Melissa de la Cruz Talks with Roger

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Novels about mean girls, nice girls, vampires, werewolves, and witches have sprung from the prolific Melissa de la Cruz’s pen, and now, with the debut of Disney imprint Melissa de la Cruz Studio, she’s enrolling other writers and illustrators to bring even more of her fecund imagination to life.

Roger Sutton: What does it feel like being on the other side of the fence?

Melissa de la Cruz: It doesn’t feel that different, because I had a small packaging company before the imprint. I’ve worked with authors before, developing and helping shape their projects, and selling them — so in a way it was a natural transition. I’ve edited two anthologies, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys and Because I Was a Girl. I’ve been a participant in other anthologies, and I’ve run two book festivals, Yallfest in Charleston, South Carolina, and Yallwest in Santa Monica, California, so I’ve worked with authors already in that capacity. It didn’t feel that different doing it for Disney.

RS: “Doing it for Disney.” That should be a T-shirt.

MdlC: “Doing it for Disney.” Doing it for the Mouse. I’ve been working with the team at Disney for twenty years now, so I’m used to how they do things, and I know everybody there. It was fun to expand my role.

Photo credit: Denise Bovee.

RS: How do books happen into this imprint? Do you take submissions, or do the books start with you? How does it work?

MdlC: It’s an IP company, meaning I’m creating intellectual property for Disney. Basically, I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and the solution was to find other people to bring them to life. I’m just that kind of person, where I like to work with a lot of different genres and tell a lot of different stories. I feel like there are some stories that maybe I have an idea for, but I’m not the best writer for them. The ideas are developed in-house by me and my editors at Disney, and then once we all like it, we put our feelers out. Sometimes we have a writer in mind already for a certain idea, or we have to look for somebody. It’s a team effort. My agent is looking, Disney is looking, I’m looking.

RS: So it’s not the case where someone would say: “I have a manuscript I think Melissa would like; I’ll send it to her.”

MdlC: No. That’s how Rick Riordan’s imprint works.

RS: Right. And I saw, I think from the interview in Publishers Weekly, that you’re developing these books with an eye toward being able to tell these stories across different platforms.

MdlC: Absolutely.

RS: You mentioned your book festivals and your book packaging, but you’ve also worked a lot with TV and movies, so this must be very comfortable for you.

MdlC: Yes. The trick is to have a project that works as a book, and as a TV show and a movie as well, in the Disney landscape, which is harder than it sounds. Sometimes there are ideas that really work best as books, but they would be hard to translate to the screen. Maybe it’s too big a budget. Or it doesn’t really fit into Disney’s wheelhouse. That’s the trick. We want to create projects that go 360.

RS: Like The Sugar Plum Bakers, a picture book about the magical “bakerinas,” who are to holiday cookies what Santa is to presents. What will happen to that next?

MdlC: Hopefully it will be a Disney TV show. Perhaps an animated holiday special. It always takes a long time, so we have some projects in development right now on the TV/movie side, but nothing’s been announced yet. I can talk about one of my books that’s being developed, The Ring and the Crown. That is under development at Disney+, but of course everything has stopped because of the writers’ strike, so we’re all just on hold.

RS: What do you like about working with Disney?

MdlC: I feel really comfortable there. I was always a big Disney addict. I grew up in the Philippines, but my family always went to Disneyland on vacation. The first time was in 1977 when I was six years old. It was part of our life. I think the first movie I saw was Cinderella. When I was in college and saw The Lion King in the theater, I literally wrote a letter to Jeffrey Katzenberg, saying how much I enjoyed that movie and how I wanted to be part of the Disney storytelling brain trust, that I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Columbia University, and I was moved by these big, giant stories that are simple but universal.

When I became an author at Hyperion, it didn’t even really occur to me that it was Disney, because it was under the Hyperion brand. As we got to be more and more part of the Disney machine, I thought, Oh! When they asked me to do Descendants, I said, of course. I know all those movies by heart. But not only that. My kid then was a first grader, and she watched the Disney Channel constantly. I watched it with her. I knew old Disney and new Disney. It’s not even something that I tried to do. It’s very natural.

RS: It really is a small world after all, in the way that Disney has found its little mouse claws into pretty much every culture in the world.

MdlC: Absolutely. I grew up five thousand miles away, but I was a Disney kid in Manila in the Philippines.

RS: You’re not shying away from queer content.

MdlC: No, not at all. We’re very excited for Jason June’s The Spells We Cast. It’s about two gay magicians who are trying to defeat an ancient curse, while trying not to kill each other. I think they are supposed to kill each other, but of course they fall in love.

RS: How do you think this will all play out with Ron DeSantis?

MdlC: I don’t know. That’s not in my pay grade. That’s for somebody else to deal with. I just tell the stories or help tell the stories.

RS: I interviewed Maggie Stiefvater last year, about her sequel to the movie Brave. She hadn’t been a Disney kid and was a little nervous, but she was surprised at how much freedom she had. Even though she was dealing with Disney intellectual property in terms of the character, they didn’t tell her what story to write.

MdlC: No, they really don’t. That’s not how they work. People would be surprised at how much freedom we have. In telling a story, it’s never the big arcs or the big story plots that they’re worried about. It’s small, little things about certain characters or continuity that they would like to preserve. But your imagination is not restricted at all.

RS: What do you do when a writer for you comes up with something that you wouldn’t have done? Bring down the mouse hammer? If you said, “I think you’d be a great person to write this book about X,” and they do, and they take it in a direction that you hadn’t anticipated.

MdlC: I don’t think we’ll ever get to that moment because we develop it together. We look at the synopsis and at outlines. Everything is in lockstep together. It’s a normal editorial process, where we’re trying to get the best story. I don’t think we’ve ever told a writer, “Oh, no, we wouldn’t do that,” or “You can’t do that.” The notes are more, “Can we include more Disney magic? Can we lean into the friendship a little bit more? Can we lean into these positive parts of the story?” Like a little wand of that kind sprinkled at the end.

RS: Tinkerbell.

MdlC: There’s never a hammer at Disney.

RS: Well, if there’s a hammer, it’s a disguised hammer.

MdlC: I suppose. I don’t think I would have lasted twenty years if there was any sort of hammer.

RS: Do you still plan to keep writing your own books for other publishers?

MdlC: Oh, absolutely. I have five different publishers right now. This is just a part of what I do.

RS: How do you portion out your days?

MdlC: I told my agent he ruined my life, because I used to have free time. Now I don’t. I work on my own stuff, and then I work on other people’s stuff. It’s hard to say what a typical day is, because it’s always different. Today is a bunch of Zooms and interviews, and I have a presentation with Books of Wonder, and a couple of business meetings, so it’s not a writing day. I try to portion it — if I have a lot of non-writing events, I try to stack them on the same day, so that I keep my other days free for quiet and for writing and editing.

RS: What was it like to develop yourself beyond being just a writer? You now have to have tremendous organizational sense and business sense, which is really not something we expect from our writers as writers. Where did it come from for you?

MdlC: I’d have to disagree, because I’m the most disorganized Hobbit. I’m always kind of shocked that I keep everything going.

RS: But you do.

MdlC: I really do not know what to say about that. I’m not that organized. I keep little notes and little Post-its, and I have a calendar that says when things are due, when other people’s books are due to us, where we are on a schedule. I think what I am good at is being very fast. I don’t sit on emails; I respond right away. I get things done really quickly and make decisions really quickly. If somebody says we want this person for the audiobook, I don’t think about it for two weeks, I think about it right then. Do we want them? Yes. No. I think I’m productive in that way. And I’ve always been a multitasker, even before the imprint, running the book festivals, doing the anthologies, trying to do scripts for Hollywood. I always do a lot of stuff. I was room mom for many years of my kid’s life while I was also an author. What is that saying, if you want something done, ask a busy person? Just add it to the list.

RS: It also sounds like you like to do a lot of different things.

MdlC: I do.

RS: That’s what I liked about being a librarian, and even about being an editor. There are so many challenges that call on different parts of you.

MdlC: Yes. Absolutely. And writing’s solitary, so it’s nice to be able to do stuff with writers and get out of your office once in a while and see actual human beings.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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