Melissa de la Cruz Interview by Rick Bleiweiss
RICK BLEIWEISS: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Rick Bleiweiss, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Melissa de la Cruz. Melissa is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for teens, including the Au Pairs series, the Blue Bloods series, the Ashleys series, and the Angels on Sunset Boulevard series. A former fashion and beauty editor, she has written for publications such as the New York Times, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Seventeen. She has also appeared on CNN, E!, and Fox News as a fashion expert. Melissa has written several adult books as well, including Cat’s Meow, Fresh off the Boat, and the Witches of East End series. Her latest young adult novel is Gates of Paradise. Recorded Books published the audio version of Gates of Paradise, narrated by Christina Moore, simultaneously with the hardcover on January 15, 2013, and it is available on Downpour.com. Welcome, Melissa, thanks for joining us today. Congratulations on the release of Gates of Paradise. Gates of Paradise is book seven in the Blue Bloods series. Did you have an overall idea of the scope of the series? Or did it naturally develop?
MELISSA DE LA CRUZ: I always had an overall idea for the series, but it changed as I started writing them. It didn’t occur to me that while I was writing the series the readers would be reading them. It’s all in your mind at first and then the reality of actually writing and publishing an ongoing series is interesting. I originally wanted to do three trilogies. I wanted to do the first three books and have this huge plot point revealed. Then, I would do a prequel trilogy with the story of the background of the older characters, and then pick up the story again in books seven to nine. But as I was writing it, I realized I actually didn’t want to write a prequel. I thought prequels would be boring if you knew what happened at the end. So I decided instead to do a seven-book saga and just incorporate the prequel trilogy into the main story.
RB: How did the main character, Schuyler Van Alen, originate? What is it about Schuyler that you think captures readers’ imaginations?
MC: I think a lot of readers relate to Schuyler because she is an outcast and feels very alienated in high school. I think high school is very hard on everybody and everyone has a little bit of Schuyler in them, and no one ever feels like they fit in. Even my friends who said they were popular in high school never felt that they were popular, and I think high school is just a very insecure time for everybody. So, whether you were popular in high school or alienated, there’s something about Schuyler that you relate to. The other thing that I hear from my readers a lot is that Schuyler is very strong, and that a huge part of what makes her very appealing is that she has very little family and background support, but she’s a survivor. When Hurricane Katrina happened I got a lot of e-mails from fans who lived through that and said they were inspired by Schuyler to carry on as well. You have to carry on. You have to survive. Schuyler is a survivor and a lot of people relate to that.
RB: That must have been very gratifying to have that kind of reaction.
MC: Yes. You write the stories and you have no idea how it touches people or what it means to their lives. So it is really very moving and you feel like, “Wow, that’s really great that people take inspiration and comfort from the books.” Definitely.
RB: Absolutely. Now, you have a background as a fashion magazine editor and a TV fashion expert. What drew you to writing in the supernatural genre?
MC: It’s funny. I always tell people it takes decades to go back to where you started. Underneath the fashion façade is a huge sci-fi and fantasy geek and that’s really who I am kind of underneath. I think I was always drawn to fashion for the same reason I was drawn to fantasy. With fashion, what I always liked were these outrageous, crazy, out-of-this-world clothes that no one would ever wear in real life. For instance, a lot of Alexander McQueen’s designs I think come out of a fantasy epic novel. So I liked fashion in the same way I liked fantasy: that they’re not part of reality. I was never really attracted to the more status and snob appeal of fashion. I thought that was a boring part of the fashion world. What I liked about fashion was the fantasy—this kind of crazy life that nobody really leads. You pick up Vogue and there’s a pony in the kitchen. Who lives like that? Nobody really lives like that. Not even the people with the pony in the kitchen. So I really like this kind of outrageousness of both of them.
RB: You’ve been described as a crossover sensation and you created an instant New York Times bestseller with Witches of East End. Did that come as a surprise to you?
MC: I always say that you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. I never really expect anything, so it was a nice surprise, but I think there were actually a lot of expectations from my publisher. So, while it was a surprise, it was also a relief that the book did well.
RB: That’s great. I believe Witches of East End has been optioned as a TV series. Can you tell us something about that?
MC: Sure. It actually got picked up. We’re in production. It’s really, really exciting. Lifetime will air ten episodes this summer, starting in late June, I believe. Julia Ormond and Jenna Dewan-Tatum are our stars. Julia plays Joanna and Jenna plays the sexy witch, Freya. Rachel Boston plays Ingrid. I was able to see some of the pilot taping, which was really cool. Mark Waters, who directed Mean Girls, directed our pilot and I really love the team that’s putting the show together. It’s so fun and sexy and really true to the book. I was actually in tears when I read the script. They took such good care of my book, and I really liked all the changes they made. They’re making a television show and I think David Sedaris said it best: “When you give permission, you say yes and then you step back.” You don’t micromanage. I’m a writer, I don’t make TV shows, they know how to make TV shows and you have to let them do what they need to do.
RB: Great. Now, Blue Bloods has been adapted as a graphic novel. Are there any plans for that either as a film or TV series?
MC: Not right now. Blue Bloods has been optioned several times over the years and I turned down several offers—I believe there were three in the last year. I just wasn’t in the mood to sell it. I was still in the middle of writing the series and I think mentally it was frightening to me to think I was in the middle of this big story and then somebody would start telling a different story on TV or in the movies that they would have to change. But right now, since the series has ended, I think I would be open to it and I think I can step back now, whereas I wasn’t able to do so before. So it’s available now. (laughs)
RB: Okay. (laughs) Now I believe Gates of Paradise is the final novel in the Blue Bloods series. Are you planning any spin-off series, or do you know what’s next?
MC: Yes, there is actually a spin-off. It’s going to be an adult Blue Blood series published by the teen and children’s division of Hyperion, and Witches is published by the adult division. So now there’s going to be a Blue Bloods adult series tentatively titled the Vampires of Manhattan. And I think that comes out next year. It’s due this year.
RB: That’s a very cool name. I love it. I look forward to it. When you write for young adults, how do you stay in touch with young adult audiences? Do you have something that you do to make sure you stay relevant to them?
MC: I actually write for teens because I feel like I never grew up and I think a lot of young adult writers say the same thing. At heart you’re still a kid, and I find growing up and taking responsibility is very difficult for me. Some people just kind of naturally mature and grow up, whereas part of me is still fourteen or seventeen, sticking my tongue out, holding grudges, playing inappropriate music to my six-year-old child. I really sympathize with teenagers. I kind of feel like I know how they think and what they want to do. They want to do everything. They want to grow up so fast. They’re very arrogant and they’re beautiful and they’re insecure. I just love that time of life, and I think I treasure it in myself and keep that part of myself from growing up. In that way, I relate to them. I feel like I’m a teenager and you need to have that viewpoint if you’re going to write for teenagers successfully. I don’t feel like I’m talking to children. I feel like I’m talking to my peers and I think it’s not about staying relevant or trying to ape their language or their clothing or the slang. I think I’m interested in pop culture and everything that’s current and that keeps me young but I also think, deeply you have to really sympathize and almost be a teenager to write for teens. And teens will get that. They’ll know what authors really get them and relate to them and what authors might be cashing in on a trend. You can kind of tell.
RB: I don’t remember the exact quote, but at the recent Academy Awards when Daniel Day-Lewis accepted the Oscar for Best Lead Actor in a Motion Picture for Lincoln, when he thanked Spielberg, he commented that one of his greatest traits was his eternal youthfulness. And that sounds exactly like you.
MC: Ah. (laughs) Well, Spielberg is a hero. I think people really relate to his movies and his art because he remembers and is able to tell people exactly what it’s like to be a kid, to be vulnerable, and to have wonder, and to be excited about things. And I think if you are going to create pop culture you have to be like that.
RB: I agree. You mentioned the next adult project, Vampires of Manhattan, and I know you’ve written several adult novels in the past with subjects that were in the fashion world. Is this also involved with the fashion world? I’m assuming that your work in fashion influenced your writing in those?
MC: A little bit. When I started out I was a journalist and I covered the fashion beat, mostly because the paper I started out at didn’t have a fashion reporter. And when you’re young you’re just trying to find a niche for your writing, and I said, “Oh, I’ll do the fashion stuff,” because I was interested in it a little bit. It was more like a hobby. Then when I started writing books—because I’d been writing about fashion for a while—it just seemed very natural to write about that kind of glittery world, and a lot of Blue Bloods in the beginning was inspired by my fashion days. I remember being at a party with a fifteen-year-old Paris Hilton and thinking she is such an old teenager, and that’s when I thought about these adult-like kids running around New York who are fifteen, but really they were living the lives of thirty-year-olds. She was so sophisticated and so jaded at such a young age. So definitely that’s been part of that world that’s come out in my books.
RB: Most of your titles were released within short time frames. Do you write quickly, or do you write in advance—well in advance—of a projected release date? Or both? What’s your writing style?
MC: I think you have to do both because when the deadlines are that tight you definitely had to do both. Far in advance and very quickly. It actually takes me a long time to write the books—or at least to gestate them. I like to think about the ideas, I think about the world, the characters for about a year, and then the actual writing doesn’t take that long—probably about three months for a first draft. But you need that year to let the ideas kind of simmer and your characters kind of start taking on their characteristics and their story. So the answer is both. (laughs)
RB: I’m wondering since you write several series at once, are your characters so well defined in your mind that you never confuse them? How do you keep the series separate?
MC: I’m an outliner so I’m a planner. I can outline the big picture so I outline my books. I can outline many different books in a week, so I’ll know where I am on Witches, where I am with Blue Bloods, where I am with my new project, and as long as I’m doing big picture work I can work on many books. But once I start getting into the nitty-gritty—I would say the last month of working on a book—that’s when I have to concentrate on one book and leave the other things to themselves. But while I’m in an early stage, I can work on a lot of different series.
RB: When did you begin writing?
MC: I was first published when I was twenty-five, I think 1996. I wrote an article for a free newspaper called the New York Press, and I wrote for them for a couple years. I sold my first novel at twenty-seven.
RB: That’s great. Who or what has been your biggest influence?
MC: I would say probably Stephen King, especially for the supernatural stories. He was my favorite author when I was a teenager and all I did from the age of fourteen to eighteen was read Stephen King novels. I think I read every book of his until 1989, when I went to college. When I went to college I stuck with the Dark Tower series, but I haven’t really read any of the new stuff. But for those four years, intensely, I was just a Stephen King fan. I think how he shapes a story, how he draws in an audience, how he writes about characters, that’s been a huge influence. But another book that’s really influenced my writing was when I was twenty-two I read War and Peace in a three-month period where I was very depressed. I just loved it and I feel like I absorbed that book and I just loved everything. I always tell people it’s just a big soap opera. It’s a really fun book with a lot of balls and it’s about love and romance and family. I remember getting out of that and thinking “I want to do something like that. But not two thousand pages.”
RB: You were born in the Philippines, I believe, and moved with your family to San Francisco when you were twelve. Do any of your personal experiences weave their way into your storylines?
MC: Oh, yes. Definitely. In a way in Blue Bloods, Schuyler’s story is a little bit of my family’s story. My family kind of lost its fortune when we moved to America, and I really relate to shabby, new surroundings with trappings of the former glory of the past. Even when we were in Manila, my mom’s family … Her grandfather was this very wealthy Chinese merchant and his wife was Spanish and they were one of the first families with an automobile in the 1910s in Manila, and we had this compound with like five mansions on it. But when I was going there to visit my grandparents, it was all kind of in a little bit of Grey Gardens decay. There were these abandoned mansions that we owned that nobody fixed up, and you could go there and everything was draped over in covers. You could see the old life and the new … the old people shuffling around, and … I don’t know. It really made a huge impression on me, that idea that there was this really wonderful, wealthy past, but it’s in the past. (laughs) Now we’re just living with the dust and the diamonds are gone.
RB: Quite a story, but in addition to your personal experiences, do you do research for your books? Have you actually traveled to some of the various settings like Florence and Paris that you describe in the books?
MC: Oh, yes. Yes, we love to travel. My husband is little bit more well-traveled than I am since I couldn’t leave the country for a while, while I was getting my green card. He had lived in Italy for a while, so we use a lot of his research and experiences in some of those cities and then what I do if I can’t travel to the city that I’m writing about, is I actually hire a local researcher who lives in the city and knows the city really well and they put together a little document for me to use. And then if I can go, I definitely like to go. I would rather go, but I find that even if I go I’m still a tourist, so I really like to rely on a local researcher to tell me what the city is like and where to go and what people think about it. I don’t want to write the tourist guide to Paris, I want to write Paris through the eyes of people who’ve lived there who know it really well. I wrote about Cairo and the woman who did the research for me had grown up in Jordan and she’d actually lived in Cairo for many years, and it just makes a difference.
RB: Now, you were, if I’m not mistaken, a computer programmer before you became a creative writer. Or were you doing both at the same time? They’re kind of disparate (laughs) venues if you will?
MC: (laughs) Yes. It’s so funny. I went to Columbia and when I graduated, I needed a day job to stay in New York, to pay for New York. I was recruited by a computer firm, and their policy was to hire English majors and train them to be computer programmers. So they looked for English majors they could teach computer science to. I thought that was really interesting, and the guy who owned the firm told me that he found that if he could train an English major to do computers, they were much better at communicating to the clients. They were much better at explaining the programs and dealing with people and he found that a lot of computer engineers didn’t have the people skills to deal with client work, so he thought it would be better to try to teach the English majors computer skills. So that was really interesting, and I did it for a while. I really enjoyed the logical puzzles of programming, but I didn’t really like learning the language—the technical skills—much. I was pretty good at programming in one language and then when we switched to another language I just had no interest in any of the technical, really boring parts. But I really liked the high-logic puzzles. They told me I was really good at debugging really complicated programs and figuring out all the logic. I was really lazy (laughs) and I couldn’t be bothered to learn really simple commands. I was in it for about ten years and I did all right. I was writing on the side. I was a freelance writer and then also a fashion editor. I went back and forth for a while. I left computers, worked for magazines and then when the magazine world went through the recession, I went back to computers. Then I finally left computers once and for all when my first novel was published.
RB: It sounds like you’re a fabulous multitasker. Music also plays a large part in how you write. Can you explain that?
MC: Sure. I think it’s just part of having kind of a teen outlook on life. I think when you’re a teenager, what do you have to do but get really into your books, your music, the movies. For me, music really sets a tone and really inspires emotion for the books. In my books, what people really relate to is the emotions in them, and what the characters are feeling. So I get really obsessed with one song and that will really inspire one book, like the feeling for that book. Some of them are actually named after the songs. Like Misguided Angel was very much inspired by the Cowboy Junkies’ “Misguided Angel” song. We had to pay for the rights to use, not the title, but we quoted a lot from the song and so we asked for permission. It was really cool. The guy from the Cowboy Junkies, his daughter was a fan of Blue Bloods, so they were very happy to give permission.
RB: That’s great. Great connection there. Speaking of audio, have you had a chance to hear Christina Moore’s narration of the audiobook Gates of Paradise?
MC: Not Gates of Paradise yet. I don’t think I’ve had a copy, but I’ve heard her narrate the other books, and I think she is fabulous. It’s really, really wonderful to hear the story come to life, and how careful they are. They asked me how to pronounce everything correctly. It’s just wonderful with the care Christina takes in bringing the story to the audio life.
RB: In addition to Vampires of Manhattan, are there any other projects on the drawing board that we should be looking for?
MC: Yes. My new fantasy series is called Heart of Dread, and the first book, Frozen, is out this September. It’s cowritten with my husband, who’s kind of a silent partner in the Blue Bloods and Witches of East End series, but he’s fully credited in our new series. We like to think of it as Lord of the Rings in reverse. Instead of the story of magic leaving the world, it’s a story of how magic comes back to the world. It’s set in this postapocalyptic frozen world of New Vegas, and our hero and heroine have to find a way out in search of the mythical, magic land.
RB: Sounds fascinating. Well, Melissa, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re really excited about Gates of Paradise in the audiobook version, and once again I’d like to thank you for your comments today.
MC: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure.
RB: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Melissa de la Cruz. You can find Gates of Paradise at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in February 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Gates of Paradise
Schuyler Van Alen is running out of time. The Dark Prince of Hell is storming the Gates of Paradise, intent on winning the heavenly throne for good. This time he has his greatest angels by his side, Abbadon and Azrael—Jack and Mimi Force, as they are known in the Coven.
Or so he thinks. Even as Lucifer assigns Jack and Mimi the tasks of killing their true loves, the Force twins secretly vow to defeat the Dark Prince once and for all. But how far will Mimi and Jack go to conceal their real loyalties?
Meanwhile, former vampire Bliss Llewellyn has joined forces with Lawson, the greatest wolf of the underworld, to free his people from their imprisonment in Hell. As they struggle against impossible odds, an ancient message, woven into the very fabric of time, reveals just how much depends on the success of their mission.
Lucifer seeks the key to the Gate of Promise, and when Schuyler is taken captive and delivered straight to Hell, she must make an unthinkable choice—the same one the archangel Michael was forced to make during the Crisis in Rome. Will Schuyler find the strength to do what he could not?
The epic, heartbreaking Blue Bloods series comes to a close with this final novel about staggering courage, unbearable sacrifice, and the immortality of true love.