Maggie Stiefvater, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Raven Cycle,” “The Scorpio Races” and “The Shiver Trilogy,” visited Kepler’s Books to launch her new novel, “All the Crooked Saints.” The Daily sat down with her to discuss the book, her writing and her advice.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What can you tell us about your newest novel, “All the Crooked Saints”?
Maggie Stiefvater (MS): It’s a very strange little fable. It takes place in southeastern Colorado in the middle of the high desert. It takes place in 1962 as a miraculous family who can only perform one miracle and that is as pilgrims arrive, they make their inner darkness visible, concrete and tangible. They’re always really strange, because they’re a metaphor for what’s wrong with you. There are people who have the heads of coyotes and there are giants and there are people who have snakes wrapped around them. There’s actually another miracle that has to happen out there, which is that the pilgrims have to fix themselves before they leave. If the saints interfere with it, then a taboo is broken and the darkness of the saint will land on them, and everything goes terribly wrong. So, they just never help the pilgrims and the pilgrims have to work out everything on their own, and obviously this is a terrible idea and everything goes wrong.
TSD: Is that grounded in a particular mythology?
MS: I was tortured by Catholic nuns. That’s not true; I was also raised tenderly by them. I went to Catholic school until sixth grade and so I was also raised Catholic. There’s a lot of spirituality through there. I also grew up reading a lot of magical realism, so I liked the idea of tipping over from where I am now — which is contemporary fantasy that sometimes steps into that — to going full-blown magical realism. So, just taking magic and making the metaphors right there concrete.
TSD: I find it so interesting that “Shiver” was about missing people, so there was that emotional core. “The Scorpio Races,” when I read it, was about home and what your connection to and sense of home is. How do you find the emotional core of your stories?
MS: I think that if I try to force that too much at the very beginning what you end up with is a very preachy novel. If you go in and say, “Alright, ‘The Scorpio Races is going to be clearly about the battle between traditionalism and progression, and about spirituality versus religion” — I didn’t set out to tell a story about any of those things. Instead, it turned into that.
Part of that is that writing is such an unwitting mirror. You start off with a plot that has no inherent theme or value to it. When you put in the things that you’re interested in, you find that it’s not autobiographical but it clearly represents what you’re thinking about at the time. With “The Raven Cycle,” I was looking at property in the Shenandoah Valley. I was a Navy brat, so I moved around everywhere. I lived in 18 places before I was 18. I was born in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and I love it, and I realized that I was miserable living anywhere else. As an adult, I kept on visiting the valley and then I thought, I could just move here. There’s literally no one telling me that I can’t move here. I’m a grownup and I actually have a dollar now. I could buy a house and live here.
The thing is that you can see that in “The Raven Boys” so acutely. It’s the first place where any of them actually feel at home. They’re like, “Oh, yeah! I’m a grownup! I could be at home here!” That was not a thing I thought was going to be a theme of that series, but it became a huge overarching one of it.
This is what home is; this is where you feel at home, but also that family and found family is your home. I think it has to happen organically, at least for me, because otherwise it turns into this didactic moment.
TSD: Do you have any advice for college-aged people who aren’t sure of what they want to do?
MS: I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask about this, for two reasons. For starters, I knew what I wanted to do ever since I was really tiny. I was a small, crotchety, terrible child. I had no social life. I didn’t hug people. I talked like Batman. I was always dressed in black and I always knew I wanted to be a commercial writer. I even knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. It was important to me that I would be a storyteller and other people would hear what I had to say. So, that sense of not knowing what you need to do is somewhat alien. What I didn’t know was how I should do it.
If you’re going to take advice from me on that — if you have any sort of clue, just pick something. The people who get ahead are the people who just pick anything, because then you get head and shoulders above the rest. As soon as you make a decision you can always choose after you decide that it’s a bad one and make another one. You’ll still be ahead of the person over here who’s like, “I have no idea.”
Also, follow other people who have succeeded. Don’t reinvent the wheel, which is what I did at first. The other reason why I’m a bad person to ask is that I hated college. I tried to leave a whole bunch of times. My parents bribed me into staying. Moreover, I ended up not actually using it. Therefore, I’m like anti-college, so no, don’t listen to me. Stay in school, kids! I’m sure it’s great. I’m sure it’s fantastic.
I actually did not write anything during college. I was a history major, so we wrote for that. We used to write hundred-page papers for it. That was actually really useful because we had to write to a deadline in twelve weeks, which is basically my job now. Also, you had to learn to research a ton. More importantly, it gave me a large knowledge base of stories to tell, so I tell people that if you want to be a writer, think really hard if you want to major in something directly related to writing or if you want to be a biology major and have something to write about instead. You’re going to find your way to a writer’s education regardless.
TSD: Do you have any other advice for aspiring writers?
MS: You should know I really love telling other people how to live their lives, so it’s difficult to narrow it down. I would say that the big thing is that the people who make a decision get ahead, and that’s true in the writing world as well. The people who make it are not the ones who are exceptional. It should be that they’re exceptional, but it’s the people who are good enough and don’t give up. No matter what happens in front of them, they just keep going on. Even if it’s a failure that is because of someone else, they never linger on that. They do what they can do to get ahead. Instead of focusing on being exceptional, focus on being gritty instead. That would be my big piece of advice.
TSD: Is there anything else you’d like to leave the reader with?
MS: Life’s too short to finish reading books you don’t like. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad. You can put them down; I give you full permission. Give them 20 pages. That’s a good thing, and if not, put it down. Find another one. Love life.
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.