If author Maggie Stiefvater is asked what she does for a living, she might say she’s a liar and a thief.
Telling versions of the truth and snatching character details from people around her for her novels, art and music, Stiefvater ultimately considered herself a storyteller. That is, until someone told her differently.
Riding back to her hotel in the NASA shuttle (“Even though it was really a bus, I like calling it the NASA shuttle,” Stiefvater said) with a group of other speakers for TEDxNASA, Stiefvater found herself in a conversation with Daniel Burrus.
“He was so good at identifying people’s strengths and weaknesses, that was what he did professionally,” Stiefvater said. “He asked me what I thought I did for a living, and I told him ‘storyteller’ because I thought that was what defined everything I did.”
Except Burrus told Stiefvater she was wrong. He said her gift and talent was changing people’s moods through different types of media.
“And he was totally right,” Stiefvater said. “What I really find rewarding about it is the idea that I get into people’s brains and move their mental furniture. He was very good at making it sound very succinct. He sounded like a wizard.”
Stiefvater has been changing people’s moods as the author of books that have been No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers lists, and as a professional artist and musician, on a career path that started when she was 6 years old.
Stiefvater wrote her first book, about two dogs test-driving a car, not long after she learned to read and write.
“As soon as I could actually write a word, I was writing stories,” Stiefvater said. “I can’t actually remember the moment when I consciously decided to write a story; it’s just the way the world has always processed for me.”
However, Stiefvater does remember the moment when she decided to write professionally. When she was 9 or 10 years old, said she “lost a summer” to reading Diana Wynne Jones books.
“I remember the moment when I opened the cover of one (of Jones’ books) and it said, ‘Books by Diana Wynne Jones,’ ” Stiefvater said. “She was very prolific and had dozens and dozens of titles. And I still remember the moment looking at that and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll bet this is her career. She does this for a living.’ Looking at all the books she had done, I thought ‘This is what I want to do. My name could be there.’ ”
Heavily influenced by Jones’ writing, Stiefvater continued writing for the young adult audience with the goal of writing the kind of books to which readers could lose their summers.
Stiefvater’s latest release, “Sinner” (Scholastic, $18.99, ages 16 and up), is a standalone that follows two pivotal side characters from the Shiver trilogy (also known as the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy) — Cole St. Clair, a character loosely based on Stiefvater at the end of her college period, and Isabel Culpeper, based on a girl Stiefvater knew in college who everyone thought was an “ice queen” but who really wasn't.
“I always thought when I was done with the trilogy that I really was done. I had no intention of returning to Mercy Falls in Minnesota,” Stiefvater said. “I was also not quite sure how I could use werewolves again ... I figured I was pretty done with that metaphor.”
But readers kept asking what had happened to Cole and Isabel. There were many reader requests for a sequel to the Scorpio Races, and from fans wanting to know what happened to the characters Sam and Grace from the Shiver trilogy, but the requests about Cole and Isabel stuck in Stiefvater’s mind.
It was a thought on a trip to Los Angeles that sealed the deal for the continuation of Cole and Isabel’s story. The line, “I’m a werewolf in L.A.,” came into Stiefvater's head.
“I thought, ‘Maggie Stiefvater, don’t do it. You don’t have time to write another book.’ But once you get the mood in your head, it is done,” Stiefvater said.
Writing a 'mood changer'
Stiefvater's books are written based on moods.
“A lot of times when a book is in its really early stages and I’m still not sure where the plot is going to go, I search for music, and when I find one that fits the atmosphere, it lets the story play in my head,” Stiefvater said. “And even as things start to change and I started to get mired in the middle of writing, I always go back to that song, and say, ‘Remember, this is what you want the book to feel like. Always steer toward this.’ ”
When Stiefvater began writing "Sinner," she did so with the intent of it being a happy book — a book that readers would clutch to their chest and hug. So she began writing what she described as a shimmery, pleasant novel where nothing bad happened. She quickly realized that although the novel was pleasant, it was unsatisfying without any bad to overcome.
“There was nothing to feel triumphant about, so I started digging down into the truth of the matter, and I remember looking at the book halfway through and thinking ‘I’ve gone too far, it is too unpleasant,’ ” Stiefvater said.
But the book surprised her in the end, and Stiefvater noted that she thinks she managed to pull off a huggable book.
One of the things Stiefvater hopes readers of "Sinner" will take away is the sense of giving people and places a second chance — to understand that hate and love come from the same place: a place of passion.
“When something provokes a really strong reaction in (readers), to step back and say, ‘All right, where is this really coming from, which side of the line am I actually landing on?’ ” she said.
“Sinner” includes swearing and references to drugs and sex and is targeted for young adult readers 14 and older.