Interview With Maggie Stiefvater

ShiverThe opportunity to interview young-adult-fiction writer Maggie Stiefvater was an opportunity too good to pass up. I’ve recently been introduced to her books by my friend and fellow writer Kate Armstrong. I figured who better then to help me interview Stiefvater (read: come up with intelligent questions) than her?

I’ve popped Kate’s questions and Stiefvater’s answers below and highly recommend that you both pick up one or all of Stiefvater’s books and catch her while she’s touring the country. This week she’s at the Brisbane Writers Festival and I’m gutted not to be in town to hear her speak in person…

You’ve got a lot of what some would call ‘dark themes’ in your books involving swearing and nudity and consumption of live meat (to name a few). How do you decide how far to push the dark-theme envelope in your writing? And do you think it’s important to include life’s darker side in stories for teens?

The young adult audience is an interesting and rewarding one to write for. Teens are clever and sophisticated readers; I would never ‘dumb down’ my writing for them. As both a reader and a writer, I love my stories to have extremes: very beautiful bits, but also very dark bits to make the beautiful parts shine more brightly.

LingerIs this for every reader? No. But the young adult shelf these days is filled with every flavour of novel out there, and it’s easy for a teen reader—like an adult reader—to find options that fit their comfort level. In short? I don’t hold back. If the story demands it, it’s going in.

As an avid follower of your blog [read: Kate is, but I’m signing up now], I’ve noticed how much time and energy you devote to connecting with your fans. Why is reaching out to readers important to you? And how do you keep it from swallowing you whole?

First of all, I love to write and blog. I’ve had a blog continuously since March 2006, when I began blogging as an artist. It’s great to feel like you’re not working in a vacuum, and having relied on so many author blogs for inspiration during my writing journey, it’s nice to feel like I can be a part of that for other aspiring writers.

It definitely needs to have boundaries, of course, and I’ve suffered quite a lot of growing pains over the years. I’ve gone from having a few thousand hits on my blog a year to over a million, and it means that sometimes I can’t answer every comment any more—a strange and agonising conundrum.

ForeverWhat’s the most interesting fan present you’ve ever received?

I’ve received some pretty darn interesting fan presents. My favourite, however, was a reader who gave me a copy of her favourite novel (other than mine, she was quick to say). It was personal without being creepy and it was a pretty good book to boot!

You’ve commented on your blog that you’ve been surprised by the way readers have bonded with some of your characters. If you could have real-life relationships with some of your characters, who would you be most likely to:

  • be best friends with? James from Ballad
  • get romantically involved with (in a reality where you were single and teenaged)? I don’t date characters. Strict policy.
  • Have heated arguments with? Isabel from Linger

You’ve done a lot of travelling in the last few years promoting your books. How has exploring new places inspired or informed your writing?

Oh, definitely. Life in general informs my writing and so travelling invariably works its way in. There are references to my journeys that I’m sure a very intent reader would see. My latest book (coming out 2012) bears a Ned Kelly reference from my time here in Australia.

What drives your storytelling: a recurring image, a particular character, a theme, a message you want to put out into the universe, or all/none of the above?

Usually the reason why a book cries out for me to write it is because of a central mood or feeling; then plot and characters and theme wander in, generally in that order. Really, it’s like when you go to a movie theatre: you don’t say, ‘I feel like watching a movie with a man embodying his personal demons in order to overcome them as he fights crime in the form of a bat.’ You just say ‘I feel like watching some character-driven action movie!’ That’s how it feels for me. I know what SORT of book I want to write, but not always what it’s about at first.

There are so many reasons why authors say they write. But what is it that really compels you to write, and in the genre that you do?

It’s subconscious, whatever it is. I have to tell stories. When I don’t write them out, I dream them. It’s just who I am. And as for the magic? It’s what I love to read, so it’s what I love to write.

This one’s for avid aspiring writers everywhere: if you could give one piece of writerly advice, what would it be?

Write the book you wish you could find on the shelf, but can’t.

Writers often say that their characters like to take on minds of their own and act as they see fit, with or without the writer’s permission. Have you found any particular characters challenging to work with in this regard? Or have they all been well behaved?

I’m a firm believer that writers should be in control of their own novels. I don’t like to get sentimental about writing or imagine there is a muse exerting influence outside of me. I will say, however, that when I’ve done my job well and I’ve brainstormed and immersed myself in the world of my novel, that I can sort of step outside my body and let my subconscious push the characters forward. I suppose it could feel like the characters are driving the action, but really, it’s the mental groundwork I’ve already done sweeping the novel to its logical conclusion. It’s dreaming the story, but while you’re awake. And that, to me, is pretty magical.

The Scorpio RacesStiefvater is appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival and touring throughout Australia. I’ve read her first book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, Shiver, and am heading home from China soon to read the next two, Linger and Forever.

Her next book, The Scorpio Races, will be released in October, so I should just about be up to date with the other books. Huge thanks to Kate Armstrong for helping out (read: coming up with) the questions. I’m looking forward to writing about her just-published book and book tour on here one day.

Sue Bursztynski talks about werewolves, part 2

Today I continue my interview with Sue Bursztynski — author of numerous non-fiction books for kids and the new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn.

Who is your favourite character in Wolfborn and why?

I have a lot of affection for Armand, the hero’s best friend. It’s not easy being a sidekick, especially when the hero drags you into everything and you’re poor (as aristocrats go, anyway) and can’t yet afford the armour you’ll need to be a knight and the only horse you can ride for the moment is a hill-pony which turns out to be a damned unicorn – do you know how embarrassing that is for a teenage boy? But Armand isn’t dumb. He knows when the time has come to go for help and insists on it.

You’re best known for your non-fiction books, the latest being Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly. How did you find the experience of writing novel-length fiction?

It’s very different. The research process is different. Non-fiction of the kind I have written can be done in bits and pieces. If I’m writing about spies or crooks, there’s a different spy or crook in each chapter. It’s a lot of work, but when you’ve finished that bit, you’ve finished and can go on to the next story. A novel is like a tapestry you’re weaving and you can’t afford to put in a wrong thread or the whole thing comes apart. You have to be consistent, not only in the facts you’ve researched but in what you’ve said about the characters and their backgrounds. And you have to make sure something you’re doing isn’t wrecking the story. I had written and re-written this several times and only in the last draft did I realise I still had an awful lot of “had I but known” bits. I cut all but about two of them. And because of something I changed early on, I really had to re-write the ending. My beta readers – three of them – won’t recognise the ending! The editing of non-fiction is often a case of  “Have you checked this fact out?” or “Can I have more information about that?” but obviously there’s a lot more to fiction editing. Sometimes I had to re-write because something obvious to me wasn’t obvious to the editor. Other times I stuck to my guns, saying, “This character wouldn’t talk like that” or “Yes, yes, show, don’t tell, but this bit is just not worth several pages of show when I can get the important information across in a few lines of tell.” I have to say, the editors at Woolshed/Random House were very good about this. If I said, “I think it’s better this way and here’s why” they said, “Fair enough.”

What’s next for Sue Bursztynski?

Who knows? I’m still working full-time in the school system. My writing has to fit in around that, but at least I can learn what teens are reading. When the time comes that I leave full-time work, I hope to sign up for a speaker’s agency – I can do this because as a teacher I know how to speak to children – and spend more time on the writing.

Meanwhile, I’m slushing for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, I’m writing short fiction, I’m reading plenty of history and science and folklore – right now, Montague Summers’s book on werewolves. He did the most famous book on witchcraft. And I’m playing with a prequel to Wolfborn, which is already almost as long as the whole of Wolfborn and nowhere near finished! I have a lot to do on that one.

George’s bit at the end

My thanks to Sue for taking the time to answer my questions. To find out more about her and her writing, check out her blog, The Great Raven.

And tune in next time for a guest review of The Wildkin’s Curse.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Sue Bursztynski talks about werewolves, part 1

In my last post I reviewed Wolfborn, the new YA werewolf novel by Sue Bursztynski. This time, Sue joins us at Literary Clutter to answer a few questions about her book.

Can you tell us how you first came across the medieval story that was to inspire Wolfborn?

I found it in a book on the remainders pile in a bookshop. It was an illustrated translation of the Breton Lais of Marie De France called “Proud Knight, Fair Lady”. I had heard of the Breton Lais and I’d also read other versions of some of the stories, some of which appeared in Middle English romances that I’d studied during my university years, but never actually read the Lais themselves. There are some wonderful tales in there, and they all have a bit of cheeky humour about them, but that one leapt out at me and made me wonder what more could be told about it.

Why did you decide to give the novel a fantasy setting rather than a purely historical setting?

Setting it in my own universe – one actually created for another novel that never worked out – gave me more flexibility. I could play around with whatever bits and pieces from our own world I wanted, that fitted into the story, instead of being limited to what could happen in even an alternative universe version of mediaeval Europe. I could stick in whichever gods I wanted because it was my world, thank you! And Celtic gods – the real ones – were pretty damned scary and this wasn’t a horror novel. That said, I did my research. The clothing, armour and culture are not unlike twelfth century western Europe, but with a lot more paganism. At one point, my editor said something about the armour being too heavy to do this or that and I said, “At this time it wouldn’t have been plate armour,” even though it wasn’t set in our own world! Oh, and I checked out what a world might be like with three moons. I couldn’t find everything I wanted, but a book on science fiction writing said, “When in doubt, be vague”. Just because it was fantasy didn’t mean I was happy to break ALL the laws of physics!

Did you read much other werewolf fiction while writing yours? If so, do you have any favourites?

I do have a favourite, which I read some years ago. It was Charles De Lint’s Wolf Moon, which may have been his first novel. In any case, it’s very different from his urban fantasy and his tales of Native American trickster spirits. It was about a werewolf who is being pursued by a bard-type with a harp – the sort of character who would normally be the hero, but is the villain in this one. It was the first story I read where the werewolf was the good guy, though there have been others since then. Of course, there are the werewolves in the Twilight series, but I’ve only read the first of those novels. I have read quite a few since I wrote the book, but I was busy doing research and didn’t want my book to look too much like anyone else’s.

George’s bit at the end

That’s it for this post, but tune in next time for the conclusion to this interview. In the meantime, check out this recent review of Wolfborn on Buzz Words Books.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Wolfborn

Werewolves — humans that have been cursed to change into wolves whenever there is a full moon; they go around biting other humans, destined to pass on the curse. It’s been done countless times in books and films. While I was looking forward to reading Sue Bursztynski’s new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn, because I like her writing, I was a little worried that the novel might be a case “same old, same old”. So it is with much delight that I can report that Sue has taken a fresh approach to whole werewolf mythology and written an enjoyable novel.

In the Kingdom of Armorique, a young knight-in-training, Etienne, encounters some werewolves and is soon embroiled in a story of betrayal, adventure and romance. Inspired by a medieval romance, Lai Le Bisclavret, it transposes the story from its original historical setting to a fantasy world. But it is a very familiar world, with many parallels to the historical. It’s an engrossing story with strong characters and a vivid setting. The tale is told in first person from the perspective of Etienne. The author does a terrific job of getting into the mind of this teenage boy. He feels real.

Pivotal to Wolfborn is the idea that there are two types of werewolves. The Loup Garou are humans who have made a deal with “the dark one” to gain the ability to change into wolf form. By the very nature of their transformation, Loup Garou are inclined towards evil. They are the werewolves that kill people and terrorise the countryside. Then there are the Bisclavret. Born with a dual nature, their ability to change into wolf form manifests itself when they reach puberty. Their ability is natural and there is no inherent evil in the process. Having two different types of werewolves makes for a really interesting dynamic. The Loup Garou have given werewolves as a whole, a bad rep, and there is much prejudice against anyone who can change into a wolf, with most people not recognising a difference between Loup Garou and Bisclavret. Being born a Bisclavret is a distinct disadvantage, and so many of these people choose to keep their heritage a secret, sneaking off into the night every so often to run through the forests as wolves.

What I love most about this novel, is its ability to defy expectations. Firstly in terms of what werewolves are, but also in terms of the actual story. I expected a coming of age story about a teenager trying to cope with his newfound ability to change into a wolf, with the whole werewolf transformation being an unsubtle metaphor for puberty. But that’s not what the story is. And I’m not going to tell you anything more about it, because I don’t want to spoil it. You’ll just have to take my word for it — that it’s a well-crafted, exciting and intriguing read that does very well in avoiding the werewolf clichés.

Has anyone out there read any good werewolf novels? Leave a comment and tell us about them.

And tune in next time for an interview with Sue Bursztynski. And yes, yes, I know… last post I promised videos. I’ve put them off for a couple of posts while I edit them. But they’re coming soon. Promise!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… otherwise I may have to bite you.

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