How did a suburban mother of three become the next big thing in publishing with her chaste-but-erotic Twilight series? Robert Sullivan meets Stephenie Meyer.
Photographed by Jonathan Becker.
She may prefer to write late at night while her family sleeps, but for the record, there is not a lot about Stephenie Meyer, author of the better-than-best-selling Twilight series, that screams vampire. Yes, she has long dark hair and earthy brown eyes, casually highlighted this afternoon at her home in Arizona by a black Banana Republic cashmere sweater and jeans, but she lacks the arrogance associated with vampireness. Her vibe is homey; she sits you down on her living-room couch, one leg curled up under her, and starts talking as if you had been in the midst of conversation for years. She’s surrounded by her sons’ toys, games, and compasses (her husband is a Cubmaster), as well as her work—her office is in the front hall. There are family photos and a few paintings of the Washington coast, where Twilight takes place. The Phoenix neighborhood where she lives, a kind of desert suburb, is the opposite of the Washington coast, and lately she and her husband have been taking their three boys (ages six, eight, and eleven) on vacation to the Seattle area once in a while, to see green. “It’s nice to show them that there are places where things are alive,” she says.
During the day, she might go to the deli down the street for lunch with her husband (“I’m obsessed with the Greek salad,” she says), but she’s mostly just around—running errands, picking up the kids, hanging out, which in her case means fielding calls about scripts and producers and interviews. Even in a year in which she is theoretically taking a break from promotional activities, the Twilight industry is booming. She cranks out chapters and reads them aloud to her boys, whom her husband takes care of if she has to go on a book tour or take a meeting in L.A. “I’m a hermit, basically,” she says. “I’m just that kind of person.” It’s not that she has to get back to her coffin before dawn; Meyer is a homebody—even, sometimes, a procrastinator. She never gets out to movies, and it takes her a while to watch them. “We bought The Dark Knight when it came out, and I know we will watch it someday,” she says. If Law & Order is on TV at her house, forget writing. “I can’t move until it’s over,” she says. “If it’s a marathon, the day’s gone.”
As much as she has brought glamour to the lives of teenage girls with her Romeo and Juliet-with-blood lust story, the glamour she surrounds herself with is decidedly unglamorous, unless you are a boy, that is—the backyard is an aspiring athlete’s paradise. Inside, the kids’ playroom is actually played in, though Meyer fights her sons on having to buy the absolute latest video game, indicating to them that their heads will not explode if they do not get it. “The idea of enjoying something you already have has been lost,” she says. For her, happiness is being at home or attending a Little League game or the elementary school band concert. She believes this is what success in writing has given her, a kind of luxury that would not be listed as an asset by the IRS. “Luxury for me is getting to take care of your kids,” she says.
Yes, she will show up at a star-studded opening of her own film, mugging with the actors more like a schoolgirl than the creator of this gothic juggernaut, and yes, she clearly loves her fans (mostly girls), but the very thought of her own success can make her a little queasy. Just about a year ago, on the set of Twilight—a film even the studio had modest hopes for but that eventually was a phenomenon, like everything else Meyer has touched since she suddenly appeared on the scene four years ago—she watched dozens of people re-create the cafeteria she had imagined as the lunchtime home of her heroine, Bella, and Bella’s problematic suitor, Edward Cullen, who is older than Bella by a century or so, as well as undead and living with a large family of vampires. “I suddenly realized that all of this was happening because I wrote a story down,” she says, “and it made me a little sick to my stomach.”
It’s only when she waves goodbye to her husband and son and jumps into her Infiniti that a reader familiar with Twilight’s hunky vampire would quickly notice something a little Edwardesque about the 35-year-old author—she drives like Danica Patrick on her day off. “I like to drive,” Meyer says. As she exits the dirt road that runs through her desert neighborhood, her foot is on the pedal like teeth on a neck. She is cranking her iPod on the car stereo, a tune by Muse, a band that is exactly that to Meyer. She is not breaking the law, but the law should be a little nervous. “My husband sold our coupe,” she says, “and I was so mad.”
As far as writing goes, she is certainly cruising, driving in a fast lane that few authors ever make it to. Meyer has sold a gazillion copies (actual number, 28 million), so that it sometimes seems as if the interiors of Barnes & Noble are built not with bricks and mortar but with the phone-book-thick volumes of Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and, of course, Breaking Dawn, the latest book in the series, which alone sold 1.3 million copies on the day it was published last summer. And while she is a mom at home, in the publishing world Meyer is a superhero, an author who can make publishers feel a little better about an industry that is repeatedly described as being zombie-like, all but passed away. “It just gives you a lot of hope for the future of this business,” says Megan Tingley, her editor at Little, Brown. (The real hope being, of course, that she’s the next J. K. Rowling, who has to date sold in excess of 400 million books.)
And that’s not even getting to the films of Meyer’s novels. Teenagers stood in line for days all over the country to help the movie version of Twilight gross $70 million in its first weekend last November, after having been made on the relative cheap ($37 million, compared with, say, The Dark Knight, which cost about five times that). New Moon is currently in production. And all for a couple of characters that—literally—came to Meyer one night in a dream. “It’s an uncomfortable kind of power,” she says. “It’s not like, Aha! Now I am going to take over the world! It’s like, Really? Are you sure? I’m constantly waiting for someone to say, ‘You are on Candid Camera. You’ve been punked!’ ”
We cruise through a town called Carefree, a beautiful place with dry, boulder-covered hills and forests of streetlight-tall cacti, and Meyer pulls into the parking lot of the Horny Toad, an old-style Western saloon, a little embarrassed—her husband had been hyping the burgers to this reporter. “Try the torpedo!” he was saying, torpedo being Arizonan for a pepper-infused burger.
“I guess this is what people think of when they think of Arizona,” Meyer says. She orders the saloon’s Caesar and recounts her life pre-Twilight.
She was born Stephenie Morgan in Hartford, Connecticut, her father a finance guy who named her after himself—Stephen plus an “-ie.” By the time she was four, the family, who are Mormon, had settled on the outskirts of Phoenix. She is the second of six children, three girls and three boys; she thinks of her family as The Brady Bunch, sans Alice, the maid. The neighbors kept horses on their suburban Arizona lots; her family built huts, bike paths, a paintball range. “It was a free-for-all land,” she recalls. “Later, my brothers made it a lot more weaponized.”
Books were to Meyer as war games were to her brothers. “I was the bookworm,” she says. A childhood memory: her father, in the hall between the bedrooms, reading them not kids’ books but, according to his writer daughter, “the books he wanted to read.” Specifically, Tolkien-like fantasy, such as The Sword of Shannara, the 1977 epic by Terry Brooks (soon to be a motion-picture series). Her father would read a little, knocking off at bedtime. “The next day I would hide out in his closet with the book,” Meyer recalls, “feeling like I was doing something wrong, like I wasn’t supposed to sneak ahead.” Her mother was more nineteenth-century. “She was the one that had the Austen in the house,” Meyer says. “The reason I’m obsessed with the love side of any story is my mom. I always evaluate a story on relationships and the characters.”
She won a National Merit Scholarship in high school and studied literature in college, at Brigham Young, where she enjoyed writing papers on Shakespeare but stayed away from creative writing, for fear of potential criticism. “It’s not ‘You didn’t write that paper on Jane Austen so well,’ it’s ‘What’s going on in your head? You’re a crazy person!'” In college she married Pancho Meyer, whom she first met when she was four. His real name is Christiaan, but he was nicknamed Pancho as a kid on a whim, believe it or not, by his grandmother. “It’s not even a good story,” Meyer laments. After a stint working as a receptionist at a real estate office, she became a stay-at-home mom upon the birth of their first child, developing a phobia about her kids and swimming pools. “I’m a very neurotic mom,” she says. “My kids could swim when they were two. There are so many drownings around here. That’s one of my personal nightmares.”
Her phobia is the reason she remembers it was on the day of the kids’ swimming lesson that she woke up with a dream reverberating in her head. It was a vampire dream. She had not dreamed of vampires before, had not been reading about vampires. To this day, she has not figured out why vampires; she’s not a horror person, which is clear when you meet her, though she has always loved superheroes—she’s a Batman girl. “I like that he’s not so clean-cut, that he has a dark side, that he’s doing things that are not clearly legal or illegal,” she says. And let’s face it, a vampire—especially the star Twilight vampire, who is good-looking, incredibly fast, strong, and smart—is a sexy superhero, Batman with some bite. From her Web site: “In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.”
With a little Internet research, the meadow became the woods outside Forks, Washington, one of the rainiest (and thus potentially most vampire-friendly) places in the United States, and the two people became Isabella “Bella” Swan—a teenage girl who had moved to Forks from Phoenix—and Edward Cullen, vampire. It took precisely three months of typing, late at night, her husband wondering what was going on at the computer. She shared pages only with her older sister. “What if it was completely stupid?” she says now. With her sister’s encouragement, she sent it to an agent, where it landed in a slush pile, where an assistant found it. It was then sent to Tingley, senior vice president of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers—Little, Brown was seeing a trend emerging for horror books featuring young women. After reading it on a plane to California, Tingley was offering a three-book deal, which terrified Meyer. “I was just totally bowled over,” Tingley says. Meyer had been hoping to pay off her car and ended up with a $750,000 advance. For her it’s a dream come true in terms of youth-reading interest. “Books are a big entertainment deal for teenagers now—that’s the coolest thing in the world,” she says. “What an amazing gift for me that someone could say, ‘I read now.’ ”
One thing you learn quickly if you spend a day with Stephenie Meyer is that she doesn’t so much write stories as transcribe them; they are playing in the multiplex that is her mind’s eye. “I’ve been an editor for 20 years, and I’ve never worked with a writer who speaks of their characters as if they are so completely real,” Tingley says.
“I had always told myself stories my whole life and assumed that everyone does,” Meyer says. “You know, it’s funny; in Jane Eyre, which is something I’ve read 40 million times, there’s this scene where she shows Rochester her paintings. And she explains that in her head it was so different. And Rochester replies that she captured just a wisp of what she was seeing. I used to paint, and I won a few watercolor contests, but I could never get it to look exactly like it did in my head. But with writing, I discovered I could get it to look exactly like it did in my head.”
Which is why Twilight, especially, as well as its sequels, is not a horror book but a good old-fashioned romance. There are vampires, and they are wicked quick and excel in killing animals in the woods, which assuages somewhat their hunger for teenage humans. But that’s mostly offstage. Twilight takes place in a teenage fermata, an emotional arena that is, for many young girls, simultaneously imaginary and absolutely real. And the boy, by the way, is completely intoxicated with the girl. The courtship is everything, a prolonged ecstasy, because once consummated, the relationship will change, like, totally.
“The sexual tension that she’s managed to sustain is just incredible,” says Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the movie. “You’ve found your soul mate, and that the person who you are in love with and who is in love with you could kill you—even better!”
“I think that the reason the books were that way, unintentionally,” Meyer says, “is because I miss those days of ten and thirteen when a boy looked at you, and oh, my gosh, you could talk about it for two weeks because he looked at you funny. ‘What does that mean? What is that about?’ Everything was analyzed.”
To her great credit, Meyer knows she is not Gertrude Stein. “I’m not a professional yet,” she says. “I’m still just an amateur.” But she knows her audience like Nielsen. “A twelve-year-old girl has already in her head imagined out fourteen different lives, including if she gets married, if she doesn’t get married, if she falls in love with someone who lives in Paris,” Meyer says. Indeed, one might argue her authorial success has something to do with her being surrounded by non-girls. “I live in a house filled with testosterone,” she says. “There’s always sports on my television, and there’s nothing except hockey and scooters, and there’s nothing of that side of myself left, and so it’s great to have a different place to find it.”
Her authorial power is also changing her relationship with her readers; where there was once a manageable number of E-mail correspondents, now she stands before oceans of fans. And as she has changed from underdog—mom writing with a baby on her lap—to Superauthor, the press has begun to wonder about her, most frequently citing her religion and speculating as to whether the Twilight series has something Mormon up its sleeve. Meyer says her religious faith is part of the fabric of the book the way it is part of her. “When you grow up with something your whole life, it influences your work,” she says. Regardless, the books are by no means tracts. If they are supposed to be undercover lectures on abstinence, as critics sometimes imagine, then Meyer accidentally made them a little too titillating, though she is, theologically speaking, enthusiastic about where her characters end up—specifically, the way they, as she sees it, take control of their lives rather than allowing the world to dictate control. “Like the idea of freedom of choice—that there’s no place that someone can put you that you can’t choose a different way,” she says, speaking like the Sunday-school teacher she is.
A more interesting and controversial story is the fifth book in the Twilight saga, a version of the first book told from Edward’s perspective. It was leaked last year by a source still unidentified onto the Internet, all but about six pages. It was a huge blow. “Now I’m over it,” she says, “but I feel really distanced from the project. It was oddly devastating.” Although she is currently taking a break, she may continue the Twilight story, but she seems wary of books in series. “I’m experiencing, I think, a little bit of stage fright at this point.” This past spring, Little, Brown published The Host, her first adult novel, pure science fiction, in which a woman is taken over by another consciousness—two souls in one human. It, too, was (and, like all her books, remains) a best seller—debuting at number one. For Meyer, the subtext was body image. “I’m not critical of others, but I am very critical of myself,” she says. “When I was working on this, I had to imagine what a gift it is to just have a body, and really love it, and that was good for me, I think.”
Returning home—fast—Meyer finds the boys are out, her assistant gone. She may be to the publishing economy what Detroit was to the U.S. economy in the fifties, yet she runs her show like a kitchen-table business. One of her brothers, an optometry student, is in charge of her Web site, which means that if a film company wants their representatives’ statements posted on stepheniemeyer.com, they can’t just snap their fingers. “Somebody will want something done right away, and it will be like, ‘No, it has to wait. My brother has a test,’ ” she says. “It’s a small business for me still. I mean, people don’t understand; it’s just a little family thing. I couldn’t deal with it if I didn’t keep it small. It freaks me out.”
“Dreamcatcher” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the March 2009 issue of Vogue.