Elizabeth Gibson quizzes Young Adult superstar Maggie Stiefvater on art, mythology, books and bagpipes
With the hugely successful fantasy series such as the Raven Cycle and Shiver trilogy under her belt, Maggie Stiefvater is one of the powerhouses of Young Adult literature. I meet her in Manchester prior to her event in the Central Library. She is charismatic, funny and a fascinating person to speak to.
She’s here fresh from Young Adult Literature Convent (YALC), an event that forms part of the London Comic Con. When asked about her experience at the event, Stiefvater she says her expectations had been of “people in costumes hanging from chandeliers. But YALC’s really nice because the bookish folks get to have a floor of their own which means if you want to dip into that craziness you can always go downstairs for it but otherwise you can just be up listening to authors, so that was really fun”.
Stiefvater is in the country promoting her latest book, The Raven King. While she’s unable to comment much on this volume, with it being the last in the series, she says the Raven Cycle as a whole “is about magic and physics and fast cars under the Virginia Mountains, which is where I live.
I started writing it when I was nineteen. I’d just read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series which is all about Welsh mythology seeping up through the sidewalks in 1970s Wales and I always thought, I want to write a series like that. I tried writing it but I wasn’t very good at writing so I quickly got mired down in all of the characters. I restarted it after I’d written many other books, and so it’s nice to finally have got to the end of the series and landed where I intended to land.”
Myths and legends, particularly Old English and Manx, frequent Stiefvater’s novels. Stiefvater describes what it is about them she finds attractive, explaining that “when I was a kid my parents were always very much into Celtic music and so I played the highland bagpipes competitively in college and I had a Celtic band. It’s impossible to wade into that musical world without also wading into the mythology because the lyrics of all of the old traditional songs are also tied up in the history.
The mythology is really just fan fiction of the history and so by the time you learn all of the music and find out what it means so you can perform it properly, you’ve already gone halfway to learning the mythology. I also studied Scottish and British history when I was in college, so I just love playing in this playground.”
I then ask her about her triple life as a writer, musician and artist. Does she feel these skills come from the same mental place? “I once did a TED talk put on by NASA. They had a whole bunch of professionals, scientists and intellectuals who were speaking. We were all shuttled back at the end of the day and I was sitting next to someone who had given a talk and he said, “So here’s the deal, you play music and you’re a writer and you give TED talks and you do art, so what do you think your talent is?”
“And I could tell it was a wizard question, a riddle, and so I thought really hard and then I answered, cunningly I thought, “Well I’m sure it’s that they’re all storytelling.” And he said, “Wrong! It’s changing people’s moods.” And I thought, fine, you’ve out-wizarded me. And so all of those are tied together because when I start to create a painting or write a song or when I start a book the first thing I think about is how I want people to feel when they look at it and then I move from there. So, they are different parts of the brain doing them, but they come from the same place.”
We turn to her beginnings as a writer and who inspired her and she explains that “I just started writing novels when I was six or seven and I had over thirty of them finished and half finished by the time I hit college. But I remember, I was eleven or twelve and I lost the whole summer to reading books by Diana Wynne Jones. I remember in particular that I read Dogsbody which was my favourite one – it’s a very strange one of hers, but for some reason it pushed all of my buttons. I got to the end of it and I turned it over and I read it again and I read it eleven times through before I could read anything else. And the last time I read it I saw the cover differently and when I opened it up there was that page saying “Books also by Diana Wynne Jones” and just like that it struck me, if she’d written all of those books, this must be her job, this is a thing that you could actually do as a job and that was the job I wanted.”
I ask her views on the Young Adult phenomenon, the way the genre is really taking off and gaining new respect and she suggests that “historically people have always been really shitty about what teens like to consume. It’s only looking like it’s getting more of a reputation now because now 55 per cent of the buyers of Young Adult novels are adults.
She suggests however that “it’s really still just the same old, same old because if it’s teens that are saying it, they’re not listening to them”. Stiefvater questions whether “she should get up there and fight for respect for Young Adults” but also explains that “part of me feels that’s sort of the teen experience, that you’re always taken for granted and have to learn to scoff your way past that and read it anyway. It’s a good thing to learn, that you don’t need to look to anybody else for any validation of what you’re reading. But there’s always been a lot of intelligent Young Adults out there, it’s just that the outside world squints at it differently some times to others.”
Stiefvater has a strong social media presence across various platforms. I question her on hat the pros and cons of this? “I love social media, I wouldn’t be on it if I didn’t. A lot of people say I have to be on it, but I got into it before I ever got signed with an agent or was an author because when I was a full-time portrait artist, if you wanted to connect with people you had to be online. And so I was already there and it just dovetailed really nicely and it feels like a good way to be current, to meet people without having to always leave my home all the time. And also it’s fun to tell stories in a different medium, and that’s what being on Twitter is, it’s telling the story of Maggie Stiefvater.
She accepted that there’s a downside however and spoke about how “it’s difficult to have someone shout something really terrible at you and you click on their bio and they’re some twelve-year-old and it’s not like you can shout at a twelve year old for saying something really horrible to you on the Internet. But for me, the joys of it outweigh the negatives; there are too many great aspects to being connected.”
Stiefvater is also the co-author, with Jackson Pearce, of a middle grade series about a girl named Pip Bartlett. I question whether she feels under more pressure writing for this age group than for young adults? “I do, actually. I feel like when you write for teens, it’s called young adult for a reason: they’re adults, they get to make their own decisions about how they feel about what you’ve written. I definitely feel a responsibility for kid readers; they’re still developing what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be good and bad, and so I’m very mindful of what I’m pouring into their heads.
“That said, it’s fun! But it’s harder than writing for young adults. I remember I wrote my first middle grade and the first edit said, “Did your middle grade protagonist just attack that unarmed man with a sword and hack off his arm?” I was like, “Oh, should I give the other guy a sword?” “No, the hacking is the problem!” “Oh, right, sure, okay!” So I slip up. It’s difficult to age it down. I try.”
We then turn to what’s next for Stiefvater with the Raven Cycle finished. “I am working on something completely secret right now. All I can say that it’s young adult, it’s a stand-alone, it has magic in it, it takes place in Colorado, and everything else is secret. With the Raven Cycle, what was so difficult was that every book was so anticipated – which is great, it’s great to write a book and know that people want to read it.
“So, it’s really nice to be working on something now that no-one can send me a message about, nobody knows what’s it’s going to be, and so I can write it just for me in a vacuum. I haven’t done that since The Scorpio Races and then the first book in the Raven Cycle so it’s fun, it’s nice. I think it’ll be out next year, maybe, if I turn it in on time.”
Finally I ask what advice she would give to young writers, in both the writing itself and navigating the publishing industry. “I always like to hand down the advice that I got when I was young, which was, you should write the book you always wish you could find on the shelf but you can’t, and you should write the book that only you can write.
Turning to the business side of the art Stiefvater explains that “it made me feel better to know the business is inherently fair. If you write a book that most people want to read, you will get published; you won’t be a secret hidden jewel somewhere in someone’s drawer. So if you’re getting rejections back it means that you’re not there yet. And maybe I’m strange but to me that’s comforting, to know that I’m making strides and I won’t get out there until I’ve actually done something worth reading. To me it’s helpful to know that publishers want the same thing as you. They’re made up of readers. All they want is to read a book that they love while sitting in the bathtub drinking champagne or whatever it is that publishers do!”
Sage advice indeed. Maggie Stiefvater has achieved so much, so young and is viewed as a sort of young adult queen by many readers. Let’s see what her reign brings next.