Five years ago, on the night of June 1, 2003, a Phoenix housewife named Stephenie Meyer had a dream: a young woman was talking to a beautiful, sparkling man in a sunlit meadow. The man was a vampire. They were in love, and he was telling the girl how hard it was for him to keep from killing her.
Meyer had not written anything much before then. Her main creative outlets were scrapbooking and making elaborate Halloween costumes. But the dream was so vivid that she absolutely had to write it down. Then she kept on writing. She wrote the entire story of the young woman and the vampire from start to finish. That story became a young-adult novel called Twilight, and she followed it up with two sequels, New Moon and Eclipse. Together the three Twilight books have sold more than 5.3 million copies in the U.S., 4 million in the past 12 months alone. They've spent a combined 143 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list; when Eclipse was released last August, it bumped the final Harry Potter book out of the top spot on some lists even though it came out only 2 1/2 weeks later. Her first nonvampire novel, The Host, will be published next month. A movie of Twilight will be in theaters this December.
Meyer, 34, is a huge success at selling books, but she's becoming something more. People dress up like her characters. They write their own stories about them and post their tales on the Internet. When she appears at a bookstore, 3,000 people go to meet her. There are Twilight-themed rock bands. Meyer has, like one of her vampires, turned into something rare and more than merely human: a literary phenomenon. How?
There's nothing particularly fantastical about Meyer's life. She grew up in Phoenix, the daughter of a CFO at a contracting firm, and went to Brigham Young University, where she met her husband, an accountant named Christian who goes by "Pancho." They got married at 21 and have three sons. They still live just outside Phoenix in a town called Cave Creek, in a large modern house guarded by towering saguaro cacti. Smart, funny and cheery, Meyer does not seem noticeably undead in person. An observant Mormon, she doesn't drink alcohol and has never seen an R-rated movie. She's not perfect--although Mormons avoid caffeine on principle, she drinks the occasional cherry Diet Pepsi. "It's about keeping yourself free of addictions," she explains, sitting on a huge couch in her living room. "We have free will, which is a huge gift from God. If you tie that up with something like, I don't know, cocaine, then you don't really have a lot of freedom anymore."
The characters in Meyer's books aren't Mormons, but her beliefs are key to understanding her singular talent. The heroine of Twilight is a girl named Bella who moves from Phoenix to a small town in Washington State (a part of the country Meyer had never visited when she wrote Twilight). Bella feels like an outsider at her new high school, but she is immediately drawn to a strange, otherworldly, ridiculously good-looking group of siblings called the Cullens, particularly to 17-year-old Edward.
The Cullens are actually a local coven of vampires. Edward has been 17 since 1918. He is superstrong and superfast, he can hear people's thoughts, and he does not breathe or sleep or age. His skin is cold, and when exposed to the sun, he doesn't burn--he glitters. Edward and the Cullens aren't ordinary vampires: they have renounced human blood on moral grounds, feeding instead on wild animals, which they hunt by night. He and Bella are instantly, overwhelmingly attracted to each other, but he is also wildly hungry for her blood.
Resisting that temptation is a constant struggle. Edward's choice--and the willingness to choose a different way in general--is a major theme in Meyer's books. "I really think that's the underlying metaphor of my vampires," she says. "It doesn't matter where you're stuck in life or what you think you have to do; you can always choose something else. There's always a different path."
True. But that does not exhaust the meaning of the Twilight books. Certainly some of their appeal lies in their fine moral hygiene: they're an alternative to the hookup scene, Gossip Girls for good girls. There's no drinking or smoking in Twilight, and Bella and Edward do little more than kiss. "I get some pressure to put a big sex scene in," Meyer says. "But you can go anywhere for graphic sex. It's harder to find a romance where they dwell on the hand-holding. I was a late bloomer. When I was 16, holding hands was just--wow."
But it is the rare vampire novel that isn't about sex on some level, and the Twilight books are no exception. What makes Meyer's books so distinctive is that they're about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There's a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella's exposed neck. "Just because I'm resisting the wine doesn't mean I can't appreciate the bouquet," he says. "You have a very floral smell, like lavender ... or freesia." He barely touches her, but there's more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter.
It's never quite clear whether Edward wants to sleep with Bella or rip her throat out or both, but he wants something, and he wants it bad, and you feel it all the more because he never gets it. That's the power of the Twilight books: they're squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.
Becoming Stephenie Meyer
Meyer wrote twilight in three months flat. "I know to the day when I became a writer," she says. "One day. Which is cool." Once she'd had the dream, she wrote like a woman struck by lightning, barely sleeping, typing one-handed with a baby in her lap. (At the time, she was taking care of three children under the age of 5.) Even now she does her writing in an open office area in the middle of the house. She's not interested in a room of her own. "I can't close doors and write. Even if the kids are asleep, I know that I could hear them if I needed. I feel better if I'm kind of in the center of things and I know what's going on."