Meg Cabot knows what it's like to be a bigger size and have a hard time finding cute clothes in a store. She knows what it's like to have people make comments about her weight.
She might have to thank them.
Those experiences helped inspire the prolific author's Heather Wells series. The mystery series revolves around a former pop star who works in a New York City residence hall dubbed Death Dorm thanks to the untimely deaths of some of its students. Cabot's heroine must use her sleuthing skills to catch the bad guys (and gals) while dealing with her own personal problems, from her shady family to her love for her ex-boyfriend's brother to the nasty comments she gets about her weight.
The fourth book in the series, Size 12 and Ready to Rock, published by HarperCollins, is currently out in stores (and a fifth one is to follow.)
Much of Cabot's work contains biographical components, and the Heather Wells series is no different. Like Heather, Cabot worked at a New York City dorm (at New York University) for several years, a job she loved. There were no murders, fortunately, but Cabot says there was a lot of ice cream. She decided to write a story about a former pop star who lost her job because she got bigger.
To me it just seems strange that we don't have larger women in our books and TV shows, she said.
A lot of readers have written to thank me for doing that, because they're like, 'Finally, I'm reading about someone who looks like me, who actually has sex,' she said, laughing. She has romances and she gets the guy. And she doesn't lose weight to do it. She's a regular person. She has a great, healthy sex life. She's funny. And she also catches the criminal.
Cabot's repertoire spans multiple genres and audiences. Her most well-known series would probably be The Princess Diaries, which was adapted for film and starred Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway in her breakout role. And there's her paranormal Abandon trilogy (she's currently writing its last book, Awaken). For younger readers, she's got the Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series. Her more adult-oriented work includes the Queen of Babble series and the vampire-themed Insatiable series.
Cabot also contributed a short story to the 2007 supernatural compilation Prom Nights From Hell, alongside Twilight author Stephenie Meyer and TTYL series author Lauren Myracle.
A precocious bookworm
The Key West-based writer is originally from the Midwest -- Bloomington, Indiana, to be specific. She's an alumna of Indiana University Bloomington.
Her love of reading, she said, was fostered in part by her parents, who she said led by example. Her mom, a former elementary school teacher, and her dad, a college professor, were always reading and made books available to their children. There were always books and magazines around the house, and there were frequent trips to the library.
The young Cabot was free to devour any book she could get her hands on, even though her dad had an affinity for what she described as violent and sexy spy novels.
They never said 'Stop reading that,' she said. They would just be like 'Where's my book? Give it back.' Never a question of what the content was. So there was never anything that you're reading something that's inappropriate for you. Which I think is really good because I think that when people say you can't read something, it makes you want to read it more and then think that there's something wrong with reading. I get really upset when parents think that something's not right for the age of the kid because I think the kid's going to read what he wants to, or she. [Kids] know when there's something that they don't like, and if it's inappropriate they're going to put it down.
Cabot knows this from experience. She remembers reading Peter Benchley's novel Jaws and thinking eew when she got to the sex scenes (there are several, apparently, which you can't tell by watching the movie adaptation) and so she just stopped reading that.
The book lover would go on to study at IU Bloomington, where her late father was a professor. She got her degree in fine arts, although she did take creative writing classes. She wanted to be an illustrator, and moved to New York City with that goal in mind, but it didn't go too well -- which was probably for the best.
No one wanted to hire me and I ended up getting the dorm job, which worked much better because ... I could sit and work on books, which was my true love, it turned out, she said.
She got an agent, Laura Langlie, in 1995.
From the beginning, my attraction to her was that she could make me laugh, and there are very few authors who can make you laugh out loud, Langlie said.
Cabot started off as a historical romance writer, using the pen name Patricia Cabot. Her love for the genre and respect for it as a steppingstone into the publishing world is reflected in her books. Mia Thermopolis of The Princess Diaries, for example, had her own romance-writing aspirations (which didn't make it into the movie adaptation).
She and Langlie first sold Cabot's second novel, Where Roses Grow Wild, which was published by St. Martin's Press in 1998.
Langlie is still with Cabot today. What sets Cabot apart from her peers, Langlie said, is her sense of humor, as well as a desire to entertain her readers.
She just has this great love of writing and telling stories and making herself laugh and other people laugh, and I think that that real joy in it is a little different from some other authors who maybe are a little more tortured about it, Langlie said. She can also be tortured over a manuscript as well, and wanting to make it great, but there's a real joy that she has in writing, which I think is unusual in my experiences.
Cabot also gives her peers a boost.
She's very supportive of other writers, and that's unusual, especially with someone who becomes quite successful, Langlie said. Often they will cut themselves off a little bit because it becomes too overwhelming.
Today, Cabot and her husband of 19 years are happy to be living in Key West, Fla., although they still maintain a place in New York City. They enjoyed vacationing at the popular tourist destination when they still lived in New York City full time. Living in Key West is reminiscent of living in New York City's West Village neighborhood.
It is kind of West Village-y, she said. You can ride your bike and walk everywhere. You don't have to take a car. And I just think that's so great and everybody is so friendly.
Embracing the 'chick lit' charge
Because Cabot's work is primarily geared toward women, her adult fiction has been branded as chick lit.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, although not everyone feels this way.
There's been some debate about that and there are certainly scholars who feel that that's a derogatory term, said Caroline Smith, an assistant professor at George Washington University's writing program. I certainly feel like chick lit does a lot more complex and interesting things than maybe people first think.
Cabot doesn't find the term offensive, but she thinks the negative connotation might be born out of a baser emotion.
There was some bad chick lit that was coming out, just like there's a lot of bad YA, there's a lot of bad mysteries and bad sci-fi, so I think it got a little bit of a bad name. I think that anything that has to do with women tends to be looked down on, which I don't understand because that has to do with family, it has to do with love and children and I don't know why people look down on anything that has to do with what is really the most integral part of life.
It makes me really upset, she continued. It's very misogynistic and sexist. 'Chick lit' was just a name that somebody came up with that was funny and kind of kitschy. Most of those books had to do with women who were trying to find their place in society, get a career, and many of them also had a romance. A lot of it seemed to be jealousy because they were selling so well, and so maybe there are some authors who were upset about that because their books weren't selling as well, and I'm not going to say they were men, but probably there was some dick lit that wasn't selling as well.
But it seems strange to me that people would be upset that something that's about family and women finding themselves and love would be so offensive. I just don't understand it.
In the world of the literati, dick lit, or lad lit, is considered the male equivalent of chick-lit. (The website Jezebel poked fun at the genre in May.) In the competition for review space, many feel that male writers get more attention than their female peers.
That's what all those male writers write, Cabot said of dick lit. They're the exact same stories, they're just about guys who are trying to find out who they are. And they always have a romance, too. It's just by men.
According to Smith, there is a long history of bias against stories written for women, by women. Female authors today, she said, are subject to get the same gender-based dismissals writers faced as far back as the 19th century.
I think when you're writing popular fiction and you're a woman, it's kind of a double whammy. I guess because women, throughout history, their writing has not been as valued, so then if you are going to be a popular women's writer, you've got even more obstacles to overcome, she said.
Not only are Cabot's stories fun to read, but readers appreciate and are inspired by her heroines.
She always writes strong young women, says Sarah Wendell, co-creator of the book website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. And usually her theme is that there's a strong young woman, and something happens to her and she has to deal with a whole lot of crap and her own personal crises.
Though she is 37, Wendell still loves Cabot's more high school-oriented stories, such as her 1-800-Where-R-You series.
She's really good at juxtaposing all of the drama that you deal with in high school with actual life and death drama that she inflicts on her characters, Wendell said.
Indeed, Cabot's characters have flaws, and they are not immune to freaking out a little during a crisis, but readers like Wendell appreciate how they manage to stay strong throughout their ordeals.
One of the great things about Meg Cabot's books, I think, is that if you are a young woman reading them, you are receiving the message that you are okay exactly the way you are, everyone has crazy huge problems, and you're going to be okay, Wendell said.
Speaking of crazy ...
Some of Cabot's books are filled with pop culture references galore -- this is especially true in The Princess Diaries series -- so we couldn't help but get her thoughts on some of the stories making entertainment headlines these days, like the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce -- Katie and Suri can come stay at my house if they need a safe house, she said. That'd be so fun! -- and the hunk-fest that is Magic Mike -- We're going to go on Fourth of July, she said, referring to herself and her hair stylist. Her husband would abstain. What better way to show your patriotism to this great country than to see 'Magic Mike?'
As for the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, she hasn't read the books, but wishes the author well.
Right now I am in my mystery-writing phase so I have not read it but I'm assured by everyone it is just fabulous so I'm really happy that everyone has found out about this genre that seems has been unexplored before, said the author, who said she went through her erotica phase in high school.
On that note, however, she has a little advice for those who want to drink more of the Fifty Shades Kool-Aid: Check out the little unexplored gem of a movie Secretary. The 2002 film explores the dominant-submissive relationship between an eccentric lawyer (played by James Spader) and his secretary (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). The movie is based on the 1988 Mary Gaitskill novel Bad Behavior.
We checked back in with Cabot to see what she thought of the stripper film Magic Mike. She did watch it with her hair stylist, and while they were entertained, she wrote in an email that the film also had a strong message: Stripping looks fun, but it can destroy the soul. They decided to stick with their day jobs: We both decided not to become strippers, she wrote.
Happy to hear that, Cabot. We love your work.