Maggie Stiefvater on Music, Fantasy, and Writing for Herself

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Maggie Stiefvater is the bestselling author of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy–Shiver, Linger, and Foreverand, most recently, a standalone novel The Scorpio Races, which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here. In The Scorpio Races, teenage Puck is desperate to keep her family together after the death of her parents. She and her older brothers scrape by on a small island whose economy is entirely dependent on the Scorpio Races–an incredibly dangerous fall festival during which island dwellers capture and race vicious water horses. And this year, Puck is just desperate enough to race.

You compose music for your book trailers and play several instruments. Do you find that writing music and writing novels have a similar creative process?

I think it’s pretty much exactly the same, to tell you the truth. All of my music and art and writing starts the same way: with an image. And then with a motive: to create a mood of some sort. Everything else (stringing together words, playing the piano or bagpipes or whatever, figuring out how much solvent to use with your pencils) is just technicalities, tools that I need to master in order to make that image and mood.

Do you have soundtracks in mind for your works?

Definitely. I can’t focus on writing unless I have music in the background (even when answering these interview questions, I’m listening to music–Boy & Bear, if you’re curious). It helps keep me working instead of making cookie dough or running around my house or otherwise distracting myself, and it also reminds me of the mood that I’m trying to accomplish. I have the playlists that I used for my books up on my website —

You have several fangroups on Figment. What advice to you have for fans who want to end up in a similar place to you in a few years?

Follow your own voice. I spent a lot of time trying to write books like the books I loved to read, instead of writing books that didn’t already exist. I really wanted to be another Diana Wynne Jones, another Susan Cooper, another Michael Crichton . . . fill in the blank. I just thought my own ideas, the really Maggie ideas, seemed too weird. Like only I would be interested in them. But now I find the more Maggie the idea is, the more passionate readers seem to be about it. You have to be sort of fearless.

You have tried your hand at several jobs—your web site mentions you having worked as a “waitress, calligraphy instructor, [and] technical editor.” When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific turning point?

Oh, I always wanted to be a writer, but my father explained to me very young that being a writer was not necessarily a lucrative profession. I believe the exact exchange was: “Dad, I want to be a writer!” Him: “Oh, you want to be poor?” Both of my parents always encouraged my writing, but with the warning that I would probably not be able to make my living off it. This was actually a really healthy place to be in, because I wasn’t disappointed when my first two books didn’t let me quit my job. I was just thrilled to be making any money off my writing at all. You have to want to write for a better reason than the money.

You are known largely for your works of fantasy and have said you’ve always been a fan. What drove you toward this genre?

Long ago, I got a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten: “Write the book you’ve always wanted to find on the shelf but can’t.” Well, I’ve always read fantasy—specifically, contemporary fantasy. Magic in the real world. I love the idea that there is something inexplicable just around the corner. It also just seems to make things more . . . real.

Which authors have influenced you?

Diana Wynne Jones, definitely. She wrote fantasy novels that were equal parts serious and funny, something that really influenced me. Susan Cooper, whose books felt old, even though they were not. C. S. Lewis, for inventing another world. Madeleine L’Engle, for making magic about mathematics and science. Audrey Niffenegger, for being the only author, still, to make me cry at a book.

Two of your books have movies in early stages of production. What’s this process like for you?

Weird. I think that’s the best way to say it. I don’t have any say in the movies, so I’m very much at a remove. I would say my mood is described as cautiously optimistic. I will say that while writing The Scorpio Races, though, more than anything I wanted to see it as a movie, so that is revoltingly exciting.

You describe The Scorpio Races as the book you’ve always wanted to write. Now that it’s done, did writing it live up to your expectations? Is The Scorpio Races your favorite of the books you’ve written?

It’s definitely my favorite. I don’t know if I can write a more Maggie book than that, at least not for a couple of years. It deals with a lot of things that are important to me, and things I battled, and things that I love, and I need to live another few decades to store up some new things to distill. Not to say I don’t have stories to tell—I’m quite pleased with my next project—but I am not sure it will be quite so potently Maggie.

You’ve talked a lot about how mythical water horses inspired you for a long time and eventually led to the writing of this book. What drew you to the myth originally? When did you discover it?

I first stumbled across it as a pre-teen, while reading two lines about it in Katharine Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ve always loved fairies, and I’ve always loved horses, and I’ve always loved dangerous things, and I’ve always loved things that go fast. It was of course immediately appealing.

The Scorpio Races takes place on a fictional Island, Thisby, but contains references to the real world and modern times. What made you decide to set the novel in this way?

My rule with fantasy is to change as little as possible from our world. You only change what you absolutely need to change. You want readers to believe you, and they’ll believe you more if they recognize their own world and experiences. With The Scorpio Races, the only thing that is truly different is that there are deadly water horses in one little corner of the world. The island is made-up, yes, but there is nothing otherworldly about it. It could be any one of a few hundred islands scattered across the Atlantic.

The Scorpio Races contains a love story, albeit one less prominent than the one in The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy. How was constructing this love story different from constructing the one in The Wolves of Mercy Falls?

You ask hard questions! When I first began writing The Scorpio Races, I thought it would be quite similar to how I wrote the Shiver series. I thought it would be about two people meeting during a very dangerous time of the year. But that’s only one sort of love, and The Scorpio Races turned out to be about a lot of different kinds of love. In the end, I think The Scorpio Races is more passionate than the Shiver trilogy, but that passion expresses itself in a lot of different ways.

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