Maggie Stiefvater: ‘Our attitude towards girls is taking a weird and terrible turn’ – Interview
Maggie Stiefvater is an unusual author. Happily munching on a bowl of chips, the American writer and mother of two shows me a picture of her pride and joy: a rally car. Considering she is a bestselling author of teenage fiction – romantic teenage fiction – it may seem odd that Stiefvater is a self-confessed tomboy; her passions include rally car racing and bagpipe playing. But as I talk to her, it becomes apparent that her strong identity powerfully influences her writing. She tells me her concerns that teenagers today are shrugging off their individuality in order to fit in. Accordingly, her books brim with refreshingly strong, self-aware characters.
This year, she will write the second novel of The Raven Cycle, called The Dream Thieves, although Stiefvater’s considerable success was cemented by the Shiver trilogy, which spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. In 2010, the sequel to Shiver, Linger, debuted at the number one spot.
Shiver is a love story between Grace and Sam. Grace is an ordinary girl who grows up fascinated by the wolves in the woods behind her house. One in particular has a powerful presence – Sam – who transforms from a boy during the summer into a werewolf in winter.
Stiefvater doesn’t identify herself as a writer solely for young adults: “I don’t think I write for teenagers, I think I just write books which happen to have teens in them.” It could be the reason her books are just as popular with adult audiences as they are with teenagers. Last year in the US, 55 per cent of teenage fiction titles were bought by adults, for adults, and it’s certainly the case with Stiefvater’s books: “At book signings there are often occasions where the fans will be all adults and there won’t be any teens at all, and if there are teens, they tell me their mums got them into the books.”
Not only have Stiefvater’s titles proved popular with teenagers and adults alike, but they’ve also attracted an international following. Her books have been translated into 34 languages, and to date have sold over 2 million copies worldwide. According to Stiefvater, it’s all down to magic: “That’s part of the reason I like magic. It’s amazing to get an email from someone in Hong Kong or Dubai, places where I can’t imagine people reading my books. It proves that magic and storytelling can transcend boundaries. Someone growing up in Dubai is having a very different experience from someone growing up in Minneapolis, yet they’re both hooked on fantasy.”
Both the subject matter and the popularity of her books often lead to comparisons with the Twilight saga, Stephenie Meyer’s teen fantasy series about young love, vampires and werewolves, that spawned a generation of diehard fans, but which wasn’t exactly hailed as a literary masterpiece.
Stiefvater isn’t fazed by the comparisons: “When I first started out it really bothered me. But I think it was more the idea of being compared to anything, not just Twilight. It didn’t take long to realise that if someone asks me to recommend the book to him or her, I think of the most common book I can think of to explain it. It doesn’t bother me at all now, especially when people tell me they started reading because of Twilight.”
Stiefvater’s writing is in fact a welcome departure from Twilight, thanks to her female character, Grace. Twilight attracted criticism from those who derided the main female lead, Bella, for her insipidity, vulnerability and constant need to be rescued by the male characters. Yet for Stiefvater, independence and individuality are important themes.
In comparison to Twilight’s Bella, Grace is headstrong and independent, often having to look after herself in the absence of her well-meaning, yet self-involved parents. In her relationship with Sam she is assertive, fearless and protective.
“I like to write about strong female characters, although I have such mixed feelings about that phrase because no one ever says to me, ‘why do you write strong male characters?’ Stiefvater explains. “We just assume that male characters are inherently strong characters.
“Obviously you want your female characters to make mistakes as well, but I grew up with so many soft-spoken, artistic boys that the girls would ignore, because they were only interested in the bad boys – the flashy, alpha males. I wanted to highlight the Sams of the world and I also wanted Grace to be the pragmatic one. I wanted to write about the girls of the world, like me when I was growing up, who get stuff done.”
In essence, Grace is a good role model, often at odds with the other more superficial, boy-obsessed characters in the book. And it’s not difficult to see where Stiefvater’s inspiration comes from. She grew up avidly reading adventure stories such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, telling me: “Most of these have really strong girl characters, and reading these books taught me that it was cool to go and have adventures.”
And her adventures have certainly been colourful. In 2010 she was invited to speak at a TEDxNASA conference. She titled her talk: “How Bad Teens Become Famous People.” I ask her just how bad she was: “I was moderately terrible, I was a street racer, and I would race boys all the time, which is very illegal – you can lose your car straight away.”
“Not to mention your life!” I interject.
Stiefvater laughs. “When you’re a teen you’re not so worried about that! It’s all about holding on to your licence.
“But I only had one close female friend in college, because I was hanging out with bagpipers and street racers all the time, so there weren’t many females around me. I still write boy-girl relationships and boy-boy relationships with greater ease than I write girl-girl relationships.”
I ask her what she thinks about young people today: “I like to think I’m a hopeful person. But I do think that feminism has taken a dangerous turn and hyper-sexualisation goes hand in hand with that. Our attitude toward girls is taking a weird and terrible turn. It’s taking a downturn in the sense that girls are starting to think of themselves as second-class citizens and as only being the sum of their bodies. I just wish girls would be a bit more self-aware about what they’re being told.”
Is she worried that children are turning away from reading and spending too much time online? “I think kids still love reading. Being online just means that reading has become more of a social experience. One of the reasons why Twilight was so popular was because it was like a club where the only thing you had to do to join was read the book and instantly you’d have something to talk about. And I love that.”
Stiefvater herself has a considerable online presence. A keen Twitter user, she has 28,000 followers and has posted nearly 18,000 tweets. She also has a website where fans can listen to the music that she composes and records for each book she writes. I wonder whether it is now an essential component for young adult writers today to have a social media presence. Stiefvater doesn’t believe that is the case: “I just enjoy it. I think authors are perfectly capable of making it without an online presence – Suzanne Collins has no online presence, her success is purely based on the story. It’s nice to be online, but you don’t have to be there.”
And finally, why did she choose to play the bagpipes? “They’re very much like me – they’re weird and loud”, she says laughing. “A concrete manifestation of how bizarre I am.” Considering Stiefvater’s concerns over teenagers today losing their individuality, weird, loud and bizarre may just be the message they need to hear.