Steeped in Shiver, Linger and Forever; drowning in Ballad and Lament; stirred by the page turning pace of The Scorpio Races I’m really looking forward to meeting Maggie Stiefvater. I haven’t read anything that is so effortlessly readable for a very long time. It has a musical quality of both propelling you forward as you read and supporting you as you keep going; it is as if an invisible structure is keeping it up – the beats of a bar or the notes of a stave. (Strangely, when I find out more about how they are written, I find that is exactly what those structures are…)
I turn to finding out more about this engaging storyteller. Research reveals that she has almost nothing by way of an official biography and she has an awesome social media presence. Her exceptional list of awards and very high sales figures – 250,000 copies of her books sold in the UK alone and her profile and sales figures in the US are even higher – demonstrate just what a successful author she has become.
And it is not just the books that matter. Maggie herself matters hugely to the fans and she is in touch with them all the time. They see her on YouTube – 17,000 viewings of the beautiful new trailer for The Scorpio
Races – and they follow her blog and on twitter. The response is phenomenal. ‘I swear you’re magical. You’re an author/artist/songwriter/blood magic user/awesome amazing person. How can you get more awesome!?’ writes one fan of The Scorpio Races. Another, commenting on reading the Shiver, Linger and Forever writes, ‘Reading the ‘Wolves of Mercy Falls’ trilogy, and watching the stop-motion animations give me a tight feeling in my chest. It all seems like the purest form of love, and of all the lovey books I’ve read, this represents the type of love I want to find in life the most.’
Now I’m even more eager to meet this phenomenon because I too am entranced by the books. As befits my age I’m not swooning quite as much as her target audience but I’m certainly on the same path.
Maggie’s sense of place is so very strong, whether it is the woods of Minnesota or a beach in California, that I wished I were meeting her on her home ground. I know that she lives in Virginia, has two small children, plays a bunch of instruments and that she was baking brownies when the call came about the film deal for The Scorpio Races. And that she’s only twenty-nine. I’d like to have got a sense of all of that.
Instead, I turn up at a smart hotel in London where I’m meeting Maggie in the middle of a worldwide author promotion tour. Maggie is small, energetic and genuinely friendly. Casually dressed, there is no sense of grand or ennui either of which she’d be entirely entitled to. She is bubbly, laughs a lot and seems to be enjoying herself. She certainly has quite good enough manners to make me feel that she is genuinely pleased that I like her books so much.
The one shock, because she’s obviously been slowed down for YouTube, is the speed of her conversation. She is fast! She talks fast and with a lot of laughter and she thinks fast and, judging by the time it takes her to write a book, she writes fast.
Ask Maggie about being a writer and she neatly sidesteps. ‘For me writing is only one of the three things that I do. I also do music and art.’ As followers of her site know she has a playlist for each of her books as she listens to music as she writes and music is integral to the fabric of every story. ‘Each scene has a mood and the playlist charts the mood,’ she says. ‘Hopefully, the music will match. People can compare whether I pulled off that scene or not.’ She is also especially delighted that on this tour she will be making that relationship tangible by appearing alongside Jonas and Plunkett, the band whose song she featured on her playlist for Linger.
It’s a creative crossover that Maggie cares about a lot. ‘I always make the point about not just being a writer especially when I’m talking to kids in school,’ she says. ‘I don’t want just to talk about the writing process because how many of them are actually going to go on to even wanting to be writers as opposed wanting to be musicians or artists of anything with a creative component? I want to connect with them on that creative level and not on a pedantic factual one.’
For Maggie, this overlapping is genuinely central to her work and she practices all three arts. She supported herself as a portrait artist as she became a best-selling writer and she plays several instruments. While the music focuses her writing it is not the original inspiration. ‘Everything always starts visually for me. Always. When I sat down to compose a piece of music I have to have a scene in my head and I write to that scene. When I am creating a picture I know what I want it to look like first, obviously, and then it is trying to get it down on the page. And then, with a book, books are also very visual. I see it as a scene in my head and then it becomes something on the page. I’m always trying to write it so that the reader can see it visually too.’
How you make that work is what Maggie describes as ‘the translation’. ‘The Scorpio Races was a very visual book – probably my most visual story – and for years I couldn’t get it to work. I could see the scene in my head but I couldn’t find the words to get it onto the page. Getting the translation to work is always the biggest thing.’
But though Maggie addresses her public audiences about all kinds of creativity and their interplay, in her blog, which she describes as ‘a kind of cocktail conversation’, she communicates directly and powerfully about the detail of writing to her fans. ‘I have my writing posts on the blog so they can see what I am doing.’
Her thoughtfulness about her writing and passion about it are evident on that blog. She hones all her work by working with her ‘critique partners’, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff, both YA writers themselves, whom she selected after trading 50 pages of a story to comment on with a number of fellow writers until she found writers who understood what she was doing. ‘Critique partners are like mirrors. They can’t tell you anything about yourself that you don’t know but they can help you to draw it out of yourself. It’s something they’ve provoked you into thinking for yourself.’ It’s a process she is strongly committed to and one she recommends in her writing advice to her readers. ‘I think it is really important to have peer feedback, supportive peer feedback. That’s the way to improve.’
Maggie offers a lot of other advice too, sharing her own writing imperatives with her readers. Right now on her blog there’s a fascinating insight into how important her characters are to her and how she develops them. There is also a thoughtful insight into her use of metaphor. Plot, premise or pacing is not the most important thing for her. She writes, ‘I will sacrifice most anything in order to change someone’s mood in a certain way. I can’t do that without careful navigation of metaphor and character development.’
That metaphor matters to her will come as no surprise to her readers since all her stories are so deeply metaphorical. The trick is finding the right one as she did with Shiver, a book of which she says, ‘I wrote it for me as I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in dreamy, poetic werewolves.’ It became the first in her overwhelmingly successful ‘Wolves of Mercy Falls’ trilogy. Now best-known as the author of a werewolf trilogy, it turns out Maggie only thought of writing about werewolves because there was a short story competition that had a suitable deadline. She dismisses them simply as ‘a metaphor for losing yourself to your beastly side which is something Americans have no fear of whatsoever so how can that be interesting?’ But then, on an author tour to a huge high school where she was promoting Lamont and Ballad her first two novels which blend the imaginary and faery in a story about forbidden love, she was horrified by the way the girls, who had been bright Grade 8-rs had by their junior high year adopted a uniformity on account of their overwhelming desire to fit in and belong.
‘Suddenly, I had a new metaphor.’ Maggie’s fixation with the idea is still almost tangible. ‘I was obsessed by this idea of voluntarily giving away your personality and identity. It was a totally different kind of story. It is nothing like werewolves. It wasn’t scary. It was melancholy.’ Maggie went back to the knowledge of German folk stories that she’d gleaned growing up from a German colleague of her father’s. She realised that she knew the mythology of werewolves and so felt free to play with it.
Having met Maggie, the fact that the inspiration for this staggeringly successful trilogy comes directly from a bunch of teenagers and observation of how they behave is no surprise. What comes through all Maggie’s stories is her deep understanding, liking and respect for adolescence. She remembers her own feelings and experiences clearly and draws on her own memories. ‘I felt I was an adult at 16 or 17. I was making incredibly difficult decisions. You may not have had so much life experience but you have everything in you that you are going to be. As I writer, I respect that.’
The sweeping arc of the Maggie Stiefvater narrative of her writing comes to an almost halt as she thinks about the complexities of identity and happiness. The stories are wonderful and gripping but it is this incredibly powerful underlying belief and understanding and care for the very special condition of being an adolescent with all its confusions about belonging that have taken her so very close to the heart of her readers. From her own experience she believes strongly in the power of self-redemption and change. Two empowering qualities to offer the ravenous teenage reader.
A selection of Maggie Stiefvater’s books all published by Scholastic in paperback at £7.99.
The Scorpio Races (978 1 4071 2985 3)
Shiver (978 1 4071 1500 9)
Linger (978 1 4071 2108 6)
Forever (978 1 4071 2111 6)
Ballad (978 1 4071 2112 3)
Lament (978 1 4071 2031 7)