Melissa Landers—the author of YA romantasy novels such as Alienated, Lumara, and the Starflight series—switches gears with her new book, a contemporary YA mystery called Make Me a Liar, in which a teen with the supernatural ability to temporarily assume control of other peoples’ bodies must clear her name of murder. Seventeen-year-old Tia Dante has a side hustle as an immersionist; with her classmates’ consent, she transfers her consciousness into their bodies by utilizing her head-hopping ability to help them accomplish things that they’re often too afraid to do on their own. While she’s assisting her latest client, however, someone head-hops into her abandoned body and murders the town’s district attorney, forcing Tia to team up with close friends to find the real killer or risk becoming their next victim. Landers spoke with PW about pivoting to a new genre, juggling sobering themes with fantastical elements, and a forthcoming work that’s almost a decade in the making.
In your author bio, you describe yourself as someone who writes romance space adventures. What compelled you to set Make Me a Liar in a more contemporary landscape than your previous books?
Usually, I’ll sit down and plan something. I’ll think, “What are my favorite types of stories? What seems to be doing well in the market? What do I want to write next?” Make Me a Liar is one of the few books that came to me organically.
I was watching an episode of Real Housewives. I don’t remember the specifics, because I don’t keep up with the show, but basically, a woman and her fiancé had traveled with their friends to Las Vegas for joint bachelor/bachelorette parties, and while they were there, the groom-to-be crossed some major boundaries. I really wanted the woman to dump him. But it became clear that she wasn’t going to—she was going to go back home with him, and she was going to marry him. She felt embarrassed and ashamed, and she didn’t want to cancel the wedding. Plus, she loved the jerk. I thought to myself, I wish I could get inside her head and impersonate her just for a day or two. Just long enough to dump that guy, cancel the wedding, and force her to move on and raise her standards. And then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if that was a service people could offer?” If they could take over our bodies, and do the things that we’re too locked up with fear to do for ourselves. And then my mind spun and just like that Tia was born.
I’ve always been the person among my friends who wasn’t afraid to be assertive. But at the same time, looking back, there are so many instances where I was too afraid to do what I knew was the right thing. I wish that I had been braver; I wish that I had had the guts to stand up to my own bullies and end toxic relationships at the first sign of a red flag, but I did not. So, it was really cathartic to write Tia, and to help her fix everybody else’s problems for them.
Was it challenging to balance complex worldbuilding elements surrounding Tia’s preternatural head-hopping ability with more serious topics relating to consent and criminal justice?
I feel like complex topics kind of come naturally to me because that’s the reality of the world we live in. The hardest part was the logistics—figuring out the rules of head-hopping, and how to make it possible that someone could have used Tia’s body and then jumped back out of it. Figuring that out was the trickiest part. Once I came up with the answer to, “How exactly does this happen?” I had to make sure I stayed inside those rules. In this world, you can’t just head-hop into someone’s body across the country. Imagine the chaos.
Do you feel that your experience as a former teacher influences your writing?
It probably has, but I can’t think of exactly how. There are so many things that inspire us that we don’t even realize. Once, at a panel, somebody asked me if my 2014 YA novel Alienated was basically Pride and Prejudice with aliens. And I was like, “Well... it kind of is.” Never in a million years would I have made that connection. But I do love Pride and Prejudice.
Another time, I had a friend reach out to me and say, “Hey, Melissa, is there a reason why all of the jerks in your contemporary romances are named Tom?” And I just froze. She said, “Yeah, I’m on your third book, and the bad guy or the town jerk is always named Tom.” That was the name of one of my most toxic exes. And I swear, I did not do that on purpose.
So, I think inspiration comes from all kinds of places. I have no doubt that the 10 years I spent as a teacher soaked in somehow.
What are you working on next?
My next release is a New Adult romance called The Half King from Entangled with a tentative release date of July 9, 2024. I originally wrote it in 2015, and it was originally sold to Disney Hyperion as a YA duology, but the contract never solidified due to some creative differences. So, I rewrote it as a New Adult novel, and it works much, much better. It’s been a long road; right now, I’m plotting the sequel.
Make Me a Liar by Melissa Landers. Disney Hyperion, $17.99 Dec. 5 ISBN 978-1-368-09838-0; $12.99 paper ISBN 978-1-368-10146-2