Author Maggie Stiefvater has her second big release of the year with The Scorpio Races, which follows Forever. Stiefvater spoke with Bookshelf in a brief window between traveling on book tours (she just got back from Europe) and finishing her next manuscript, which is due to her editor before she departs again….
Your output is becoming prolific. Do you feel like you’re on deadline all the time?
I do. In fact, what I feel is like I’m back in college with something due that has a non-negotiable deadline all the time.
Where did the idea for this new novel about "killer horses" come from?
The inspiration was a many-tangled beast. but the clearest source was a story I wrote for Merry Sisters of Fate, the monthly short story blog I write with my two critique partners, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff, which offers free fiction every week. I had always been extremely passionate about wanting to write a water horse story, and The Scorpio Races had its first iteration in a short story that appeared there. I literally stole lines from it for the book.
I thought I was pretty well-versed in mythology and folklore and am ashamed to admit I don’t know any other water horse stories.
It is pretty obscure, which was one of the difficulties. But really almost every island or coastal area has a story about creatures that come out of the water. Sometimes it’s dragons or ghosts, but all the islands have a version.
It’s probably because I knew you are from Virginia, but I couldn’t help think of Marguerite Henry’s Newbery-winning Misty of Chincoteague when the first horse appeared in the surf. Were you a big Misty fan as a young reader?
Oh, yeah. Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion, the Saddle Club books, I read ’em all. I was horse-crazy.
Have you ever been to Chincoteague Island for the annual pony swim?
I have not. I really wanted to go last summer when I was writing this but I couldn’t do it and still meet my – there’s that horrible word again – deadline. So I watched the videos but it’s not the same. In fact, I was a history major in college and I am usually very good at being able to do my research by reading but, for some reason, with this book, nothing was real unless I could put my hands on it. I became obsessed with getting the setting right.
That leads me to ask, is your island of Thisby in England? The setting felt vaguely North Atlantic but I couldn’t decide for certain.
Thisby doesn’t exist but I was going for quasi-Irish or Scottish. I wanted the reader to bring their own ideas about island culture to it so I left it deliberately vague. My editor [David Levithan] was sure it was off the coast of Maine, but I think that was because he had just been to Maine.
There is a picture of you on your Web site that looks like it was taken on the cliffs of Thisby. Did you draw inspiration from wherever it is that photo was taken?
That was Normandy, last year. I went to four sets of cliffs. You didn’t believe me when I said I was obsessed.California, Yorkshire, and Dover, England are the other three. And then last year, I was in Paris with my husband in December, and it was snowing. It was the first time it had snowed in Paris in years and years. I’m with my husband, without the kids, in the City of Love. I have a day off from doing author things and I told him, ‘Rent a car. We’re driving to the cliffs in Normandy.’ As you can probably tell from the photo, it was really cold there.
Well, you may not have known much about cliffs but you obviously know your way around a horse. Did you own horses when you were a kid?
My parents were very permissive when it came to animals. As long as we earned the money to buy them and built whatever structure it was they were going to live in, we could have any kind of pet we wanted. They would have let us have a rhinoceros if we could have afforded it. So, we had horses but they were pretty broken down– animals that had been retired from the race courses. We rode them bareback. We grew up with horses. However, I was really careful to not write a book that only horse people would want to read. That was always a challenge. How could I write a book that was about horses but not so much about horses that I would alienate general readers?
This is not a typical horse lover’s novel, though. It’s clear there’s a really intense connection between both main characters and their horses, but there’s no romanticizing of horse behavior. Some of these horses do really horrible things.
They do. I really love nature. I grew up in the country. But one of the things about nature is that it is beautiful but it’s also very dangerous. However, some of those bad things the horses did were really hard to write. The hamstringing scene at the end? That was incredibly difficult. I had to put down the book and take a day off.
This book also felt very complete. Are you planning another one about these characters?
This is most definitely a stand-alone and it was very gratifying. When it was done, it was done. Of course, readers and booksellers are already asking me, ‘When are you returning to Thisby?’
You are not yet 30 years old and have had an incredible amount of success. Are your parents writers or artists, too?
Actually, I am a Navy brat, but my mother is very creative and my Dad was a huge reader who always shared his books with me. He gave me Jurassic Park to read when he was done with it. It became a social exercise for us to read the same books so we could discuss them.
Are they surprised by your success?
Many things I have done have failed to render my parents speechless but when I called my father to tell him I had hit the New York Times bestseller list, I finally rendered him speechless. It was a very satisfying moment.
Do you have brothers and sisters? Are they artists, too?
I have two of each [Maggie is second in the birth order]. The big thing in my family growing up is that everybody had to play a musical instrument. We were like the von Trapps.
What instrument do you play?
I play a lot of instruments but what you need to know is that, in college, I played the Highland Bagpipes competitively.
Competitively. Here’s how to understand the role of music in my life. About a year ago I had the chance to buy a house or to buy a piano, and let me tell you how much I love my Steinway.
I also read on your Web site that you have won awards for illustrating.
That was how I supported myself when I first started writing – I taught workshops on illustration. It will probably not surprise you that my specialty is equestrian portraiture. The nice thing now, about the music and the art skills, is that I can do these multimedia book trailers – animate them myself, and write the music for them. And I love to do it.
Have you thought about using your art skills to create a picture book or a graphic novel?
I would love to but... maybe when there are fewer non-negotiable deadlines.
Do you think if your first book hadn’t sold, you would have done something with that history degree?
I think I would still be some kind of artist. In fact, my college advisor desperately wanted me to go on for a PhD and I remember going in to tell him, ‘Dr. O'Brien, I really love history but what I want to do is write.’ He put his head down on his desk in despair. But I did visit him after I was published to bring him a copy of the book.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-545-22490-1