Sorry, Twilight fans, Stephenie Meyer's latest is a twisted spy thriller

Stephenie Meyer's new book, The Chemist, published this week, is a grisly, twisted thriller about a highly skilled female interrogator who goes into hiding after her bosses at a secret government agency try to kill her.
Stephenie Meyer's new book, The Chemist, published this week, is a grisly, twisted thriller about a highly skilled female interrogator who goes into hiding after her bosses at a secret government agency try to kill her. PHOTO: CHBBOOKSTORE/ TWITTER

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Stephenie Meyer's millions of fans have come to expect certain supernatural flourishes from her novels, which feature shape-shifters, vampires and werewolves, even vampire-werewolf hybrids. So a lot of fans were surprised to learn that her new book, The Chemist, published this week, is a grisly, twisted thriller about a highly skilled female interrogator who goes into hiding after her bosses at a secret government agency try to kill her.

It is a stark and unexpected departure for Meyer, whose young-adult vampire novels have sold more than 155 million copies globally and helped spur an entire booming subgenre called paranormal romance. Twilight became one of the publishing industry's most lucrative entertainment franchises, with four novels, a companion novella and five blockbuster films. The movies have made more than US$3 billion worldwide, and that's not even counting all the "Team Jacob" and "Team Edward" T-shirts and other merchandise.

So why did Meyer decide to write a pulpy spy thriller, an ultramasculine genre that is notoriously tough to break into, particularly for female authors?

"I get a little bored," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Arizona. "Stories kind of run out, and you want to do something very different. It's like, after ice cream, you want pretzels."

The novel's wily protagonist, who goes by Alex, is a brilliant, paranoid chemist, trained to torture terrorism suspects with her excruciating artisanal chemical cocktails. After her department head turns against her, she teams up with Kevin, a former CIA operative who's also on the run from his bosses. Their bold escape plan becomes more complicated when Alex falls in love with Kevin's identical twin, Daniel. Gunbattles, narrow escapes, kidnappings, disguises, torture and assassinations ensue.

Some of Meyer's most devoted readers have responded enthusiastically to the concept. "I don't even read mysteries or series very often, but Stephenie Meyer wrote it, so I'm going to read it," said Jessica Haluska, a book blogger who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Still, some Twilight fans just want ice cream. This summer, after Little, Brown and Co. announced Meyer's new novel, some "Twi-hards" lashed out, complaining that she should focus on finishing Midnight Sun, her stalled retelling of Twilight from the vampire Edward's perspective. "I will probably NEVER pick up a book by her again unless it's Midnight Sun," one Twilight reader wrote on the website Goodreads.

But Meyer, 42, seems to have vampire fatigue. Tellingly, the cover of The Chemist makes no mention of Twilight. She says she's given up trying to please her devotees or appease her critics, who are numerous and vocal.

"When a book comes out, and it's not Midnight Sun, people are unhappy," she said.

She has tried to insulate herself from such pressures. After releasing five novels in just five years, she devoted much of the next decade to producing films.

She rarely holds book signings, and no longer reads reviews or online comments about herself. "At first I read everything, and I learned that was not superhealthy," she said.

You would think that selling tens of millions of novels would calm her insecurities, but success has only heightened her self-doubt.

"I've always been hard on myself, and now that everyone is reading my stuff, half the people hate it," she said. "It's hard when you start doubting yourself, and a few million people are telling you that you're right, and that you should doubt yourself even more."

She has ventured into a new genre before with The Host, her 2008 science fiction novel and her first book for adults. It sold 6.5 million copies worldwide - just a fraction of her Twilight sales.

The Chemist is an even bigger leap, as she tries to gain a toehold in a genre dominated by brand-name authors like Lee Child and Daniel Silva. Little, Brown is printing 500,000 hardcover copies, and aims to attract both thriller readers and Twilight fans. The publisher is promoting the novel on Twilight-centric websites, and at fan conventions like ComicCon and Bouchercon, an annual gathering for mystery writers and readers.

"Fans who grew up with Twilight, they're not just reading young-adult anymore," said Jodi Reamer, Meyer's literary agent.

Meyer got the idea for The Chemist in 2010, during a freezing, rainy overnight shoot for Breaking Dawn, the fourth Twilight film, in Squamish, British Columbia. Shivering in front of the movie monitors, she thought of a female agent - part Jason Bourne, part Bill Nye the Science Guy - who has a peculiar talent for torturing people. She described the plot in detail to Meghan Hibbett, her partner at Fickle Fish, a film-production company.

At first, she envisioned the story as a movie that their company could produce, but the plot became too elaborate to stuff into a screenplay. She set the idea aside and became consumed by her work as a film producer.

A few years later, she returned to the idea and decided to write it as a novel. She keeps vampirelike work hours - a residual habit from when she began writing Twilight while she and her husband were raising their three sons - and worked on The Chemist from 9pm until 3am. The plot flowed quickly, but she struggled at times to devise unusual ways to kill, maim and torture people, so she consulted several experts in biochemistry and molecular biology, including Kirstin Hendrickson, a senior lecturer at the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University.

"I would send her stuff and say, 'What if I wanted to kill someone this way?' and she would say, 'You can't do it that way, but you could do it this way,'" Meyer said. "If anyone looks at my web history, I'm going to jail."

She worked on the book quietly, and just a handful of people knew that she was writing it. Her editor, Asya Muchnick, said she was surprised when the novel landed, more or less fully formed, in her inbox in the fall of 2014.

Meyer seems to have grown allergic to repeating herself. She brushed off the possibility of writing a sequel to "The Chemist," and despite intense pressure from fans, she has no immediate plans to publish a sequel to The Host.

She is mulling over her next project. One idea that she's kicking around involves writing something completely different again: a high fantasy, set in a world of darkness and suffering, where there's magic accessible to only a few. It probably won't appeal to those who still want more vampires.

"I know that doesn't bring in the same readers," she said, "but that's not why I write."