Marie Lu interview: Back to the future

YA author Marie Lu returns to the futuristic dystopia that landed her on the bestseller list – and digs through the past for tomorrow’s stories.

Marie Lu

Marie Lu is running late. She hops on the phone with a slight breathlessness to her smooth, even voice; having an infant son tends to trip up schedules, even (or perhaps especially) when you’re only weeks away from a book tour. She’s had a few other tasks on her mind, too – drafts and edits for two new novels, both to be released in 2020; a handful of bookshop appearances, convention panels, and interviews; plus, her active Twitter account, where she not only promotes her work and that of fellow YA authors but also shares political commentary, especially on issues related to racism and immigration. Listening to the calm, crystalline answers she supplies for every question, you might not realize she’s in a near-constant state of movement. Of change.

To be fair, Lu didn’t expect this either – not to one day become a full-time writer, for one, but also not to end up in an interview about a series that supposedly ended in 2013. Like the rest of us, Lu thought her blockbuster Legend trilogy was done. When the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author published Champion, the third and final installment, she tied the series up not with ribbons and resolutions but with a whopping cliffhanger. (If you know, you know.)

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Since 2013, her fans, begrudgingly, learned to cope with their unanswered questions. But then a few things happened. Six years passed, and Lu kept writing while the world changed so rapidly and so intimately it felt personal. She had to go back, she decided, to Legend. She told readers it wasn’t just about finding closure (though that was part of it, sure). It was about finding hope.

 

Life after dystopia

Butterfly by Marie Lu. The cover features a steely butterfly or moth on a dark purple and blue background.

In October 2019, Lu released Rebel, a fourth addition to the Legend series, which further explores the futuristic dystopia introduced in the earlier chronicles. The teenage stars of the series, Day and June – each prodigies in their own right – are the star-crossed lovers at the epicenter of a totalitarian regime; they fall for each other across social, economic, and, at times, physical boundaries. Over the course of the original trilogy, they face a war between two power-hungry factions that divide the United States as we know it down the middle, the Republic of America and the Colonies. Day and June lead revolutions. They confront injustice. They try – and fail – to protect those they love. As climate change ravages the planet and violence hits a boiling point, they travel to Ross City, Antarctica, which serves as the setting of Rebel.

In Rebel, 10 years have passed since the events of Champion, and life has moved on. June and Day have not spoken in nearly a decade. Day’s little brother, Eden, is coming into his own. He’s now a top student at his academy in Antarctica, but he’s still overshadowed by the fame of his older sibling. And Ross City is not, perhaps, the perfect beacon of human invention it promises to be. Its Undercity – a literal underworld of crime and poverty – is ripe with corruption, a direct result of the Levels system, a Ross City policing mechanism that assigns citizens “points” based on their “good” or “bad” behavior. Water a plant? +1 point. Assault a fellow citizen? -10. The system seems fair until its uglier hierarchies reveal themselves: the unemployed are punished for not working; those under a certain Level can’t access public transportation or healthcare; bullies can hijack the system by saying kind words in a mocking, cruel way.

As Eden is drawn into the gambling system of Ross City, he’s sucked into a danger even Day might not be able to conquer. Especially without June.

It’s not hard to see the similarities between Lu’s cyclical futuristic dystopias and the oft-touted American “meritocracy” of today. Lu’s metaphors aren’t exactly subtle, but they needn’t be – because, as young readers across America have realized, they aren’t all that far-fetched.

The first Legend book was originally published in 2011, and even then Lu’s story simmered with the sort of sociopolitical and environmental anxiety that can feel suffocating to teens in 2019. The book “was very much influenced by what was happening in our society, both good and bad,” Lu says. “The fact that we had someone so hopeful as president, but you could see the crumbling, the rot happening underneath the log.”

Rebel was Lu’s chance to indirectly address the ways the world has shifted in the years since her first book. The rot she predicted has revealed itself in a different president and the violence, political division, racism, sexism, xenophobia, discrimination, income inequality, and climate change threatening the country and planet. It can be a scary world.

But Lu says that’s the gift of YA, and specifically a YA series that continues on, even years after its expected end. It isn’t just about indulging in and rebooting the same story. It isn’t just about nostalgia. These books give teens a chance to breathe again. That’s why she wrote Rebel, as a chance to show her readers a world that exists after dystopia – a world where teens like Eden are strong, even when nothing seems guaranteed.

“I wanted to write it for young people who are feeling that sense of uncertainty right now,” Lu says. “Like, ‘Where are we going? Are we going to be OK?’ And I wanted them to feel like, at least in this fictional world, you will get your answer. This is something I can control.”

 

‘I dreamed a dream’

Born in China, Lu immigrated to New Orleans before settling in Houston with her family, all before she’d turned 10 years old. In kindergarten, Lu returned home every afternoon – per her mother’s instruction – with five English words she’d heard at school but didn’t understand. She’d look them up, test them out in sentences, and slowly learn a precise, tender love for the English language. Suddenly, she wanted to be a writer. She’d staple together bits and pieces of stories into her own “novels,” her name stamped on the cover, copying what she saw at the library. It wasn’t until high school that she actually understood writing could be a career path for some lucky authors. But fiction seemed like a mystical activity, something you got to do if you were born with superpowers.

So, after graduating, Lu moved to Los Angeles to study political science at the University of Southern California. She graduated intending to pursue a law degree, but after classes wrapped up and the degree was hers, she felt not triumphant but stuck. Wandering campus, she saw an ad for a video game internship at Disney Interactive Studios – an encounter so serendipitous it would go on to provide a foundation for her fiction, most obviously in her sci-fi Warcross series. She applied, got in as an artist and design intern, and ended up working in the video game industry for half a decade.

Her gaming career gave her the drive to pursue writing more seriously. For 12 years, she wrote, then got rejected. Wrote. Got rejected. She drilled through four unpublished manuscripts before reaching the nugget that would become Legend.

Liam Neeson, in the end, was the answer. Or, rather, Les Miserables, the 1998 version starring Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes. While watching the film, Lu questioned whether teen versions of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert might resonate with a modern audience, but it wasn’t until she read an online news article about climate change that her worldbuilding began. The story showed her an interactive map of the world, 100 years in the future, where unrestrained climate change had plunged California (and much of the rest of the planet) underwater. Los Angeles – her home – was a giant lake.

She still remembers how the map looked so real.

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In less than four months, Lu had her first draft. The story she’d been dreaming about formed itself from seemingly disparate chunks of inspiration – Les Miserables and climate change – so Jean Valjean became the young hero and hunted criminal Daniel “Day” Wing, and Inspector Javert became the powerful, conflicted teenager June Iparis. The map of a ruined Earth became the setting of Legend, a world where America was yet again clashing in civil warfare and Antarctica’s capital was one of the most advanced cities on the globe.

The concept was a hit, going on to become a trilogy that would sell more than 3 million copies. Today, after publishing two other series and a stand-alone DC Comics book (Batman: Nightcrawler), Lu says the question she receives most often from readers is: “What happens to Day and June?” Even after finishing the series, her audience still deeply cared about the characters she created.

“I felt a responsibility to my readers, my first readers,” Lu says. “They picked up my book when no one knew who I was; they took a chance on an author who had no track record…I felt like, for them, I wanted to give them something that made them feel good.”

 

Head in the game

Lu makes the argument that every one of her stories is inherently political. Sometimes it feels as if we live in the world of her novels, just slotted a few decades behind. In Warcross, Lu’s story of a young hacker thrust into a video game world where her bounty hunting skills land her at the feet of a billionaire, citizens utilize a computer chip embedded in their brains. This chip creates a brain-computer interface that connects you to the augmented reality and artificial intelligence around you. After Lu sent the final draft of Warcross to her publisher, her editor informed her that Elon Musk had created a company called Neuralink, investing in – you guessed it – computer chips for your brain. Lu had to laugh. Rebel, as well, is something of a satire on the modern gamification of human lives: Play the game right, and you win points. Fail, and you’re stuck in the Undercity.

It’d be funny, perhaps, if it weren’t all so on-the-nose. Lu is writing for teenagers, yes. She’s writing romantic epics and sci-fi thrillers for young readers. But is her fiction really that far-fetched? In case you haven’t been paying attention, those same kids are the ones leading movements. They’re the ones dealing with the breakneck speed of technological evolution, of political disenfranchisement and climate change. Society is turning to teenagers – take climate activist Greta Thunberg, who delivered a furious U.N. speech last year, for instance – to demand actual progress. Lu believes YA books can help young readers understand the truth of the world they’ll inherit, while also giving them the hope and courage to envision a better one.

This spring, Lu will release The Kingdom of Back, a plunge into historical fantasy. The book will follow Nannerl Mozart, the real-life sister of Wolfgang, whose musical talent overshadowed his sister’s. In Lu’s book, Nannerl meets a mysterious stranger who offers the young prodigy the chance to be remembered forever – if she’s willing to accept the cost.

This isn’t Lu’s first time rifling through the past for stories that resonate today; The Young Elites, her second trilogy, also takes place in a historical fantasy world. But this is Lu’s first time using real people in a magical setting. And just as she promotes a book set in 18th-century Europe, she’s also got one eye on the future: Lu confirms that a film adaptation of Legend is moving forward. A screenplay is developed, and casting is in the works, but there’s little other information available now. (She jokes that her readers frequently learn tidbits about the film before she does.)

Somehow, she doesn’t seem flustered by all the back and forth, all the time-traveling and threads between fiction and reality, all the shuffling stories. She doesn’t outline her work; she plots as she goes. How she keeps track of it all in her mind is incomprehensible. One clue might be this: It’s all so breathtakingly important to her. She knows her worlds will resonate with teens because – past, present, or future – they aren’t that different from ours.

So, sure, maybe it seems like she’s six years late to finishing the Legend series. But ask any of her readers, and they’ll tell you she’s right on time.

Lauren Puckett is an assistant and writer at Hearst Magazines, where she works for brands including Harper’s Bazaar, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Good Housekeeping. She is also a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness. You can find her on Twitter @laurpuckett.