One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Maggie Stiefvater
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
Here’s a personal story. Almost five years ago now I was just finishing up back-to-back stints on selection committees as a member of the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award committee and then the 2009 Robert F. Sibert Information Book Medal committee. It was a heady time, made slightly more mad by the arrival of a new baby (our first–this is important) right in the middle of the process. That summer I found myself sitting in Chicago at a dinner hosted by Scholastic, trying desperately to engage in articulate adult conversation while totally consumed by the thought of my tiny daughter being so far away (ok, back at the hotel) in addition to being really, really tired and mostly incoherent. I was seated next to a very interesting author whose name sounded so familiar–I was sure I had a book or two waiting for me at home in the stacks of titles I’d had to hold off on reading while I finished committee work. She was young and cool and her editor was so excited about her forthcoming book (which sounded awesome) that even my unfounded parental worry couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
Obviously that author was Maggie Stiefvater, and obviously being completely freaked out about being away from my (new) baby for so long meant that I didn’t take advantage of the moment to hit her up for some awkward dinner conversation or polite small talk, which is just sad. Mostly I remember (through new mother haze) being sort of jealously appalled that someone who could draw so well (I think she was doing it at the table) was there to be honored for her writing. (I should also note that Maggie’s editor is David Levithan, who was sitting across from me. Hello missed opportunity!)
Anyway, after the conference I went home and dug Lament out of a pile of books and felt very sad indeed, because it was Excellent and I was sitting right next to her and could have said so, had I been capable of thought and/or speech. And that was before The Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys and all the rest. It was also before I fully realized the extent of Maggie Stiefvater’s ridiculous talent, so maybe it was for the best–I probably would have babbled. I mean, have you seen her book trailers?
Thank you, Maggie, for taking the time to answer my questions (especially the forty-point ones) and sorry for the terrible dinner conversation back in Chicago. I love your work.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Sulky. Effervescent. Pugnacious. Push-over. Gloomy. Elated. Musical. Musical. Musical. I was a creature of opposites: black-hearted and belligerent or funny and warm — no one got both sides of me.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
The first thing I remembering wanting to be was a writer — books, especially, because books pleased me, and in my family, there was no difference between consuming a thing and making a thing. But I also wanted to be a screenwriter, because movies pleased me, and a cartoonist, because cartoons pleased me, and an animator, because animated movies pleased me, and a soundtrack composer and a pilot and a radio personality and a pastry chef and a rose breeder and — I wanted to be lots of things.
What were your high school years like?
Technically speaking, I had no high school years. I sort of had high school months, but those barely even counted. I was home-schooled from sixth grade on, and by the time I got to high school I was bored with it — school felt like practice for real life, and I’d wanted to start real life for a very long time. My high school books arrived and I just thought: no. I tested out of school (can you do that now? It sounds fishy) and went to college at age 16. That . . . was a thing.
I had a rather rough time with a lot of the men I encountered in positions of college power at the time, but I did have one history professor who was incredibly influential. I recall that in one of my classes, he gave me a B on a paper, and I marched into his office and hurled it on the desk and said “B!” He concurred. I spat, “Tell me anyone else in that class wrote a better paper than I did!” He said that he couldn’t. I said, “Then why!? Why did I get a B?” And he replied, “Because you could write a better paper.”
I’ve never forgotten that I’m only in competition with myself.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Um. Well. I was a competition bagpiper. I could probably tell you some of my other interests, but most people just stare after I say that.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
The most difficult experience I had as a teen hit when I was 17 or 18 — I was suicidal. My family was great, school wasn’t difficult, I was working and managing my time well. But I looked at the adults around me and thought that I didn’t see a single one that I wanted to be when I grew up. I did, however, see a lot of people I didn’t want to be. So I just decided, logically, not to grow up. I know, I know.
I can’t tell you how much it moves me now when teens tell me they see me as a role model, or that they didn’t realize that adulthood could look like this, or that they didn’t know women could act like me.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I’m not sure how I feel about going right from suicide to bagpiping, but I’m going for it. I was very involved in my college’s bagpipe band, and I also had several bands of my own — a Celtic band called Ballynoola and a classical quintet. We gigged across several states and recorded an album. We got into festivals along side seasoned acts and we were treated like adults, like we mattered, like we weren’t waiting for life to start: it had started.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I would have said MAGGIE GO TO AUSTIN, TX, YOUR PEOPLE ARE WAITING FOR YOU THERE. No, no, that wouldn’t have worked. I would have laughed in my own face. Maybe this, then: MAGGIE YOU MAKE THE WORLD IN YOUR OWN IMAGE. Because really, I didn’t understand then that if I didn’t see the world I wanted around me, I could make myself a world that I wanted. I didn’t think one person could change anything. I didn’t realize that I could find people like me and fill my life with them.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I have a strict no-regret policy.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I had a really sweet dark-blue Volkswagen Jetta with a nice five-speed and helluva torque. I miss it.
Every Day I Write the Book
Many of your books take inspiration from folklore and mythology, and you’ve talked elsewhere about your love of books that bring mythology into a contemporary setting. Setting aside the inherent awesomeness of the stories themselves, what is it about folklore and mythology that you find compelling or powerful in terms of your own work? What draws you to Celtic/Welsh tales in particular? Are there other tales or mythologies you’d like to tackle in the future?
I love mythology because it makes true things more true. While I was reading for The Raven Boys, I reread the Mabinogian — an old, weird collection of Welsh stories. In one of them, the Welsh king is a giant (this doesn’t seem to bother anyway). He leads his army after the Irish, but the Irish escape over a river and the Welsh are stuck watching the Irish taillights disappear. Not to worry! The Welsh king lay down across the river and his men rode their horses across his back, allowing them to continue pursuing the Irish. I like this story because it tidily shows the power of myth to make true things truer. It doesn’t matter what culture you come from, you immediately understand the point of the story: the Welsh king was larger than life (literally) and his army couldn’t pursue the Irish without his help (literally).
It’s what I hope the magic and myth does in my novels, too.
And why Celtic mythology? I grew up listening and playing Celtic music, reading those stories, and it feels like home to me. I have more than a little Scottish blood galloping through my veins, so maybe I can place the blame there.
One of the elements that really stands out for me in your writing is atmosphere—that combination of setting and feeling that–in your books, especially–is really visceral and haunting. You’ve said that “usually the reason why a book cries out for me to write it is because of a central mood or feeling; then plot and characters and theme wander in, generally in that order… I know what SORT of book I want to write, but not always what it’s about at first.” Do you remember the mood or feeling that sparked each of your books? Could you talk a little bit about how that initial feeling grows into “atmosphere” as you write and how the other elements—character, plot, theme, setting—play into that construction?
I would like you to be aware that this is a forty-point question.
Yes, I remember the mood of each book still — I usually have a song that I listen to over and over at the beginning of a novel, something that encompasses that mood. And when I feel I’ve wandered too far from my original purpose, I will play it again. I can still invoke early memories of writing Shiver by playing “The Ocean” by the Bravery.
So, if you google “Maggie Stiefvater character-driven” you get hundreds of hits, meaning that just about every blogger and reviewer and interviewer (include me) has used that phrase to characterize your work at some point. You yourself have also described your novels as “character-driven, which means reader satisfaction comes largely from seeing people change over the course of the novel.” I’m wondering, how do you build your characters? Do you start with a general idea of how each character is going to change over the course of the story or does that trajectory reveal itself along the way? Have any of your characters started life as a secondary and then grown into a protagonist or vice versa? Do you have favorites?
I think that probably you should come live in my house and whisper all of these nice things to me a nest I will build for you in the potted plant by my office desk.
It’s true that the characters are what I care about. I mean, I care about the other things, but as a reader, the characters are what I remember. Mostly, I just long to make my readers sick at heart that they will never meet my characters in real life. That’s my goal. Does that sound sinister? I mean it in the nicest possible way.
Now . . . how do I build my characters? I used to have a different answer for this. A writerly one. But now I am not sure how good of a writer I am at all. I think instead that I’m a very clever thief instead. A few books into my career, I realized that my best characters and settings were ones I’d stolen from life, and now that’s all I do. Every character starts life as someone I have met, and then I alter them according to my story’s need. When I feel like I’m running out of inspiration, I get a new hobby or take a trip or go construct an adventure so I can find people and places.
So there you go. I’m a stealer.
You make no secret of your various passions, which seem to include music, cars, art, and goats, and pushing past the line of casual interest or even strong enthusiasm (to a point where you buy a piano instead of a house, or learn to drive really fast race cars) appears to be one of your defining characteristics. Your interests often infuse your work either as details that flavor the story, elements of character development, or specific plot points (except maybe the goats?), but I’m wondering, in a more abstract way, how being such a fiercely passionate person impacts and influences your life creative life?
Confession: I just turned to my husband and said, “There is a hard question on this interview. Tell me how to answer it.” Then I read it to him. And then he laughed at me. Or maybe with me. But I’m pretty sure it was at me.
Man, I’m just not sure. I think my brain is on fire, maybe. Or maybe I killed my sense of fear and self-doubt — I think a lot of people want to do many things, but they let all kinds of logical and practical things stop them. Practical concerns aren’t the boss of me!
How does it influence my creative life? Sometimes I can’t tell if I am pursuing a hobby because it will be useful for my novel, or if I’m writing a novel about something because I love it as a hobby. All I know is that when I was that black-hearted, suicidal teen, I decided that I needed to be a hero in my own life. And that means never letting my curiosity die untended.
And of course I have to write about what I find, putting in some magic, of course, to make it more true.
Just Can’t Get Enough
NOTE: Here is Elizabeth’s question in full, and Maggie’s generous answer(s)!
Question from Elizabeth Wein for Maggie Steifvater: I’m going to give her a choice, if that’s ok! I’ve got a rather literary question and also one that she might find more fun.
1) This question is inspired by my 16-year-old daughter, who has in fact read a greater selection of Maggie Stiefvater’s life work than I have. Sara’s observation is that “Shiver is easy to read, like The Hunger Games or Divergent. The Raven Cycle is almost difficult, it reminds me of The Owl Service [by Alan Garner] with its tone and content. You can’t really skip past bits.” Many readers seem to agree that The Scorpio Races was a turning point for Maggie’s writing in terms of style. My question for Maggie would be, do you feel that your writing style has consciously changed over the course of your career? If so, what is driving the shift—experimentation, literary ambition, your own reading habits, or something else entirely? If the shift isn’t conscious, what do you think is going on to make it noticeable to teen readers?
All of these forty point questions. The Scorpio Races is the very first novel I wrote knowing that I was a better thief than creator — so the people are real people that I co-opted for the novel, and the places are real places that I visited and glued together to become the island of Thisby. It’s also the first novel where I completely embraced the idea that if I wrote something I loved, no matter how strange, it would find an audience. Also, I’m just getting better, I hope. I’m always trying to find better ways to make people feel.
I am curious, I have to admit, if readers will be able to see a marked difference in Sinner, the companion novel to the Shiver Trilogy. I wrote it this summer, three years after I wrote Forever. I want it to be compulsively readable, like Shiver, but I also tried to use all of the tools I’ve picked up in the past few years.
2) Is your racing car obsession ever going to drive a novel for you?
Well, there are quite a lot of exhaust fumes in The Dream Thieves already. But I do contemplate writing a car screenplay . . .
(Elizabeth says: My daughter also sent me a ton more questions for Maggie, which might make her laugh):
When is the sequel to The Dream Thieves coming out?
Fall. 2014. Assuming terrible things do not happen.
Does she love me since I made her laugh with my Twape?
Yes. We’re best friends, actually. I can’t believe you haven’t sent me a mix tape yet.
Does she know anything about the Raven Boys movie?
I do. But the things I know, I’m not telling. Yet.
Has she read Rose Under Fire and what did she like about Code Name Verity?
I loved the characters in Code Name Verity, because they felt like real people. I confess I haven’t read Rose Under Fire because it was sent to me as a file instead of a book (this was my fault, and I will accept all blame), and I despise reading on my computer since I write on it all day. Now I’ve been lazy about it for so long that I’ve asked for a real copy of it for Christmas. Would you like to see my list for proof? It is right under “Yellow Electric Guitar,” and right above “Black Dodge Viper.”
Is she a cat or dog person?
I like cats who act like dogs and dogs who act like cats. Mostly I like all animals that seem to like me.
Maggie has contributed a question for the next author in the series, A.S. King. Watch for an interview with her in a couple of weeks!
Professional novelist by day and artist by night, Maggie Stiefvater is the author of the Books of Faerie (Lament, a 2010 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and a 2010 Quick Pick, and Ballad) and the bestselling, multi-starred Shiver trilogy (Shiver, Linger, Forever) as well as The Scorpio Races, which received five starred reviews and was named a 2012 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association. The first two books in the Raven Cycle, The Raven Boys and Dream Thieves, have also received multiple starred reviews and Publisher’s Weekly selected The Raven Boys as a Best Book of the Year. Maggie’s contribution to the Spirit Animals series, Spirit Animals Book 2: Hunted, was released this week and Sinner, a companion novel to the Shiver Trilogy, will be published July 2014.
About herself Maggie says: “After a tumultuous past as a history major, calligraphy instructor, wedding musician, technical editor, and equestrian artist, I’m now a full-time writer living in the middle of nowhere, Virginia, with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, four neurotic dogs who fart recreationally, and a 1973 Camaro named Loki. I’m also an award-winning colored pencil artist, play several musical instruments (most infamously, the bagpipes), and an ex-Navy brat. I recently acquired a race car.”
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane