Interview with Maggie Stiefvater at the Decatur Book Festival
Chances are if you read young adult books, you probably know who Maggie Stiefvater is. She’s the author of the hugely popular Shiver series, the wonderfully magical Raven Cycle books, and The Scorpio Races. She’s also one of my favorite authors, so when I got the opportunity to interview her at the Decatur Book Festival last weekend, it’s safe to say I was a little excited. She was seriously cool. See what Maggie has to say about what it’s like to realize you’re going to be a successful author, stealing characters from real life, and what she’s listening to right now. You can also check out our game of bookish Would You Rather? here.
Describe yourself in three words.
This is impossible. I was actually just in New York, and they asked this question. I’m writing a book with another author, and they asked her to describe me in one word. She was flummoxed. First, she said, “Destructive,” but she goes, “No! Wait! That’s not good. Overenthusiastic. No, not like that! Catapult.” So maybe one of those. I don’t know. I’ll go with enthusiastic.
That’s a good one. Or passionate.
Or curious. Yes! Curious is the best.
Cool. I like that one. Can you give me a one to two sentence intro to your books? Not necessarily each one, just your books. Like, if someone wanted to try them.
Yes. Maybe. When I was a kid, I used to love to read my dad’s hand-me-down thrillers and my mom’s British children’s fantasies that she used to give to me. I used to always wish there were books that were both of those things at the same time. So I like to think that my novels are the combinations of those wham-bam thrillers and those dreamy, Welsh/British children’s fantasies of my youth.
I love that. What a great intro! Obviously you are very passionate. I read an interview in which you said that you think your brain is on fire, and I love that. I was wondering how you think your passion comes across in your books.
My characters are…you can often see reflections of me, mirrors of me in there. The characters are always doing something, wanting something. It’s hard for me to write a character who is a negative character, as in, who doesn’t want something. Instead they’re always looking ahead. So I think that’s the big thing.
Can you tell me some of the things you’re passionate about? I know a few…
Well, I love cars. Everyone knows I love cars. My favorite Publishers Weekly review just came out for Sinner, and it said that it took place in L.A. which gave Stiefvater another excuse to make cars into characters, which is not true. None of them have names in that book! I love music as well. I buy a new song every day. I play music all the time. I love reading. I love movies. I have to say, I’m a very visual person so I love beautiful images. So movies: storytelling plus beautiful images? I’m on board with that.
So what’s your favorite band or musician right now?
My favorite right now?
You can do a couple if you want.
So on my blog, I’ll often tag the songs that I’m listening to when I’m writing, because I have to listen to music when I’m writing. I make very dedicated playlists, and then I only listen to them when I’m writing that book. That way when I’m on tour, if I’m writing on a plane or something, all I have to do is put my headphones on and I’m instantly back in the mood of that book. But it also means that I have so many songs in my head at any given time. So now I’m working on the last book in the Raven Cycle, and when you say, “What’s your favorite band?” I’m like, “Those people who are on this!” I really love the Austin band Speak. They just came out with a track called Heavy Metal War, and it is fantastic for writing Raven Cycle books to.
I’ll have to look that one up [side note: I did, and it is awesome. Listen here]. Do you still have a Camaro named Loki?
This car! Okay, so I tour every single year for my books that come out, and I’m usually on tour a lot. This year when Sinner came out in the summer, I asked my publisher if instead of flying on my tour, I could drive my ’73 Camaro across country 7000 miles. And they said, “Sure!” because they were so strangely trusting. So I got into this car and it broke down so many times. The first time we went from Virginia to Cleveland, and a bolt had flown out of the alternator. I’m there at a gas station fixing it while my sister’s looking on, and guys are pulling up alongside and going, “Hey baby! Do you want some help?” I go, “Yeah! Do you have a 9/16” wrench?” “…No.” Anyway, so we had to prepare that car so many times along the way. It was towed in California. We had to put new car parts in it constantly. Then when I got it back home, it died in a puddle of its own fluid, so I put it up on my hydraulic lift in my garage, and my husband broke the lift. Now it’s stuck seven feet in the air, so when I get back home I have to somehow get it…it has to join the rest of us again. I do still have it, but it’s kind of on a higher plane.
I think that’s the best story I’ve heard in a while. You should write a book about that.
I used to say that every time my Camaro broke down, I would have to have Gansey’s Camaro in the Raven Cycle break down. But now that would be all that book four was, just them replacing car parts.
So I know you probably have a lot of fangirls, do you fangirl over any authors?
I fangirl over books a lot, individual books. The one that I just read and loved – and I hadn’t fallen in love with a book all this year – I really loved The Girl with All the Gifts. I didn’t want to read it because I heard it was a zombie novel, and I don’t really care for zombie novels because there are only three ways it could possibly end. But it’s really hopeful with great world building and charming. So when I get a book, I’ll fixate on a book, not usually a whole author but a book.
That book just came in to the library where I work, so I’m definitely going to check it out. What are your favorite and least favorite things about book festivals?
My favorite thing is that you can have off the cuff discussions. My favorite moment is before people know that I’m an author, so you’ll just be sitting around at a coffee shop. Like in Decatur, there’s lots of shops around here and you can be sitting having coffee and someone will start to talk to you about books. Then they realize after that you’re one of the authors, and that is the most charming moment. They have that brief moment of unguarded conversation where you’re still a human being. That’s my favorite part of festivals.
My least favorite part? I’m going to go with parking. I’m in my other car, my yellow car with big, spattered ink all on the side, and it’s parked in a garage since my other car is stuck on a lift right now. Parking is always annoying.
Hmm. We found a pretty good spot in a parking garage.
Don’t tell me that! I don’t want to know. Rub it in why don’t you?
Well, you probably got here before us though! How’d we get a better spot?
That’s true. I got here at one o’clock last night. I spent four hours last night with one of my author friends making an opera cake, which is, I guess, a seven layer pastry. It took us so much time. We had so much cake on our bodies. So then I dragged myself into the hotel at one, and they’re like, “Wow! Crazy night in Decatur?” I’m like, “Yeah… buttercream. Not like that!” So yeah, wild life!
At what point did you know you were going to be as successful as you are?
I feel like this is a realization that I have every single day. When I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and by the time I was a teen I knew the kind of writer I wanted to be was the kind that when you opened up one of their books, it said, “Also by…” and had a huge, long list of titles. That was always the goal, but I thought I would be here when I was 50. The Shiver series really exploded in a way that I had no idea it would, especially because it was about werewolves and everyone said werewolves are dead. My biggest hope after I was done with the Shiver trilogy was that I wouldn’t forever be known as the person who wrote the Shiver trilogy. I wanted to keep on producing work, so when The Scorpio Races came out, I thought, “I think this might be a career. I could be doing this for a long time. That’s good.”
I bet that was a weird feeling. Is it still a weird feeling?
It was a weird feeling. Like I said, every day I realize that this is my job.
How much research do you do into the myths in your books? Everything in the Raven Cycles books felt real and well-developed and…
Aw. Thanks. I love mythology. I really do. It was my first love. I started reading that stuff when I was a kid. There was a book I used to check out from the library all the time called An Encyclopedia of Fairies. It was published in the ‘30s or something, and it’s this big, alphabetical list of all the supernatural things that could kill you in Britain. I used to check it out again and again and again. I remember when I first started reading Diana Wynne Jones’ novels who did Howl’s Moving Castle or Susan Cooper who did The Dark Is Rising. That was the first moment that I realized you could put the mythology into stories. I’ve always been in love with it.
So with the Raven Cycle, it’s not the mythology that I researched so much since I grew up with that. I have to do loads of research for the historical stuff and also for the weirdest things, like boarding school since I didn’t go to a boarding school even though I went to private schools, so that’s the part where I end up having to do most of my research.
Personally, when reading the Raven Cycle books, it’s like you can feel the magic coming off the pages and settling on your fingers. How magical do the books feel when you’re writing them?
First of all, I’m really happy you said that, because the books that I always love reading are the ones that you can’t really shake off when you close the pages, when you’re done you’re still kind of stuck in that mood with them. So I dearly hoped that the Raven Cycle would be that for people that would be stuck in it.
But I steal so much from my day to day life to put in the books, and I research so much which is integrated with my personal life. My husband and I will take vacations to places that are in the books so I can research at the same time. It means we kind of live the stories at the same time, so a lot of times the line between the two is really, really thin to the point where there’s a boy racer in the second book, Kavinsky, and we’ll be at a stop light and someone will pull up wearing white sunglasses. My husband will go, “There’s a Kavinsky.” The line is so thin.
I think it would freak me out if something happened like that.
[SPOILER] My favorite moment was at the end of the Raven Cycle there’s an earthquake that they set off by activating the ley line, and when I turned that draft in, we had our first earthquake in Virginia along the ley line for something like two decades, and it went perfectly up the ley line. My editor goes, “I know what you’re doing down there!” I’m like, “No! It’s not me!”
You mentioned that you steal from your real life, and I was going to say that your characters all feel realistic. Do you ever base them on real people?
They’re all stolen. I used to be a professional portrait artist before I was a writer, and I illustrate now still. I think that you can’t make something up totally from scratch. You have to use a model. Otherwise they end up looking like sausage people, so I look at characters the same way. You can change them after you have the armature already there. So every single character I write now starts out with a real human heart.
If someone were to write a biography about you, what would you want it to be called?
“Drive it like you stole it.”
That’s great! I like that. So what are you reading right now?
I am reading Naomi Novik’s latest novel. It’s not out yet, – it comes out next spring – but they just sent it to me. I just started it. It’s high fantasy and dragons. I can’t tell you if I like it yet.
Next, Maggie and I played a bookish version of Would You Rather? Make sure you go check that out!
I’m a mismatched socks, overflowing bookshelves, pot of coffee a day, Sonic Screwdriver, paint all over my fingers, rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock kind of girl with alopecia. I am a huge bibliophile. For more reviews, visit my book blog at caughtreadhanded.wordpress.com.