Author Maggie Stiefvater on her angry youth and love of bagpipes

Maggie Stiefvater had written 30 novels by the time she was 16. Picture: Stephen Voss
Maggie Stiefvater had written 30 novels by the time she was 16. Picture: Stephen Voss
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Her young adult fiction sells by the million, but what was Maggie Stiefvater like when she was a teen? Arty, angry and in love with bagpipes, finds David Robinson

The world’s hottest Young Adult fantasy thriller writer is sitting in her Mitsubishi Evo – black and customised with an enormous, bloody, serrated dagger along the driver’s side that she spray-painted herself – and talking to me from Vermont. In an hour, she will drive up to a university and talk to postgraduate creative writing students. They’re lucky to have her: at 34, Maggie Stiefvater has the world of Young Adult fiction at her feet, her books selling in the millions, translated into 38 languages and being made into films.

Me, I want to talk to her about what she was like when a teen herself. It doesn’t quite explain everything, but it does explain enough.

Back then she was Heidi Hummel. She hated the name. Heidis were meant to be blonde, and she was a dark-haired teen Goth. Hummel wasn’t great, either. In America, the only Hummels anyone has heard of are those impossibly sentimental figurines of massive-eyed children cuddling each other and looking winsome and cute. And if there was one thing anyone could tell you about Heidi Hummel at 16, it was that she wasn’t winsome or cute. Scowling, angry, bright, misunderstood, arty, bagpipe-playing, obsessive – all of that. Cute, not so much.

The last straw came when she went to an opticians and a woman said “Heidi Hummel! What a great name! It sounds like a figure skater!” She walked straight out and told her mum that she’d had it. She was changing her name. Her mum wasn’t keen on it, either – at least not since her father had told her Heidi was the name of a former girlfriend. “I told my mum I wanted to change my name to Maggie,” she says, “because of Margaret Thatcher. Because everyone hated her too.”

Around the time Heidi Hummel persuaded her mum to go along to the courthouse and get her name officially altered to Maggie, she was as creative as anyone I’ve ever met. She’d been home-schooled since 11, and by the time she went to college aged 16, she had written 30 novels.

She catches my intake of breath.

“Don’t get excited, they weren’t very good.”

“Maybe they were just a few pages long, eh?”

“No. They were full length. Every month, we’d get these big boxes of schoolwork. And every month, I’d do a month’s work there and then. It’d take 24 hours working solid. Maybe 36. You see, David, I had all these novels to write.”

They were odd mash-ups, most of them, between the CS Lewis and Diana Wynne-Jones fantasies her mother would give her and the big, thick, commercial thrillers she’d pick up from her dad, although somehow or other four novels about the IRA made it to the bottom drawer too. In the meantime, she was still lonely and alienated, and going to university too young didn’t help. In other interviews she has talked about mid-teen suicidal feelings – and how proud she is that her writing has helped other readers overcome some of their own problems.

“I used to read voraciously as a teen,” she says, “but it never occurred to me to get in touch with my favourite authors. I just assumed they were all dead and that I’d need a Ouija board. But now there’s a whole culture. People send me messages on Tumblr, I do Twitter and Facebook and Instagram too. I get letters too. One I opened had got razor blades inside it. I immediately thought it was hate mail, but it was just the opposite. It was from a cutter who said that after reading my novels she decided to be the best version of herself possible, and so she sent me the razor blades she had used to cut herself.”

It’s odd, isn’t it, how you can tell you like someone even just talking to them for a few minutes? With Stiefvater, I think it’s something to do with her being exactly who she says she is. “If you combine Big Fish and Top Gun,” she says, “you’ll know everything there is to know about me.”

Big Fish, you may recall, is Tim Burton’s film about a teller of wildly improbable and hugely imaginative stories from the American South, all of which turn out to be based (as Stiefvater’s are) on real people. Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, with its four young protagonists all striving heroically to avoid one of them dying and to bring a mythic king back to life, isn’t too far away from this, nor is her werewolf-romance Shiver trilogy. All her other arty talents – competitive bagpipe-player, musician in a Celtic band, professional portrait artist – should count here too. As for Top Gun, that’s clearly the fast-living, kickass writer who will race muscle cars at the drop of a hat, who keeps three of them at her home in Virginia’s Shenendoah Valley and does all the work on her favourite, a 1970s blood-red Camero. And yes, some of the twists and handbrake turns of her fiction too.

But if I warm to Stiefvater over a transatlantic phone call, I can’t help liking her husband Edward, the father of her two children (they got engaged after just six weeks when she was 19) without talking to him at all. “He was a cop for ten years, but he loves helping people and so now he has a tow truck, which is kind of the same thing as being a cop, except you don’t have to wear a vest. My favourite thing about him is that he does things I just don’t understand, and I absolutely pride myself on understanding how people tick.

“The other day he bought a fire engine. I didn’t even realise you could do that. OK, so he used to be a volunteer fireman, and he can use it to suck up water from the river and fill the pool. But most times, he just uses it to go down to the shops for a gallon of milk or whatever.”

Cool books. Cool life. And a hell of a cool husband.

• Maggie Stiefvater will be at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, at 6pm on 2 August, www.maggiestiefvater.com