (literally) of rejections to show for my efforts. In fact, when I speak at schools now about the writing experience, I try to bring my enormous USPS mail bag of rejection letters with me, to share with the kids what being a writer seems sometimes to realy be about: sticking to it even when it seems like no one in the entire world wants to read your stuff.

I know you are going to continue to write romance and that you have another historical coming out later this year, but you told me not long ago you are going to try and write contemporaries as well. Does this mean no more historical romance from you?

Oh, no, I will definitely continue to write historical romances - I am just planning on doing contemporaries as well. In addition to my adult historicals, I will be writing for a new line of Young Adult historical romances - Avon True Romances - that Avon/HarperCollins is launching next year. I'll also be continuing with the The Princess Diaries series under the name Meg Cabot. Right now the second book - Princess in Love - is out, and the third book is set to be released next March. I have quite a few more books in that series planned. My other YA series' - The Mediator and 1-800-WHERE-R-U are written under the name Jenny Carroll. So far three Mediator and one 800 have been released; the second 800 title will be out at the end of August.

We went to see Dr Dolittle II last weekend and saw a poster for The Princess Diaries in the lobby. When I saw "based on a novel by Meg Cabot," I got really excited. Does this all seem real to you, or do you feel like a princess right now?

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I think my opinion on that echoes my heroine's: How much of a princess can I be, when I'm still the only one in my household who remembers to clean out the cat box????

What made you decide to write YA novels? Which did you want to do first, the romances or the YA's? What is your ultimate writing goal?

I was already writing romances for a living - a dream come true - when a friend who worked in children's publishing suggested that I put my obsession with Total Request Live and the WB to use by writing for teens. At the time, my mother had just started dating (no, really!) a former teacher of mine, and it was freaking me out. I started writing a book about how that felt, and I realized that my friend had been right: writing in a teen voice seemed so natural to me! As she had urged me to write a book about a princess, I stuck one in the story I was writing about a girl whose mother was dating her teacher, and The Princess Diaries were born (my friend later rejected it, but that's another story). The book has since been voted a Best Book 2001 by the American Librarian Association, as well as a Top Ten Pick for Reluctant Readers, and a New York Public Library Teen Book for the New Millenium.

As far as my ultimate writing goal goes, well, that is just to keep telling all the stories that are in my head.

My daughter filled me in on each book as she read it; she's now read every YA book you've written. One thing about The Princess Diaries that would never have troubled me before having a child kind of troubled me - the fact that not only were the girl's parents never married, but that her mother's boyfriend, the algebra teacher, was sleeping over. She really enjoyed the ickiness of seeing her algebra teacher in his boxers at her breakfast table, but I kind of cringed. Pretend I'm the local irate PTA up in arms about this and respond.

That is a great question and I'm glad you brought it up. Part of the appeal of The Princess Diaries - what I hear over and over again from my teen and pre-teen fans - is that it is timely. It really does reflect modern day popular culture, as well as modern day teen problems and concerns. Many librarians (and parents, as well as teachers) have pointed to that scene in particular as an example of a timely issue, considering how many kids now have single parents or have friends with single parents, handled in a sensitive manner. Part of the humor of that particular scene is that Mia's mother really is trying to be a good parent: she thinks Mia is spending the night at a friend's house and isn't aware she has come home early.

But the fact is, finding her Algebra teacher at her breakfast table doesn't faze Mia much, because she watches the same television shows popular with today's teens (Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls, Friends), all of which feature people, some of whom are parents, involved in sexual relationships outside the confines of marriage. I try to make sure that my books for young readers, though they may be about princesses or girls who can talk to ghosts, also portray the realities that teens cope with on a daily basis.

I'm not the only fan of your writing in my family; every Meg Cabot and Jenny Carroll book my daughter Rachael has read makes her antsy for the next book - you can't write fast enough for her! She thinks your books are highly inventive, and for someone who judges everything against the Harry Potter series, that's quite a coup. She wants to know:

  • Where your ideas for the Mediator series came from (it's about a teenager who can see and talk to dead people);
  • Where the idea for the special powers from When Lightning Strikes, the first in the 800 series came from (the girl in that series develops the ability to find missing children after being struck by lightning); and
  • Why you set your books in places where you don't live?

The Mediator was inspired by an incident after the death of my father. My brother and I were talking one day, and he mentioned that he kept thinking he saw our father out of the corner of his eye. Well, the exact same thing had been happening to me! We wondered if everyone who has a death in the family experiences this, and from there it was a natural progression to: "Man, what if you could see the ghosts of every dead person?" And so the series was born.

1-800-Where-R-U came about in a similar manner. A friend and I went for a walk in lower Manhattan, and got caught in a huge storm. The scaffolding we took refuge under was struck by lightning. We both got very excited, thinking we'd be getting psychic powers soon, like John Travolta in that movie Phenom or whatever it was called...but alas, it did not happen, so I wrote a story about a girl who did get special powers.

The Princess Diaries is set in Manhattan, where I currently live. The Mediator is set in Carmel, California, where I used to live, and the 800 series is set in Indiana, where I grew up. I would probably never set a book in a place in which I had never lived, or at least visited.

Having seen one of your books make it to movie form, do you think it's possible to take one of your sexy romances and translate it to film, or does the nature of romance novels make this difficult?

I think historical romances are difficult to produce as films because of the expense of the sets and costuming. But I know that there is a tremendous demand in Hollywood for modern day romantic comedies. Certainly a good contemporary, with lots of witty sparring, could very easily translate onto film.

When you have a book made into a movie, how do you divorce yourself from the process so that you can live with the changes that are made? You never hear Nora Roberts or Julie Garwood complain about the movies made of their books (okay, let's forget Anne Rice for now).

A lot of the changes that are made are really necessary in the process of transferring a piece from paper onto the screen. I wasn't fazed by the changes made to The Princess Diaries because for one thing, the essense of the story, or the message, of staying true to yourself, no matter what, still comes through, loud and clear. And I also had a great working relationship with one of the producers, Debra Martin Chase, who explained every single change, and the reasons behind it, in language even a Hollywood-newbie like myself could understand.

What was your introduction to romance novels, and what is your favorite romance?

My introduction to romance was Romancing The Stone. Up until I saw that movie, I'd had no idea romances, outside of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, existed. I immediately went to my local library and read every romance they had. I was hooked. My favorites were - and still are - the Barbara Cartlands. People mock me about this, but I don't care. Once you've read the Audacious Adventuress, there really is no going back.

What romance authors do you read today? What other authors do you read?

I have become afflicted with a strange disorder, which consists of a complete inability to read anything written after 1960 and not taking place in a British country house. If it doesn't have a vicarage and war rations, I can't seem to focus. If anyone knows of a cure for this, please let me know, as I am truly suffering. <g>

When I first interviewed you back in the beginning of 1999, we talked about humor, specifically the sort of black humor you featured in Portrait of My Heart. I'd like to revisit humor with you and ask if it's harder to write comedy than drama? Do you think that authors of lighter or comedic romances are given their due?

Well, one of my college writing professors assured me that making people laugh is harder than making people cry. But since I have never knowingly attempted to make anyone cry, I wouldn't know if this is true.

Still, even though making people laugh is supposed to be harder than making them cry, those of us who are out there with the rubber chickens sure aren't getting our props for our efforts. How many Best Pictures have been comedies? How many Pulitzers have gone to authors of funny books? Not that many.

But in the end, those of us with the rubber chickens will persevere, because who wants to hang around with a bunch of sad sacks anyway?

There's been a lot of discussion at AAR recently about how the genre seems to be going through a dry spell right now - many of us are have been in or continue to be in protracted reading slumps. What could be going on? Is there anything to the idea that the mid-list has truly shrunk, the old favorites have jumped the shark, and there's not as many authors ready to replace them?

All of the writers I know are writing as many books as ever, and have contracts all over the place. And it seems like every time I look at a bestseller List, there are at least 5, sometimes even as many as 10, romances on it.

It is possible that publishers may just be spacing favorite authors' releases further apart due to the fact that places that previously sold lots of books, such as drug stores, grocery stores, chains like Wal-Mart and K-mart, aren't stocking as many books as they used to, and the ones they do stock tend to be Oprah picks. When the economy is good, people (not reading addicts like us, but regular people, who don't read a book a day) tend to buy fewer books. Instead, they choose to spend their entertainment money on bigger ticket items - movies, videos, computer games, etc.

In response to this, many stores have cut back on shelf space for books to make more room for Gameboys, and publishers in turn cut back in various ways, such as spacing books by hot authors further apart. Does this mean we have to slip back into a recession before we see more books? Hey, what do I know? I just write them. But I would say this to readers who are frustrated with the lack of new romances out there: Go YA! Yes, I know, there's no sex in them, but in YA romances it is all about the sexual tension, which can be every bit - if not more - satisfying than actual love scenes. How long has it been since you last read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, one of the best romances ever? Constance, by Patricia Clapp is another YA historical classic I discovered not long ago. And hello, Maud Lovelace Hart - the Betsy books - and Christy, by Catherine Marshall....I could go on and on, but I'll stop here.

Certainly diehard adult romance fans, if they want to speed things up a bit, should try writing to the editors of romance lines they like and ask them to publish more books. Hey, it can't hurt. And it might even work.

But like I said, if this slowdown in the industry is true, it certainly isn't affecting the careers of anyone I know. I have been asked to take part in at least one new romance series - Avon True Romances, a line of YA historicals launching next Fall, I think--in addition to the adult romances I am already writing, and which I am having no trouble at all selling. So how bad can it really be? Now, if everybody would just write to Oprah and tell her about a certain author named Patricia Cabot.... <g>

But seriously, if I were to answer this as from the writer's perspective now, I'd have to relate to you the following examples of some of the things people said to me on my road to getting an agent, then getting published, then having my book optioned for film:

"Oh, Meggin, don't you know agents get 200 query letters a week and only ask to see maybe one manuscript out of that? You'll never get an agent." *

"Editors only actually accept 1% of the manuscripts that cross their desk a year, and last year such and such publisher received 20,000 manuscripts, so you have no chance."

"Over 100,000 stories are optioned every year, but only 40 ever actually make it onto film. You'll never see your book on the big screen."

* Please note this statement was made by now very much ex-boyfriend. The rest were actually made by professionals in the flim/publishing business.

If I had listened to all those people then, and not even tried, where would I be today? Yes, there are predictions of gloom and doom for every aspect of publishing, from new authors, to the midlist, to bestsellers. But there always have been, and there probably always will be. If we stop believing in ourselves, and start believing the rumors, then where will we be? Nowhere.

And I will never believe that there isn't always room on any list for an original, fun, or compelling story.

I just took a look at the reviews we have for you at AAR. Sexy, funny, sharp dialogue, exciting stories - these are all adjectives we have for you. I know authors are asked all the time about what book is their favorite, so I'll change it up a bit: which book do you think is your sexiest? Which do you think is the funniest? Which gave you the most pleasure to write?

I will always have a tender place in my heart for Portrait of my Heart, my book with the portrait-painting heroine, because her story is closest to my own real-life story. If I had to be one of my heroines, I'd be her, no doubt. Well, unless I could be Suze in my YA series The Mediator. Because she has this totally hot cowboy ghost living in her bedroom.

The book of which I am most proud (so I guess gave me the most pleasure to write) is my January 2001 release, Lady of Skye. I worked many long hours with an epidemiologist to weave a medical mystery through that romance, though not a single reader wrote to tell me they liked it (I heard from a lot of readers about that "prison hold" scene in An Improper Proposal though, let me tell you). I think the funniest romance I have written is my next historical, Educating Caroline, due out in November. It's about a girl who finds her fiance in a compromising position with another woman, and does her darnedest to get him back...only to find that, once she's got him,she doesn't actually want him anymore. This book is based on something that actually happened to me with a long ago boyfriend, and let me tell you, I reacted in much the same way...until I, like Caroline, finally wised up. The sexiest book I've written, in my opinion, would have to be Educating Caroline as well, although the "prison hold" scene in An Improper Proposal holds a close second place.

Can you give our readers a little personal background - family, education, location, husband, etc? Is your "romance" with your husband worthy of writing about?

I was born a little over three decades ago in Bloomington, Indiana, where I also ended up going to college (Indiana University) because my dad taught there, so I had free tuition. Like Maggie in Portrait of my Heart (our lives are eerily parallel) I studied art, and afterwards, like Maggie, I went out into the world (to New York, actually) to be an artist (illustrator).

Also like Maggie, I met a guy - let's call him B - when I was sixteen to whom I had a passionate response. But unlike Maggie, my passionate response was that I hated B, who was six years my elder, beyond all reason...which should have been my first clue to what was going on.

Like Maggie, I was reunited with B in New York ten years later, and this time, a different kind of sparks flew. However, also like Maggie, at the time I was engaged to someone else.

You can guess the rest. Let's just say B and I ended up eloping to Italy. Eight years later, everyone has forgiven us, so it's all right.

Unlike Maggie, I found that my real love - besides B of course - was not illustrating, but writing. And so here I sit. Did I mention that Maggie was named after an Old English sheepdog I had as a kid growing up? Somebody call Oprah, I think there might be a book in this!

2007 Meg Cabot interview




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