February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tough Love: Marie Lu’s dystopian thriller offers plenty of explosive action and romance

Your first novel, Legend, triggered a major bidding war, Hollywood can’t wait to turn it into a movie, and you’re only 27.

It’s just been a really, really exciting ride. I wake up all the time and I pinch myself, because it’s all just so overwhelming sometimes.

Legend features two teens from opposite sides of the tracks in postapocalyptic L.A. Day is the Republic’s most wanted criminal, and June is a military protégé who’s charged with taking him down. How’d you come up with that idea?

I was watching a film version of Les Mis. It just happened to be on TV. I was lying on my carpet, and that was when the inspiration hit me. I thought, “You know, it would be really fun to set this with teenagers in a more contemporary time or a futuristic time.”

I heard that you owe your boyfriend big-time.

Yes. Originally, I had based the two main characters on Javert and Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, so I always pictured in my head these two boys. When I first told the idea to my boyfriend, I remember him looking at me like, “This would be a lot more interesting if the detective was a girl.” I always say June came from my boyfriend.

Did you sneak him into the story?

Yeah. I named the dictator of the Republic of America after him. [Laughs] I named him Primo.

The Republic makes kids take an exam to determine if they’ll go to school or to a labor camp. Did you experience test anxiety?

It was definitely based on my memories of taking the SATs. For me and for a lot of my friends, it really felt like a do-or-die exam. So, yeah, it was from a lot of teenage nightmares. [Laughter]

Legend portrays an America at war with itself. Did your childhood in China shape the story?

It did. When I was five, I was living in Beijing. It was 1989, right before the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I remember going to the square with my aunt. We lived a few blocks away. We didn’t really think it was going to escalate to the point of violence the way it did. I remember being there on the day of the massacre, and my aunt said, “I think we need to go home. This doesn’t look like it’s shaping up to be a good event.” Later that night, the actual shootings happened. I think those memories really shaped the way I see things, and a lot of that crept unconsciously into Legend.

Is June your alter ego?

June is pretty much the opposite of me. I’m a very visual person, based on my art and gaming background, but I don’t have the analytical eye that June has. I mean, you can ask my boyfriend, there could be a cat sitting 10 feet away, and I won’t even notice it. I’m more like Day, a little emotional and sort of leaping before I look. The character that’s closest to me is probably Tess. She’s a little bit shy, kind of unsure of herself, but very earnest.

Can you leak anything about book two?

It just went into copy edit last week, so it’s pretty much done. We’re going to see a lot more of the world, so people who’ve had a lot of questions about the world-building, hopefully, a lot of them will get answered in book two. And [Day and June] won’t be staying in L.A. anymore. That’s pretty much all I can say.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.