All photographs by Kali Raisl Photography.
As we collectively reel, in thrall to our nation’s rampant Hunger Games obsession, it’s exciting to uncover that Suzanne Collins isn’t the only author creating captivating, intrepid young female characters struggling to survive in dangerous dystopias. In fact, Tacoma can claim one such writerly talent as one of its own. Meet Marissa Meyer, author of Cinder: Book One in the Lunar Chronicles.
I was lucky to find a seat at Tacoma author (and New York Times Best Seller) Marissa Meyer’s appearance last month at the Anna Lemon Wheelock Library in the Proctor neighborhood. The room was packed with nearly a hundred enthusiastic, supportive, and excited fans, friends, and family, all expectant to hear from the young visionary whose debut young adult sci fi novel Cinder has been met by rapturous response since its release January 3, 2012.
Marissa was all unabashed smiles and anecdotes, poised and at home at the podium, happy to feel the Tacoma love and interact with her new fans. I was immediately impressed, finding her completely endearing and just a little intimidating for having accomplished so much before the age of thirty.
A week after her author talk and book signing, I sat down with Marissa and her husband Jesse (theirs is a true Tacoma love story as they met at the Swiss’s Hot Rod-O-Rama) to explore her origin story, her future, and Cinder’s world.
A Tacoma native and now a proud Parkland resident, Marissa grew up loving The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Goosebumps series. In 6th grade, her simultaneous ascents toward literary stardom and geek subculture stemmed from one source: the discovery of the anime series Sailor Moon.
Captivated by the barefaced cuteness of the magical, fun-loving warrior protagonists, Marissa was inspired to write fan fiction, further exploring the adventures and relationships of Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Mask, and Sailor Moon’s friends Sailors Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus. Marissa quickly became somewhat of an internet sensation, writing more than forty stories for rapt readers penned under the name Alicia Blade.
Writing became more than a passion: Marissa graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University and went on to secure a masters degree in publishing to further inform her understanding of the industry. Somehow Marissa found time not only to doggedly pursue her dream to become a writer, but also to build up an expert palate for appreciating geek culture.
Flying a Geek Flag
Marissa’s supportive family are not only literary enthusiasts who introduced her to Tolkien at an early age, but a few are also brazen Trekkies. Growing up under a the influence of proud geeks, she was free to embrace anime, Star Wars, the Joss Whedon universe, cosplaying, and even flirted with Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: the Gathering. These fantastical genre influences as well as her appreciation for classic literature (Pride and Prejudice is her favorite book) inform her creative aesthetic today.
Marissa’s light bulb moment came in 2008 when it first occurred to her to futurize fairy tales. Crafting a far-future, cyber-punk fairy tale featuring a gutsy, sarcastic cyborg mechanic outcast, a conflicted, valiant prince, a mysterious plague, and an evil queen who rules the moon seemed like such a savvy and welcome construction, Marissa and I both exclaimed over how strange it was that it hadn’t been done before.
But Cinder, a subversive and innovative retelling of Cinderella, is certainly not pandering or derivative, and so much more than just pop-culturally on trend.
By setting Cinder in New Beijing, Marissa highlights the longevity and adaptability of fairy tales, and subtly hints at the tale’s universality: not only are there variations on the Cinderella story throughout history, but also from around the world with the oldest known version (Yeh-Shen from 850 A.D.) originating in China. Cinder works as a cultural bookend, framing the international relevance of the Cinderella myth and allowing for Marissa to infuse her appreciation for the Asian storytelling tradition in her own retelling.
Considering Cinder’s (and Marissa’s) cultural and genre influences, its not hard to see that strong female characters are also a connective inspiration, so creating a protagonist like Cinder (in a world that one goodreads.com reviewer describes as full of “dystopian charm”) seems like a natural manifestation of Marissa’s creative vision.
Cyborgs Dream of Living, Breathing Sheep
Although the titular Cinder shares a kinship with female protagonists before her (from Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett to Katniss Everdeen and Lyra Silvertongue), and the world honors its fantasy/sci fi influences, the distinction is undeniable – Cinder is more than just the story of an independent and misunderstood girl; it’s a story of empathy and kinship for an outsider who is ostensibly seen and treated as a monster, a startling stake-raising of the traditional Cinderella plot device of servant/royalty conflict.
Cyborgs can easily be seen as a kind of Chimaera, the terrible female monsters made of disparate animal parts who regularly filled the role of horrifying antagonists and foes in our western literary tradition.
But our growing comprehension of and interactivity with technology, and redefinitions of ability, have begun to challenge our concepts of wholeness and monstrosity.
There’s even a growing field of philosophical analysis inspired by cyborgs as metaphor.
Distinguished Professor Emerita at Santa Cruz University Donna Haraway is generally acknowledged as defining the theory when, in 1991, wrote the essay A Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway explores the idea of machine and organic hybrids not as a tin man binary, but instead as a new kind of personhood:
“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized, and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”
I see Marissa’s fairy tale exploration and character construction in Cinder as an evolution of cyborg theory, instinctively internalized by many of our contemporary cultural creatives who now respond to cyborgs not as monsters to be vilified but instead as potential heroines to be embraced with a kind of sisterhood, honoring something whole. This kind of empowerment is still new to the pop landscape – even within fantasy/sci fi which I would expect to be much more visibly interactive with cyborg theory than it is.
Literary analysis and praise aside (and there are plenty of strong reviews of Cinder, in case you need further recommendation than mine to read the book), cyborg theory and feminism were not at the top of Marissa’s priorities when she built Cinder’s world; she was driven to create without ontological agenda and Cinder is what came out.
Making Lists, Achieving Goals
Marissa’s trajectory as a writer struck me as that of an overachieving strategist, and she confirmed my suspicions of her disciplined ability to stay on task and regularly maintain single-mindedness. “I’m a lister; every year I set goals to work toward, sometimes a crazy amount, and even though I don’t always achieve all of them, it keeps me on track.”
Participating in opportunities like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoRiMo) and competing in writing competitions honed her focus and production rate. In her last NaNoRiMo stint, she produced 150,011 words and 2-and-a-half drafts.
Marissa extends goal-setting to her writing and is very committed to outlines. “The outline helps, but there’s plenty of room for the characters to surprise me.” This willingness to let her characters surprise is evident. I was captivated by the Cinder’s narrative trajectory but was truly enthralled by the dialogue – never predictable, the moments of character interaction transcended structure to reach satisfying moments of urgency, authenticity, and agency.
This same readiness to accept and respond to surprises has become part of Marissa’s everyday experience as she navigates the publicity whirlwind that can only increase with anticipation building for the second Lunar Chronicles book, Scarlet (Yes, that is a Little Red Riding Hood reference).
The last year of Marissa’s life has fallen just short of a tornado of life-changing new incidents as she tries to establish a new normal and maintain her regular writing output.
“I’m still figuring out what a typical day looks like; the whole experience has really been beyond my wildest dreams,” Marissa said as she shared with me the lengthy list of firsts she’s experienced in just the past 16 months, including not only getting a literary agent and a four-book publishing deal, but also quitting her day job, making the New York Times Best Sellers list, traveling internationally, getting married, doing her first television and radio interviews, her first public school appearance via skype, promoting her book all over the US, and navigating movie rights, while still carving out at least four hours a day to write.
Marissa works to take it one day at a time, embracing the fun and tackling the new experiences head on. She is also quick to share her gratitude for the invaluable support she has in her husband and family, and also within the Young Adult literary community.
I was surprised to learn that when it comes to contemporary YA writers, competition is rare and camaraderie is the norm. Marissa fills me in on how positive and familial the YA writers community has become, using social media to connect, cross-promote, congratulate, and share advice.
She contributes to the Apocalypsies blog, where nearly a hundred authors collaborate to share their experiences writing and publishing; she credits authors John Green, Scott Westerfield, Veronica Roth, and Beth Revis as accessible mentors; and let me know that Tacoma has a quietly thriving literary community, including fellow YA author Megan Bostic.
As heartening as it is to hear that Marissa feels embraced and bolstered by her peers, I suspect her welcome reception may have as much to do with her own graciousness and warmth as it does with the current culture.
The Next Chapter
And the adventures continue; Marissa just returned from Italy’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair and her second book, now in the final stages of copy editing, will be released in January 2013 when the fun will begin, I hope exponentially, again.
Through it all, Marissa regularly blogs, humbly and wholeheartedly sharing her discoveries and insights. I’m thrilled to be able to follow the next steps of her journey with her as she continues to find inspiration in her driving goal to “bring the joy of reading to the next generation.”
Marissa states that the “greatest gift a writer can give is helping the reader escape and making the reader fall in love” and I must say she is well on her way. Long live Cinder!