Legend, available now, is 27-year-old video game art director Marie Lu’s first novel, and it’s already attracting major buzz. CBS Films has already snatched up the film rights, and Twilight producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen are attached. Legend takes place in a dark future in which North America has split into two warring nations: the wealthy Republic (or the West Coast) and the poor Colonies (everyone else). Two teenagers on opposing sides of the conflict are caught in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, though a series of shocking events eventually bring them together. Lu took the time to talk to EW about writing her gripping debut—and about being an Asian-American author.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your road to publication like?
MARIE LU: It was a long journey. I started writing seriously when I was a teenager, around 14 years old. I remember the exact moment when I [wanted to be a writer] because I saw an article in the Houston Chronicle about a young writer named Amelia Atwater-Rhodes who got a book deal when she was 15 years old. That was when I realized that I can actually pursue something like this, and I started writing seriously. I wrote four manuscripts before Legend over the course of 10 or 12 years, and none of those ever made it. I had one agent in college I parted ways with. My fourth manuscript didn’t sell, but it got me my current agent Kristin Nelson. When we were pitching that one, I started writing Legend, just to sort of distract myself from the whole submission process. My agent and I went through two or three heavy revisions on Legend before we finally submitted it. It was just really surprising and amazing to see Legend to sell after the other ones didn’t, so it was a long journey. [Laughs]
What were your unpublished manuscripts about?
They were sort of all over the place, but I always liked writing fantasy and science fiction. My first three manuscripts were epic fantasy — like high fantasy — and then the fourth one was a historical fantasy about Mozart as a child. I still have a soft spot for that one! But we’ll see what happens.
I know you worked as the art director of a video game company. Video games tell stories in their way, too, and Legend is really action-packed. Did your experience in gaming influence your book at all?
I don’t think anything really consciously went into Legend that was influenced by videogames, but I’m pretty sure some of my experiences and love for gaming contributed to a few of the factors that are in Legend. For example, I think the Skiz fights [street fights that onlookers bet on] were probably something that came about because of the gamer side of me. I just love inserting competitions or games into things. I’m pretty sure that was why that particular piece went into Legend. [Laughs] I remember playing Mortal Kombat when I was a kid and the other Tekken-style games.
The premise for this novel is so interesting and almost realistic, in a way. Where did the central idea come from?
The dystopian setting originally came from a map I found online that showed a simulation of what the world would look like if the world’s freshwater ice melted, causing all of the oceans to rise 100 meters. It was a fascinating map because half of the southern United States was pretty much gone. California had this enormous lake from L.A. all the way up to Sacramento; Europe was completely gone, Australia was split in two. That was where my original world stemmed from. From seeing that map, I thought about what the U.S.’s political climate would be like if pretty much all the southwest United States was gone. I figured a lot of those people would be fleeing into the West, and I thought this might trigger almost a second Civil War. The West is very belligerent about all these refugees coming in from the East, and they might put up a border to separate the two. The United States sort of split in two between the West side, which had all the land, and the East side, which didn’t. That was the original seed for the war between the Republic and the colonies.
The universe has such defined rules, and even its own slang. Did you spend a lot of time planning the details of this world?
I did! Some parts of it came in as I was writing the story, so I would go back and add more world-building and layer it in as I went. When I wrote the initial draft of Legend, it was a little bit more sparse, and I had a more general idea. But as I went back through it, little details about their language and customs – like the fact that people wore white during funerals – those things started coming in little by little. It was a gradual layering process.
In your dystopian world, the kids have to take the Trials, a mandatory standardized test that literally determines life and death. As a fellow Asian-American, I have to ask: Is this a metaphor for the SAT?
It’s totally the SAT on steroids! [Laughs] Like horrible flashbacks to studying – I’m sure you did the same thing – cramming for the SATs and the PSATs and that whole period of standardized taking. I was thinking, that would have been my worst nightmare if I was a teenager to have that be like the choice between life and death, because that’s kind of what it felt like when I was a teenager. Right? It feels like it’s the end of the world if you don’t do well on your SATs.
On that note, I like that you’re able to interpret some subtle political messages from the book — I mean, the country is literally split in two — even though they don’t knock you over the head.
Thank you! I was a political science major in college, so I think a lot of that crept into the story, just little influences from how our current political climate is, just how segregated the parties are, and how angry people are. I’m sure some of that crept in there.
Even though there’s teen romance in this book, I’m glad you bucked the trend of so many YA titles being all about obsessive romance. You actually focused on sibling relationships quite a bit in a really poignant way.
Thank you! I’ve never been terrible strong at [writing] romance. My earlier manuscript about Mozart was all about him and his sister, who was also a child prodigy, but she was never able to do anything with her skills because she was a girl. I’ve always had this interest in sibling relationships because I don’t have any siblings. I’m completely a product of the one-child policy in China, so I always kind of wished that I had an older brother or a younger brother or sister just to have that bond, so I find myself constantly writing about that relationship. It’s something that fascinates me.
I loved the alternating point of view. One minute, you’re on Day and the colonies’ side, and the next, you find yourself sympathizing with June and the Republic. Were you trying to point out that there’s gray area between good and evil?
I’m so glad you pointed that out. I think you’re the first person to say that. That’s something that I wanted to put in consciously. We always think that we tend to have the right idea of how things are supposed to be. We tend to think that the U.S. is very right in what we do, but then if you go to China, China has their way of seeing American policies are working and they think that what they’re doing is right. It’s interesting see that because what’s right is very relative, and I wanted to put that into Day and June because Day sees things from a completely different point of view than June does. And June, her view is probably a bit more skewed than Day’s is, and she’s obviously more on the wrong side than Day is. But it was realistic to think that she would think she’s right, based on what she’s taught in school and the people around her, and she feels like she’s around good people. She loves her brother, Thomas seems good to her. That’s definitely something that I wanted to explore, like a split comparison on which each person thought was right based on what they grew up with.
Do you feel like June and Day represent different sides of yourself?
I do. That’s an interesting question because Day is a character that’s been in my head since I was in high school, so I felt very familiar and comfortable with him. He has some traits that are similar to mine in that he’s very emotional, and I don’t always think practically about what I’m doing. And June is interesting because I think that she’s the only character in legend that I have nothing in common with, but I put a lot of traits in her that I wish I had: her analytical skills, her ability to think so logically, especialy during moments of emergency. It was interesting writing June because I put in all of those traits, and what was kind of shocking to me is when I put them in, weaknesses came out of those strengths kind of naturally. Like the fact that she’s so logical and practical that she comes across as distant, or kind of unfeeling and unsympathetic. That was my exploring the fact that with every strength comes some sort of weakness.
In the acknowledgements, you mention that June was originally a boy. I can’t imagine that! Is that true?
Yes, that’s true. My original idea was about two boys, and one was hunting the other. I remember sitting in the car talking this idea over with my boyfriend, and he just had this frown on his face the whole time. He was like, “You know, it would be so much more interesting if you made the detective a girl.” I’m like, “Oh, you’re right! That would be so much better.” So now I just run everything by him. His name is Primo, and I named the dictator in Legend after him. [Laughs]
You know, I found it interesting that while you’re an Asian-American author, this book doesn’t have anything to do with Asian-American themes. Even though other minority authors get flack for that, I actually think it’s cool that you don’t have to be pigeonholed to writing about a certain subject just because you’re a certain ethnicity.
Yes! Oh my God, I’m so glad you said that. I haven’t gotten flack personally for it, but I have seen other authors get flack for it. I’ve heard that the author Tess Gerritsen has gotten a lot of flack for not writing about her ethnicity, and I agree with you. I think it’s a disappointment that we’re expected to write about our ethnicity. People tend to tell me, “Oh, you should write something about your mom’s experience in the Cultural Revolution.” That’s fascinating to me, but I want to write about what I want to write about. We should be like any other author of any ethnicity, wanting to explore our cultures, but it shouldn’t be what’s expected of us.
I actually thought it was cool that in Legend, you sometimes leave characters’ ethnicity ambiguous. That might make things interesting when it comes time to cast the film version.
People are of different races in the book, but I’m glad that it was kind of ambiguous. People might be a little darker skinned or lighter skinned, but it doesn’t really affect who they are as people. You’ve probably heard about the casting for Akira that huge debacle how Asians were pretty much taken out of the casting call completely. That’s something that still needs to be worked on by Hollywood. Just the idea that Asian males can’t play these starring roles or can’t be seen as sexy or desirable. People made a huge deal about the Hunger Games casting, but I think Akira was a much bigger deal in terms of the race playing a role in casting.