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Tuesday December 27, 2011

Margaret Stohl finds her voice

Fear of failure kept her from attempting to write a novel for almost two decades. When she finally unleashed her inner writer, it changed her life.

THE Caster Chronicles, a series of bestselling young adult (YA) novels, owed its life to a fateful lunch.

Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, a teacher who taught Stohl’s daughters, were having lunch when their discussion about their common love, books, morphed into a creative writing session.

Both ended up scribbling on a couple of napkins a story about Ethan, a boy from a rural town called Gatlin in the American South. He falls for Lena, the new girl in town ... only she just happens to come from a family of Casters, people gifted with magical powers ... and is the victim of a frightening family curse.

“I came home from lunch and told my eldest daughter, who is a teenager, that we were going to write a book and she laughed and laughed and thought it was the funniest thing,” said Stohl, 44, when I met her in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Beautiful series: Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures series is a worldwide hit and soon to appear on the silver screen, too. — Brian Moh/ The Star

“And I said: ‘No, really, I’m going to write a book!’ And she said, ‘Mummy, you may think you’re going to write a book but in three days you’ll be doing something else because you never finish anything. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s on! I’m writing that book and I’m going to show you!’” Stohl laughs as she recalls the beginning of her career as an author.

Stohl, who lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters and husband, was in Malaysia for the first time earlier this month to appear at the MPH Carnival in KL and also for research – the second novel of her new series, Icon, is set in South-East Asia.

Conquering fear

Stohl had always wanted to write a book but just never dared to.

“I think I was afraid that I’d fail. So I wrote video games for 16 years and wrote animation screenplays before that,” she says.

(If you are a gamer, you may recognise some of the games that she had worked on: Slave Zero, Apocalypse, Zork Nemesis, Zork Grand Inquisitor, Spycraft, Command And Conquer: Red Alert Retaliation, and Command And Conquer: Tiberian Sun.)

When she stopped writing video games and finally decided to write that novel, she didn’t know what she really wanted to do and ended up “messing around with different things”. It was then that she had that fateful lunch with Kami Garcia.

For Stohl, the key that enabled her to break through the fear was her daughters.

“You do things for your kids you won’t do for yourself. And I just had to do it without thinking too much about it,” she says, adding that her daughters were her toughest critics and greatest motivators when she was writing that first novel with Garcia.

It also helped that Stohl and Garcia weren’t writing the book with the idea that it had to be sold. Stohl wrote as if she was writing a bedtime story for her daughters, Garcia’s teenage half-sister and their best friends.

“It’s actually quite easy to write when you know who you’re writing for,” Stohl says now.

Stohl and Garcia had a unique writing system: they would trade chunks of their writing, scribble notes on each part, and write over each other’s writing.

“In Europe they ask me, ‘How do you write with four hands?’ That’s what it feels like,” she says.

Both women drew inspiration from their small town origins and from their teen daughters and nieces experiences. After 12 weeks, the scribbles on the napkins became the draft for the first novel, Beautiful Creatures, a magic-infused tale about two teenagers who want desperately to belong, and control their destinies.

And Stohl won the bet.

“When it was over I was so happy that (my daughter) respected me for winning the bet that I honestly didn’t care what happened to the story,” she says.

Suddenly, a writer

It took Stohl and Garcia a further nine months of constant revisions to perfect the novel.

And then, an unexpected thing happened. Stohl’s friend, a children’s books writer, sent the manuscript to his agent without telling her about it. The publisher was delighted with the book – and everything changed.

The two women received multiple offers for the book. And then the movie rights sold. (The movie will start filming in April next year with “well known actors” in the adult roles, Stohl says.)

“And all that happened before the book even came out! So then, my life changed really, really quickly and everything was very strange for a while,” she says.

If anything, the change came too fast, as they both barely had time to digest their success, she adds.

When Beautiful Creatures was finally published in 2009, it became’s Editors’ Picks No.1 Teen Best Book of the Year and No.5 Best Book of the Year overall for 2009, something the online retailer has rarely done except for Harry Potter. Then, Beautiful Creatures was nominated for several awards and was distributed in 20 over countries and translated into several languages.

“I was in Paris when my book hit the New York Times bestseller list and I remember that was one of the greatest nights of my life. Also, the day the publishers sent me the book for the first time and I held it in my hands. That was a really big day for me,” she says.

After Beautiful Creatures, came Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos and Dream Dark, an e-book featuring Link, one of the most popular supporting characters in the Caster Chronicles.

With this body of work under her belt, Stohl has stopped being afraid of calling herself a writer.

“Suddenly, I’m a writer. And my friends were all writers. I met the people who were doing what I do. And I sort of found this whole other world. I found my tribe,” she says, smiling.

She has become good friends with many YA authors such as Cassandra Clare of the Infernal Devices series.

“It’s really strange because you’d think we’d be competitive. But we’re not. They all believe that ‘the rising tides lift all the boats.’ Everyone wants more readers for YA,” Stohl says.

Creative genre

Stohl had always read YA fiction and believes that the genre is currently the most creative one to write for.

“I always say I didn’t choose (the genre). It chose me. It’s where my voice is,” she explains.

Stohl believes that supernatural-themed stories are so popular these days with teenagers because they resonate with their struggles.

“I’ve met with students and readers (around the world) like Canada, the US, and, yes, Malaysia and I am surprised by how similar teenagers are. Their life is controlled by standardised tests. They feel that they don’t have any control and that decisions are made for them. The fundamental story for our book is Lena not being able to choose for herself. I think that’s a ‘teen feeling’,” she says.

Fantasy, she feels, is a way of exploring dangerous and powerful emotions and topics. “When you’re writing about supernatural powers you’re writing about emotional power.”

Stohl has just finished the revision for the final book of the Caster series, which will be published in October next year. The book, she says, is so closely connected to the third book that they are almost two halves of one book. And the stakes are very, very high for Lena and Ethan.

“The feeling of writing the last book is like a cross between a funeral, a wedding and a graduation. When I finished writing the draft I cried and when Kami finished writing her part of the draft she cried, and when the editor finished reading it she cried. It’s just so emotional to finally have this world closing,” she says.

After she closes the chapter on the Caster series, Stohl will be working on the Icon series alone without Garcia, which she admits is a scary endeavour.

“Not so much about the writing but about having to leave a successful franchise. It’s scary. What if the readers do not come? What if it doesn’t become an NYT bestseller?” she muses.

While Stohl says there’s a possibility of revisiting Gatlin once more, especially since there’s a movie coming out, she would like to focus on the Icon series now.

“Right now I think it’s important for both Kami and me to explore our own voices. We are going to do that, but we’ll always be friends and the possibility will always remain. I will never say never,” she says with a laugh.

The Beautiful Creatures novels are available at all major bookstores nationwide. The fourth and the last book will be released next year.