How Hurricane Irma and a gym mix-up inspired Meg Cabot’s new books

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How Hurricane Irma and a gym mix-up inspired Meg Cabot’s new books

They say write what you know, and Meg Cabot has got that down. Many of her best-selling series have drawn direct inspiration from her life, whether it was her mother’s marriage to her former high school teacher as a subplot in The Princess Diaries or her time working in an NYU dorm inspiring the Heather Wells detective series.

After using frequent fodder from her Indiana upbringing and her time living in New York City, Cabot is, at last, turning to her hometown since 2004 – Key West, Florida. “It’s a great, quirky, fun island, but it has a very small-town feel and I thought it would be fun to write about that,” she says. “I just ran out of stuff to say about New York and Indiana. I’ve plumbed the depths of Genovia about as much as you can. It’s going to take a while to let that well fill up again.”

Cabot is diving into a new fictional town, Little Bridge Island, loosely inspired by Key West, with two new books: a digital-first title Bridal Boot Camp, which releases May 28, and a new full-length novel, No Judgments, hitting shelves Sept. 24. EW is thrilled to exclusively reveal the covers for both books, and also share an exclusive excerpt from No Judgments.

It wasn’t just her town that inspired Cabot to journey into Florida’s tropical waters – a hurricane and a mix-up at her local gym provided further story fodder. Bridal Boot Camp, which takes place just before the events of No Judgments, came from Cabot’s own error. “I accidentally enrolled in this class called ‘Bridal Boot Camp,’ which I did not know. It was just a convenient time for the class,” she laughs. “I went to this workout class and I started realizing everybody, except me, were brides or bridesmaids or mothers-of-the bride.”

Cabot imagined what might happen if a heterosexual male signed up for the same class by mistake. She took further inspiration from her brother’s life – a police officer whose chief enrolled his force in yoga to combat aggression. In Bridal Boot Camp, a cop mistakenly enrolls in the titular class after being ordered to take yoga following an incident. There, he meets a young woman who is preparing for a wedding and sparks fly.

The exercise elements presented a unique challenge for the cover design that Cabot did not anticipate. “We went through several different exercise positions and that part was challenging because we found some of them looked a little too sexy,” she explains. “I was convinced she should be doing sit-ups, and he should be doing push-ups over her and that did not work. It looked so obscene.”

While Cabot’s harmless error inspired this first title, it was a much bigger life event that pushed her to create the world of Little Bridge Island. Cabot did not evacuate during Hurricane Irma in 2017, and No Judgments was inspired by her own experiences helping to care for animals left behind during the storm. “It’s about how the island fares during what is basically Hurricane Irma. I’ve renamed it because I didn’t want the storm to sue me,” she jokes.

Her heroine, Bree, was inspired by a real woman in Key West who used Cabot’s landline to set up a hotline for evacuees to call and leave instructions for the girl to break into their home and care for their pets – without any judgments about their choices. Thus, the title of the book was born. “You always hear on the news about people who choose not to evacuate, and there’s a lot of judgment about whether or not you should evacuate and why people don’t,” she notes about the tolerant attitude of her heroine. “It’s a really important thing that people forget during a crisis – you’ve got to take care of your animal friends as well.”

Cabot, who has penned over 50 books, is known for shaking up her formats, writing books that are a diary or tell their story entirely through digital mediums like text and email. With No Judgments, she returns to traditional narrative fiction. “The book is set during a hurricane. There’s no cell service and no internet, so they can’t text each other or anything,” she explains. While the cover for No Judgments didn’t require as many adjustments, she does note that they went through several dogs to find the cutest.

In addition to the direct inspiration of her workout class and a hurricane, Cabot’s work is also changing with the times, working in contemporary issues like the #MeToo movement. With series like The Princess Diaries and The Mediator, Cabot was once the champion of the nerd hero, urging her YA readers to give the quiet nerd a chance as a romantic prospect. In the decade-plus since, we’ve seen nerd culture come to dominate everything from tech to pop culture, as well as the dark side that can come with that. For Cabot, her heroes are no longer specifically nerds so much as equal, respectful partners.

“I’m steering more towards the guy doesn’t have to have a ton of money. Maybe the girl should be trying to make the money. Because that seems to be happening in relationships more and more. The woman is earning the bacon and the man is the one frying it up and taking care of her,” she says of her new take on romantic pairings. “You still see that a lot in romance novels, where you’ve got this billionaire who sweeps down and saves the woman. To me, I would not feel safe and secure in that kind of relationship. I would want to have my own money and have both partners contributing equally to the housework.”

Whether her books follow one main character through numerous titles or are thematically linked like her Boy series, the prolific Cabot is never content to write just one book in the worlds she creates, as evidenced here by the two forthcoming titles. Fans can rest easy knowing she plans to take up literary residence in Little Bridge Island for at least a couple more books, which will feature new protagonists alongside recurring characters.

Bridal Boot Camp debuts May 28 and No Judgments releases Sept. 24. Read below for an exclusive excerpt from No Judgments.

****

Chapter One

The hurricane was a thousand miles away when my ex-boyfriend called to offer me a ride to safety in his private jet.

“No, thanks,” I said, cradling my phone against my shoulder as I re-filled jelly packets into the dispensers on the formica counter of the Mermaid Café. “That’s really nice of you. But I’m not going anywhere.”

“Bree,” Caleb said. “There’s a Category Five hurricane headed straight for you.”

“It’s not headed straight for me. It’s headed for Miami.”

“Little Bridge Island is only a hundred and fifty miles south of Miami.” Caleb sounded exasperated. “The storm could change course at any time. That’s why they call the hurricane track the cone of uncertainty.”

He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. But it was typical of Caleb to feel it necessary to mansplain the weather to me.

“Thanks for your concern,” I said coolly. “But I’ll take my chances.”

“Take your chances of dying? Do you really hate me that much?”

This was a good question. Caleb Foley had had his good points: like me, he’d loved a good painting. His family owned one of the largest private collections of nineteenth century Impressionist works in North America.

He’d also been great in bed, always waiting politely to orgasm until after I did.

But when I’d needed him most—which was definitely not now—what had he done?

Ghosted.

And now he thought he could make it up to me with a free ride in his Gulfstream just because a hurricane might sideswipe the little island to which I’d fled in order to recover from the heartbreak he’d caused me?

Sorry. Too little, too late.

“It’s nice of you to offer.” I ignored his question. “But like I said, I’m not going anywhere.”

I thought of telling him the real reason why—not about hating his guts so much I wouldn’t get into an Uber with him, let alone a private plane—but about Gary, with whom my life had become inextricably tied since I’d moved to Little Bridge, but who was in no shape to travel at the moment.

But what would be the point? I knew what Caleb would say about Gary. He wouldn’t understand.

It felt a little weird keeping something that meant so much to me from this person with whom I’d once shared every little thing in my life.

But it also felt right.

“Besides,” I added, instead. “No one here is evacuating.”

It was true. Instead of panicking and running around, throwing all of their stuff into the backs of their cars the way I always imagined people would when a hurricane was in the vicinity, the residents of Little Bridge Island, population 4,700, seemed to be taking the news in stride. The Mermaid was packed with the usual breakfast crowd, and though a lot of people were talking about the storm, no one seemed alarmed, only vaguely irritated . . . .

Like Drew Hartwell, whom I could hear next to me informing someone over the phone that he wouldn’t be replacing the hundred year old window sash they’d hired him to restore anytime soon.

“Because there’s a storm on the way,” Drew said, sounding a little testy as he dabbed more hot sauce onto his Spanish omelet, “and there’s no way the glazing’s going to dry before it gets here. That’s why. If you want an inch of rainwater all over your bathroom floor, that’s your business, but personally, I’d wait until it passes.”

Normally I don’t make a habit of eavesdropping on my customers’ conversations, but then normally Drew Hartwell doesn’t use his cell phone in the café. He’s good about following the rules that Ed, the Mermaid’s manager slash owner, has listed by the cash register:

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem.

Use Your Cell Phone? Get Out.

One person who’s not so good at following them? Me. The last one, anyway.

“Beckham!” Ed bellowed at me from behind the counter.  I whipped around and saw him glaring at me. He stabbed a thumb at my cell phone, then the glass side door. “Take it outside if it’s that important.” His irritated gaze fell on Drew, who happened to be his nephew, but whom he still treated like any other customer.  “You, too.”

Drew held up a callused palm, nodding as he slid off his orange vinyl counter stool and headed towards the door, his phone still clutched to his chin.  “Look,” he said to whoever was on the other end of his call. “I get it. But you’re going to have the window boarded up anyway. So it’s not going to make any—”

The rest of his conversation was lost as he stepped outside.

Sorry, I mouthed to Ed. Then, to Caleb, I said quickly, “Listen, I’m at work. I never should have picked up in the first place. I only did because . . . because . . . ”

Why had I picked up, especially since Caleb and I hadn’t spoken in months? What had I been expecting, an apology? Was I ever going to learn?

“I’ll talk to you later, okay?” As in, never.

“No, Bree. I’ve got to talk to you now. The thing is, your mother—”

I felt my shoulders tensing up, the way they always did when it came to my mother these days.  “What about her? Is she all right?”

“She’s fine. But she’s the one who’s been bugging me to call.”

Of course.  I should have known.  Caleb would never have called, let alone volunteered to fly fifteen hundred miles to get me of his own accord . . . not after the way we’d ended things. Or not we, exactly, considering the fact that I’m the one who’d packed up my things while he’d been at work, handed my keys to his doorman, then left.

Maybe I’d been the one who’d ghosted.

What else could I have done, though?  He’d believed his best friend’s word over mine when I’d told him that Kyle had made a pass at me—not just a pass, but a full on sexual assault—so what kind of relationship had the two of us even had?

Not one I wanted anything to do with, especially with Kyle still coming over for “brews” every day after work.

Now I was heading for the door again—the Mermaid’s side door.  A rush of humid, saltwater-scented air greeted me as I stepped out onto the sidewalk, ignoring the hostile glare from Ed as well as the curious looks my fellow servers, Angela and Nevaeh, threw me.  Neither of them could imagine what was so important that I’d dare take a call during the morning rush. I hardly ever got calls anyway, so this was a first.

A first that was probably going to get me fired.

“Caleb, look—”

“She’s really worried about you, Bree.  We all are.”

It was all I could do to keep from busting out laughing. A little late for that.

“You know your mom pals around with all those meteorologists from the station,” he went on.  “She says they tell her this one is a real monster. If there were such a thing as a Category Six, this would be it. She says—”

“Tell my mom I’m fine,” I interrupted, aware that Drew Hartwell was standing only a few feet away from me, his own cell clutched to his ear, having a not dissimilar conversation. I could hear him telling whoever was on the other end of the phone, “Well, for one thing, because I have other things to do right now than restore a century old window you waited until the last minute to notice needed repairing. And for another, because I’m going to have to special order the replacement glass and there’s no way it’s going to get here before the rain does.”

Except that Drew Hartwell didn’t look particularly worried. He never did. Even now his free hand—the one not holding his phone—had crept beneath his well-worn, sun faded Little Bridge Island Bocce League T-shirt to scratch lazily at his flat stomach, unconsciously revealing a trail of dark, downy hair that disappeared into the waistband of his cargo shorts . . . the sight of which caused my stomach to give a pleasant lurch, like I’d just taken a spin on the tilt-a-whirl.

What was wrong with me?

Realizing I was staring, I glanced hastily away, remembering the whispered warning my co-worker Angela Fairweather had given me on my first day of work: “Stay away from that one. ”

Because apparently Drew Hartwell—with his lean six foot frame, tussled dark hair, permanent deep sea tan, and summer sky blue eyes—was as much of a player as Caleb and his friends, just of a different variety: Drew was the homegrown style, having been born on Little Bridge Island, and—with the exception of a few years spent on the mainland—had never lived anywhere else.

Whereas Caleb and his best friend Kyle—who’d turned my entire life upside down in a single moment—had been born in New York City, and had traveled all over the world, thanks to their trust funds and wealthy parents.

And yet Caleb, at least, still didn’t know a thing about women.  Or at least the one he was currently speaking to.

“I can tell her you’re fine all you want, Bree,” Caleb was saying into my ear.  “But she isn’t going to stop calling. She said to tell you that she thinks it’s time you gave up on this little solo adventure to find yourself, or whatever it is, and come home. And that it shouldn’t take a Category Five hurricane for you to realize it.”

“Is that what she says?” I smiled wryly. It sounded exactly like something my mom would say. “Well, do me a favor and let her know that I haven’t quite finished finding myself, but when I do, she’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I don’t need help from her, or anybody else—especially you.”

“Well, that’s just great, Bree.” Now Caleb sounded offended. “Excuse me for caring.  You know, last time I talked to you, you were mad at me for not caring enough—”

I felt a different kind of spurt from my gut, far less pleasant than the one I’d experienced at the sight of Drew’s naked stomach. “That’s not what I said, and you know it.  There’s a difference between not caring and calling me a liar.”

“I never called you a liar, Bree. I just said that maybe it was all just a bad dream—”

“A bad dream? Really, Caleb?”

I was so mad, I had to force myself to gaze past the harbor, out where the turquoise blue sky met the aquamarine sea, in order to steady myself. Something about that calm, azure blue water always seemed to help me find my equilibrium whenever my thoughts turned to what had happened that last day Caleb and I had been together. . . .

And what others insisted had happened instead.

“Well—”

“I don’t want to get into it again, Caleb,” I snapped.  “I need to go back to my job, or I’ll lose it.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be a tragedy,” Caleb sneered. “Your waitressing job that you don’t even need.”

I glanced hastily in Drew Hartwell’s direction, fearful that he might have overheard—Caleb could be as overbearingly loud on the phone as he was in person.

But fortunately, Drew still seemed preoccupied with his own call.

I’d been careful not to let anyone on the island know my actual net worth, since I’d wanted them to like me for me, not the size of my bank account . . . or who my parents were. According to the Internet, my mother earned over a million dollars a year from book royalties alone. This was my first opportunity to try to make it on my own, with no help from Mom or Dad, and up until this moment, I’d been doing well, living solely off what I earned at the Mermaid and only dipping into my savings for emergencies, like Gary’s surgery.

“At least,” I hissed at Caleb through gritted teeth, “I have a job.”

“Oh, was that supposed to be a blow to my feelings, Bree?” Caleb asked. “You know managing the foundation is—”

“—a full time job,” I finished for him. “Yes, yes, I know.”

Caleb had always seemed to be trying to assure me as much as himself that his position as executor of his family’s trust was as much a real job as anyone else’s, though in truth his only responsibility had been to decide which charities submitted to him by his assistant once a year were worthy of receiving Foley Foundation aid.

“Look, if you won’t come with me,” Caleb went on, “at least let me send you a ticket for a commercial flight, since you can’t seem to be bothered to buy one on your own.”

“Don’t even try it,” I snarled into the phone, “because I’m not leaving Little Bridge Island.”

Then I hung up on him.

Copyright © 2019 by Meg Cabot. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins, Inc.

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