Whether she’s writing about the lavish Manhattan parties of beautiful powerful fallen angels known as Blue Bloods, or is in the mind of a young blackjack dealer in post-apocalyptic New Vegas, Melissa de la Cruz tackles questions of family, lineage, and inheritance in her bestselling young adult fiction -- without kimping on magic, dystopia and myth. In 2016 alone, she will publish a four books of her own, including “Golden,” book three in the Heart of Dread series, out April 5, which is the same release day as “Surviving High School,” the book de la Cruz co-authored with Vine star Lele Pons.
We spoke with Melissa by phone about escapism, religion, mythology of the West by phone from her home in California. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to create an alternate history—one of the things I was interested in. I do a lot of research and I think it was something I read where until recently the British monarchy still claimed that they were the rightful heirs to France. I pondered about what life would be like if the British empire stretched into France: How could the British keep their hold on America? [Answer:] they had magic. Who would the British Empire have that would be magic? They’ve got Merlin. The story started to spiral out from there. I love King Arthur and I’ve always wanted to write a retelling—this isn’t quite it, but I wanted to write to about a sorceress, princess and American upstart.
That’s a wonderful way to transition into “The Descendants” series—about what happens to Disney characters and their offspring after all the storybook endings. There’s a real reverence for these characters and the stories; they’re sacred to a generation of people. It can go really well or really terribly when you start messing with Jafar. How do you take something that could be so sacred and turn it into this new world?
I think because I’m a Disney kid myself I had the reverence too and I definitely wanted to right by the Disney universe. I felt that pressure of not messing it up and doing something that was worthy of the beautiful movies that came before. It was hard, really hard, and what I found was getting the tone right was the hardest.
I had to figure out the bring those endings from those movies to “The Isle of the Lost" [the first book]. I had to watch all of the movies again, so that was fun. I think you’ve got to come in with that reverence, but also with confidence. And a lot of sympathy for these kids who are the offspring of the most evil villains in the world—what’s that like? How would you survive? The book is about how impossible it is to win their parents’ approval and still be themselves -- I think a lot of us can relate to that.
You were born in the Philippines and came to the US. What do you carry with you now that affects your work? What made you choose Las Vegas?
I’ve been going to Las Vegas since I was seven years old. The book “Frozen” [in the Heart of Dread series] is set there.... It was kind of fun to imagine a worse-than-terrible future. It’s a commentary on how we’re living now, what we’re eating, and what we’re doing with our trash—what if the world was covered in our garbage? Young adult readers are interested in that, it’s their future and when we did the book tour they were interested in those environmental issues—they got it.
I liked writing from a boy’s point of view—I wanted to write about a couple that was equal, where the boy was as strong as the girl, they really complemented each other. Because I wrote this book with my husband, in a way it was a little bit about what we thought partnership should be. We wanted to show a love story that was a lot more equal instead of an all powerful vampire boy and the young weak human girl... not that there’s anything wrong with that, but those aren’t the stories that I get excited by.
I’ve never been excited by the Cinderella story and I like Jane Austen but I wonder why Elizabeth can’t have what she wants without having to marry Mr. Darcy? I wanted to write what romance was like for me—I was a little burned out and I wanted to get into fantasy and science fiction.
I was raised Catholic and in the Philippines -- you learn so much more about it than here and it blends with your life. There are people who crucify themselves or walk along the highway flogging themselves [in search of spiritual exaltation]. You had to memorize all of the saints and our religious education felt more rigorous. There were these beautiful rituals that you learn and I still identify as Catholic. In the Philippines our religion wasn’t as restrictive; what I remember was learning the stories of all the saints and the gospels as superhero stories. And I learned that these beliefs and stories have so much power.
Loving mythology definitely came from the Catholic education, and believing in the power of stories became part of my DNA. I think there are a lot of Mormon fantasy writers for the same reason—you’re steeped in this religious education that is asking you to believe in something you can’t see, which readily translates into fantasy and myths. My kid is growing up as a very secular child and I’m curious to see what she draws from her background because I had such a different one.
Melissa de la Cruz will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 10.
Graham is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.