Marie Lu chats simple gadgets for her secret agents in Stars and Smoke

We had the honour of chatting with Marie Lu about all the fun she had researching for Stars and Smoke


We all know and love Marie Lu’s Legend and The Young Elites. Stars and Smoke is the first book in her new series that follows superstar Winter Young as he is recruited to be a spy. Unconventional choice there but when his target is an infamous business tycoon whose daughter has just one birthday wish — a private concert with Winter Young, he is perfect for the job. Especially when paired with expert spy Sydney who has 0 trust in Winter’s ability. We had the honour of chatting with Marie Lu about all the fun she had researching for Stars and Smoke:

Which celebrity do you think is most likely to be a secret agent?

Honestly? Taylor Swift. I just know that hidden inside of her lyrics—alongside all the hints about exes and past scandals and upcoming albums–are a bunch of spy codes for her fellow agents. It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?

Which scenes in Stars and Smoke do you enjoy writing and researching more — Winter as a singer or Winter as a secret agent?

Winter as a secret agent. As much fun as it was to research Winter as a singer by going to concerts—I loved digging into details about the CIA and reading memoirs from former secret agents about the dangerous intricacies of their job. Add to this the challenge of slotting a celebrity into secret agent scenes that typically require a character to be as invisible as possible, and it made for delicious fun.

The Panacea headquarters is incredibly cool — it’s inside a fridge. Where did you draw the inspiration from?

Thank you! I felt like any decent secret agency needed a properly cool way of getting in, so in this case, I wanted to hide it in (somewhat) plain sight. I’ve always loved restaurants and food, so why not have the entrance to the headquarters inside a working kitchen? It amused me to imagine diners at a Michelin-starred restaurant enjoying their meals twenty yards from a kitchen fridge that leads to a secret underworld.

In fact, being spies, Winter and Sydney have many cool gadgets. How did you come up with those?

I’ve always been interested in playing around with new technologies, so part of the fun for me in writing a spy story was researching what kind of equipment real covert organizations use. While some of the gadgets are inspired by that research and are quite fanciful (a pen with a blinding light, a ring that’s also a listening device), my favorite gadgets are the rudimentary ones—Sydney’s chalky candy, a coffee gift card, and so on. Limitation breeds creativity, so the simpler the gadget, the cleverer it feels to me.

Winter is Chinese American and you have included some cool details, such as tea eggs, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain dishes. First of all, please share with those who don’t know — what’s a tea egg and what’s the significance of these porcelain dishes?

A tea egg is a hard-boiled egg that is then marinated for at least 24 hours in a broth of soy sauce, star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaves. When done, it has a beautifully marbled surface and is full of flavor; I often eat it with breakfast (or as a side dish or snack). Blue-and-white porcelain dishes are quite common in Chinese households, so for me, that was a tell-tale sign of the culture in Winter’s family home.

And how did you decide when to include Mandarin sentences?

I speak to my mother in a mixture of English and Mandarin, so it felt natural to me to have Winter’s communication with his mother to be the same in a Chinese-American household. To me, it also made their relationship feel more intimate and affectionate—while they clearly have many issues between them, they are still close in the way they use language. She is the only person to whom Winter speaks in Mandarin.

And finally, you are used to writing dystopian novels with a lot of world building. What’s the biggest challenge in writing a thriller? Will we see more of Winter and Sydney?

To me, one of the most challenging aspects of contemporary fiction is the ability to put in tiny details of everyday life that ground the reader in the real world. What do billboards say? What kind of slang do people use? What cultural differences exist between one country and another? These are questions I also ask myself when building a fantasy or sci-fi world, but in contemporary fiction, it must feel convincing to readers that this is our own reality. That was quite an adjustment for me.

And yes, there will be more! Stars And Smoke is a standalone in that there’s a complete ending, but each subsequent book in their series will be a new standalone mission starring Winter and Sydney. None need to be read in order. I’m currently working on the second book, and I’m excited to share more when it’s ready.

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