Why Stephenie Meyer is scared of fame

By Chris Ayres

Stephenie Meyer was a Mormon housewife when her novel about vampires spawned a billion-dollar industry. But fame scares her, she tells Chris Ayres

Author Stephenie Meyer (second from right) with members of the 'Twilight' cast. Photo / Getty Images
Author Stephenie Meyer (second from right) with members of the 'Twilight' cast. Photo / Getty Images

If you believe her critics - and they are hard to avoid - Stephenie Meyer's literary career is a fluke of quadruple lottery winner proportions.

Much of this is based on pure condescension, of course. Before the 2005 debut of her teenage vampire-romance novel Twilight, Meyer was a religiously educated stay-at-home mum of three little boys in a conservative suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.

When she first tried her hand at fiction, she did so at her kitchen table, between nappy changes and Sunday church services (she's a Mormon), without any formal training, or indeed the knowledge of her accountant husband. A backstory, in other words, that could hardly have been better designed for the publishing elites of London and New York to deride.

And deride they did - but to no avail.

After being turned away by all but one of the agents she contacted in search of representation, Meyer's novels have sold 120 million copies and counting.

Her character names are some of the most popular baby names in America. The movies of her books have ruled the box office for half a decade. There's even a thriving market for fan fiction based on her work, which has produced the 40 million-selling X-rated spin-off Fifty Shades of Grey, also soon to be turned into a film.

Though Meyer is now widely touted as America's J.K. Rowling, her detractors argue that it is true only in the fleeting and ultimately meaningless sense that the Monkees were once "America's Beatles". As evidence, they point to the way in which Meyer's books have been almost completely overshadowed by the tabloid furore over the real-life romance between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who played Twilight's pouting, trembling, forearm-touching characters on screen. Others, meanwhile, refuse to give her credit based on the quality of her prose. "[She] can't write worth a darn," the Dark Lord of Bestsellerdom himself, Stephen King, declared in 2009.

All of which brings me to an overcast, somewhat chilly February afternoon in Beverly Hills, where I am scheduled to meet Meyer on one of her frequent day trips to California.

The Twilight movies are now over - the last one, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, was released last November, making close to $1 billion (putting Meyer's personal wealth easily into the hundreds of millions) - and the author is preparing for the release of her first post-vampire film, an adaptation of her alien-implant novel, The Host. It's a fascinating project, for several reasons. First, it's directed by Kiwi Andrew Niccol, known for Gattaca, the cult sci-fi favourite. Second, it stars the 18-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who gave a brilliantly animalistic performance as the girl assassin in Hanna. More importantly, however, if The Host is a hit, it will establish beyond any doubt that an awful lot more than luck is responsible for Meyer's success. By the same measure, of course, even the merest whiff of disappointment will prompt a smug chorus of we-told-you-so's, and could very well prove to be an impossible blow from which to recover - especially here in Hollywood, where many a reputation has died over a dismal opening weekend.

"I feel like I need to give a pep talk to the cast, either way," Meyer tells me, with a pragmatic shrug, when we meet. "Because, y'know, what if the same thing doesn't happen again? There are a lot of expectations with this movie, which is really hard on the actors. People keep asking Jake [Abel, the male lead], 'Will you be the next Rob Pattinson?' Or they ask Saoirse, 'Are you the next Kristen?' I mean, how unfair is that? Nothing ever happens the same way twice."

Meyer, of course, could just as easily be talking about the pressure on herself, but it feels unnecessary to point this out. After all, the 39-year-old author - who admits to "always being at my most awkward" whenever she emerges from behind her keyboard to promote a book or film - is clearly struggling to hide her discomfort at the prospect of a lengthy interview. This comes off more as vulnerability than antagonism, however - a sense that's exaggerated by her stature. She's tiny. No more than 5ft 4in, if I had to guess.

She's also quite strikingly pretty ("Welsh and Danish ancestry", she later reveals), with pale skin, wide, plump lips and long, dark, slightly curly hair. In official photographs, her weight has appeared to swing wildly over the years - a professional hazard for any prolific writer - but she looks in good shape beneath a black jacket and chunky turquoise necklace.

Does she fear The Host's critical reception, I ask, given how the reviews of her work seem to have become harsher with every new commercial success?

"Most of the time, I'm just like, 'Ah, you're right, I'm horrible: I should just quit now'," she laughs, perhaps in reference to the butchering she received from Stephen King. "But for a long time, y'know, I heard nothing but positive. At the very beginning, in fact, it was my sister who pretty much bullied me into sending out letters to agents, and it took me maybe only two months to get one - and then, a month later, to get a book deal. So it wasn't the normal paying-your-dues kind of thing. I got my negative later. And maybe it's better that way around, because I'm easily discouraged. It's hard for me to believe compliments, and very easy for me to believe insults. I don't know if that's just me, or if women are naturally more critical of themselves."

That feeling of being judged from afar certainly wasn't a new experience for Meyer. Born on Christmas Eve to a Mormon family in Hartford, Connecticut - she has five siblings - they relocated when she was 4 to the parched desert scrubland of Arizona, where her father got a job as the chief financial officer of a contracting firm. What with her religion, her bad complexion, her addiction to reading and her unconventional looks (including that anti-tan Welsh DNA), it wasn't an easy period. Then again, says Meyer, "It doesn't take much to make you feel like the awkward outsider as a teenager. High school is to be endured. You live through it, then you're stronger. People who love high school have something wrong with them."

Meyer recalls how she was once asked by a reporter if the family of Bella Swan in Twilight was modelled on her own. "I laughed," she says. "Bella is an only child who comes from a broken home, and I have this enormous, really tight family, and my parents have been together for, like, 110 years. But then I realised... it's the Cullens who are based on my family." The Cullens are Twilight's vampires, of course - a large, fiercely protective clan of many disparate personalities, who abstain from human blood, due to... well, ethical concerns.

They're Mormon vampires, if you like.

If Meyer's gift isn't for perfectly composed sentences (on this, there appears to be some agreement, even among her fans), it's for her ability to take such a fantastical concept and merge it effortlessly with the universal yearnings and insecurities of young adulthood, the effect heightened by moody details such as Twilight's rain-sodden treetop location in the Pacific Northwest. Reluctantly, some critics have come to recognise this talent. A vocal number of them still have other problems with Meyer's work, however. Most frequently cited is the alleged "anti-feminism" of Bella Swan, whose chastity and submissiveness to the violent Edward Cullen - he wants to drink her blood with all the forbidden lust of a teenage boy desperate to lose his virginity - seems from another age. Meyer doesn't argue that her religious faith is at least partly responsible for such themes ("Who I am is going to inform what I write, so it creeps in"), but she hints that the influence of Jane Austen is perhaps a more important and overlooked factor. Indeed, Meyer spent so much time with Austen's books as a child that her parents worried about her ability to form relationships with real human beings.

Fortunately, Meyer became a more social creature when she left home for the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Utah. That's where she met Christian, known as Poncho, whom she married at the age of 21. A receptionist's job at a property company followed, but she left the position to raise her children.

"I never planned to be a writer," she insists. "Reading books was just my awesome thing that I loved." That changed on the night of June 1, 2003, when she had a dream about a girl of high-school age talking to a "beautiful, sparkling man" in a sunlit meadow. The man was Edward Cullen, and he was explaining to the young woman how hard it was for him not to kill her. The image was so vivid, Meyer had to write it down.

"I wasn't even into vampires," she says. "It was just this weird, fluky thing where the story really possessed me for a while. It was also actually a huge relief to have something to do with my brain. I had all these little babies, and I didn't really talk to people any more - I was just physically caring for people, all day long." At first, she didn't dare tell anyone other than her sister what she was doing. Not even her husband knew. "It was embarrassing," she protests. "But then it turned out that it wasn't."

To say that the dynamics of the Meyer marriage are interesting would be something of an understatement. At first a very traditional arrangement, it has since been turned on its head, with Christian now the one who stays at home and looks after the children. "It has not been an easy road for him," Meyer admits. "It's been..." She sighs. "Every time we, like, adjust and figure it out, something changes again, and then we make another adjustment. So it's this constant learning curve, for both of us."

Like most writers, Meyer can be dreadful company at times. "When I'm really involved in a book," she says, "I'm not even 'in' the room I'm in. I'm somewhere far away. I'm sure it makes [Christian] nuts."

Likewise, he can torture her in return. "He'll say, 'Did you see this news story on Yahoo?' And I'm, like, 'Argh! I'm in the middle of a sentence and it just got lost.' My poor husband - it's rough. But he's a strong guy, and he's managed it pretty gracefully, overall. You've got to be tough and confident to handle the crazy wife who writes crazy vampire books."

When the Twilight saga took off, a single Meyer bookshop appearance could attract 5000 hysterical "Twihard" fans. (She dislikes this moniker, preferring "Robster", for those in love with Robert Pattinson.) It was both exhilarating and scary. Hate mail circulated on the internet over Meyer's plot decisions. If a celebrity - such as Stephen King - spoke out about Twilight, they were subjected to threats and abuse.

During the worst, Meyer says the insularity of her marriage and family was a source of "peace and comfort".

"I've moved twice since Twilight because of privacy issues, and to be a little safer," she reveals, without specifying exactly what spooked her so much. "I live on top of a mountain now. It's literally so steep, you need a car with six cylinders to make it up without the engine dying." The isolation doesn't bother her in the slightest. "I don't actually really love being around people all that much."

The movie adaptations were a great help to Meyer in this regard, of course, because suddenly she was no longer seen as the headline act in the Twilight vampire circus. That honour was instead passed to Pattinson and Stewart - more so when rumours emerged that they had become an off-set couple. (This was confirmed officially only when Stewart was caught having an affair with the married British director Rupert Sanders. As of writing, "R-Patz" and "K-Stew" are back together.) I begin to ask Meyer if she feels responsible for the barely imaginable level of scrutiny the actors have had to endure, but I get only as far as "Do you feel..."

"... guilt?" she interrupts. "Absolutely. Here's the thing: there are some actors who are looking to be world famous, to be that household name, and although they might discover that there are a lot of negative things involved in that, it's what they want. But that doesn't apply to Kristen and Rob. That's what makes it kind of ironic and tragic."

Seeing that I'm taken aback by her choice of words, Meyer clarifies: "I just don't think they enjoy the parts [of fame] that other people would. And I totally get that, because it would not be my thing either. At the same time - and this is where the guilt comes from - it's created this nice, peaceful place for me. They took all of my heat, which I feel bad about. If they had the choice, I've no idea if they'd even do Twilight again. I just don't know. I think this has all come at a heavy price."

Meyer says she hasn't seen either of them since the last Breaking Dawn premiere, and missed their company deeply on the set of The Host. Nevertheless, she hasn't yet felt inspired to seek out any of Pattinson's own writing, which includes a screen adaptation of the Martin Amis novel Money - about as far removed from Twilight as it is possible to get. "No, I haven't read his script," she admits, sheepishly, looking surprised that I know of its existence. "I'd be interested... and a little scared."

The Host hasn't been Meyer's only project since the Twilight saga ended. Through her production company, Fickle Fish, she adapted the Shannon Hale novel Austenland for screen (Meyer lived in Henley-on-Thames for two months during filming), and has also optioned the Lois Duncan classic Down a Dark Hall. Clearly, she's spreading her bets. As for the Fifty Shades phenomenon, Meyer insists - through gritted teeth - that she considers it flattering. But, no, she hasn't read it ("not my genre"). Nor does she get royalties, in spite of the book's Twilight origins.

Inevitably, all this diversification has reduced Meyer's focus on writing - her "hermit time", as she puts it. So have the demands of raising three boys, the eldest of whom is now 15 and learning to drive. "The dream version of my life?" she says. "I'd freeze my children and my husband in a cryogenic chamber, go to a place where there are no phones, no internet - just me and a computer, some cereal and skimmed milk - and I'd live there for nine months until my next book is done, and then I'd go back to my unfrozen ordinary life, without having lost anything."

Alas, reality isn't quite so accommodating. For all novelists, maintaining concentration is the greatest daily challenge - "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one's trousers to the seat of one's chair," as Kingsley Amis put it - and Meyer has her own ways of getting into the mood. She forces herself to run, even though she hates it. She gave up Diet Coke. ("It was a sad day when I realised I couldn't drink soda any more.")

And, of course, she doesn't touch alcohol, although this is no great sacrifice. "It smells horrible if you don't drink," she winces. "Beer is particularly rancid. I was once on a plane and the guy next to me dropped a beer over me, and the smell..." She almost retches. "I was sick for days just remembering it. When you see drunk people, that's also a deterrent. It's interesting, let me tell you, to be the only sober person at a party, which happens to me pretty often."

She does indulge one weakness, however: cars. "I'm a Porsche girl," she grins.

"Lamborghinis are too masculine and angular. I love Ferraris - they're the most beautiful cars in the world - but with a Porsche you can go grab some milk and not even think about it." Although she doesn't push her 911 Turbo S to its limit, she admits to driving fast. "I like to get where I'm going, and I really don't like to drive behind people."

If anything will keep Meyer writing, however, it's the direct line she maintains with her teenage self, whose neuroses and obsessions never seem too far from the surface. Meyer tells me that when she was writing The Host - which is narrated by an alien body-snatcher experiencing human senses for the first time - she was struck by an entirely unfamiliar sense of gratitude for her own body. "Usually, I don't ever see anything good about myself," she confesses, matter of factly. "I'm hypercritical. But as I was writing, over time, it made me think differently and appreciate all the wonderful gifts I have." Thus, she has somehow managed to fill her sci-fi novel with a theme that will be instantly familiar to anyone who reads women's magazines.

Meyer has one final thought on this subject. "Wouldn't it be amazing to be beautiful?" she asks me, suddenly. "Just to know what that's really like? But y'know, when you stop and think about it, there are some benefits to not being perfect. You have to learn to work hard for things. You have to develop a sense of humour. And you have to learn to be nice to people, because they aren't going to put up with it if you're not."

She's right, of course - especially about the niceness. Now if only her critics would reciprocate.

The Host is in cinemas from Thursday.

- NZ Herald

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