Most books when they are published creep quietly and obscurely on to book shelves, hardly noticed by the reading public. Not so for Mormon mom, Stephenie Meyer, whose fourth book in her vampire Twilight saga became available last Friday night at midnight. Readers across the world had been anticipating Breaking Dawn, the conclusion to her series with racing pulses and couldn’t wait to take a bite out of the last installment.
Friday night featured 4,000 parties at bookstores and libraries across the United States alone where readers in anticipation dressed up in prom attire and debated how the story would end. BYU Bookstore sponsored a blood drive to mark the event. Book groups sponsored “Vampire” nights for members so they could finish the story together.
When she appeared on Good Morning America, Friday morning, the program received 1,000 emails with questions and comments for Stephenie, a record for the show. She has had to limit her appearances to venues that can handle thousands of fans and events in Los Angeles and New York sold out in 45 minutes.
On Saturday, the first day her book was available, it sold 1.3 million copies to fans eager to learn who the heroine, Bella, would choose between her romantic possibilities: Edward Cullen, the vampire who has swept her off her feet or Jacob Black, her best friend and a werewolf? And if she chose Edward, would it mean she would also choose to become a vampire herself?
“There’s no way to please everyone,” Stephenie said. “The (e-mail) messages I get say, ‘If Bella doesn’t end up with Edward forever, I’m going to burn this book,’ and the next one I get will say, ‘If Bella doesn’t end up with Jacob forever, I’ll burn this book.”
In some ways, the numbers tell the story. After three years, Stephenie had sold 10 million copies of her book. The initial printing of Breaking Dawn is 3.5 million. Her books have dominated the USA TODAY bestseller list all summer with her first book Twilight at No. 1 and her second and third books New Moon (2006) and Eclipse (2007) weighing in a Nos. 2 and 4. Last summer Stephenie knocked J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows off its No. 1 spot on the list.
Yet, it is the enthusiastic dedication of readers to the characters and stories that is most telling. Speculations on the plot twists fill the blogosphere. Websites have been started by enthusiasts where a digital clock counted down the milliseconds until the next book appeared. Though the book was meant for youth, it has successfully crossed over to adults and they confess things like this from Twilightmoms.com
“Do you think you are the only one whose life turned upside down when you read Twilight? Is your house a disaster with piles of piles of laundry in every corner and stacks of dirty dishes at record breaking heights? Have you imagined your husband is a vampire (or werewolf) and suddenly have the libido of newlywed again? Do you convince yourself that “cold cereal” makes a perfectly wholesome dinner? Is the pizza delivery boy now on your Christmas card list? Are your children free to run a muck as long as no one comes too you bleeding . . .(too badly)? Oh, you feel guilty, but that’s not enough! You still can’t tear yourself away from the book.”
The kind of fan excitement that pulses around Meyer makes way for the inevitable comparisons with J.K. Rowling smash successes.
A Mormon Mother and a Vampire Story?
The question, of course, is what’s a Mormon mother doing writing vampire stories? What part of her mental world makes room for these creatures of the night? She originally pitched her story to publishers as a “suspense romance horror comedy” and she says she is not into the horror genre at all. She hasn’t read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and told Entertainment Weekly, “I’ve seen little pieces of Interview with a Vampire when it was on TV, but I kind of always go YUCK! I don’t watch R-rated movies, so that really cuts down on a lot of the horror. And I think I’ve seen a couple of pieces of The Lost Boys , which my husband liked, and he wanted me to watch it once, but I was like, it’s creepy!”
“I just know I’m too much of a wuss for Stephen King’s books,” admits Stephenie Meyer. “I’m waaay too chicken to read horror.”
The genesis of all this hoopla was a dream Stephenie had on June 2, 2003. She described it: ” 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.”
“Though I had a million things to do (i.e. making breakfast for hungry children, dressing and changing the diapers of said children, finding the swimsuits that no one ever puts away in the right place, etc.), I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream. I was so intrigued by the nameless couple’s story that I hated the idea of forgetting it; it was the kind of dream that makes you want to call your friend and bore her with a detailed description. (Also, the vampire was just so darned good-looking, that I didn’t want to lose the mental image.) Unwillingly, I eventually got up and did the immediate necessities, and then put everything that I possibly could on the back burner and sat down at the computer to write-something I hadn’t done in so long that I wondered why I was bothering. But I didn’t want to lose the dream, so I typed out as much as I could remember.”
Up to this point Stephenie hadn’t written much, and hardly anything at all since the birth of her son six years earlier, but she was compelled to continue, writing while her family slept, and too shy about it to even confess it to her husband for a little while.
Juggling children, swimming lessons and church assignments, she was still able to finish her manuscript by August, sent out 15 queries, got an agent in October, and a contract for the book in November with a large advance. That’s less than 6 months and an accomplishment that would make most would-be writers drool.
In the story, Bella Swan is an awkward, unsure, yet headstrong high schooler who has come to the very gray Forks, Washington on the Olympic peninsula to live with her father. She is an everygirl-very ordinary in her own estimation. There she attracts the attention of the stunningly handsome Edward Cullen, who poses as a senior in high school, but is actually a 107-year old vampire, who falls madly in love with her. He, and his equally perfectly beautiful family, may be vampires, but, they are good vampires, “vegetarians”, having sworn off human blood, to only hunt beasts in the forest to quench their thirst.
Still, the smell of her blood is intoxicating to Edward, and, despite his best moral intentions, must exercise every bit of self-control not to let his vampire instincts take over. At one point in the series, Edward finally decides he is bad for her, as the only way they can ultimately be together is for her to become like a vampire like him, and in his absence she is befriended by Jacob, who just happens to be a werewolf. Thus the love triangle and the dilemma about Bella’s mortality, and the frenzy of readers who want to know what happens in this intense story.
To Stephenie these stories aren’t about a scarefest, but about characters that people care about. “I don’t know why I’ve gotten the response I have,” she admits. She just knows she loves the characters and they are extremely important to her.
In fact, far from embracing the horror genre, Stephenie said in an interview that her first book Twilight was loosely based on Pride and Prejudice ; the second, New Moon was based on Romeo and Juliet ; the third, Eclipse, was based on Wuthering Heights , and Breaking Dawn was a mix of many others including Midsummer’s Night Dream.
The Twilight book, which is due out as a movie December 12, advertises in these words with a picture of Bella and Edward, “When you live forever, what do you live for?”
Informed by her Mormonism
Journalists have relished making an issue of Meyer’s Mormonism, which is a bit puzzling to her. Stephenie told interviewers: “It seems funny that it’s still a story,” Meyer says, “because you didn’t hear people saying, ‘Jon Stewart, Jewish writer,’ when his book came out. I guess being a Mormon is just odd enough that people think it’s still a real story. Obviously, to me, it seems super normal. It’s just my religion.”
Yet, she says her faith informs her work and hopes that the message comes through. She was looking to put a lot more light than darkness in the books, and she attributes some of the popularity of the books to Bella’s being an everygirl. She told Entertainment Weekly , “She’s not a hero, and she doesn’t know the difference between Prada and whatever else is out there. She doesn’t have to be cool, or wear the coolest clothes ever. She’s normal. And there aren’t a lot of girls in literature that are normal. Another thing is that Bella’s a good girl, which is just sort of how I imagine teenagers, because that’s how my teenage years were.”
In fact, in this hypersexualized world, where the claim is that teenagers can’t be and aren’t abstinent, Bella and Edward’s passion is wild, but chaste. Newsweek said of this, “Meyer , who is Mormon, has said that she doesn’t want Bella and Edward to have sex before marriage. For most romance novels, the ‘no sex, please,’ notion would be blasphemous. But Meyer’s fans have embraced it like a couple of teenagers just cuddling on the couch. Many mothers say they’ve used the books as a way to begin that awkward birds-and-bees talk with their teenage daughters. ‘I can discuss sex without being preachy because, well, we’re just talking about Twilight ,’ says Mary Ann Hill, mother to Tara , 13. ‘It’s non-threatening and I see the book as extra support for what I want to teach anyway.'”
Not all readers agree with this estimation. Stephenie has been criticized in Mormon circles and some mothers won’t let their daughters read the series because Edward, who, as a vampire, doesn’t sleep and is worried for Bella’s safety, often stays in her bedroom all night to protect her, and the occasional kisses between them are certainly sexually charged and sometimes on the bed. The books have no gratuitous sex scenes, but the strictly above-the-collar kisses are passionate to the point of pulse racing.
The new book Breaking Dawn goes a bit farther because it begins with Bella’s marriage and describes the honeymoon. Though it is tastefully done, Stephenie’s editors discussed putting an age warning on the book because of its mature theme and because of the violence. Stephenie said she was for putting an age limit of 15 or 16 and a warning because “the content is a little harder to handle, a little bit more grown-up for really young kids. I have 9-year-old readers, and I think it’s too old for them.”
What’s more, many have asked if Bella is a role model they want their daughters to be so taken with. Bella and Edward are obsessively intrigued with each other. He is unreal in his devotion and physical good looks, and she has no interest in education or even life itself without him. He can read her mind, anticipate her needs, and be high-handed if she doesn’t follow his warnings. She is perpetually the damsel in distress who is saved by him.
Still, what’s fun about the book to the fans is that they are page turners with characters they care about. The author knows how to draw tense scenes of conflict and moral dilemmas that engage the readers. One fan said, “It’s cheesy, but I can’t put it down.” What’s more, in her own life, Stephenie sticks by her personal standards. She never works on Sundays and passed up an invitation to present a clip from Twilight at a recent Sunday MTV movie awards.
A Regular Person
Bottom line is that Stephenie Meyer is in the spotlight, but at heart she’s just a Mormon Mom who says when it comes to photo shoots and media attention, she’d be happier holding the gear. Her kids think she’s the epitome of normal and one asked his friend, “What book is it that your Mom writes?”
95% of the time, Stephenie says, she’s just Mom.
Her husband, Pancho, also reports that he is not at all threatened by Edward. After all, Edward is fictional. After 30 years of being the most normal person around, she says, it’s hard to become ungrounded.