Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.
I met with the Merry Sisters of Fate at a New York coffee shop during a break from Book Expo America last June. While Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff each publishes independently, they seem to toss around one another’s drafts with a glee to make the Norns nervous. And not all the sharing is private: The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories is an aggressively (and amusingly) annotated compilation of story-posts from their shared blog. I was curious about how all this pen-pal-ing worked.
Roger Sutton: First of all, how do you three know each other?
Tessa Gratton: We all met on the internet. Maggie and I read each other’s blogs and started critiquing each other’s work. We hit it off instantly. One day Maggie said, “Tessa, there’s this other girl I’ve been working with. Her name is Brenna, and the two of you will now be friends.” A few months later we became basically inseparable when it comes to sharing our writing and working together.
RS: How long before you met in person?
Maggie Stiefvater: We set up a writers’ retreat, in Savannah, with a bunch of other young adult writers that we knew from cyberspace. It was very interesting to meet in person because it was exactly the same as talking online!
RS: Where do you all live?
Brenna Yovanoff: Denver.
RS: The stories from The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories first appeared on your shared blog, the Merry Sisters of Fate. How do you know when something is finished enough to put up online?
MS: The stories on the blog are completely unedited. We usually write them in the morning of our assigned day, then just throw them up there. Often our novels come from those stories. For example, The Scorpio Races started as a Merry Sisters of Fate short story.
RS: How do you find the writing muscles different in writing a short story and in writing a novel?
BY: The way that we’ve approached the short stories from Merry Fates is very specific because we are writing them really quickly and putting them right out there, unedited. So for those stories, a huge part of it is just challenging ourselves to try something new, take risks. Just be brave, put it out there, and see how it works.
TG: I wrote each scene of my new book [The Weight of Stars, Random House, May 2013] thinking about it as a Merry Fates short story. Each chapter is pretty self-contained; I wanted there to be character, plot, setting, world-building, all as if it were a short story. So Merry Fates has really helped me make everything count in my novels in a way that I don’t think happened before. The process was very much like building tiny muscles to create the larger novel muscle.
RS: Lots of people have great hooks and concepts they think they can turn into a story. I don’t think people need any encouragement to start a story, but how would you encourage a new writer to finish one?
BY: I was not a finisher for a very long time. I don’t think I finished a novel manuscript until I was in my twenties. Part of it was just maturing as a writer – and another part was finding an idea that I was passionate about the whole way through. Not just the spark of it, but the termination point.
TG: I never had a problem finishing things. I wrote my first novel – it was a very short novel – when I was in junior high, and I wrote them in high school. The reason I like to write novels is for that emotional connection that can only come with the end of the story, leaving you unsatisfied until you get to that point.
MS: I was a huge unfinisher, like Brenna. I had over thirty unfinished novels by the time I hit college, and it was because I never knew what the end was. And, like Tessa said, it wasn’t just knowing the end of the plot, it was knowing the end of the emotional arc. That is my biggest advice to people who can’t finish things: know the end. And actually, that was one of the things I really liked about the website. It was inspired by the “painting a day” movement of artists who created an entire work from beginning to end every single day. Instead of just working on the same project for two years over and over, it was doing four hundred unique projects. And so with writing it’s the same way. You learn so much by finishing a project, and then finishing another project, and finishing. It really is a skill – getting to the end – that you can get better at.
TG: Because the website allows us to interact with readers, we’re able to learn what kinds of endings would generate the most response. Frequently, our most commented-on stories are the ones with really strong endings. And so you think, okay, how do I make this happen again?
MS: It taught all of us the difference between what is satisfying to us and what is satisfying and commercial, and how to make those two things more similar, which is really important when you’re writing about, say, killer water horses, or alternative Norse universes, or, you know, psychopaths.
BY: I do like to write about psychopaths.
RS: The three of you are so connected to your readers. How do you balance between what you want to do as a writer with readers who all want, say, ninja vampire fairies? How do you keep that line between what you want to write and what the reader wants to read?
BY: The way I try to do it is to write the first draft of anything like it is just for me. I don’t think about the audience until I’m revising, and then I have to start thinking about what is satisfying to someone else about each scene. And it’s something, as Maggie said, that I got a much better handle on through Merry Fates, watching how people responded to different types of things.
TG: I very firmly believe that if I love it, there will be an audience for it, because I love to read and I get so passionate about books.
MS: I think there’s a big difference between what readers want and what they need. I always try to ignore the first and give the second. It’s what I want, but it’s what readers need. And so I start out like Brenna writing the novel for myself, but in the back of my head, at least halfway through or before I get to the end of the draft, I have my readers in mind: What they need to know? How do I make the book most accessible while still staying true to what I want?
RS: I’m not quite sure how to phrase this next question. Brenna, what do you, as a writer, do better than your two sisters here?
BY: Oh my God. Probably atmosphere. I borrow plot from Tessa, and character from Maggie, and put them in my atmosphere.
TG: I draw stories from the world I’m building. I create a world in the first paragraph then push the rest of the story from just that.
MS: We have this joke, from when we first started, that Tessa’s stories always did blood, Brenna’s always did dysfunction, and I always did angst. I love character-building more than anything, and so I would say that character is my strength. But we do learn from each other all the time. One of my favorite parts of The Curiosities is where we comment on which of our sisters’ stories we wish we had written, and why we think we could have written some of them ourselves – something being a “Maggie story” even though it was written by Tessa. We can definitely see the cross-pollination.
RS: You all write speculative fiction of some sort. Paranormal and fantasy are huge now, but they weren’t even fifteen years ago. What did you grow up reading that turned you into the kind of writer that you are today?
MS: I always loved fantasy. When I went to the library, I remember going for those unicorn stickers on the spine of the books that showed they were fantasy – Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Narnia. I also grew up sharing books with my father, who read all of these thrillers – Dean Koontz, Jack Higgins, Michael Crichton – so I can definitely see that combination turning me into the writer that I am.
BY: I come by my proclivity for dysfunction honestly. Some of my favorite books in high school were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, things by Bret Easton Ellis. Stories about strange or ugly people doing ugly things. I am also an avid Stephen King reader.
TG: I didn’t read anything that wasn’t genre fiction – Robin McKinley, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice. I was totally uninterested if there wasn’t magic or monsters of some sort.
BY: I like the way you use the past tense there. “I was totally uninterested.” You could have said that yesterday.
RS: Why do you think speculative fiction has held on so long? Normally we see – I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years – things come and go: romance, not-romance; problem novel, not-problem novel. But this has really held on for a long time. Why?
MS: I grew up reading myths. I loved myths more than anything. I used to read loads and loads of books on fairy tales, Greek stuff, anything I could get my hands on. I think it’s popular for the same reason that myths have always been popular: they are metaphors for other bigger issues. When I wrote Shiver it was all about losing your identity and growing up and becoming one of the horde instead of being unique, and I think that speaks to people subconsciously the same way that myth always has. It feels true in a way that’s not specific.
TG: The way that YA books are displayed in bookstores is not quite so rigid about genre. They’re found all over the place. And so we have books that are YA paranormal dystopic horror, and they could go in any number of places. There’s so much more room to play, and readers can read all of those things in the same book or in different books. I think this fluidity really lends itself to less of a rise and fall.
MS: Although I did find Scorpio Races shelved in teen nonfiction, and I’m not so sure about that one.
BY: Going along with both of those ideas, I think there’s something just so elementally appealing about the idea of extraordinary things in the world. People like the fantastical, the extraordinary, because they promise, like Maggie said, something bigger, something more allegorical, I guess. A larger general truth.
RS: What other kind of book (than the kind you’re known for) do you secretly want to write?
MS: Mine’s not secret. I want to write a graphic novel. I was a portrait artist before I was an author, and I would like to bring those two interests back into line again.
BY: I would love to do a realistic contemporary YA novel. That’s one of my favorite genres to read. As far as a secret ambition that will probably never happen – I would also love to write video game scripts, survival horror video games. I would make them so weird.
TG: I don’t have anything like that. Merry Fates lets me write whatever I want, whenever I want to, and frequently when I don’t want to write at all. I’m not interested in anything that’s not a novel or short story. I’m very much a basic prose kind of girl.
RS: What is the one best piece of advice you could give to a young writer?
TG: Go out and have adventures. The more you experience, the more you can connect with people and with the world and you can translate that experience into your stories.
BY: Speaking from personal experience, I would say learn to finish things. But don’t hate yourself too much if you don’t at first.
MS: Learn to love learning. Because you are always trying to get better about learning how to write, learning how to finish, learning how the industry works, learning how to write like your favorite authors, learning how to navigate the internet. As a writer, there’s always something to learn.
More on Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff: