Speaking to Margaret Stohl

Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures was the first YA novel I bought in eBook format. The book had garnered such praise that I couldn't resist taking a look. I was indeed impressed by what I read, and instantly identified with Ethan, the popular yet lonely boy in the Southern town of Gatlin. (Not that I was popular in my youth, but I was a thinker like Ethan, always thinking deeply about the issues of identity and belonging.)

I met Stohl at the MPH Reader's lounge at Mid Valley megamall, and I found out that this was her first visit to Malaysia and that she had spent “a good four hours eating” the night before.

“I always say my favourite food is food,” she said, laughing.

It is always such a pleasure to speak to writers. I regard all of them as my sifus and take every opportunity to learn from them. And they have such wisdom! The result of our conversation is the article, Margaret Stohl finds her voice, which was published a few days after Christmas.

The following is a partial transcript of our conversation.

How did you end up writing Beautiful Creatures? I've wanted to be a writer my whole life and I've been working as a writer for 20 years but never writing a book. Because it was the thing I most wanted to do and I think I was afraid that I'd fail. So I wrote video games for 16 years. I wrote animation, screenplays before that for Nickelodeon Pictures .... And then I finally stopped making video games and really wanted to write but I didn't know what I wanted to do and I was messing around with different things when I went out with Kami Garcia, who was my daughter's teacher.

She taught all three of my daughters and she was a Reading Specialist. And what we have in common is a love of books. So we came up with this idea and the rest happened really quickly after that. I came home from lunch and told my eldest daughter who is a teenager that we were going to write a book and she laughed and laugh and thought it was the funniest thing.

And I said, “No, really, I'm going to write a book!” And she said, “Mummy you may think you're going to write a book but in three days you'll be doing something else because you never finish anything. And I said, “Oh, it's on! I'm writing that book and I'm going to show you. And that's exactly what happened. It took me 12 weeks.

We had to revise it after that for nine months but the draft was finished in 12 weeks and I won the bet. Although if you ask what I won all I can say is I made a teenager cry.

How did you get over your fear of writing that novel? For me it was my daughter. You do things for your kids you won't do for yourself. And I just had to do it do it without thinking too much about it. I think it was because we weren't writing it to be sold. We were just writing to tell them the story. And I wrote it for my teenagers and Kami's half sister who is a teenager and their best friends. So, seven teenagers. It's actually quite easy to write when you know who you're writing for. And it was almost like writing a bedtime story for these children. When it was over I was so happy that she resepcted me that I won the bet that I honestly didn't care what happened to the story.

And my friend who was a middle grade writer – a writer for younger children - sent the manuscript without telling me to his agent. So she called me and I didn't even know who it was. And I'm quite shy on the phone so I pretended I did. And I called Kami after and said, “Well, the good news is someone likes the book. The bad news I don't know her name, her phone number or where she works. But she eventually tracked us down. And then everything happened really quickly.

We had multiple offers. Amazon declared it the No.1 teen book and No.5 adult book which is something they've never done except for Harry Potter.

And then the movie rights sold. And all that happened before the book even came out. So then my life changed really, really quickly and everything was very strange for a while. Then I sort of got used to it and things got back to normal.

How did your life change? Instead of being afraid to sort of call myself a writer. Then suddenly I really was a writer. And it was in the news. My friends were all writers. I met the people who were doing what I do. And I sort of found this whole other world. I found my tribe.

It felt great. I was in Paris when my book hit the NYT best seller list and I remember that was one of the great nights of my life. Also, the day the publishers sent me the book for the first time and I held it in my hands. That was a really big day for me. And that was exciting.

Why write young adult fiction?

I always say I didn't choose it. It chose me. It's where my voice is. I read a lot of Young adult books. I think I've always been interested in fantasy and imagined universes. The most creative place now is the teen genre.

How do you write with Kami? In Europe they ask me, “How do you write with four hands?” That's what it feels like. I will send her my pages, and she she will send me her notes. And I will do the same. We trade chunks of writing and we are very critical of each other. I would write over her writing and she will do the same.

Why do you think supernatural-themed fiction is so popular? I've met with students and readers in Canada, US, here … I am surprised by how similar teenagers are. Their life is controlled by standardised tests. They feel that they don't have any control and that decisions are made for them. The fundamental story for our book is Lena not being able to choose for herself. I think that's a “teen feeling”.

Fantasy is a way of exploring dangerous and powerful emotions and topics. When you're writing about supernatural powers you're writing about emotional power.

Some YA novels have been adapted successfully into movies, and some not so well. Do you worry about the fate of the movie based on your books? I worry about that. But I could never control it. (The movie) is casting right now and filming in April. They're putting really well-known actors in the adult roles. Not that many books are made into movies, however. Many are optionied, which is a halfway step.

What can you tell me about the last book of the series? The last book is very much the end of the series. It is very closely connected to the third book they're almost two halfs of one book. And the stakes are the very highest. The feeling of writing the last book is like a cross between a funeral, a wedding and a graduation. When I finished writing the draft I cried and when Kami finished writing her part of the draft she cried and when the editor finished reading it she cried. It's just so emotional to finally have this world closing.

Is it possible to return to the world eventhough you've closed the chapter? We really don't know. Obviously with the movie coming up there's a lot of pressure to do more. Right now I think it's important for both Kami and I to explore our own voices.We are going to do that and we'll always be friends and the possibility will always remain. I will never say never.

Any chance of writing a vampire novel? Who can say? I don't know.

More from Margaret:

“I can't stand books where monumental things happen and the character just moves on. Your fantasy has to be quite real and honest emotionally.”

"Teens are very critical. They can smell a phony from miles away and they will tell you. I'm very respectful of the people I write for."

To writers: “Be kind with yourself and be patient. And carry a book with you and write down your ideas. The difference between someone who is a writer and who is not is that they start writing ...  I tell students to 'sit down and write the worst book you can'."

"I love books and readers. I love talking about books. I love bloggers. They're the same in every country. I really like the YA book community. The writers are my very good friends.

It's really strange because you'd think we'd be competitive. But we're not. They say: 'The rising tides lift all the boats.' Because they want everyone to be reading YA."