YA Wednesday Exclusive: Maggie Stiefvater Chats with Elizabeth Wein
Earlier this year Maggie Stiefvater lent her praise to Elizabeth Wein's surprising (in an I-want-to-read-it-again kind of way) historical novel, Code Name Verity--which became our pick for the Best YA Book of May. This month it's Stiefvater's turn in the Best YA Book winners circle for her latest--and the first of a new series (thanks, Maggie!)--The Raven Boys. These two "Best of" authors recently got together to talk about writing, research, and the books they love. You can read the rest after the jump.
MAGGIE: I’ll confess right up front that I’m not usually a big historical fiction fan. I realize this seems somewhat hypocritical of me, as I was a history major in college and adore history, but a lot of times, I find historical fiction more impenetrable than a primary source document. Either the characters feel too invented or too modern. I get distracted by historical info-dumps and bored by epic scale machinations. Basically, I like my historical fiction very personal and very intimate. And Code Name Verity was definitely that. Do you read a lot of historical fiction? Favorites?
E WEIN: Actually, I’m not a historical fiction fan either. I think that if there is a “genre” I love to read, it is adventure. But I don’t think that is a genre; sometimes you get sci-fi adventure stories, sometimes contemporary, sometimes historical. Rosemary Sutcliff (Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels) and Ursula LeGuin (the Earthsea trilogy) were both favorites of mine as a teen, and both have had a huge influence on my own writing. But I think that mostly what Sutcliff (historical) and LeGuin (sci-fi/fantasy) have in common is that they both write great chase scenes. I am a sucker for a character who is fleeing danger.
I also go for character-driven fiction. Favorite contemporary authors are Philip Pullman and Hilary McKay… although both of them have written historical fiction, it’s Pullman’s fantasy and McKay’s modern family novels that I really love.
MAGGIE: Man, as an author, one of the things that I respect more than anything else is a well-written action/ chase scene. It's something I think that Hollywood does very well, and easily--it's something well-suited to a visual medium. When an author pulls off a great action scene, I know that the writer not only nailed their imagery, but also their pacing, and their characters. And there are some great ones in Code Name Verity.
E WEIN: The Lysander flight over France, after the plane has been damaged and they're looking for the landing site, nearly killed me—partly because the structure of the book demanded that it had to be broken up. Code Name Verity also contains the first on-stage battle I have ever written. Which was, as you can imagine, emotionally exhausting. The upside is that while I was doing a quick internet search for local shrubbery to hide people in the battle scene, I discovered a fantastic French villa which we rented for our next vacation!
MAGGIE: I am too ashamed to admit how many vacations I have set up the other way round. “I need to research ley lines . . . Lover, fancy a vacation in Dartmoor this year?” Speaking of that, we must talk research. The role of research is most obvious in historical fiction, but I think every good novel is well-researched. It needs to feel true, and the best way to do that is for it to actually be true. In Code Name Verity, everything feels genuine. The main character’s best friend is a pilot, and that part I knew was real even before I read that you had a pilot's license. I could feel the real-life love and knowledge of flying seeping through the pages. It was grand. Discuss.
Before I wrote Code Name Verity I wrote a short story about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and joins the Royal Air Force to fly in the Battle of Britain in 1940. I made a research trip for this story to the Imperial War Museum, and it was there that I discovered the existence of the women who worked as saboteurs and spies for the Special Operations Executive… I never thought of any of it as “history” except in that it happened in the past. Learning about these people was not a chore--it was a thrill. And I wanted to share that excitement.
I think the reason Code Name Verity feels real is because I think of the characters, as I’m writing them, as real people--the emotions and many of their experiences are drawn from my own life. All the slimy moves that the resistance agent makes on Maddie are moves that have been made on me. The little details--the boiled eggs and the smell of coal smoke and the driving rain--well, that’s just real life in the UK. So is snow in the cockpit when you’re flying in a small plane in Scotland in wintertime. Obviously getting shot at isn’t, but if you’re skillful at mixing the experience with the made-up stuff it comes out feeling true.
MAGGIE: I can see that we are kin when it comes to research (also, as someone who is absolutely insane about cars, I cannot judge you for your planes). When I'm writing, I want to put my hands on as much of the book as I can--I'm writing a series about a quasi-historical quest at the moment, and I feel as if I have spent more time on the quest than my characters.
Of course, it's not just researching the external things; the internal is crucial, too. One of the things I loved about Code Name Verity is that you not only made the historical aspects feel true, but also the tiny, personal moments. It's one of the things that makes Maddie & Verity feel true--like real people I just happened to be reading about. One of the questions I invariably get asked as an author is which of my characters is most like me. How ghastly to think I'd write a lovely person like myself and then torment them for four hundred pages! What a beast readers must think I am! How they must think I enjoy watching my doppelgangers be put through the wringer. Are either of the girls of Code Name Verity like you? Do you really think they have to be (cue the sound of Maggie asking a deeply loaded question)?
E WEIN: Hmm, I do tend to torment my favorite characters the most. It is a very godlike thing to do, I think, but also disturbing. I think it’s a way of testing our own limits. Would I be able to be this brave, this determined, this outrageous, if I was put to the test? Probably not, but let’s see what happens when you push the limits.
Neither of the girls in Code Name Verity is very much like me overall, but I share things with both of them. I have got Verity’s high-minded literary background and probably more than my fair share of her snarkiness and sarcasm. But I am more like Maddie in practicality and caution. Actually, I did not fully appreciate either character until I was in the middle of writing them. (I kept exclaiming aloud as I was writing, ‘Maddie, you are SO NICE!’ Most of my characters, including Verity, are more self-centered than Maddie.)
MAGGIE: I could go on and on about the characters, but let's talk plot. Code Name Verity is in possession of a rather twisty one which definitely rewards the careful reader. Do you think about the reader when you're writing? Do you worry about the not careful reader?
E WEIN: I always worry about the not careful reader. I translate and define everything in context, I point up all the literary references, and I often re-introduce minor characters every single time they turn up. Maddie’s friend Beryl is always “my friend Beryl from school” because I know the careless reader won’t remember who she is. (I thought that naming a character Bloody Machiavellian English Intelligence Officer was a brilliant coup, because it means you always know who he is whenever he appears.)
You will have noticed, toward the end of the book, a sort of recap list of All the Tricks. That is there for the careless (or hurrying) readers. They shouldn’t have to re-read the book if they don’t want to, and they certainly shouldn’t have to go back to the beginning to figure out what just happened. But the careful reader will enjoy going back and rediscovering the clues and traps.
I think my goal as a writer is to get people to read my book more than once, so setting those traps is self-serving. The best thing I can hear from a reader is “As soon as I finished it I went right back to the beginning.”
MAGGIE: This reminds me of a particularly distressing authorial moment I had this year. I was reading a book review online and at the end it said something along the lines of "recommended for: people who don't mind reading every single word to know what's going on." And the author inside me shouted ISN'T THAT EVERYONE!? I'd always believed that a good novel worked on both a shallow and a complex level, but I'd never considered just how different those two levels might be. Code Name Verity works on both levels, I think. I certainly devoured it quickly, but then it stuck with me so hard that I had to reread it several weeks later as well--and found new bits to appreciate. To me, that stick-with-you-feeling is the holy grail of novel-craft, both as a reader and a writer. What makes a book stick with you, and which ones have done it over the years?
E WEIN: You know, the books that I re-read over and over are just all over the place. It’s hard to make a sweeping statement about why they stick with me, because they’re all so different. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Elidor, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Paul Berna’s The Horse without a Head, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. That’s probably my core curriculum. I think what they have most in common is that they’re all exquisitely crafted, so beautifully complete and self-sufficient. The Long Winter is a great example--the foreshadowing in the beginning, animal and earth and octogenarian medicine man all predicting the “seven months of blizzards,” building to the heroic race against time as Almanzo and Cap make the 40 mile trip across the snow-covered prairie to find grain which may or may not exist, but which will save everyone’s life…and then the lovely decompression where the snow thaws and the Christmas turkey arrives in May. Actually, I think all these books follow a similar crescendo and release rhythm which Code Name Verity has as well. Maybe that’s where I get it.
Thanks for making me think about my reading habits and my own "history" as a writer! It's been a great conversation!
Maggie Stiefvater is a writer, artist, and musician and the New York Times bestselling author of The Shiver Trilogy and The Scorpio Races, a 2012 Michael L. Printz Honor Book. You can visit her online at www.maggiestiefvater.com and follow her on Twitter @mstiefvater.
Elizabeth Wein (www.elizabethwein.com) was born in New York City, grew up abroad, and currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children. She is an avid flyer of small planes and is the editor of the Scottish Aero Club’s newsletter. She also holds a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania.