With her blockbuster new novel The Raven Boys racing up the charts, Maggie Stiefvater is poised to be the next big thing in YA publishing. She speaks to Doug Stanton about her love of very fast cars, mythology, and the Bulgarian bagpipes.
Author Maggie Stiefvater, 30, likes driving fast cars, writing fast-paced stories, playing bagpipes, and reciting William Butler Yeats’s sonorous “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in her sunny writing office tucked away, as she says, in “the middle of nowhere,” Virginia. Her latest novel, The Raven Boys, a blend of Welsh mythology and King Arthur–esque plot, is an intimate yet epic story about lost boys trying to “find their way through a very contemporary setting”—a posh boarding school. What other author trains to be a rally car driver—driving “a very fast Ford Fiesta with a raven painted on the side of it”—to prevent writer’s block? Stiefvater is the author of The New York Times bestselling Shiver trilogy, The Scorpio Races, as well as the Books of Faerie series.
DOUG: When you’re not writing novels about “werewolf nookie” and “homicidal faeries,” what are you writing about?
MAGGIE: These days? Dead Welsh kings, helicopters, and rich boys.
Young Adult literature—what is it?
A marketing construct.
And the difference between YA lit and “literary” novels?
[Laughing] This is a short answer, right? If we watch movies, we don’t have that same sense of “adult/young adult.” I love to use the example of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the classic movie that no one feels bad about watching if they are any age.
So why the stigma?
I suspect it has something to do with a long association with the children’s department.
Explain your childhood desire to be a fighter pilot and race-car driver.
I like going fast. I mean, my last book was called The Scorpio Races, after all. So it’s not shocking that there should be cars and fast things in my life. My editor, when he read Shiver, said, “Can you cut back on the car porn, Maggie?”
Wes Anderson or Martin Scorsese?
Wes Anderson all the way. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is…I wish I could be Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox is my hero.
Woody Allen or Russell Crowe?
I plead the Fifth.
You have 10 minutes to tell the most riveting story imaginable. If you fail, off to the dungeon with you. What’s the story?
Usually, in these cases, I’m at a school visit being faced by a legion of angry British 13-year-olds, and I really will die if I don’t tell them an interesting story in the next 10 minutes. And that’s the story about how I ended up having to play the Bulgarian bagpipes while on book tour in Europe.
Could you elaborate?
[Laughing] Do you want me to tell you the story of the Bulgarian bagpipes? Is that what you’re asking me?
I have eight minutes.
When I was in high school, I started playing the Scottish Highland bagpipes competitively. And, later, when I went on a book tour in Bulgaria, the Bulgarians had discovered this fact about me. I have to emphasize that Bulgarian bagpipes do not look like Scottish Highland bagpipes. They look like a recently deceased goat with wooden poles stuck into it. I had no idea how to play them, so I stuck them under my arm, and made this terrible noise—like a goat crying out from the dead. But my hosts are clapping, “Well done, Maggie! Bring out the Bulgarian National Players.” And we all sound like goats starving because that’s the sound of the Bulgarian bagpipes…That’s all I have to say.
You changed you name when you were 16. How come?
This is the story I should tell an anxious 13-year-old, I think. When I was a child, I was one of the kids who wore black all the time, and when the kids asked me why I wore black, I said things like, ‘I’m mourning the death of modern society.’ I mean, I was a riot. Back then, my maiden name was Hummel and my first name was Heidi. You can say it together if you like: “Heidi Hummel.” Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? I remember I went into an eye doctor’s office and the woman there said, ‘Heidi Hummel! What a great name. It sounds like a figure skater.’ And I walked right out to the car and I said, “Mom, I’m changing my name.” And I did.
What did your mom say?
Because I had been named after one of my dad’s ex-girlfriends, she was fine with it.
Camaro or Trans-Am?
Right. You named your 1973 Camaro named “Loki?”
I did, and I love it dearly.
Did naming your car after a Norse, shape-shifting god help you avoid speed traps?
Possibly. But I do break down a lot.
What were you thinking the last time you drove really fast?
Probably about my last chapter. I do all of my good thinking at over 65 miles per hour. The speed limit is, luckily, the same speed as my brainstorming speed.
“When I was a child, I was one of the kids who wore black all the time, and when the kids asked me why I wore black, I said things like, ‘I’m mourning the death of modern society.’”
You’re traveling for part of your national book tour by car. How can we tell it’s you if you pass us on the highway?
Probably by the terrified expression of my book publicist in the passenger’s seat.
What is it about mythology in your novels that people respond to?
I think fiction has been around for so long—you can go back and back, and we’ve been telling stories not only about what happens in our day-to-day life, but we’ve been putting magic and folklore into them, even when we knew full well that these things weren’t true. We were telling stories through this lens of myth. And I think the thing about mythology is that it makes all of our problems universal. I remember being shocked that Shiver sold in 38 countries, because I thought it was such a particularly “me” story.
When I started Shiver, I wasn’t a big fan of the werewolf myth. I mean, I feel like werewolves and vampires were invented to talk about something that was frightening us as a culture. And werewolves were about losing yourself to your “beastly side,” which must have been terrifying if you were a Victorian. But I have to say, I don’t think we have a problem of losing ourselves to our beastly side. I mean, how much marketing do we have out there that says, “Embrace yourself! Embrace your inner animal,” and off you go? So for me, the werewolf myth was kind of useless. Then I started doing high-school visits as an author, and I was faced with all these kids who started out to be these interesting, quirky, cool, middle-schoolers, and they’d get into high school and try so hard to fit in, and come out kind of lock-step, trying to lose their rough edges so that they wouldn’t get picked on. And that really stuck with me. So I started writing this book where “werewolf-ism” was really a metaphor for losing your identity, the better bits of yourself.
True or false: writing is fun.
This is not a true or false question, Doug. When you hit your stride, it is the best thing in the world. But when you don’t know what you’re going to say, it’s the worst job in the world.
What do you when it’s the worst job in the world?
I get into my Camaro and drive 65 miles an hour, and faster.
I find it hard to believe you only go 65.
My husband is an ex-cop. I have to say that.