Meg Cabot: A Different Kind of Princess
Princess Diaries author Meg Cabot is known as the queen of chick lit, and although some might be disdainful of the genre, it’s a crown she wears with pride.
‘I think that people have the wrong idea about chick lit in general,’ she says. ‘To me, chick lit is books for smart young girls, who, personally, I consider chicks. Anybody who’s smart, young and female is a chick – it’s lit for girls. I’ll admit, I’ve read some really bad chick lit, but there are bad books in every genre.’
When she was a teenager in the early 80s, Cabot looked for books that would provide an imaginative escape from her difficult family life, but she didn’t find many in her local library.
My father was an alcoholic, so I was thrust into the parenting role because I had two little brothers. When I wanted to read I didn’t want to read about kids like me; I didn’t want to read about kids with a bad life.
'And so many young adult books, even now, to a certain degree, are about kids going through that. I wanted to escape. I wanted to read about kids who had great things happening to them, or just funny books that would take me away from that.
'Instead I read science fiction and fantasy, and it’s true that a lot of kids turn to that to escape from their problems. I read CS Lewis and Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. I loved the Dark is Rising series. I used to read Star Wars comic books, which people said were trash, but my parents were great because they didn’t care what I read as long as I was spending time reading.’
It was that reading experience which gave her an early affection for princesses with gumption. ‘I used to sign my papers in class “Princess Eilonwy” (from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain). I was Princess Eilonwy for a year. And I loved Princess Leia!
'I only liked princesses that carried swords or light sabres. Princess Eilonwy used to sleep outside a lot. I’m not that kind of princess now! I would never want to go camping or be captured on the Death Star, but as a kid I thought that was pretty cool.’
Cabot’s princess, Mia Thermopolis, probably wouldn’t want to go camping either. Mia is a modern teenager from New York City who is horrified when she is told that she is heir to the throne of Genovia, a fictitious European principality bearing a striking resemblance to Monaco.
Being a royal complicates Mia’s life in particular ways, but otherwise it’s a typical high school story, focusing on friendships gained and lost, strained relations between the geeks and the popular kids, and, of course, romance.
Like her fictional creation, the author was an aspiring writer who was decidedly not part of the in-crowd at school, and Cabot wanted her books to speak to girls like her.
There is so much pressure in the media that you have to look a certain way to fit in and it’s certainly true in cliques in school. That is not true: you can be yourself. I think that is an important message for girls.
The prolific author has also written the paranormal Mediator series, the Allie Finkle series for younger readers, some individual titles and the new Airhead trilogy, in which she combines the seemingly incompatible genres of chick lit and science fiction with surprising success. 'You can be yourself. I think that is an important message for girls.’
Em Watts, a brainy girl whose favourite pastime is playing video games, has a freak accident that results in her brain being transplanted into the body of an airheaded supermodel who was killed in the accident.
‘There’s a paranormal fanbase and there’s the chick lit fanbase, and I wanted to see what would happen if I made them meet in the middle,’ she explains.
‘It was really intentional, to see if I could make those worlds clash. The heroine is totally against fashion and thinks it’s shallow. I love fashion. I see it as body adornment, or art for the body. It makes you feel good about yourself no matter what your body type is. It’s just something that gives you a boost of confidence. I didn’t have that as a kid and I had really low self-esteem. Maybe if I’d known a little bit about that I would have had a slightly easier time.’
Clearly, Cabot’s own life has provided a great deal of inspiration for her work. Like Princess Mia, she kept diaries throughout her own teenage years. ‘A lot of what happens to those girls happened to me: the boy stuff and the parent stuff and the sibling stuff and a lot of the best friend drama, the changing and the pain of growing out of friends, which is really sad.
I do get a lot of letters saying “I don’t understand why she started out being best friends with this girl and by the end they’re not friends anymore.” But that really is what happens. And being enemies with someone, and by the end you’re friends.
‘It’s hard, because they’re all first person books, and so you’re only seeing it from Mia’s point of view, so you don’t ever get to see into that other person’s life; you can only see what the character is seeing. I get letters saying, “Can you just tell me why such and such happened?”, and I’m like, “No, I can’t, because Mia doesn’t know that yet.
'She wouldn’t know why Lilly’s mad at her because Lilly hasn’t told her.” They all ask me that. Or “Is JP a nice guy or is he hiding something?” I say, “Well, Mia doesn’t know.” They’ve all been discussing that for a couple of years on the message boards on my website.
Cabot is highly skilled at making her fictional world ‘real’ to readers. Her website features a link to the official website of Genovia and a poll asking whether Mia will end up with JP or her first love, Michael. The website created by her erstwhile best friend Lilly, ihatemiathermpolis.com, really exists.
And Mia even has her own website, www.miathermopolis.com, which gives news about the romance novel that the aspiring writer publishes in Princess Diaries Ten: Ten Out of Ten, the volume which brings the series to a close.
Cleverest of all, the book which Mia writes, Ransom My Heart, really will be in the shops and the proceeds from its sales will go to Greenpeace just as they do in Princess Diaries Ten. ‘It’s very very sexy. It’s going to be scandalous. It’s going to be in the adult section in the US.
There’s no sex scenes in Princess Diaries Ten; that’s why I did that. It’s romance novel language. Greenpeace has written a letter: “Dear Princess Mia, Thank you so much…”. It’s going to be really fun.’
Meg Cabot is the author of many books, including the phenomenally successful The Princess Diaries series. Her books have sold millions of copies round the world - and two million in the UK alone. She has lived in various parts of the US and France, but now lives in Key West, Florida, with her husband and one-eyed cat, Henrietta.