Arrive at Meg Cabot's new, very old house in Key West—its 1860 vintage ranks it among the oldest structures in Florida—and the first thing you get is a story.
Originally owned by local hoteliers, the house is decorated with 19th-century artwork—elaborate murals on the ceilings, hand-stenciled decorations on many of the walls. It's all the product of an itinerant Italian painter whose name has been lost to history. "Apparently, he rang up a bill he couldn't pay at the hotel and worked it off by painting nearly every surface in the house," Cabot says.
It wasn't her first real estate purchase in Key West, where she moved from Manhattan a year ago with her husband, Ben Egnatz. "We had already bought another house, but when I saw this one, I had to have it."
It's from this artful place that Cabot plans to continue churning out novels at a pace that makes most of her contemporaries feel like slackers. Since 1998, Cabot has published 44 titles: historical romances, the Mediator series, the 1-800-Where-R-You series and, of course, the books that brought Cabot fame and fortune—the pink-hued diaries of Princess Mia Thermopolis.
"She's like the Nora Roberts of teen publishing, and those are so few and far between," says Abby McAden, who edited all of Cabot's YA books at HarperCollins before she left in March to head Scholastic's Point imprint for teens. "Most authors, we have to beg and cajole them to crank out one book a year. The thing people who aren't close to the creative process don't understand is that Meg is incredibly prolific, but all her books are really good, too."
On a sultry summer afternoon in the southernmost city in the continental U.S., Cabot talks at length about her first adult hardcover—Queen of Babble (HarperCollins, June), about the misadventures of a college girl looking for Mr. Right in Europe, which PW called "another charmer." She's just back from her tour, which took her to 13 cities in 18 days.
"It was fabulously successful not only because the crowd was filled with girls who had graduated from The Princess Diaries and were ready for something a little more salacious," she says, but—her eyes light up, her spine gets a little straighter, you almost expect her to rub her hands together in glee—"while I was on tour, I got a great idea for a new book!"
That's the essence of Cabot. Although she has general interests in houses, gourmet food and vintage clothing, her consuming passion is writing. Ask about her hobbies and she'll tell you knitting made her fingers hurt. Games, sports? Yuck. Without equivocation she declares, "I hate nature," though a debilitating bout with Lyme disease a few years ago may fuel that emotion. No, she will admit to only one hobby.
"Writing. It drives my husband crazy. We go on vacation and I'll get an idea for a new book. He wants to do things and I'm in the hotel room scribbling away. Let's face it," she says. "Even as an adult, I am still a gigantic nerd."
Perhaps the most in-demand nerd in publishing. She's under contract with HarperCollins for three more adult titles; has a stand-alone YA novel, How to Be Popular, coming this month; another Princess Diaries installment with a January release date; and is writing three manga-style sequels to Avalon High.
She does all her writing from her second-floor bedroom—the one with a view of the guest cottage and lushly landscaped, kidney-shaped pool—but, strikingly, no desk. Since 9/11, Cabot has pecked out all her novels on a laptop, in bed, propped up with pillows.
"Our apartment had a view of the towers—Ben [formerly a financial writer] was working at One Liberty Plaza, directly across the street," Cabot says. "Sitting at my desk there, I had my back to the window, and that freaked me out after 9/11. But I had a book due, so I got into bed to write and I haven't gotten out since."
It wasn't terrorism that drove her from Manhattan, however. It was her accountant. "He told us we had to do something to lower our taxes and gave us a list of states," she says. Florida, long a magnet for the wealthy because it doesn't collect state income tax, appealed for its warm winters; Key West, in particular, beckoned with its funky feel and compact layout. Cabot needed to live in a place where a car wasn't required, since she doesn't drive. Show up on her wooden porch without wheels and she'll offer you a bicycle to ride to lunch at a nearby restaurant.
She attributes this to her upbringing in Bloomington, Ind. "There was nowhere to go and, frankly, I always had boyfriends who would drive me anywhere I needed to go."
It's those teen years, however, that Cabot continually mines for material, from angst-ridden entries in her voluminous diaries about life as the little—her older brother is 6'8"—sister of a star high school basketball player in a town where round ball is king. Her late father taught computer science at Indiana University, her mother drew illustrations for Planned Parenthood publications. "We always had IUDs and diaphragms lying around the house. Often kids weren't allowed to come back to the Cabot house," she confesses.
Despite her astonishing output, Cabot says she is by no means out of raw material. "Are the diaries exhausted? Oh, God, no, sadly, no." Despite all those boyfriends, she says, "I had a really crappy teen life, so it's fun to relive it and have it turn out right. I have all my diaries in a milk crate, although I did go through them at one point and throw out all the really incriminating stuff. Stuff, if I died, I would never want my mother to read. I put those through the paper shredder."
Cabot admits her least favorite part of being a bestselling author is revision. "There are two types of writers: egg layers and egg polishers. I am such an egg layer. I turn in the first draft and I'm done. They come back to me with revisions, and I hate them. I know this sounds terrible, but the idea of working on a book for more than a month? That's torture."
McAden says that's also hyperbole. "At the end of the day, she wants what's best for the book. She has a lot of feelings and opinions about her work, obviously, but she actually did revise for me, and as much as she says she hates it, she is very good at it."
The writing Cabot has stopped doing—reluctantly—is to her readers, who had been sending her an average of 200 e-mails a day (her Web site averages 400,000 page views per month). Last summer, Cabot dropped her laptop and by the time she got it fixed, she had 3,000 e-mails waiting. Fans now get an auto-response directing them to www.megcabotbookclub.com, a message board where they can talk to each other about Cabot's characters. She has also given up on Hollywood, after writing the "first 40 drafts" of the Ice Princess screenplay for Disney, which released the movie last year. "Sixty studio executives telling me what to do. God, I hated it. It was clear a death was going to occur if I ever did that again."
So far, the relative isolation of Key West hasn't kept her public from finding her—neighbors push her books through the mail slot so she can autograph them for their grandkids. In spite of her new address in a party lover's paradise, Cabot hasn't changed her workaholic routine much—a trait she says she inherited from her father. And since overcoming Lyme disease, Cabot doesn't drink alcohol at all. Margaritaville, she admits, "is a very strange place to be driven."
"I feel so creative down here. It's so beautiful," she says before checking her enthusiasm. "Wait, don't make it sound too good. We can barely find parking as it is."