The writer, out with her first and highly-anticipated young adult novel Legend, discusses her fascination with child prodigies and the intrigue of writing dystopian stories.
Novelist Marie Lu
Tavis: Marie Lu moved to the U.S. from her native China at the age of five and had her sights set then, in fact, on becoming a writer. Her first novel, “Legend,” will be in stores in just a matter of days with a film adaptation also being planned already. Marie Lu, good to have you on the program.
Marie Lu: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Tavis: You’re how old now?
Lu: I am 27 right now.
Tavis: 27. So you came here at five.
Tavis: That’s right around the time of Tiananmen Square, wasn’t it?
Lu: Yeah, it was 1989 and I was living in Beijing at the time.
Tavis: Do you remember any of this at five?
Lu: I do remember a little bit of it. I remember tanks in the streets and I remember eating a Popsicle that day because it was early summer, I think.
I mean, we lived a couple of blocks away from the square, so a lot of the locals would just see it as a tourist attraction because there were a lot of protests and the students were protesting for a good couple of months leading up to the actual day. So my aunt would take me out there just to see the crowds, so I do remember that, yeah.
Tavis: I ask that or raise it in part because the book – and I’ll let you explain it. With these novels, you don’t want to give too much away. But there is an element in the narrative here, in the story line, that speaks to me about the extent to which, the ends to which governments will go to cover up secrets.
Tavis: Did that just happen or is that something that has been in your mind since you were like five in Tiananmen Square?
Lu: I think it was something that came unconsciously to me, but I’m sure that all of that had a very heavy influence on me when I was writing it. I just didn’t realize that I was putting it in. It was very internalized. So it was something where I just wanted to explore that concept of creating a dystopia from elements that have already happened in societies before.
So a lot of things that influenced it were the culture revolution in China and the eugenics movement during the early 1900s in the United States, ancient Sparta society. All those things were elements that contributed to it and my early memories in Beijing as well.
Tavis: I want to jump into the text in just a second, into the novel, what it’s really about. But since we’re on this, you started writing when? When do you remember starting to put pen to paper?
Lu: Oh, a long time ago. When I first came over to the states, I started writing, I think, as a way to help myself learn English. I would start stapling together little booklets for myself.
But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I started writing more seriously because that’s when I figured out that real people wrote books and it wasn’t just sort of generated out of factories or something.
Tavis: Right. So you start writing for real at the ripe old age of 15. You have a literary agent at what age?
Lu: I got my first agent when I was 17.
Tavis: 17, okay.
Lu: Then my current agent I got a few years ago. I think I was 25, I think.
Tavis: So since this is your first novel, what do you by day? What’s your real job until this came out?
Lu: Well, now I’m a full-time writer, but up until February, I was an art director for a videogame company. So I’ve been in videogames for a few years.
Tavis: So you’ve been playing videogames for all your life [laugh].
Lu: That’s my life, right. I feel like a little kid. I’m still a child, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: You’ve been playing videogames until you got serious writing. So there is a lot of hype on this book already.
Lu: Thank you.
Tavis: I want to ask how it feels when you on your first book – you know, the book was picked up in a bidding war and then there’s a bidding war for the rights to turn it into a film and there are comparisons already to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. There are comparisons to Stephanie Meyer and her work. So how do you handle that kind of pressure?
Lu: I don’t know. Some days I sort of wake up and pinch myself because I’m still not entirely sure I’m here, like I’m here talking to you. It’s all very surreal to me.
It’s something that I just sort of try to remember every day and, every now and then, the realization will hit me and then I’ll have one of my neurotic days where I’m breathing into a paper bag or something. Yeah, it’s been a crazy ride so far.
Tavis: And what are your mom and dad saying about this crazy ride since they brought you here to this country when you were five?
Lu: My mom is real excited about it. She’s telling all her friends and they’re all getting ready to buy. She’s asking me things like, “Oh, when can we tell everybody to go to the bookstore? When will this show air?” things like that, so they’re really excited.
Tavis: Has she seen your new hairdo?
Lu: No, not yet [laugh].
Tavis: What’s your mom gonna say about the hairdo?
Lu: Well, she says it’s bad for my hair. That’s what she’s gonna say.
Tavis: Bad for your hair.
Lu: She’ll be like, “Why did you do that?” and I’ll just tell her, “It’s too late to change it.” [Laugh]
Tavis: Funny. All right, so into the book. You have to do this. I could do it, but there are two parts of the story that I think, if I said it, it would give it away. So how would you describe what “Legend” is, your first book?
Lu: Well, “Legend” is a young adult book and it’s set in a dark, futuristic United States that’s been split into two and the two sides are at war with each other.
Tavis: So like the Civil War all over again.
Lu: So it’s a futuristic Civil War, exactly, but flipped on its head. It’s East and the West Coast and it’s a…
Tavis: That’s like Biggie and Pac.
Lu: Yeah [laugh].
Tavis: Like East and West. Okay, I’m sorry. Go ahead. We got Civil War, we got Biggie and Pac. What else we got here?
Lu: So in this world, it’s set in Los Angeles, the first book is, and it tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who is sort of America’s most wanted criminal and he’s being hunted down by a 15-year-old teenage girl prodigy sent by the military to get him.
As they go and their paths cross, a lot of things about the society come up that neither of them knew about and that’s where the story goes from there.
Tavis: Why 15-year-olds?
Lu: I’ve always been interested in exploring the concept of child prodigies. When I was younger, I wrote a story about Mozart as a child and I just always loved this idea of young people who are able to take control of their lives and bring a whole lot of change at such a young age.
One of my favorite books when I was younger was “Ender’s Game” which is also about a boy prodigy who’s sent by the military to defeat an alien race. So it’s something that’s always been interesting.
Tavis: I’m curious as to your process and now is the right time to ask this since this is the first one. It didn’t slip past me. I notice you said “the first book,” so that means there must be a couple more already being planned.
Lu: There are two more.
Tavis: Two more coming, okay. That’s how this business works. I thought that might be the case. But since this is your first, I want to get into your process early on in your career for how you come up with this stuff. So this kind of story, how do you create this? Where did the narrative come from?
Lu: For this book in particular, I remember I was watching “Les Miserables” on TV one afternoon and watching Valjean and Javert face off, actually the criminal versus detective. I thought it would be really fun to put that into a teenage perspective.
So what happens if you have a really smart, young criminal and a really smart, young detective type person chasing each other? From there, that was where the first seed of the story came from. Then the world itself came from a map that I saw online of what our world would look like if the oceans rose 100 meters, when all the fresh water is melted.
It was amazing seeing how it had changed our landscape because almost the entire southeast coast of America was gone and there was a huge lake covering California from Los Angeles all the way up to San Francisco. So seeing that made me put the two together, so I decided to write a story about these two kids growing up in this destroyed future world.
Tavis: In the text, you may be on to some of the answer now, but in the story, why is the U.S. split and what are we fighting about? What are we fighting over?
Lu: It’s mostly a fight over land because a lot of it’s been gone. There’s overpopulation, there’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of hunger, so people are at war over the land, and the east coast has much less land than the west coast does. So that’s one of the main reasons why they’re fighting.
Tavis: You’re dealing with some pretty heady stuff here. I mean, these are serious issues, even the stuff you just laid out now. Is the book purely about entertainment or are there some hidden messages?
Without prosethelytizing, without being preachy, are there some messages, some real content, that you want us to wrestle with in the book or do you just want to entertain us?
Lu: Well, I initially wrote it to entertain. I didn’t really set out to put any specific messages into the story, but now that it’s finished and I have time to look back over it, I think the main theme of “Legend” is to help encourage young people and people in general that the world around them may not be what it seems to be. There may be people keeping things from you and I think the point of it is to keep an open mind at all times.
Like find out the truth for yourself and see what the world actually is instead of what other people want you to see it as and to break out of that. I think that’s something that a lot of the characters in the book explore and, hopefully, it’s something that comes across for the readers as well.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s beautiful. So let me offer this as the exit question because I want to make sure we get this on tape so I can play this back for you many, many years down the road after you become a huge international best-selling author and all your books are movies and you are the next J.K. Rowling.
So are you prepared for how this may, at 27 years of age, how this may dramatically alter and change your life? I mean, your videogame job is already gone as of February. So are you ready for what this is gonna do for your life potentially?
Lu: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m even ready for what’s happening right now yet, so it’s something that I’m taking day by day. I just hope that it’s something that allows me to keep writing in the future and creating new stories. I try not to think too much about it because it freaks me out [laugh].
Tavis: I don’t want to freak you out [laugh].
Lu: But I’m very excited.
Tavis: You should be excited. We are excited for you, which is why we wanted to have you on the program. Her name is Marie Lu. Remember that, Marie Lu.
Of course, the book is called “Legend” and I suspect in the coming days and weeks and months and, no doubt, years, you’ll be hearing more about her work and you’ll recall that you saw her first here on the PBS network.
Lu: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to have you here, Marie.
Lu: Thank you.
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