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The WD Interview: Maggie Stiefvater

New York Times-bestselling YA author Maggie Stiefvater discusses the boundaries between truthfulness and lies when it comes to myths, narrators, and her latest release, Mister Impossible.

Maggie Stiefvater is someone who has lived her life full of curiosities: She has been a race-car driver and auto journalist, a professional portrait artist, and a Celtic musician. She’s also an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of young adult fiction.

After 13 years publishing her work, she’s more than conscious that she’s writing for an audience, and she’s not afraid to call herself a commercial writer. “My step every single year is to ask myself … how can I change the mood to make [the story] more accessible, or find a way to bring mood and story closer together so it’s easier to follow?”

Stiefvater has focused much of her literary career around the fantastical. Her books are full of horses who live in the sea and rise up to eat unsuspecting people on the beach; ancient Welsh kings who may or may not be sleeping under the hills of Virginia; pilgrims who seek out modern-day saints, hoping for miracles that they desperately need and are afraid to get; fae; and werewolves. Her writing has been called dreamy and lyrical, her stories complex and thought-provoking.

“If you’re writing magic,” she said, “make sure the magic is real, and the rest will follow.”

But magic is just a well-loved orange Camaro (à la The Raven Cycle) that allows Stiefvater’s characters to explore their world and themselves. Sure, some of that has to do with her character’s ages, which tend toward the teenaged years. A lot of it, though, is that with a Stiefvater novel, you can always expect the everyday, universal weirdness of navigating romance, familial strains, and the haunting question that looms over us all: What’s next for me?

Her latest release, Mister Impossible, is all of this and more. It features Ronan Lynch, a 19-year-old who has the ability to pull objects from his dreams and into our world. That’s where we began our conversation.

Mister Impossible is the second book in The Dreamer Trilogy, but it’s also a sort-of spinoff of your Raven Cycle series. Was there a point when you were writing The Raven Cycle that you realized you were not done with these characters?

Gosh, I’ll just start out by saying I’m not really a series writer or a series reader. I realize as soon as I say that, it makes me sound like an enormous hypocrite because my career for the past 13 years or whatever has been defined by series. But the thing is, the series that I love are sort of old-fashioned … like The Black Cauldron or A Wrinkle in Time or Narnia. A lot of these books are either long arcs that are finite, like the limited series of television, or they are like companion novels. They exist in the same world, but they each tell a different story.

And that’s how I feel about my storytelling. I want it to always be heading toward a finite point. I won’t say that’s right or wrong, but it’s right or wrong for me. There was no way that I wanted to ever leap back into that world without having another finite story. Now that said, I started writing The Raven Cycle back when I was 19. And the first entry point into that story was the Lynch family and the dreaming and all of that. So, when I got to the end of The Raven Cycle, I truly thought I was done. I knew that there are parts that I hadn’t uncovered. There were stones that I hadn’t looked under, but the metaphor was still the same. And to me, magic has to mean something else. The story has to be about something bigger.

It was some time [later] where I looked back and realized, oh, now I see an entry point into the story, because I had become a creator. I had achieved my goals and now I was going on to create some more. And I was asking myself, “What next, OK, now you’ve hit the point of being good at your game. Right? You’ve gotten recognition. You found your people. What happens next?” And to me, that was where I wanted to take the spin-off to The Raven Cycle—what happens after the magic. Because so many [series] end when the magic is over, the portal to Narnia closes, the world returns to normal.

Maggie Stiefvater Quote | Writer's Digest Interview

Was it difficult to pick which characters were going to make it into The Dreamer Trilogy?

That part was not difficult. Even though I adore all of the characters from The Raven Cycle, some of them didn’t belong in the metaphor that I was talking about. They had a different story that was going on that if added into this one would complicate it. I think that good fantasy writing, good art, comes from subtraction rather than addition. You’re often homing in on a certain part of the world. And so, I knew it meant that I was going to have to turn my attention away from some parts of the world and look really tightly in on some of the characters.

One of the big challenges is that Ronan’s ability, of course, is a massive one, right? He can take things out of his dreams and bring them into the real world! So, what is he doing with himself? This entire series could be a medical thriller. Maybe he’s dreaming the cure to cancer. And he’s being hunted all over the world by pharmaceutical companies. Choosing to narrow the focus of the world, look at the metaphor, I think is crucial for magic because it can be about anything. And you have to say, “No, we’re looking at this.” And in my case, it was art. We’re looking at the metaphor for art … So, yeah, it was difficult to turn my attention away from some characters, but necessary for the story, the theme.

Was there anything that you’d hoped to include in Mister Impossible that ended up getting cut or moved to a different book in the series?

So, series are challenging from a writing point of view, especially if you know how many books you’re starting out with. … A trilogy lines up perfectly to our three-act structure, which we know so well that readers will instinctively bring a shape to that. They will know that in your first book, you’re establishing the world and the characters and the conflict. In the second act, the second book, you’re going to be complicating, deepening, and putting the real issue on the table. And you’re going to end with a bang because your third book is going to be a slide to the climax where you see how people actually come to grips with all of this.

A huge issue I have with editing is priorities, making sure that you’re making plot points that you know are important bigger or smaller in comparison to other ones. And a lot of times, a moment that I think will be huge when I actually write it on the page, [later] I think, well, that’s just a thing that happens. It’s not a big thing. The big thing isn’t gonna be this explosive chase scene or whatever. The actual moment that we’re going to end on is going to be a phone call or whatever it is. It can be something small; the size of the moment changes. When I move things around inside the book or from book to book or cut them out, it’s because they made it lumpy.

Mister Impossible | Maggie Stiefvater

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What is it about magic that you find so compelling as a writer?

Readers used to ask me if I would ever write a novel without magic in it. And I always said, “No, never.” And I have to back away from that somewhat only because I’ve now written so many short stories without magic, and I can get them to do the things that I want them to do, but I had to ask myself, “OK, so why do you feel this way about magic?” And it really is because magic, especially the way I use it as myth, makes true things truer. It makes you able to take the context of a feeling. Someone is having a situation and [you] make it feel universal for someone else. … That’s what I love about magic. At the end of the day, if I’m not writing about something true, if the magic is just static, I feel like that story comes away false.

Each of your works has very deliberate and meticulous world-building, which is something I’ve always admired both as a reader and a writer of genre fiction. I’m wondering, when it comes to the construction of a new world, is there something you always try to tackle first?

I always look for mood first. I want to know how I’m going to make the reader feel. And that’s less an issue for fantasy and more an issue for storytelling. I feel like it comes back to priorities. It’s so daunting to capture an enormous abstract story and filter it in a certain way that you had placed limits on yourself. Starting with mood, it makes a big decision for me. Every single plot choice or character choice is seen through that filter. So as a writer, you can think about how easy it is to make your world smaller with mood.

If you take the idea of a character who can pull things out of his dreams and make them real, if your mood is to terrify people versus your mood is to comfort people versus supposed to make them nostalgic, instantly the plot choices that you have available to you are wildly different, and settings are wildly different.

Do your characters tend to come first out of that? Or do you usually build the world and its rules first and your characters are born from that world?

I think it surprises a lot of people when I tell them that characters are very far down the list for me in the development process, because I consider myself a character-driven writer, but that’s precisely why they have to come last for me. If I start [with them] first, I’ll just wander around in the world of those characters. I don’t need to put them into plots. It’s much harder to take a plot, which is a very artificial thing to me, and impose it on a character because every fantasy fiction writer knows how enjoyable it is to take characters that you love, that you know really well, and just place them into a situation. The situation is fun, is good exercise, but often won’t end up with a cohesive plan.

Thinking specifically of some of your works like All the Crooked Saints and The Dreamer Trilogy, you utilize this third-person, omniscient narrator. When it comes to secrets and revealing secrets, how do you maintain that balance between that narrator giving the reader what they need to make the world tangible, but also withholding information so that you can surprise your readers down the line?

That’s a good question. I think withholding is incredibly frustrating. Readers, ideally, should feel like they are experiencing something new with every reveal, but not like it was being held back from them. So, it’s difficult when you’re working with omniscient; because we have an omniscient narrator, you know everything. … And it’s very challenging, I think, to write a true omniscient narrator and make you feel as a reader, because normally we experience a story with extreme empathy, and you are riding along in the head of a character, feeling what they’re feeling, imagining what you would do in that experience. But when you’re omniscient, it doesn’t rely on empathy, it relies on curiosity, because there is no mystery, right? You know what everybody is thinking in reaction to each other. So instead, you have to be interested in looking at what you’re looking at because you’re not withholding.

And I feel like I never worried about withholding information in All the Crooked Saints, because it just depends on what the omniscient narrator is choosing to look at. It’s about choosing the setting, making sure your characters are set in different situations. All the Crooked Saints is, in many ways, sort of my thinking novel ... it was more of a thought exercise than it was an emotional exercise. I think that it’s not so much about the puzzle of the mystery. I think it’s about learning when people are going to change rather than why they’re going to change. We understand what the stakes are. One of the joys of All the Crooked Saints is like a Hitchcock movie that you know what’s happening when the protagonist doesn’t know what’s happening, and you’re waiting for them to catch up. And the most important thing is you give [readers] something else to look at, so they don’t feel like all they’re doing is waiting for that character to catch up.

Now with The Dreamer Trilogy, the reason why I think it’s interesting that everyone says it’s an omniscient is it’s not truly omniscient. There are omniscient chapters and passages, but [overall], it’s written in close third. You were never looking at, for instance, Jordan and able to see what is also happening in Declan’s head in the same section; it will swap. And then you’ll be in a chapter which is in Declan’s point of view. And I think that those sorts of rules are important to establish for the reader. [For] a reader who doesn’t understand that when we change chapters, we get to look inside someone else’s head, it will be more frustrating. And also, I know a lot of beginning writers will get that wrong. They understand that rule incorrectly, and they think that you can swap heads in close third in the same section. That is not true. You’ve turned it magically into omniscient. And a lot of times, that actually distances us from the other person rather than getting us closer. Because every time you hop to a different head, you’re asking for empathy for a different character, and they can only be spread so thin as a reader.

I’ve been thinking of the evolution of how we categorize literature, because young adult is still a pretty new category. How do you see that evolving as we move forward?

It’s really interesting to try and predict what’s going to happen because there’s so much more media happening every single year. I think because of the way our culture is structured, we can learn a lot about what’s going to happen with books by looking at what’s happening in television and movies, because there’s more money and more bombast available for movies and TV. Usually, we follow them rather than vice versa, especially marketing, and the internet generally follows those bigger fandoms. And you can see now that we’re breaking into many, many, many, many [streaming services]; we have tons and tons of television.

The real challenge that is happening is that people don’t know how to curate their experience. Again, people will get onto Netflix or whatever and say, “I just didn’t watch anything because I can’t find anything.” Word of mouth is becoming hugely important. I was on a call the other day where we were talking about BookTok, TikTok, how books were coming out of nowhere because BookTok was talking about books that had existed forever and making them into bestsellers. And I tend to think that that is the future; we’ve actually lost the category war. I think YA and new adult and adult literature, fantasy and romance, I think that we’re probably going [lose] it.

What we’re going to do is move toward a world where we have other methods of curation. We trust certain voices. There used to be just Oprah’s Book Club, and now there’s Reese’s. I think that we’re going to see more and more and more of those kinds of boutique-y curation experiences that will come up organically. It’s difficult to predict them, but that would be my guess … I think a lot of times, readers aren’t looking for a young adult book or an adult book; they’re looking for a book that feels a certain way. So, when they search on the internet and say, “I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, what other books are like that?”, they don’t mean time travel books, right? They need a book that makes them feel like Time Traveler’s [did]. When they say, “I want to read a YA book,” they don’t actually mean they want to read about teens. They mean they want to read another book that makes them feel like that. I think that in a lot of ways, curation will give you communities of books. I mean, my optimistic vision is that category will be irrelevant. We can still fight about whether or not YA is good for you or whether adult is for grownups, but actually, we’ll be finding our books in a different way.

It sounds like you’re thinking that readers are going to be directing the evolution of categories and how people find literature. Is that correct?

I think so. I mean, it’s difficult now because we’ve been going through COVID as well, which makes it difficult to be a bookseller and a librarian, but we have loved book curators forever. We kind of romanticized them. … We have a real kind of mythos surrounding curators already. And I feel like we’re going to head back toward people being the curators, for sure.

I do think it’s interesting that we went through a big marketing push where for the longest time, brands had to all be individuals, you were supposed to be transparent online. And in a lot of ways, that’s actually what caused problems with authors being online is that we were encouraged to be ourselves, to bare everything, because that was the trend, not just in books, but in everything was being truthful, being transparent, being an individual, because we didn’t trust corporations anymore. And I think now we’re going to go from corporations to individuals to curators.

Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?

Oh, gosh. I guess what would I say is your magic always needs to mean something to you. Otherwise, it really is just window dressing. It’s just you writing a Pinterest photo board. It should be meaningful. It doesn’t have to be known to anyone else, but it’s going to help you with your magical system because it will be making decisions for you. If, in the back of your head, you’re thinking, Oh, this werewolf is a metaphor for losing a loved one to cancer. It’s about me talking about my relationship with my sister, who’s a drug addict. As long as it’s personal to you, you can hide all of your truest feelings in dragons and werewolves and magic. 

Writer's Digest cover November/December 2021

Order a PDF of the full November/December 2021 issue in which this interview first appeared.

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