It’s hard to believe that NYT bestseller The Princess Diaries, one of Meg Cabot’s masterworks in the Young Adult fiction space, was initially rejected by every publisher in North America except one.
Twenty years on from the release of The Princess Diaries 2001 film, today, Mia Thermopolis is one of YA fictions’ most adored literary characters, her relatability of being a teenager captured the hearts of anyone who understood the liminal, tumultuous, life-changing chaos of growing up (minus the princess part, of course).
In honor of The Princess Diaries release’s 20th anniversary, (and also because I’m a mega fan!), I spoke to the marvel that is Meg Cabot, about the saga of Mia and her friends, the essence of the story, and why TPD has remained timeless, even as we move forward.
Sahar: What is it about Mia’s story, about the Princess Diaries, that has made it such a timeless tale?
Meg: I think that a lot of people can relate to Mia – she’s sort of an everygirl. I think the dream that you might turn out to be a princess is sort of universal. But it also shows the reality of the other side of it, that it might not always be such a great dream, especially now when we see Megan Markle, we see another side to the story.
To me, it’s a story about friendship. It’s a story of women, first and foremost. Your mother and your grandmother and your best friends.
Cabot describes the relatability factors of the story fittingly. A massive point of conversation within audiences of both the books and film is Mia’s reaction to finding out she’s a princess. Her initial reaction is an intense indignation at the thought of her being royalty, the ‘SHUT UP’ scene in the film remains iconic today (Fun fact: Mia’s grandmother in the books was NOT as nice as in the movies). Perhaps much of why we find her endearing is because she’s someone who’s doesn’t want to be a princess, that she wants to stay exactly as she is.
Sahar: The style of writing the books is in the diary entry style. What made you want to document her story this way?
Meg: Well, I think that we all like to read other people’s diaries – a little bit. Especially now with the internet, it’s so interesting to read other people’s Instagrams and their Tik Toks, we wanna know what other people are doing, what are they thinking? Back when I first wrote these books 20 years ago, we didn’t have any of that, hardly even the internet, so the only thing I could think of was the diary entry style. I kept my own diary and I would’ve loved to read someone else’s diary (if they’d let me!)!
Turns out I was right, everyone wants to read someone else’s diary.
A purist of the books will know that a huge part of Mia character’s focuses on her continuous journey to achieve self-actualization: the complete realization of one’s potential, and the full development of one’s abilities and appreciation for life.
Mia’s story is shared with us as she grows from the age of 14 to 18, a seemingly young age for such an ambitious goal. It’s reflective of how emotionally charged the rawness of your teenage years can bring. I asked Cabot about the theme of self-actualization in the books, what she thinks about it in the context of someone going from their early teens to young adulthood, and why that feels like such a pinnacle of peace for Mia – and for us.
To Cabot, it was very important to show how the characters grow across the books. The books were based a little bit on her own diaries, and a lot of what came into the books was really based on what she would write in her own diaries when she was Mia’s age. “I think that’s realistic, we grow hopefully, we grow and change, and hopefully for the better.”
Cabot hopes that she shows how Mia’s done this, how she grows to be a better person, that’s what she’s striving for. “I really hope that we all do that! Even Lana, the worst person, Mia’s arch-enemy, grows a little bit by the end of the books!” she adds. Her growth leads to her and Mia actually becoming friends (Yep, the same girl Mia plunged an ice-cream cone onto in the movie).
Sahar: Like you said in the beginning, the books are about friendship. I took a lot away from Mia and Lily’s friendship and Mia and Tina’s friendship. So, what was your process when you would write her friends and what did they symbolize in Mia’s world?
Meg: Many of the friendships were based on real friendships that I had when I was growing up. And Tina is based on a real friend that I have who even has the same last name as her. Lana is even based on a real person who was really mean when she was younger, but as she got older, she kind of developed into a nicer person. That was just something that I wanted to portray, that when you’re young and haven’t experienced as much, you kind of grow.
Lilly is kind of a different story, it’s kind of a challenge for someone like her to grow because she thinks she’s always right. I mean – I’m still friends with the person who Lilly is based on and she’s read the books but she still hasn’t figured out that she’s Lilly! She’s still a really interesting person and fun, and it’s so funny to see her get mad at Lilly in the books acting a certain way.
Sahar: Was it always in the books for Mia and Lilly to reconnect as friends?
Meg: I think it’s very natural in friendships for it to happen. There are people you stay friends with for a long-time and there are people you drift away from. I think that’s a part of growing up. Who knows if in real life Mia and Lilly would stay friends if Mia wasn’t necessarily with Michael? Most of the time Lilly does apologize but something I wanted readers to come away with was that if you are in a toxic relationship, you can leave, you don’t *have* to be friends with somebody, and that’s okay too.
In a story about love and friendship, watching Mia and Lilly’s friendship unfold like a rollercoaster, was realistic. For many fans it showcased the reality of outgrowing people when you’re living out formative years of your life, and how conflict often has two sides and how sometimes you yourself need a period of growth and change before you allow someone back, and re-enter into someone’s life once again.
When it comes to writing making you laugh out loud, The Princess Diaries is a series with characters and relationships that is able to do so. I asked Cabot about writing funny, the space comedy can hold in the written word, and is it what comes natural?
Meg: When I was first starting out taking fiction classes, it was very rare that there’d be another student who was trying to write a funny story. I was usually the only one in class and everyone else would be trying to write very sad stories. Finally my teacher took me aside and said “You know, you write very funny stories, why are you trying to write sad stories when you have a talent for writing funny stories?” I told her that’s what I thought you were supposed to do. And she told me, no, you’re good at writing funny stories and it’s a really hard skill and you should keep doing it.
And she said to me something I never forgot, that, ‘It’s harder to make somebody laugh than it is to make somebody cry.’ They don’t give out Oscars to funny movies, funny books don’t win the Pulitzer Prize, but to anyone reading this they should know that if you do have the skill to make people laugh, that’s very valuable. Especially in the day and age we live in now.
Sahar: Do you think Mia wrote Star Wars fanfiction?
Meg: *laughing* I don’t know about Star Wars but I bet she did Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction, I’m sure she did. Kept it really secret, never even wrote about it in her diary cause she didn’t want anyone to find out. She probably had Michael as Han Solo and her as Princess Leia and it was so embarrassing she could never admit it.
Sahar: For all the all-nighters she was pulling, staying up till 3 am stressing about something, there had to be something she was doing!!
Meg: I think you might be right, that’s actually hilarious.
We talked about the movies next, how Cabot views them as a completely different universe, but how she’s all for them because of the readers the movies created. When I asked her if she’d ever consider turning the ten-book series into a more authentic to the source material TV series, she relayed that it’s not really up to her, but that her *dream*, of course, would be to have a Princess Diaries musical!
(The moment we both exclaimed: YAAAAAAAASSSSSS)
“It has to be a Broadway, maybe West-end musical, so there’s been a lot of people trying to get that off the ground. My dream is maybe Taylor Swift could write the songs, something like that!” she says.
Sahar: So my last question, who do you think is The Princess Diaries’ biggest villain?
Meg: I think that depends on where you are in the series, I think the villain changes as you’re going along. I think Grandmere is very easy to point to, she’s very mean in the books. But ultimately, I think she’s Mia’s biggest fan, and is really trying to get Mia to the best she can be. I think there are a couple of men in Mia’s life who show up and try to crush her confidence.
Sahar: For me the biggest villain is JP. That guy, master manipulator! He was just a lot!
“That Guy!” we both exclaim in unison.
Meg: He was, and he kept coming back to cause more problems! I was waiting to see if you got it!
As the film turns twenty, this conversation with Cabot is a reminder that growing up is a part of life, and that striving to be a better person is the essence of Mia’s journey. Love and friendship has its ups and downs, but staying true to yourself throughout it all will always help you keep going.
What’s next for Meg is maybe turning her Corona Princess Diaries on her blog into a real book and donate the money from copies sold to some sort of coronavirus relief charity. “I’d like to do it, because I’ve never done it, but I’d like to do a Christmas in Genovia story!” Her new book ‘No Words’ will be out this September, about two writers who hate each other, stuck at a book festival together.
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