Marie Lu 2.0

First Draft, Ep. 108: Marie Lu 2.0 - Transcript

Date: September 19, 2017

The original post for this episode can be found here.

[Theme music plays]

Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. This episode is brought to you by Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke which I have devoured over the last few days rather than get any sleep.

Right off the top, I want to say thank you so much to everyone who filled out the First Draft Listener Survey. Looking over the results and the individual answers gave me so many ideas from people to interview, and other awesome things to do with the podcast. I will also say I am putting together an FAQ to record a special mini episode to answer listener questions. So, if you have any, please go ahead and send an email to  You can also send me notes on Twitter or get in my Tumblr Asks.

Today I’m talking to Marie Lu, New York Times Bestselling author of the LEGEND and YOUNG ELITES series who is back with her newest novel WARCROSS. She also has more exciting books coming out soon including a collaboration with DC Comics to write BATMAN: NIGHTWALKER. I first met Marie in the summer of 2014 on my first round of podcast interviews. We talked about moving to the U.S. from China at a very young age, and making the choice to pursue a creative life. First in games, and then with her breakout series Legend. Please do check out that episode to hear Marie talk more about her path to writing [listen to Marie’s first interview here].

Then, this summer, Marie and I were able to pull up patio chairs poolside, and catch up on all the changes in her life since then. Ending of a huge series, then completing a fantasy series that nearly drove her to quit. And now, returning to her sci-fi roots with Warcross. So, get an electric pump for your unicorn pool floatie, make sure the rosé is chillin in the fridge, and enjoy the conversation.

ENNI: Alright. Hi! How are you?

Marie LU: I’m good, how are you?

ENNI: I’m good. Thank you for sitting down with me again.

LU: Yeah, of course!

ENNI: We have tons of new exciting things to talk about. I’d love to talk about, between now and last time, you wrapped up a series… the YOUNG ELITES Series.

LU: Yes.

ENNI: I’d love to hear; how does that feel? That was a big endeavor.

LU: Oh my god, it was. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far. Just because the series itself was so dark, which was very different from the first one. I mean, Legend wasn’t a walk in the park or anything [laughs], but the characters were good-hearted and it was easy to be inside their headspace because I always knew that they would think the wrong things are wrong and the right things are right. And that was not the case with Young Elites.

ENNI: Yeah, that’s a real mental shift.

LU: Yeah it was. Having to play with the idea of being a villain for three books, I almost felt like I had bit off more than I could chew. I remember there was a time, halfway through book two, where I was like, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t even think I can finish this series. Maybe I’m just not cut out for writing something like this.” Or, “It’s too much for me and I’m not gonna make it.”

ENNI: Really? Was it the challenge of the writing? Or, was it like, “I can’t be in this headspace anymore”?

LU: It was a little bit of both I think. Because it was so different from Legend, and the tone was different and the character arc was so different. It was very heavy. It was very, very heavy stuff. Book two ended at a very dark space, and I knew that was coming and I was like, “Oh my god. I have another whole book to do after this.” Yeah, it was intense. I’m really happy that I wrote the series, but I’m also kind of relieved that it’s out there and that people can read it. And I’m proud that it’s out there. But it was definitely… it was rough.

ENNI: Yeah, challenging! It’s interesting that with Warcross, your next book, it’s a return to science fiction. Do you think part of it was the challenge of writing fantasy? Or, was writing fantasy part of what made Young Elites really difficult?

LU: Oh, yes, yes.

ENNI: Because it seems like you were like, “Wait. Let’s go back to this thing.”

LU: Yeah, and it’s so funny that you say that because I was writing Warcross as kind of my “feel good” book halfway through trying to finish the Young Elites. Because it was my candy at the end of the day. Like, “Okay. I’m gonna get through this really dark, heavy stuff.” And fantasy is heavier in general, I think. There’s so much to put into it, and the world building is so different and intense in a way. Science fiction has its own heavy world building, but it’s very different. The structure of it feels different to me. And it has so many points of view.

It was hard juggling all of that and it hurt my head. So, at the end of the day I was always like, “Now I get to write my fun book!” My sparkly, secret project book on the side. And it was a book that I had always wanted to write. I used to work in gaming, and I knew I always wanted to write a book about video games. And I love that you play Zelda, that you love Zelda.

ENNI: YEAH!!! Don’t worry… I have a couple of more questions about video games.

LU: [laughs]

ENNI: But do you want, before we get too much farther into it, do you want to give the spiel for Warcross?

LU: Yes. So, Warcross is very near-future science fiction. It’s set maybe ten years from our current time. So, it might as well be modern day. And it follows this girl named Emika Chen, who’s eighteen-years-old and is a bounty hunter living in New York City, and she is struggling to get by. Bounty hunting for her means that she is paid by the police to catch petty criminals, or people who have been gambling illegally on this game called Warcross. And Warcross is a game that has taken the world by storm. Everybody plays this game and everyone’s addicted to it. And the creator of the game is some twenty-one-year-old young, super genius billionaire, named Hideo Tanaka, who lives in Tokyo.

Emika has always idolized and looked up to this guy. He’s three years her senior, but invented this thing when he was thirteen-years-old. So, she very much is enamored with everything he’s done. But she’s down on her luck - bounty hunting is not a stable income; it’s not exactly the best job to have -  and she has a criminal record which prevents her from getting an actual job that she could do well. So, when the book opens, she’s got thirteen dollars in her account, and she’s got a pile of debt, and she’s getting desperate. She’s gonna get kicked out of her apartment so she basically decides, “I’m gonna hack into Warcross to make some fast money.”

It doesn’t go according to plan [chuckles] and what ends up happening instead, is that she glitches herself into the opening ceremony of the Warcross World Championships. So, the next day there’s reporters knocking down her door, and Hideo himself calls her and is like, “Hey, I need you for a job.” So, she goes from this kid with nothing, to being flown across the world to Tokyo by private jet. And from there her life just goes totally off the rails.

It was really fun to write. I think it was probably my favorite book to write up until now.

ENNI: Really? That’s awesome.

LU: Yeah. Just because there was so much of myself in it, so it made it really fun.

ENNI: When I talk to Tahereh [Tahereh Mafi, listen to her interview here, or read the transcript here] after going from SHATTER ME series to FURTHER MORE she was so conscious of the color. She was like, “I was in the shadowy world for years, and it as so dark and so sad and so intense.” She purposely made FURTHER MORE; which is explicitly plot-wise about color, right? And Warcross is like, “Boom!” a rainbow. It’s right there on the cover.

LU: Yeah, it’s a literal rainbow. And I totally understand what Tahereh was saying because I had the same experience with Legend. I feel like all dystopians are very grey.

ENNI: Very grim.

LU: Yeah. Grey is a common color in dystopians, everything is bombed out. And the Young Elites had color, but it’s a very dark series so basically everything was dark in my head. So, I was basically like, “I am gonna vomit color onto this book.” Emika’s hair is literally rainbow colored. [both laughing]

ENNI: I love it! I was like, “Oh. I’m seeing a parallel here.” A dystopian recovery book.

LU: [laughing] Yes, totally.

ENNI: I love that it was near sci-fi which is kind of cool. It lets you play with what you want to, and keep familiar things as needed. And then the video game element. You and I and some other writers, just the other night, were talking about video games that we love, and open worlds and stuff like that. What kind of games were the inspiration for Warcross?

LU: Warcross itself when I was writing it, I wasn’t inspired by a specific game so much as I was inspired by working with games. There’s a lot of little hidden anecdotes from my time in the gaming industry, and working with fellow interns, and the shenanigans we would get up to.  A lot the people Emika meets who play Warcross, remind me a lot of the young people that I was working with when I first started interning at Disney. So that was really fun.

But, I love, love, love dark conversations about games, because games have inspired all of my series in some way. The Young Elites was inspired by Assassin’s Creed because of the renaissance Italy setting, in Assassin’s Creed II, and that whole line. Which has an amazing open world, but you also get to assassinate people at the same time, which is always excellent!

And Legend had a lot of Street Fighter elements in it. There’s skiz duals, which are these street fights that happen in the books. And those were completely and directly inspired by Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat, and all of those games.

ENNI: Yeah, and obviously, what came to mind was World of Warcraft just based on the name alone.

LU: Absolutely, and afterwards I started seeing all of the parallels where, with World of Warcraft and Overwatch, which is two teams facing off against each other and trying to get the other team. I guess that fits a lot of like Battlefield and Call of Duty and all of those games kind of fit into that, and Halo.

ENNI: It’s interesting to hear that this is inspired more as a creator than necessarily even just a player. Because to me, it struck me as also the bounty hunter element. And her glitching herself into the game and catching people in real life who are illegally manipulating the game. I just love that it seems like this book is really playing with where the virtual affects the real world. And how little difference there is now between the two.

LU: Thank you. And that was one thing that I really like about writing near-future, is that you get to explore those questions like, “What’s happening today?” All of the technology that we have today and how it might work ten years from now. We have virtual reality today and it’s very rudimentary. It’s like bricks strapped to your face [laughing]. I feel like we’re waiting for that one device that will flip everything, and I feel that when that flip happens… everything will change.

At what point do we start blurring that line between reality and virtual reality? And will people care? Will we want to care about that line? And what does it mean? It brings a lot of questions about augmented reality, which is like virtual reality overlaid on the real world.

ENNI: Like a Google Glass type of situation.

LU: Exactly like Google Glass, which I think was the first to really do that.

ENNI: Now there’s Snapchat.

LU: And now there’s Snapchat, yeah, totally. Which is its own augmented reality. And there’s the Hollow Lens that Microsoft is putting out. So, there’s all of these things. I feel like Pokémon Go, speaking of video games, was the first real augmented reality video game and that caught fire. I saw dads and their little girls walking down the street playing this and it’s just amazing to see.

ENNI: And people walking in front of cars and other people getting…

LU: Falling of cliffs and getting their stuff stolen. I’m so glad you mentioned that, because it brings up a lot of these ramifications that come with technology. I think it’s moving so quickly these days, that we often think about what we can make instead of what we should make. So, there’s a lot of questions about how morality plays into what we are making, and whether or not technology considers that enough. Where you have to think about the consequences of what you’re doing, and what this might do to the world. Morality is always two steps behind technology because it’s so much easier to make something, than it is to make the laws that go with it.

ENNI: I was gonna say, by-the-way, so is the law and so are codes-of-ethics. I was listening to an NPR report the other day, and it started with them being like, “For many years movies have talked about the terror of robots overcoming humans. And yet…” And then talks about this super-satiate robot, and their moving in that direction. And it’s like, “Yeah, that is true.” We are, as artists and movie makers and people writing books, I feel like we’re constantly saying, “Guys! We’re terrified of this!”

LU: “This is a problem!”

ENNI: “We need to think about this.” It’s almost like some people in those fields take inspiration from that. They’re like, “Oh, that would be cool.” And then they build the thing that we’re trying to be scared of.

LU: It’s so true. And on some level, I get it, I understand. And I appreciate the eternal optimism of tech. I think it’s a wonderful thing, to have and a lot of them do wonderful things for the world. But, I think optimism needs to be paired with a certain sense of awareness, like you said, of trying to understand the ramifications of what we’re doing.  Artificial intelligence is a frightening thing, I think.

ENNI: Horrified!

LU: And maybe more people are not as afraid of it as they should be, because what’s to stop when you get to that point and it tips over. There’s nothing to do to stop something like that, you know?

ENNI: Yes. Once Pandora’s box is open… it is open.

LU: Yes, how do you turn it off? I don’t know.

ENNI: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. What’s Google’s thing? It’s, “Don’t be evil.” And I’m like, “That’s not the same as being good.”

LU: Exactly. And I know Google has that, but really, it’s like, “You guys are still a corporation. You’re not doing anything for charity.” I mean, “I’m sure you have charity’s that you do things for, but your fundamental goal is still to make money.” Which is fine, but there’s something off to me about having optimism without awareness of where that could lead, and the problems it causes. We see that with a lot of technology today and how things backfire.

So, it made me think about virtual reality and what might come with that. Will we all be tethered to a virtual reality? In some ways, in the book, there are amazing things that the technology does, like we can now speak each other’s languages and communicate more easily. We can walk across the street and talk to someone in French, and you can see their translation in your view, which would be really cool. But then I was like, “Do people learn languages?” You know? “Will you ever learn something that you just don’t need to learn anymore?”

I don’t know how to do math anymore because I have a calculator, which is good and bad in a lot of ways. Seeing things on the street that aren’t really there, can be a good thing. But also, I forget what I was listening to, where someone had said this, “Imagine where you could have a world where you are walking down a poverty-stricken street. You see homeless people and trash on the streets.” And you’re like, “I can download a filter that erases that.” Stuff like that disturbs me because people will. And if you wanted to look differently, you could. And what does that mean? There’s a lot of things to think about.

ENNI: Yeah. You did make me feel better, but I’m glad you share my concerns [both laughing]. It struck me that Warcross was a cool way to think about those things. I think video games are doing the same thing that other forms of art are doing, which is asking questions. And in some ways, being more visceral about putting you in this world, and why are you fighting something? What are the challenges? I think it’s an interesting way to take your character into those spaces.

LU: Thank you.

ENNI: Oh, and the other thing that was interesting was the idea that Emika going into this digital realm – a cyber reality – it is sort of this equalizer in some ways. Of gender, or physical ability, or things like that. Not of everything, but certainly there’s some ways in which she is on a more level playing field.

LU: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the more positive things that I could see with virtual reality. That people from all parts of the world, with people who may not be able to compete in certain sports, can earn top marks in Warcross because it doesn’t matter. It matters how good you are at this game. And I wanted to make something that felt very international that people could embrace across the board. That can be a safe space for people, that can be fun and help you meet people, and find your tribe. And also, be a dangerous place where weird things can happen, and everything that comes with that.

ENNI: Yeah, and everything that comes with it also being a real space with things of consequences. Was it always conceived of as two books?

LU: Yes, it was always conceived as two. Probably because, since we were talking about trilogies earlier on, I was like, “I really want to try a series that’s not three books again.”

ENNI: Like shrink it down.

LU: [Laughing] Trying to work my way down to a stand-alone. We’ll see how it goes. I’m on book two, and it’s just as hard as when I was doing a trilogy. But at least I’m like, “Well, there’s only the one book left.”

ENNI: Right, at the end of this one it will be time to move on.

LU: Exactly.

ENNI: I am dying to ask you about the other stuff that you are working on too, which includes a Batman book, which is pretty amazing! I would love to hear how that came about?

LU: I got an email one day from my agent. And my agent’s like, “I have some very exciting news for you.” She told me that DC and Random House were partnering to do a series of YA novels based on four of their big superheroes. I was so excited at that point, that I basically didn’t read the attachment that she gave me, which detailed which superheroes were actually in the... So, I was like, “Aah! I’m on board!” And she was like, “No, no, no. Read the rest and pick one from the list.” And I was like, “Oh.”

So, I saw this list and it was like, Wonder Woman, Batman, Cat Woman and Superman. I saw Batman, and I was like, “Yes please.” [Batman: Nightwalker] I’m so excited to be on the same team as such wonderful writers like Leigh Bardugo [listen to her First Drafter interview here], who is one of my favorite writers. She’s gonna do such justice, no pun intended [chuckles], to Wonder Woman.

And I wanted Batman because I remember my first Batman experience was Batman: The Animated Series. Did you ever watch that when you were a kid?

ENNI: I did. I remember it.

LU: I was so into that show when I was a kid.

ENNI: It was really cool and super modern.

LU: It was very mature, I thought, for a kid’s show.

ENNI: It was like Darkwing Duck did that [laughs].

LU: Oh… Darkwing Duck! I loved that show too!

ENNI: I hadn’t thought about that in a long time, and it came up about four days ago, and it was like, “Oh my god!”

LU: Oh, so nostalgic.

ENN:  I’m very interested in comic book culture. I didn’t grow up reading comic books, so it’s a little bit dizzying to get into that world. There’s so many people who have done so many different takes on it. And there’s this continuity, but at the same time it’s different; different people’s versions of this stuff. How did you first encounter Batman? And what was it like to be stepping into that world and making your own version of it?

LU: It was incredibly intimidating, actually, because I’m exactly like you. I didn’t grow up with comic books, and I wasn’t a comic book reader. I had only really known Batman through the animated series, and through movies. Batman and Robin, and Batman Forever and The Dark Knight series. I just loved, loved, loved that. I only recently started reading some of the Batman comics, and there’s so much history for Batman. He’s been around so long. It was really strange to be stepping into this world that people have played with so much, that I am now entering, instead of a world that’s all my own that I can do whatever I want with.

It was very challenging to step into Bruce’s shoes. With superheroes, I feel like you’ve got two different characters that you’re playing with. You’ve got Batman and then you’ve got Bruce Wayne, and they’re two totally different things. I felt I kind of understood Batman based on what I had seen of him, but I didn’t really understand Bruce Wayne as a character. So, stepping into that was strange. I remember one night I sat down with my husband, Primo, and he was like, “Alright. We’re gonna do all of the Batman research.” So, we marathoned all of this stuff and I would ask him all of these questions about Batman.

ENNI: Had he grown up with it?

LU: He knows a little bit more about it. He’s read more of the comics than I have. We went out and bought some of the more famous issues and graphic novels, and delved into it to try and get a better sense of Bruce. And not just Bruce, but teen Bruce. There hasn’t been anything about teen Bruce. It’s kind of like this black hole where you know what happened to Bruce as an eight-year-old, and then we skip to him in his mid-twenties, maybe.

ENNI: Just like Jesus.

LU: [Laughing] Yes, totally like Jesus!

ENNI: There’s like thirty years where we don’t know.

LU: I know. Did he get bullied? What was it like? Were there mean girls? Yeah. So, trying to think about what Bruce was like as a teen was interesting. And what was it like being a billionaire growing up in high school, with no parents except for Alfred to lead you? And how does he know who his friends are, his true friends? Versus people who are just trying to use him for his money? All of these questions and we don’t get to see that with a lot of versions of Bruce Wayne. He’s kind of set, and he understands his place and knows how to navigate this strange world of being super-rich, and also vulnerable in a way.

So, with teen Bruce, it was a lot of asking myself, “What is it like when you’re insecure? And you don’t actually know those questions yet.”  And, “What is it like when you’re twelve and there’s paparazzi trying to take pictures of you through your bedroom window? And they’re trying to follow you after school?” That was interesting to explore.

ENNI: How much were you allowed to make up? Or, were they like, “You can’t let him run away and join the circus.” [laughs] Did they give you any boundaries?

LU: They were surprisingly open with a lot of it. I think my only real direction at first was just, “It needs to be about teenage Bruce Wayne. Go.” Which is really intimidating because I’m like, “I don’t know where to start! Argh! There’s so many directions!” So, I was able to play around a lot with it. I ended up giving them an outline of what I thought it could be about, and added in some of the things that I really found interesting and fascinating about the Batman world.

Like Arkham Asylum and all of that. And playing with the grey areas, which I think is the most fascinating part of Batman and the whole Bat family. Walking that line of good and evil and the types of criminals that he deals with. And that was the part that was really fun for me to do too… create a new villain for Batman.

ENNI: You mean a whole new one?

LU: Yeah, I did.

ENNI: When reading the description of the book, which I wrote down in brief here… actually, do you want to give the description of the book? And then we can talk about it.

LU: Sure, yeah. This is exciting! I think it’s the first time I’ve ever given the description of Batman, so I’m gonna try my best. Bruce is eighteen-years-old in this book, and it’s right when his trust funds have opened. So, he is a newly minted billionaire, and he’s all over the papers and doesn’t really know how to deal with the attention that comes with it. He’s trying to learn how to grow up in this strange place, where he’s by himself and very wealthy and suddenly the heir to his parent’s fortune. And also, the burden falls on him too to honor their heritage, and their history, and all of the things they had been doing.

He gets himself in trouble. It’s his eighteenth birthday, and he has this brand-new Aston Martin – got to put in the nice car with Batman – and he gets himself into a little trouble with the police. The police are after this new group of criminals called the Nightwalkers. They’ve been targeting wealthy philanthropists and other wealthy members in Gotham City. So, the police are after them. Bruce somehow gets himself involved, gets in trouble with the police by interfering with police business, and gets slammed with probation.

His probation and community service means that he has to do it at Arkham Asylum. So, he’s sent to Arkham Asylum to do a few weeks of community service there. Which is not the best place to do community service for a teenager. While he’s there, he meets the youngest criminal at Arkham Asylum, which is a girl named Madeleine. She’s eighteen-years-old, and she’s being held in the most intensive treatment area of Arkham because she has committed three murders, in very cold blood. All very wealthy philanthropists. And she won’t talk to the police.

Their suspicion is that she’s part of the Nightwalkers. Or that she used to work with them, or that she has some kind of connection with them. But nobody can get her to talk… until Bruce comes along. And for some reason, she decides to talk to Bruce. He can’t figure out who she is, or what she wants. She walks the line between, is she here to help him? Is she here to use him? To manipulate him? And it was really fun playing with that character.

ENNI: Mind games.

LU: Yeah, mind games, thank you. Messing with Bruce’s mind and toying with him. Or, maybe she’s helping him, it’s hard to say. So, it’s kind of a cat-and-mouse thing between them. And it goes from there.

ENNI: Ooh! See, when I read the description, I was like, “Oh, this is like a gender-bent Hannibal Lecter.” A Silence of the Lambs situation.

LU: Yes! It totally is. Yes, yes, such a great comparison.

ENNI: It’s amazing.

LU: Thank you.

ENNI: Arkham and Gotham and all of those places, are so rich and evocative. And being able to get in there and make your mark on them must have been so cool.

LU: Oh, it was so cool. Because they’re such visceral places, and getting to describe Gotham City and Arkham Asylum… it’s truly an honor.

ENNI: What cities did you pull on for your Gotham?

LU: New York City is a pretty heavy inspiration, just because it pretty much is Gotham City. And parts of LA too, since we live in LA, and there are parts of it that are quite Gothic.

ENNI: I like a little LA version, a little LA hood’s getting tossed in there. Or, I know you spent some time in Tokyo too recently.

LU: Yeah, I did.

ENNI: That’s kind of a comparable thing for the frenzy of the city.

LU: Yeah, absolutely, and the grit and the chaos of a city like Gotham City. And just the idea that Bruce lives in Gotham City, which is this place that’s seedy and dirty and full of crime, but he loves it. He wants to protect it. And I feel like that’s a great metaphor for the way that things are going in this day and age. When things are broken, you find a way to solve it. There’s all these things that are messed up and wrong with the city, but he’s the crusader. He’s gonna save this place, and he’s gonna stick around. It’s his city.

ENNI: Try to make things right, yeah. It is also interesting to think about that list. You had Wonder Woman, Superman, Cat Woman, and Batman. Batman and Cat Woman share this, but it’s interesting that you are given the chance to write a comic book character, but it’s not a superhero. I feel that makes it less intimidating, or…

LU: It’s different for sure. Taking away the fact that he’s a teenager - so he’s not Batman yet, like you said - he’s Bruce Wayne. And taking away that ability was interesting, because now he’s just a human being. He’s a kid with a ton of money and no idea what he’s doing with his life. So, throwing him into that situation, plus Arkham Asylum and the world’s deadliest criminals, was an interesting experience.

But I still try to give him some of the things that make Batman fun. He’s got his car. He’s got Wayne Tech, it’s still there, Lucius Fox is in the story. And, of course, Alfred is in the story.

ENNI: Which Alfred is your Alfred?

LU: Oh, I do love the Dark Knight Alfred. Because Alfred just has to have that perfect note of snark with his character. He’s witty and warm and gives you the right quip at the right time.

ENNI: Dry as a bone.

LU: Yeah, dry as a bone. There was a scene – I forget which Dark Knight movie it was – but the house is burning down, and Alfred is like, “What’s the point of doing all of those push-ups Master Wayne if you can’t lift a bloody log off of your foot!” [Giggles] He’s trying to get him out. I’m like, “Oh, I love you Alfred, you’re the best.”

ENNI: He’s so great! Also, I have to say, I was so crazy excited… I actually had not realized that you had already announced this; KINGDOM OF BACK.

LU: Thank you.

ENNI: And that we did talk about two years ago.

LU: Oh my god, we did.  

ENNI: You mentioned it a little bit, and that it was a story you still loved. And I remember being like, “Uh, it sounds freaking awesome!” So, I had missed that announcement, so congrats.

LU: Thank you, I’m so excited.

ENNI: Do you want to give a little info about that?

LU: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so strange to say that again, because I think this story has been in my head for sooo long. But, the KINGDOM OF BACK is based on a bit of historical fact about Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a sister, who was five years older than him, named Maria Anna Mozart. Or, her baby name was Nannerl. She and Wolfgang were very close and she was also a musical prodigy. And nobody knows about her because she’s very rarely talked about. In the movie Amadeus… never mentioned.  

In most biographies about Mozart, she’s basically a footnote, or a chapter. But she was a huge presence in his life. And, she was her own person. She was incredibly talented. Her father taught her first, before [Mozart], because she was the older one. And she composed. There’s evidence that she and Mozart, Wolfgang, would exchange letters all the time where he was like, “Send me your latest composition.”

She was a composer, but in that time, you could not be a composer as a woman. And once she hit eighteen, she had to step away from the world of performance. But until then, she and Wolfgang toured Europe together, and played for the kings and queens of Europe. So, she was always there and also playing.

So, the KINGDOM OF BACK is an actual thing they invented. Wolfgang and Nannerl, on these long carriage rides they would take – that would take weeks and weeks on the road – they would get really bored. And they didn’t have iPhones, so they had to entertain themselves. They made up this magical kingdom that they called the Kingdom of Back. They would add on to it and they got really into it. Their manservant, Sebastian, had to draw maps out for them and they had trees and lakes and all this stuff.

I found the little detail to be so fascinating, that I wanted to write a book about it. So, the Kingdom of Back is about Nannerl’s life as a child, and this kingdom that they created together. It chronicles her time touring Europe and playing music, and wanting and wishing to be a composer. As she gets older, and realizes that her path is gonna be different from her brother’s, and she watches him take off while she’s not allowed to do the same. The kingdom that they had created becomes real. And seeps into their reality in a very Pan’s Labyrinth sort of way. And as her thoughts get darker, the world itself gets darker as well.

Inside the Kingdom of Back, there is a magical fairy boy who promises Nannerl things, and says, “I can give you what you want, if you give me what I want.” So, there’s a lot of areas of grey with how she comes to terms with her fate in life, and what this kingdom means to her.

ENNI: Oh, my god! This is so interesting! We just talked about fantasy being all of these things. It is dark, and it comes with a lot of almost the fairy tale elements. But this is historical fantasy. You’re really setting yourself up here. This sounds amazing, but also a challenge.

LU: Thank you! It’s so hard and it’s so different from all of my other books that I’m really, really scared to write this. And maybe that’s why it’s been in my head for ten years. And I can’t believe that now it may come out. So, I’m like, “Oh my god. Now I have to write it.” Again.

ENNI: Again [chucks]

LU: Yeah, I read back over it and I was like, “Okay, I can see why this didn’t sell.” [Laughs] So, now I have to go back and make it a coherent book. It’s a very quiet book compared to some of my other books. It’s not like explosions and fighter jets. It’s very introspective and eerie, and I’m not convinced I had the right pallet, or voice, to bring it to life. But it’s just so intriguing to me that I hope I do the story justice.

ENNI: It’s very exciting to see my friends, and writers whose work I love reading, take [on] something like that. I think as writers, we want to be challenged. And you wouldn’t want to write a book if you were like, “Well, this will be a piece of cake. And then I won’t care.” You know what I mean?

LU:  Absolutely.

ENNI: You want to feel like you’re building to something. I also have an idea in my mind that I want to write, at some point, that’s ten years old. And you are just waiting to be the writer you need to be. But, at the same time, you sometimes have to take the plunge when you get the chance, right?

LU: I’m so excited to hear that you have this idea.

ENNI: Yeah, well, it’s gonna happen eventually… probably. But, it’s scary and intimidating. But also, no one else would write the story that you love so much.

LU: That’s true. It’s like that one book that’s burning to get out.

ENNI: Hanging on. How did you and your agent talk about this? Or, think about this?

LU: My agent had taken me on originally for the Kingdom of Back, and we weren’t able to sell it. But she, like me, had always had it in the back of her mind. And she had always told me, “We’re gonna find a way to sell this. Maybe when the market for historical fiction gets stronger. We’ll keep it on the back burner.”

ENNI: Which please, it’s some of my favorite stuff. I’m super excited that you’re going that way.

LU: Thank you. I’m kind of happy. I think maybe Hamilton has opened the gates for historical fiction. So, I’m like, “Yes. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda for everything. Including that!” [both laughing]

ENNI: For so much! How are you thinking about working with someone’s legacy? You are going to be responsible for a lot more people hearing about her.

LU: Right, yeah. And that’s a challenge in itself, because I don’t want to misrepresent her. But I also want to add in stuff. We just don’t know a lot about Nannerl. There’s not a lot out there about her. None of her compositions have survived, which is heartbreaking to me that nobody kept them. She didn’t sign any of it. So, who knows what happened to [them]. I’ve heard some rumors that maybe some of Wolfgang’s earliest writings were a combination of his writing, and his sister’s writing, and his father’s writing.

He was clearly a genius, and he was absolutely a prodigy, but did he really write an opera in nine days? I don’t know… when he was nine-years-old? And he looked up to Nannerl so much. In every biography I’ve read, it said that he absolutely worshipped his older sister. He would follow her everywhere and he would do what she did. And the irony of it all is that nobody in her life encouraged her to be a composer, except for her brother. Wolfgang was the only one who was always like, “Show me your compositions, I want to hear what you’re writing.” He clearly was enamored with her talent.

And she was unable to get that out there. I feel like there’s not enough out there about Nannerl, so I have to piece together my own version of her, and what she might have been like.

ENNI: Have you had a chance to meet any historians?

LU: I haven’t, but I would love to.

ENNI: I’m hoping people come out of the woodwork to say, “I’m secretly sitting on her letters.”

LU: [Laughs] Oh, my god. That would be the most amazing thing ever.

ENNI: Right? Like, “So, no one’s asked for them.”

LU: “I want them! Pick me!”

[both laughing]

ENNI: Well, that’s so thrilling.

LU: Thank you, I’m excited.

ENNI: Is that like a carrot? You get to write it after you are through with these other things?

LU: Yeah, a challenging carrot that I’m like, “Okay. When I finish this draft for the second book of Warcross, I will be able to touch this one.” So, I’m very, very excited.

ENNI: I’m so excited for you. Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting again.

LU: Of course. It’s always the best time talking with you.

ENNI: You are so sweet.

LU: I absolutely love it.

ENNI: And we’ll talk soon!

LU: Yeah, for sure.

ENNI: Keep doing exciting things… I can’t stay away.

LU: Yeah, thank you. You too!

ENNI: Thanks Marie.

[background music plays]

ENNI: Thank you so much to Marie. Follow her on Twitter @marie_lu and follow me @sarahenni and the show @firstdraftpod. You can follow the show on Facebook and Instagram too. But for links to everything Marie and I talked about in this episode, as well as a searchable archive of previous interviews and to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, be sure to check out

And again, if you have any burning questions you’d like to hear me and/or some author friends address, send them over in an email to Also, this Saturday, September 23rd at noon, I will be at the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble with the wonderful Ameriie to talk about BECAUSE YOU LOVE TO HATE ME the anthology of villainous stories that Ameriie contributed to and edited, and for which I wrote a witchy short story. That’s Saturday, September 23rd at noon.  Be there or be merely a figment of my imagination.

If you like what you heard, please leave a rating or review on iTunes. Every five-star review further blurs the line of my existence on the digital and physical planes. Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Carter Elwood and to transcriptionist-at-large Julie Anderson. And, as ever, near-future rainbow coiffed rebels for listening.

[music fades]