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Doomed Love And Psychic Powers In 'Raven Boys'

Sep 16, 2012
Originally published on September 16, 2012 8:20 am

Maggie Stiefvater is a young-adult author with a passionate fan base — she describes her subject matter as everything from "homicidal faeries" to "werewolf nookie."

She wrote the best-selling Shiver trilogy and the novel The Scorpio Races. Her most-recent book, The Raven Boys, is the first in a series of four that will follow Blue Sargent, daughter of the Henrietta, Va., town psychic, as she becomes involved with the lives of four students at the local private school who call themselves the Raven Boys.

Though Blue comes from a family of clairvoyants, she herself has no particular powers.

"She's completely ordinary — except she amplifies other people's psychic abilities," Stiefvater tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. But that doesn't mean Blue's life is boring: She's destined to fall in love with one of the Raven Boys — and be the cause of his death.

Writing the stories of the four Raven Boys was the fun part, Stiefvater says.

"I love writing characters, and this was like a French braid, a knot of characterization to deal with. All of these boys are defined by each other, and they're very much defined by money or not having it" at their affluent private school, she says. "It was interesting as an author to try and play them off each other."

Blue — like many of the townies in Henrietta — wants nothing to do with the Raven Boys and their private school cohort. But once a year, Blue and her mother watch the spirits of the dead appear on a ley line, a line of magical energy running through the town. When one of the Raven Boys appears on the ley line even though he's still alive, Blue knows he's doomed.

Stiefvater based her story on magic and Welsh mythology about sleeping kings who will return to save a troubled land. But at its heart, The Raven Boys is a simple human story of a star-crossed love between a poor girl and a rich boy.

"As teenagers, we all see ourselves as outsiders ... and it's very easy to look at other people who are more popular, who have more pocket money, and it makes you feel even more like an outsider, and it does shape who you become as a person," she says.

A sprinkling of the supernatural makes that story universal, Stiefvater adds.

"Doesn't matter what culture you come from, as soon as you put it into that world of myth, it becomes something that you can understand from all different places," she says.

Magic can also reverse real-world power dynamics — the Raven Boys, for all their material advantages, are powerless in the spirit world, whereas Blue's family has great ability there.

"The psychic abilities do balance it out," Stiefvater says. "The women are all extremely powerful in this because they have a sort of mystical knowledge the boys can't have."

Stiefvater is a musician and animator who not only composes a piece of music for each of her books, but also makes a short animated book trailer that she posts online.

"It's been a fascinating thing as an author to watch how the Internet has shaped how we deal with our readers," she says.

But she does not subscribe to the common fear that the Internet will be the death of printed books.

"This object that we hold in our hands, a book ... that tactile pleasure, it's just not going to go away," she says.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Maggie Stiefvater is an author who writes for young adults, and she has a passionate fan base. She describes her subject matter as everything from homicidal fairies to werewolf nookie. Do you really say that?

MAGGIE STIEFVATER: I do indeed, as often as possible.

WERTHEIMER: She wrote the bestselling "Shiver" trilogy and the novel "The Scorpio Races." Her most recent book, "The Raven Boys," is the first in a series of four about a group of boys attending a private school in Henrietta, Virginia and the daughter of the town psychic. The daughter falls in love with a boy who's going to die and she is the cause. Maggie Stiefvater joins me in our studios in Washington. Thank you very much for coming in.

STIEFVATER: Yeah, thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in this book, "The Raven Boys," there is a family, the Sargent family, and almost all the women in the family are clairvoyant. Tell us about them. And tell us about the girl, the young girl, Blue. She's not a clairvoyant. She's not psychic.

STIEFVATER: She is not. She is completely ordinary except she amplifies other people's psychic abilities.

Now, what about the Raven boys and what their relationship is to Blue.

Oh, the Raven boys. Now, this as an author was the fun part for me because I love writing characters. And this was like a French braid, a knot, of characterization to deal with. All of these boys are defined by each other and they're very much defined by money or not having it. They're all a part of this all-boy's school, which is for affluent boys. And it was interesting as an author to try and play them off each other.

WERTHEIMER: Now, they are related to Blue how?

STIEFVATER: Well, she really wants to have nothing to do with these boys, as most locals want nothing to do with private school boys that overrun their town. But, of course, once she sees Gansey's spirit on the lay line, she kind of gets thrown in with them.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's stop here. Once she sees Gansey's spirit on the lay line - now, you're speaking another language here.

STIEFVATER: All right. Yes, it's a very complicated mythology. And actually the thing that first drew me to this book is the legend of sleeping kings. And there's a very old legend in Wales about sleeping kings, that they will rise again to help Wales become free later or to defeat some kind of evil. And I always wanted to write about this, but I wanted to write a story that took place in Virginia, which is 3,000 miles away from Wales. And so I looked about for other mythology that would help me out and I found the beliefs in lay lines, which are supernatural energy lines that are straight across the globe and they connect interesting supernatural places. And I thought, you know what? I'm going to look at a map. And sure enough, there is one which is supposed to go right from Wales to Virginia. And that is where Blue's mother sees the spirits of the dead.

WERTHEIMER: So, the minute she sees Gansey on the lay line she knows that he's doomed...

STIEFVATER: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...because her mother has seen him and that means that he's going to die. This is a sort of a spooky and supernatural story but basically it's a familiar story. It's a poor girl meets rich boys. Poor girl is sort of abused by rich boys. Why do you think that appeals to young adult readers, as sort of archetypal storylines like that?

STIEFVATER: I think that as teenagers we all see ourselves as outsiders. And usually as teenagers, except for a very few of us, we don't have a lot of pocket money and it's very easy to look at other people who are more popular who have more pocket money. And it makes you feel even more like an outsider. And it does shape who you become as a person.

WERTHEIMER: What does stirring supernatural into the mix do then?

STIEFVATER: I love supernatural as a metaphor for everything. And it makes all problems universal. Doesn't matter what culture you come from. As soon as you put it into that world of myth, it becomes something that you can understand from all different kinds of places.

WERTHEIMER: I always assumed that young people liked supernatural stories because magic of some sort confers power on people who don't ordinarily have power, who you might not assume had power.

STIEFVATER: That's true. And it's interesting in this book that the people who would ordinarily have power - the boys - they have all of the money and all of the schooling and privilege are the ones that in fact do not have the power. And so, yes, I do think in a lot of ways the psychic abilities do balance it out, that women are all extremely powerful in this because they have a sort of mystical knowledge that the boys can't have.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this is the first in a series of books. There will be four of them. So, have you've got this all figured out what happens in book two, three and four?

STIEFVATER: I'm going to say yes now, and if you asked me again in a year, I say, oh, how do I possibly think that I knew it all? But when I wrote the "Shiver" trilogy, I had a very rough idea and quickly got myself into corners. And so with this book, I definitely sat down and worked it all out from the beginning.

WERTHEIMER: You're also a musician. There is a piece of music entitled "Henrietta" that I would like to play for you. This is - Henrietta, of course, is the name of the Virginia town where "The Raven Boys" takes place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HENRIETTA")

WERTHEIMER: Very spooky music.

STIEFVATER: Why, thank you. I'll take that as a compliment.

WERTHEIMER: So, this was for "Raven Boys." This was for the book, right?

STIEFVATER: Yes. I write a piece of music for every single one of my novels. I also animate a book trailer for all of the books and it's been a fascinating as an author to watch how the Internet has shaped the way we deal with our readers.

WERTHEIMER: Well, we all thought that one of the things the Internet might do is be the end of books. Sitting with a book with paper pages in our laps, as we all did - as I certainly did - as a kid in the corner of the couch, and thought maybe that would be gone. And...

STIEFVATER: It's very difficult for me as an artist to imagine a world where books are abandoned. I can imagine a world where the book landscape has changed a lot because of e-books, but this object that we hold in our hands, a book, as an artist, that tactile pleasure, it's just not going to go away. I can't imagine it. It's been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.

WERTHEIMER: Well, if it's not going away for people who are reading your books, who are - well, what is the age, do you think, that you're aiming "Raven Boys" at?

STIEFVATER: This is a terrible question to ask an author because every author that I know writes books for themselves, which sounds very selfish. But I think it's good to say that I write for myself and I write for my sister, who's 10 years younger than me, and I write for my mother, who, of course, is 25 years older than me. And if I hit all of those three readers, I consider myself happy.

WERTHEIMER: Maggie Stiefvater. Her book is called "The Raven Boys." Thank you for coming in.

STIEFVATER: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: To read an excerpt from "The Raven Boys," go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.