Thursday, March 15, 2012

Of Mystery & Magic

Since taking up her daughter’s challenge to write a novel, MARGARET STOHL’s life has never been the same, writes SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH

MYSTERY AND MAGIC are intricately woven through the Caster Chronicles series and interestingly enough, mystery—and maybe even a little bit of magic—also feature in the story of how the bestselling young adult fantasy novels came to be published.

“We wrote the first book on a bet,” reveals Margaret Stohl (left) who co-authored the books with Kami Garcia (right).

Stohl first met Garcia at her daughters’ elementary school. “She was their teacher when they each were in the third grade.” A deep and abiding love for books drew the two women together. “We both love to read fantasy stories and we began trading books back and forth.”

The friendship between Garcia and Stohl grew and it was during a chat over lunch that the idea for the Caster Chronicles first took hold. “By the end of lunch, we had cooked up a fantasy story set in the South,” remembers Stohl.

That fateful lunchtime conversation may well have amounted to nothing if not for Stohl’s daughters. “I told my daughters that I was going to write a book with Garcia and they laughed. They thought it was so funny!”

Then one of the three girls made a statement that would change her mother’s life. “My eldest daughter said, ‘Mommy, you may think you’re going to write a book but in three days you’ll be doing something else!’ ”

Stohl was instantly determined to begin writing and remembers telling her daughter: “Oh ... it’s a bet, it’s on! I will show you!” The first-time author was determined to win. “What I really wanted was respect from my daughters, which is, by the way, really hard to get and from teenagers, almost impossible!”

Fuelled by her daughter’s words, Stohl wrote the first 50 pages almost immediately and sent them off to Garcia who was just as excited to dive into writing. The result was a captivating saga set in a tiny fictional town called Gatlin in South Carolina, United States. Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness and Beautiful Chaos centre around Ethan Lawson Wate, a teenager whose humdrum life is turned upside down when he meets Lena Duchannes, a young girl who has a complicated past and unpredictable supernatural powers. The final book in the Caster Chronicles series, Beautiful Redemption, will be published in October 2012.

Garcia and Stohl were initially too engrossed in writing their story to think about getting their words published but sometimes things have a magical way of working out on their own. Stohl recalls the day she received a mysterious phone call out of the blue. It was from an agent who was very keen to publish the book. “I called Kami and said, ‘The good news is someone likes our book and the bad news is I don’t know her name or where she works!’ ” It turned out that a friend of Stohl’s—also a writer—had sent the finished typescript to his agent without telling Stohl about it.

The next thing they knew, the two women were experiencing something every author dreams of: a bidding war for the rights to publish their story.

“Really quickly, we had many offers from different publishers. We had an amazing amount of support from the very beginning,” remembers Stohl, a warm smile lighting up her face. “Even before Beautiful Creatures came out, Amazon had already named it top teen book of the year in 2009 and the number five book of the year, overall.” The movie will begin filming in 2012 in and around New Orleans with Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Alden Ehrenreich, Emmy Rossum, Kyle Gallner, Alice Englert and Thomas Mann starring and Richard LaGravenese directing.

Fortunately, co-authorship proved to be fairly easy for the two friends although Stohl would never advise writing a book with someone other than a good buddy. “It would have been impossible if we hadn’t already been friends for 10 years. We can sort of finish each other’s sentences—we’re that kind of friends.”

Garcia and Stohl were not afraid to be brutally honest with each other during the writing process. “I would send her pages and she’d be like “this is terrible and that’s terrible,” describes Stohl, making slashing motions with her hands. “Then I sent back her stuff and said, “That’s terrible, that’s terrible and that’s terrible!”

The writing process required tremendous resilience in the face of criticism but Stohl wouldn’t have it any other way. “That’s kind of how the books evolved —like waves pounding on the sand. It’s like erosion where if something can withstand that many turns back and forth then it deserves to be in the books.” Garcia and Stohl were relentless with their edits. “We would each work on a chapter and switch them back and forth. I think we went through each chapter about four times before an editor ever got to see it.”

It might seem that the books would take forever to write with so many edits between the two authors but Stohl reveals that it took only twelve weeks of intense writing to finish the 600-page Beautiful Creatures—the first book of the Caster Chronicles series. “It was all we did. It overtook us,” she says. Then her delightful sense of humour kicks in: “Well, I was living with teenagers and they’d come home from school and say, ‘You eating bonbons all day? Where are my pages?’ And I’d be like, “I’m writing as fast as I can!”

Having her first book turned into a Hollywood movie is no small feat but Stohl talks about this accomplishment with none of the self-importance that seems to afflict many who experience great success in a relatively short period of time.

Radiating an air of easy camaraderie, Stohl is relaxed and friendly, patiently answering all questions with quiet self-confidence. Wrapped in a patterned cream and green shawl, her tall, slim frame is accentuated by an outfit that looks somewhat like a salwar kameez and her long, straight dark hair frames a serious, intelligent face that is often lit up by sudden smiles.

A self-proclaimed foodie with a permanent case of wanderlust, Stohl’s sense of humour resurfaces when talk turns to spicy Asian food. “I told the group of people who went out with me for lunch yesterday that I have my Kleenex and that I expect to use it. My nose should be running the whole time.”

Stohl admits that everything and everyone around her serve as inspiration for her stories. “I wrote a lot of the second and third Beautiful books in Southern Italy or in Rome where I go to writers’ colonies. I love to travel and I ‘steal’ everything I see and smell for my books.”

Her love for books and reading—specifically fantasy stories—began when she was a child. “I eat books. I love them. I’ve loved fantasy all my life. When I was in the third grade I was head of the The Dark Is Rising fan club,” she confesses, grinning. The Dark Is Rising is a five-book children’s fantasy series by British author Susan Cooper that was published in the 1960s and ’70s.

It might seem natural for someone as ‘book hungry’ as Stohl to gravitate towards writing one herself but her path to becoming an author was a circuitous one. For the longest time, Stohl immersed herself in the world of videogames and was the creative mind behind some phenomenally popular ones. “I was the Creative Director and I basically defined all the action, everything that happens and the environment of the game. We did a lot of stuff based on movies and comic books. I worked on a Spiderman game and we did many others like Fantastic Four, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek.”

Stohl has an MA in English Literature from Stanford University and completed her classwork for a PhD in American Studies from Yale but despite these impressive credentials, she admits that she was terrified about sitting down to write a book. “I have wanted to write a book my whole life but I was scared to do it. Instead I wrote everything else—I wrote videogames, I wrote animation scripts, I wrote marketing documents, I wrote a movie to announce the Pentium chip. I did everything I could other than write a book.”

The success of the Caster Chronicles series, which are international bestsellers that have been translated into 28 languages and nominated for several awards, has helped dissipate Stohl’s fears. She just sold her first solo series called Icons, which is a futuristic young adult story about alien invasion. The books are set to hit bookstores in 2013.

As a successful young adult novelist and videogame specialist, there is no doubt that Stohl has a way with words but when asked how she would describe herself, the bestselling author borrows someone else’s. “Well ... when my husband met me, he wrote in his journal that I was ‘lively of mind.’ ” So, is that how she would like others to see her? “I hope so,” she says, flashing a winning smile.

Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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