Saturday, May 10, 2008

Creatures of the night captivate young readers of Stephenie Meyer's 'Twilight' series

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Which do you prefer: the vampire or the werewolf? If the question sounds strange to you, you're probably not a teenage girl, or the parent of one.

Those in the know understand there's a rivalry between vampire Edward Cullen and werewolf Jacob Black for the affection of the all-too-human Bella Swan.

Still lost? We're talking about the protagonists of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series of young adult novels, which include Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse. These steamy books by a Phoenix mother of three have sold 5.5 million copies across 28 countries.

Time knows who she is: Last month, it named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2008 and asked whether she's "the new J.K. Rowling."

And local fans know who she is: More than 350 were in line at 7 a.m. Tuesday at Stonebriar Centre in Frisco to get their hands on her new book The Host, which would entitle them to one of 1,000 tickets for her appearance May 10 at Centennial High School in Frisco. (Sorry, it's sold out.)

Ms. Meyer, speaking via phone after a reading at Minnesota's Mall of America earlier this week, notes that her phenomenal success still feels a bit "dreamlike."

It suits. Ms. Meyer says the original idea for Edward and Bella came to her in a dream in 2003. Her sister encouraged her to submit it to publishers. A year later, after being rejected by nine agents, the book was plucked from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Writers House, the literary agency responsible for Nora Roberts and Neil Gaiman, among others.

Four years on, she now has her own personal publicist and is enjoying assisting with the filming of the movie version of Twilight, due in theaters Dec. 12. Oh, and then there's the millions of fans.

Walking into the auditorium at Centennial High School will still bring jitters, she says. "I'm kind of shy, so a big crowd of people is kind of my worst nightmare." She says the hardest part is walking down the hall and hearing them screaming for her.

"Then you get to the stage and look at the fans' faces," she says. "Seeing all the kindness coming toward you makes everything easier."

The Host, a sci-fi tale about alien body snatchers, is billed as Ms. Meyer's first book for adults. But it doesn't stray far from the formula that made the Twilight series so successful, echoing the story line of a woman whose affection is divided, and dishing up plenty of romance without (much to the relief of millions of parents) sex.

Once bitten by the books, Ms. Meyer's fans tend to become obsessed. Among them are Chandler Nash, 15, Tori Randall, 14, and Ally Kiger, 14, all of Arlington. They comprise the the Bella Cullen Project, a Twilight tribute band.

Their MySpace songs, including "Sexy Vampire," have been downloaded a quarter of a million times. (Sample lyric: "Stephenie Meyer's the queen of all vampires/ How does she make this stuff up? She's got to be some form of genius/ with Twilight she's hit the jackpot.")

On the all-important vampire-werewolf question, Chandler says "she's undeniably a Jacob" person, Tori is "equally divided," while Ally equivocates, saying "it depends on the day."

Alicia Norton, 25, of Flower Mound, is on the side of the vampires. "The vampires are the good guys, the moral ones," she explains. "Werewolves are not."

Ms. Norton was part of a cadre of friends affiliated with the Grapevine-Grand Prairie-based Web site who camped out overnight at the Stonebriar Centre Barnes & Noble to be first in line for tickets Tuesday. The store's community relations director, Debra Stapleton, says such dedication is not unusual among the author's fans.

"She's only visiting 11 cities this tour; we have people flying in from as far away as Virginia and Georgia to see her," says Ms. Stapleton.

While The Host may be riling up her fans, it is only building further anticipation for the final installment in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, scheduled for publication Aug. 2.

"That will be a real event," says Diane Roback, children's book editor of Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine of the book business. She cites the fact that the book will get midnight launch parties and a 2.5-million-copy first printing (compared with 500,000 copies of The Host).

Which means: It may be time to make up your mind on that vampire-werewolf question. You're likely to be hearing it again soon.

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