Maggie Stiefvater Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Sponsored by

 

Maggie Stiefvater Bravely wanders into Disney intellectual property-land with the further adventures of Merida, heroine of the animated film Brave, released by Disney and Pixar in 2012.

Roger Sutton: I saw that you live out in the country. Where are you?

Maggie Stiefvater: The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I’m currently covered with hay and mud and dust because I was out in the field, taking care of a sick goat, so I’m glad this is an old-fashioned phone call instead of the dreaded Zoom call. I’m extremely not authorial-looking right now.

RS: What’s with the goats?

MS: I have nine miniature silky fainting goats. They are not useful. They’re all bottle-fed and very friendly, like dogs that you don’t have to walk, and they’re super-easy to care for. There’s just this pleasure to going and sitting in the middle of the field on a beautiful day, working on a book or reading or taking friends out to meet them.

Photo credit: William Stiefvater.

RS: Oh, man, when can I come over?

MS: It’s beautiful weather in about two days.

RS: Okay, let’s talk about Bravely. What drew you to this project?

MS: Originally, Disney approached me about it. It was funny; I assumed that they reached out to me because they knew my background. Here they are, asking me to write the sequel to Brave, which is deep in the Scottish Highlands, set in history, and here am I, a Scottish history major, having played the bagpipes competitively in college. It feels like they must have read some interview and thought, “This is very matchy-matchy.” Much to my amazement, when I got on the phone and said, “This seems perfect!” Disney said, “Right, because you write about magic.” “Well, also because I studied Scottish history for four years.” “You did? How lucky!” I thought: this is the biggest coincidence ever. So, the Scottish history part was very satisfying but by accident, and I love nothing more than diving into old, dusty sources. This also felt perfect because Merida comes part and parcel with an enormous family, and I have an enormous family. I have two brothers and two sisters. I’m always trying to write novels that capture that sibling dynamic. It was fun to have a brand-new set of siblings to explore.

RS: I really admired the way you took the triplets, who are a singular presence in the movie — they just bounce around being goofy babies. You not only gave them personalities, you gave each of them a distinct part of the story.

MS: Thank you for saying that. One of the biggest challenges with this book is not only are you taking from one medium and putting it into another — things that work visually in film don’t always work in prose — but also you are changing the audience. All of the Disney films are very much “four-quadrant.” To reach the youngest kids, you need a lot of comic relief, you have talking animals, or you have triplets who are actually all one character. Finding a way to translate that for a slightly older audience was interesting. I wanted a ten-year-old, for instance, who’s come right from the film to be able to pick up Bravely and get something out of it. The triplets were actually the most difficult part because they had to remain secondary characters, but each had to have one character trait to hold onto, to signal: this is Hamish, this is Harris, this is Hubert.

RS: I identified with Harris. He’s the smart one, right?

MS: Yes, that’s right. I’m not surprised — he’s the bookish one. And crotchety.

RS: What kind of rules did Disney give you about what you could and couldn’t do?

MS: I expected that I was going to get a massive to-do list — and a to-don’t list. But rather than a list of to-don'ts, Disney said, “You tell us first what you want to do, and we’ll tell you if we have a problem with it,” which was a marvelous way to work with them. I have to say, I enjoyed every single step of the process. Even though I really do love coming up with characters from scratch, there was something nice — a bit like writing episodic TV — to be able to come in and play with someone else’s toys and know that you can hand the toys back, and they have to return them to the shelf and dust them or whatever. The co-director had an idea for the story, the heart of which was a road trip and a little girl who would be a friend for Merida. I kept that, and everything else was from scratch. I didn’t feel any sense of being hemmed in by Disney.

RS: Did you have to be careful not to contradict the film?

MS: Oh, absolutely. I think I might have had more pushback from Disney if I’d been more cavalier with the source material. I rewatched the film, and I watched it again, and again. One of the things that I loved and studied in college was forgery — how history has been built on forged documents, copying other people’s styles, speaking in other people’s voices, writing fake papers to say that so-and-so should have this piece of property. To me, that’s what this felt like. It felt like an elaborate game of artistic forgery, because my goal was to slip my story in without people saying, “Wait a second, that’s not my Merida.”

RS: That’s not canon, Maggie!

MS: Right. So, what are the rules that prove these characters? I distilled them down to kind of solve for X. What makes Merida, at her base level, tick? That predicts all of her other behavior. Then I could build a new scenario and plug those rules into it, run the system, and see what it looks like. That’s how we got these characters.

RS: That could make it fun. The characters have already been born, as it were, and they’ve been taken to a certain point by the movie. Your job is to find a new story for Merida and the others without contradicting the rules of what has already happened and the fantasy world created there, and then move on. I thought that was swell.

MS: It doesn’t feel that different from writing real humans. If you imagine Merida as a real human, like you were stealing her soul to make her your protagonist — that’s already how I write my normal fiction. People follow the rules of people. That’s the whole thing that makes fiction feel emotionally real.

RS: The characters and the story itself seemed to grow up as the book went. You started with a character that fans of Brave would feel like they had already met, but the story becomes darker and deeper as we go.

MS: I wanted this novel to feel the same as the film. I write all of my novels from mood first. I ask myself before I even know any of the plot or character elements or any of the magic: how do I want the reader to feel after they shut this book? I approached this the same way, only following the rules of Brave. If you’ve just watched Brave and you find out there’s a Brave novel, you want to sit down and have the same kind of feeling. So, what is it that we’re trying to feel in Brave? What seemed core to me in the film is not just this theme of family and responsibility, but also the thrill of mythology and magic. In a visual format, it’s difficult to have magic with a lot of rules and history, because you’d have to stop the action to say, “Hold on, we’re going to have a whole bunch of exposition now.” It’s somewhat classless to do an info dump in a novel as well, but a great prosy novel with a good voice — we love hearing more if it’s being told to us in a way that’s entertaining. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was taking something from film into prose to be able to dig into Scottish mythology, which is how we got to the new Cailleach, for example.

RS: You started with the source material of the movie, but you also had Maggie’s own source material, all this knowledge of Scottish history and lore — how did you stop that from overwhelming the story? Because it could, but it didn’t. So, phew.

MS: Well, thank you. I should say right up front that I love lists of data. I love studying mythical things. I love studying history things. I love systems. That’s what it really is. History’s very easily reduced to a system. However, it doesn’t take a whole lot of living for someone who loves systems to begin talking about them and watch other people’s eyes glaze over. So, I always try to remember: build the story first and then make the system prove the story. The other thing I try and keep in mind is when you get into the research, you can spend days and days on something, and it ends up becoming one sentence. Even though I think it's fascinating, unless it’s fascinating to the story, it doesn’t belong in there. I do like the idea that readers can go through and Google most of the things with capital letters in the story — names, places — and they will actually find historical source material to back them up. If readers are the sort who fall down rabbit holes, they will find plenty of rabbit holes — that really do lead to rabbits!

RS: I was looking a lot of stuff up as I read. It was very entertaining. I even played that game that they play.

MS: Yes, Brandubh, the Black Raven.

RS: I found an app. It’s a variation of some other larger Norse group of games...nerd nerd nerd.

MS: I love the layers of nerd that require someone to find this old game and then build an app for it.

RS: How did that work for you, to meld your own made-up piece of mythology with established mythology? Again, you don’t want to contradict things.

MS: It’s important to remember that there are many different kinds of fantasy. That’s the reason that people who read contemporary fantasy might not read high fantasy — the paths don’t cross even though they both have magic in them, they read entirely differently. While I was watching Brave, I had to research how magic was used in that world. It could have been easy for me to go really hard into high fantasy, but when you’re watching Brave it doesn’t feel like high fantasy. Even though it’s set in the Middle Ages, you’re not watching Game of Thrones. It feels more like I Capture the Castle — it’s a feeling of this dusty family drama, and then adventure comes to play. The magic is used to heighten the issues that are already there. I felt I couldn't introduce magic and gods and rules in ways that required the reader to come up with lots of data and remember lots of things in their head. All they need to remember is that ruin is something Merida thinks is bad, and creation is something that everyone loves.

RS: The intrusion of magic in this story is much like it would be in our own world at a simpler time. Merida is just as surprised by Feradach as we would be. If it were high fantasy, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

MS: That’s true. Myth and legend and prophecy.

RS: Right. Those things are at play in her world, but her actual world is a fairly recognizable landscape.

MS: I asked Disney: what’s more important, that it’s a Disney novel or that it’s a Maggie Stiefvater novel? They said, “We came to you, didn’t we?” Oh, yes, you did. I’m very mindful of the idea that many people will be coming from Brave. I want to be respectful of that audience. But also, for the people who pick up the book because it says “Maggie Stiefvater,” I want to be respectful of what those readers want, too. There can be a tendency, I think, when you’re doing a tie-in, especially to a younger project, to make things simpler or easier — I wanted to try and get some of the really complex mythology and metaphor in there in a way that a Maggie Stiefvater reader would enjoy. That might be a new thing for a Disney movie watcher, but hopefully it still works on multiple levels.

RS: That speaks to what I said before, about the book starting where the movie ends and becoming more complex as you go. How much older is everybody? A couple years?

MS: I had to sign an NDA — I can’t tell you anything that was in this document — but this was the most cloak-and-dagger part of the experience. The NDA has the ages for the characters. I thought the triplets’ age was weird and asked if I had to make them that age. Disney said, here’s the deal: we will know what age they are, but we’ll take all the actual numbers out, and that way the readers can guess how old they are. I think that works, because when you’re watching the film, you don’t know how old anyone is. You assume how old they are based on their actions. If I impose specific ages in the book, I feel like any number that I put in would be jarring.

RS:  So, you know how old these characters are supposed to be, and you can’t tell us?

MS: That’s right. Of all the secrets to take to my deathbed.

 

Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?