First Draft, Ep. 104: Margaret Stohl 2.0 - Transcript
Date: April 18, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Margaret Stohl, the BEAUTIFUL CREATURES author, and author of the YA adaptations of Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW. I last caught up with Margie two years ago when she was making her first foray into a solo writing career, with her post-apocalyptic series ICONS. [Listen to her first First Draft interview here]. Her latest novel, ROYCE ROLLS, takes her writing in an entirely different direction. Not to mention the work she’s doing writing for Captain Marvel, and even dipping back into the world of video game storytelling. On top of that, she’s continues to head up the YALLFEST and YALLWEST festivals. No slouch.
Margie is a force of nature and a constant source of inspiration for me. I was so happy to get the chance to catch up, and see what she’s learned over the last two years. So, open a window to let in the scent of freshly bloomed freesias, and imagine a timid black cat crouched in the corner, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: How are you?
Margaret STOHL: Great!
ENNI: Thanks for having me over.
STOHL: Thanks for being had!
ENNI: It’s been two years [since the] last time we chatted.
STOHL: Has it really been two years?
ENNI: Isn’t that crazy? Summer 2014. So, more than that even.
STOHL: We probably looked fabulous back then.
ENNI: I’m sure!
STOHL: Too bad it’s a podcast.
ENNI: I also have you on record being like, “Don’t move to L.A.” [Laughing] Which, I flagrantly disregarded your advice.
STOHL: Get out! Get out!
ENNI: Actually, since ROYCE is such a unique book, I’d love to have you explain it, right off the bat, so that people understand the nature of it.
STOHL: ROYCE ROLLS is unlike any book I’ve ever written, which is kind of funny. Basically, what I decide to write is whatever I feel like. I’m not one of those people who works on their “brand.” As a writer, I figure that writing is for me as much as it is for the reader. I feel if I work on what I want to work on, it will more likely be interesting to someone. So, this book is a book I started that’s about L.A. It was one hundred percent written as a joke for my friends. For fun. A lot of times writers start writing that way, but as your career goes on, you are always on deadline. So, it’s kind of rare that you get so deeply invested in something that you’re not being paid to do.
Basically, my theory is that all L.A. authors have at least one good L.A. story in them, and this is mine. It is about a girl who desperately wants to get out of her reality television family. They’re a formerly on top reality show family, and they’re on the bubble [for] season six. They might get cancelled. And for Bentley, who’s the daughter, it would be amazing. Because, then she could go to college, which is all she wants to do. But the closer they get to being cancelled, the more her family starts to fall apart. And she realizes, to save her family, she has to save the show. Which becomes this ironic, cruel fate that she has. The family is Mercedes Royce, the matriarch of the family, who believes in aspirational naming. So, it’s her daughter, Porsche Royce, who is the A-List star of the bunch. Bentley Royce, who’s the reluctant, family bad girl… that’s her scripted role. And her brother Maybach, who’s the CGB – Cute Gay Brother – who also has a bit of a poker issue going on. Those are the luxury sedans of the Royce family.
We follow them over the course of a year, as their life unravels, re-ravels, what have you. But mostly, it gives me a chance to have fun with a brutal send-up of L.A. and the city I love/hate. And all of the good/bad things about it, which is often people’s relationship to where they live.
ENNI: Last time we talked, you were destroying Los Angeles in ICONS.
STOHL: Yeah, you’re right. I was destroying Los Angeles.
ENNI: So, this is another way of destroying it, a little bit.
STOHL: Yes. It’s destroying it, but it’s destroying it the way I love it. [I’m] certainly not the first to do that. At least in the U.S. edition, the epigraph at the beginning is, “An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore. Los Angeles, I’m yours.” Which is a Decemberist’s line.
ENNI: I’ve been listening to that song for the last year, a whole lot, actually.
STOH: You know? It’s our garbled vomit, but it’s garbled vomit. And I think that it’s also a way of talking about the family, in a similar way. There’s this line Bentley says: “Here’s what I’ve learned. Not all fakes are phony. Some of the fakeness goes deep, way deep down. All the way through. I’m surrounded by idiots. And I’m an idiot too because these idiots love me. Even when it seems like they’re incapable of loving anything except their own flat belly-buttons. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Love, the highest of high concepts, a real name-in-lights moment, and you’re not too good for love. Love is legit. It’s the only legit thing maybe even here in Los Angeles. My, so help me god, home. The city of bony, blonde angels.”
And then she goes on and talks about this sort of disaster: “The thing that’s real is the disaster. And I feel that way too. The way I see it, we’re all going down in this ship together. Why else have a ship? Why else have a together? To be in this catastrophe, with these people is an honor. It’s a privilege. My privilege. We’re a family. A messed-up disaster of a family, which is how you know one thing, the only thing that matters, that it’s real.” Fade out.
ENNI: That’s really sweet, actually.
STOHL: But that’s sort of the thing, is that the fakeness is all the way through here.
ENNI: Right. It’s earnest.
STOHL: The mess goes all the way through. And what I love about Los Angeles is, nobody pretends to be anything more authentic than that. I find it relaxing, in a certain way. But that’s also because, over thirty, you are invisible here. And I enjoy that. It’s my super power. I go out and eat in my pajamas, because I am the invisible woman. And at some point, when you’re out of the game, it’s kind of relaxing. And you can sit back and asses.
ENNI: That’s very interesting. As an older woman in Los Angeles, you’re the ultimate observer.
STOHL: I’m about to go on tour. I have a few school visits. And my talks are about Jane Austin and reality television, and YouTubers and cultural commentary. Now, so many teens have made themselves sort of journalists, in terms of their own social media platforms. It’s fascinating.
ENNI: They’re talking to each other.
STOHL: Yeah. Culture critics.
ENNI: I wanted to explain Rolls right off the bat because, in addition to being a book about a family that’s on a reality TV show, it’s written in… does it still have the footnotes?
STOHL Yeah. It’s part of the fake studio. It’s part of their multimedia. It has tabloid articles at the beginning of every chapter, and footnotes that are written by this development executive who’s developing this book to be a TV movie that’s based on the fake show. It’s like the meta, meta, meta narrative.
ENNI: Because my line of questioning is about how deep this goes, and how this is a really wonderfully, modern version of a lot of stories that we’ve been telling about L.A. and families, for a long time. But, in listening back to our old interview, you had a quote, that what you studied in grad school was “American Cultural Identity Making.” That that was what you focused on. And it struck me that this is the most direct meditation on that.
STOHL: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, especially because it’s such a departure from the Sci-Fi and Fantasy that I’ve mostly written. I’ve written two books directly about aliens, six books about magic, and two books about super hero spies. And then, this. It’s kind of fascinating. And I’ve written a TV pilot that has a book coming out with it, and that is also less about family, but more about specifically high school culture here. But it is something I’m interested in, and I really am interested in cultural debris, narrative debris, and collecting. Which, when I focused on identity-making in my American Studies PHD program, it was really about what then became museum studies. How we piece together the evidence of cultural identity.
I think that’s one of the great things about L.A. Because there’s so much right on the surface, there’s so much debris for cataloguing, and evaluating, and organizing. And I was able to do that with a lot of different narratives, and pieces. But, there are moments in the book, where there’s a character bible for each of the characters, for the show. So, [for] Bentley Royce… the producer, Pam Pearson, will tell her she needs more Bentley. Like, “Be more Bentley.” And Bentley knows that that means not her, but it means the character Bentley. And her brother always cheers her up by saying, “Get Bent.” Which is their shorthand version of how they survive that. It’s interesting because that character bible has sponsorships, and things she does, and doesn’t do. And this rebellious, not that rebellious, and it’s all been cultivated.
It’s fascinating to stop and look at: What are the messages that all these things say? Because I also think, when I see teens in school, that they manage their messaging of their visual selves more than anyone. So, I always encourage in writing classes, I have them write about their shoes. Because they’re so incredibly detailed and descriptive. Where the duct tape is, what they’ve written on it, and I want to know what those messages are. So that was a little bit of the impulse behind some of this.
ENNI: Ooh, that’s super interesting. And to whatever extent the Kardashians are determining culture. Just fruit fly level, attention span type of [a] way of thinking about culture, you know? Does it even matter in the moment that it’s happening? I don’t know, but we have a prolonged affair with it.
STOHL: I talked to a couple different people who work in reality television. And one was very helpful, in that he explained that a family like the Kardashians are not content. They’re a distribution system, they’re a delivery system. They’re a platform. What they are is a way of getting Smart Water out to the masses, or whatever. They specifically are the equivalent of a network. Which is really interesting if you think about it. They aren’t the thing they’re streaming, they’re the channel that can stream these other things. You know what I mean? It’s a much bigger…
ENNI: They make the Snapchat filter possible.
STOHL: Right. And you see that sometimes [when] a new Zelda will come out, [Breath of the Wild], and it will be so big that it will be a thing that keeps the Switch going… the platform [Nintendo Switch]. They are that kind of content that creates a channel. It’s been really interesting to think about them that way. Now when I look at them, I don’t see anything other than shrewd businesswomen. Which I think people acknowledge. But really, it’s exhausting. When I look at them, I’m tired.
ENNI: I was talking to Arden Rose, the You Tube star [listen to her First Draft interview here or read the transcript here] about this. She’s twenty-one, so there’s ten years between her and me, and in that then years, there was a world of difference in what was available to her when she was a teenager. She started her channel when she was fourteen. And that’s still on the internet. I was like: “You’ve been crafting yourself the whole time, and it’s total honesty for you, but also it can’t be…”
STOHL: No, it’s a narrative, it has to be a narrative-ized space.
ENNI: But I don’t know that that conversation is as meaningful to them. I don’t know that that distinction for extremely young people right now is all that interesting.
STOHL: I think it will be a while before we really understand that particular cultural shift. Because, from the Tumblr generation, if you look at a fifteen-year-old on down right now, even sixteen, there’s such a huge change. I have three children, twenty-three, twenty-one, and fifteen. And all of them have such different [experiences]. Some had memes, some had no memes, and that was it. My child’s birthday cake, my last one, said, “All Hail Meme Overlord.” And my oldest child was like, “Why?” But in the span of two years, and the span of six years in their ages, just worlds apart. That’s been really interesting to see the changes so, so rapid.
I think that’s great for YA authors. We are reinventing ourselves so quickly all the time. And I think that’s because we’re used to a child. Working with a younger reader, who ages out. You’re always cultivating new readers and accepting, because of youth, that you might not be interested in any of the things you were interested in last year, or next year. And I think we have a flexibility for that, that I think is sometimes harder for other industries. Or, adult writers.
ENNI: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about, with this book, is the fact that it’s your take on noir. It came up even in our last chat. That you love that stuff.
STOHL: Yeah, I was talking to Richelle Mead, who’s an author in Seattle. And I’ve been working in Seattle, consulting on a video game. Which is my past, past life. And we always joke about writing a book together. And we were talking about an idea. And she was like: “See, you would have a dead body wash up. And I would have them fall in love.” And I was like, “I am down with falling in love, but yes, I would definitely have a dead body wash up.” That is a side of me, I don’t know, frankly, where it comes from. Other than, there are some great noir stories about Los Angeles, and maybe it’s also the ghost of Hollywood.
But, when you think about Los Angeles in its prime, you think of the forties, and the fifties, and the noir golden age of Hollywood. Raymond Chandler later, and the downtown cop stories, which I am particularly fond of. I do have that thriller streak. And I love spies. Those are all real parts of my personality. So, putting a mystery together, with all of the cultural observation, and the humor. Because I really do love jokes. I love banter. I love language, the way it pivots when people are being funny. There’s a kind of liveliness with all of that, that I particularly like, with the sort of deathliness of the corpse, and the body and the missing.
ENNI: The contrast is part of the appeal. It strikes me that noir is the dark side of the glamour and that’s so much of what you’re playing with here. It’s funny, and everyone understands what’s being projected versus what’s really happening.
STOHL: I think that’s been also kind of a funny thing about this book. On the surface, it’s gold and pink and white, it’s looks like “Chick-Lit” in a certain way. And then, people read it and they’re like, “Wow, this is not the Hollywood book I was expecting.” Because it has a little bit of a cutting edge to it. That’s just me not trying to do anything other than what I would do for myself. It’s actually super interesting, when you really do just run with a project that’s just for you. It’s weird to see what comes out.
ENNI: Yeah, what was that like?
STOHL: I don’t know. I think it was fascinating. I think it was sad how much I knew about all of this. My father, who’s the only person in the world who’s read all my books, cause you couldn’t even pay someone in my family, otherwise, to read them, was like, “Wow. Did you need to hire a consultant?” I was like: “For the television stuff? No, I had a couple of friends who worked in reality television.” And he was like, “No, for all the clothes, and the books, the L.A., and the shoes.” And I was like, “No Dad. You did that. That was my life here.” And I said that in an interview the other day. I really did go to school in a part of Beverly Hills called Holmby Hills, with Richard Pryor’s daughter, and the guy from Little House on the Prairie’s kid, Michael Landon’s child. Random children. StarLine Tours would stop in front, and they would watch us play PE on the field. And we would run over to the fence and shake it like monkeys. And be like, “Get us out! Get us out!” But, that is LA.
The school my kids went to, the paparazzi would wait outside for a picture of Jennifer Gardner and her Halloween witches hat, because she wore witches’ hats on Halloween. And Jennifer Gardner, to her credit, signs up for cleanup every time. She is the permanent cleanup committee of that school. And then, they would wait outside the Country Mart where we’d get chicken and ice cream. You’d see the paparazzi waiting outside because they can’t get in because it’s private property. And you can ask them who it is, and half the time it’s Willow and her kid from Buffy. Or at the dentist, it’s always the rapper who’s name you don’t really know. But, that’s life here.
ENNI: As far as physically writing the book, it being contemporary and different from anything else, what was the experience like versus the other projects you’ve done?
STOHL: I’m not sure I could have written it, if I had sat down and conceived of it as a project. A lot of it was stitched together out of vignettes that I wrote, just as jokes to myself. Mostly, I was just letting myself be really, really funny. Which is a thing that I have to hold in check a lot of the time. Less so in the Captain Marvel comics, because people don’t know Carol Danvers that well. But, if you go and read through the fifty years, she is sort of mouthy. And that’s one of my other jobs, so that’s another moment. And I get to write Tony Stark a lot of the time. I wrote Tony Stark into all my Black Widow novels. And I even wrote an A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] version of Tony Stark that’s working right now in the Marvel Universe, into three of my comics. I always feel like I have a Tony Stark sitting on my shoulder making bad jokes. [Both laughing] Definitely this was that same part of me, that just likes to run with that. Almost more than anything. More than beautiful writing.
ENNI: I was just talking the other day to a genre writer, and I’m writing a contemporary and a genre at the same time right now, and I was like, “The thing that brings me back to the contemporary, that gets me jazzed to write it again, is that it is so much more about language.” The voice is what I enjoy the most about it. It’s a good vehicle for that, where genre is about feeling and atmosphere, and plot, and monsters.
STOHL: Yes, definitely, and character. For me, Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel, that’s about her take on heroic situation. Dangerous or positive, that’s her take on it, her character, her voice in her head, and her being very human. I guess that’s it, to me, humor is people being very human in the face of things they can’t control or understand. Or, embarrassing moments, or moments they don’t fit in. Humor is sort of the record scratch, and I love that.
That’s probably the unifying thread in my life, is, I love to confess my own flaws, and encourage people to confess theirs. That relatable sharing of the warped, human world. And, being the empathy for it. That’s what I love. And humor is a very real side of all that. I love not having to pretend. That’s why we do that panel at YALLWEST, “Basket Cases.” And [at] YALLFEST. I really do feel like it’s one of the things you can do with your platform, especially as a teen author, is to give people permission to laugh at something, or to cry at something, or to relate to something. Flawed, or ridiculous. That’s what I care about.
I actually think I am that way because I come from a pretty conservative, Mormon community. I have no religion now, I was never very good at believing anything. But, I came from a group where I always did not feel, growing up, that it was an atmosphere for those kinds of confessions. Maybe religious communities aren’t necessarily the same now. Mine was like that growing up, and I internalized that. So for me there’s a kind of freedom in saying: “You know what? I’m hanging on by a thread. Are you? Because I am.” And being able to have those talks, then, became extra important for me.
ENNI: It’s like your rebellion. And to what extent is this working through family stuff?
STOHL: You know what? You know how writers, sometimes, when they’re debuting have this, “I have to tell my Great American Novel” story? Every possible story I can tell about my family has been summarized in the six books of the BEAUTIFUL CREATURES stories, with Kami Garcia. Because all of the mortals in those books, which are by far weirder than the supernatural characters, are our relatives. There is so much lore of my personal family—which was a small-town Mormon family, which blended, through casserole culture, with this small-town southern family—that I feel like those stories are done.
I have a queer child. I’m deeply interested in gay characters, and queer characters. There’s a gay character in this book, and one just coming out in my comic. I have not actually revealed that yet, so you can just keep that to yourselves, people! So, that’s more about my family, now. My own children. But, the family I come from, I’ve made my peace with, and worked through. Definitely, what you do get in ROYCE ROLLS, and in our own lives, is that feeling of displacement. Which is what Bentley Royce is like: “How did I end up in my family?” And, “What do I have in common with any of these people?” And, “How can I be myself, and be accepted for who I am? Or, even liked for who I am? When you don’t value that culturally… any of you around me.” I always end up writing about strong female characters who just do not fit in. They’re just in the wrong place. And that kind of feeling, which maybe everyone feels, but that’s particularly how I’ve always felt.
ENNI: I love when people have enough of a body of work, that they can be like, “Oh. This is something I’m always [writing about].”
STOHL: Yeah, it’s so interesting. Because you definitely don’t know what you’re doing, while you’re doing it. Truthfully, my goal in writing is always the overwhelmingly massive goal of just trying to keep writing. You just want more jobs. And you just want to keep doing it, because you love it. And I’m lucky I’ve been able to do that. And in such a way that I can support my family and I can have my life. So, those are all huge pluses. On one level, you’re just taking a job and making your book, pitching your book, and writing your book. But then, on another level, the stories that come out of you do always have a certain slant. And it’s interesting to sit back and say, “What is my slant?” Sometimes, I don’t realize it until it’s an interview, and someone tells me their take on my take. And I’m like, “Oh, wow. That’s true!”
ENNI: I feel like, at some point after the second revision, I’m like, “Oh! That’s what this book is about.” It helps at the end to make it clearer, but you’re like: “Oh. I did it again. I’m writing about this.”
STOHL: My middle child is a writing tutor at Stanford, as a senior undergraduate. And she’s famous for the reverse outline.
ENNI: Oh. What’s that?
STOHL: She gets all of her students who she gets assigned to work with on papers, to write their paper. And then outline what their paper was about, and then go back and fix their intro and their conclusion. Because it was never about what they intended for it to be about. And they go back and write that. I think, “Wow!” Well, first of all, she’s a freaking genius. But second of all, that is actually what it’s like. Where you do draft it, and you’re like, “Oh right! That was this.” And then you have to go back and say, “Oh, that thing. Let me set that up!”
ENNI: Exactly. “It’s actually all working around this! Okay.” I don’t beat myself up over first chapters because it’s gonna be rewritten anyway.
STOHL: It’s really funny, and it’s different for everyone. Kami’s first chapters are always chapter four in the book. [Both laughing] Mine are always right at the beginning, but usually wrong. I mess around with them.
ENNI: Yeah, the timing. I think I’m more like Kami. I’m either too early, or too late. Got to figure that out. I had [down] “Screen Plays” and “Film Studies.”
STOHL: I taught film at Yale, and I’ve written three screenplays with Pseudonymous Bosch, who is my writing partner, when we were teenagers. We actually had an agent when we were in college because his parents were screenwriters. And then I wrote a pilot, and that was interesting, also. And taught me a lot. I’ve written two [pilots]. I guess that would be the one thing I would say is… also from BEAUTIFUL CREATURES becoming a movie, and from video games, these are all different narrative forms. And I love that. Comics have a specific narrative form, where… think about it. There’s no moving action. And you’re taking these snapshots. It’s mostly dialogue, which I love, but it’s also storyboarding. We storyboard those panels. That’s a crazy visual take.
I’m actually working with a new artist now, which also hasn’t been announced, so that’s two spoilers for you! But, who I can collaborate very closely with. Because I hear stories. I hear them in my ear. And a visual artist sees them, right? So, it’s very interesting to work with multiple people to tell your story. Because people are so different, and they bring different sides to it. And with video games, sometimes as a writer, you’re defining whole worlds, and progression arts. And sometimes you’re writing dialog, after-the-fact, to make sense of a level. And sometimes, you’re gluing together recorded words to try to squeeze it together and make it fit. With BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, it was more than a hundred-thousand-word novel. And then you see the script of it, and you’re like, “Where did all the words go?” [both laughing] “Where are all the words? Look at all the white space on this page.” So then, you’re aware of that as well.
And then, when the movie came out, you see the stuff that’s the same, and it’s not really even – well, for us, there were a bunch of changes in characters and the plot – but what you see is this atmospheric, the visuals of the world you built. And that’s an amazing thing to see. Living and breathing, and with people. So, there’s all these takes on stories that I have, and I have really valued that. I have valued the degree to which I have been able to work back and forth across those mediums. And I think that’s the failed professor in me that appreciates narrative forms. And I really do.
That’s the part of me that also likes genre. I like how you have to navigate. I like to work in a box. I like to see what I can do with different forms. I think there’s something beautiful in these radically different rule sets, for different expressions of human experience. I have been really lucky in that way.
ENNI: I do want to ask you about this, too, because I was talking with a friend recently about people whose first instinct is to say “yes,” and people whose first instinct is to say “no.” And that’s baked in, to some extent, with people. But you seem to be at a stage where you could say more “no,” but you don’t.
STOHL: I’ve always been like that. My best friend, for forever, is this writer, Pseudonymous Bosch. My historic best friend. And in our life, as I watch our career – going back to our AP English class together – I was the one who always said “yes” to everything. And he was the one who always said “no.” And that was partly because he went to Yale, and he was a snot [leans in to the microphone] “And you were, okay? I’m just calling it like I see it.” He was quoted in an article that he found online about why Yalie’s wear black. From the eighties, alright? You don’t get Yale-ier than that. But, he was pretty precious about what opportunities for writing he would engage in, and I just always wanted to work.
This comes from my roots, which are sort of pioneer stock. Like, “You just work.” I grew up singing a hymn we sang in the little kids Sunday school: “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along. Do your duty with a heart full of song. We all have work. Let no one shirk. Put your shoulder to the wheel.” I just like to work. And I think that that’s baked into me. I feel like working is a privilege. I am a writer. I’m grouchy when I’m not writing. I always wanted to just be inventing something. So, I took video game jobs for years and years and years, when we weren’t selling scripts anymore. And then he started writing a book, and then I ended up writing a book after he did. He sent our book to his agent without telling us. We ended up, both of us, in relatively the same place, [which] were the places we wanted to be.
So, everyone has their own path, I would say. And you get it in different ways. But I am definitely a “Say Yes” person. It can get me in trouble. I always have too much on my plate. Partly, that’s the reality of being a writer, where your money comes, your money goes. We always joke, my friends and I, that one of us has always hit big every year, so we rotate [both laughing]. We’d [be] like, the other one, we’d have to carry the other one, when they’re in their off year. But I also love living like that. And that’s, by far, the best thing about teen writing, in particular, is it’s such a community.
I don’t think I really had close friends before this. I always had Pseudonymous Bosch, but I don’t really think I had truly close friends, until I became a writer. Which is really interesting. I mean, I had my husband, that was fortunate, but I didn’t become a writer until I was forty. Right? I wrote my book when I was thirty-nine. It’s been exactly a decade. That’s the one thing I regret. I was talking to my own daughters about this - is waiting to do the thing I most wanted to do, until then - because I was afraid. I had a great, sixteen-year career in video games. And I ran a company with my husband, but it’s not what I wanted to do, more than anything. What I wanted to do, more than anything, was write an actual book.
I was never the person who wanted to make movies. I just don’t care in that same way. But I wanted a book. And I will forever be grateful to Kami Garcia for making me do that with her. Because I don’t know that I would have gotten over that on my own. I don’t know if you’ve met Kami, but she has this force of personality where she will not be denied. And she had never written anything. She hadn’t written a book. She just willed that into being. My daughter dared us to do it. My daughter was her student. And that was it. It was happening. So, it’s interesting.
ENNI: That’s kind of nuts to think that it’s only been a decade. BEAUTIFUL CREATURES is one of the old guard books that established YA, as we know it today.
STOHL: 2009. 2008.
ENNI: That’s wild. That’s a whole new life, basically, that you built for yourself.
STOHL: Oh, absolutely. It’s really interesting right now, I’ve been kind of going back to my old life, since I’ve started working with Marvel. So that was three years ago, that I started working with Marvel. And that’s really interesting, because that was some of the earliest games I worked on… was Spiderman and Fantastic Four. Our company did Fantastic Four. And I worked on Spiderman for Activision. And that was how come I was picked up by Marvel Press, Emily Meehan, the associate publisher and editor-in-chief, there, was like: “You do this stuff. Would you like to do that?” Ever since then, that’s been this coming full circle, that’s really been lovely about knitting together sides of my life. And now I’m consulting again, on a video game, and it’s been so long. I haven’t really done that since it was our own stuff, in our own shop. So, that’s been hilarious to get back into that world. Because in a video game culture… I go into this building, which is entirely full of men, mostly, as opposed to YA which is mostly women. And I’m pitching to them, not a story, but the concept of story. That story can give meaning. Story… these are useful, narrative developments, right? That’s sort of great, it’s so amazing that that’s a thing.
ENNI: You’re trying to sell them on this.
STOHL: Yeah. They’re like, “Well [drawn out] …you know, this mechanic… [another drawn out] well…”
ENNI: [laughing and continues thought] “Don’t they just want to play the game?” Like, well: “Why do they want to play the game? Why are we doing any of this?”
STOHL: So, then I talk about Marvel, and rule sets for the construction of the heroes [and] the player. And surrogates for a player. And surrogates for a comic reader. You know? You have spent a lot of time working on it. But I love that. I also love writing books in L.A., where nobody cares about books. You get this kind of freedom where it’s not a show. Nobody cares. I super love that. I go to New York, and I immediately feel this tightening, that’s like: “Here’s… you know? At this proximity to the best seller list. And all the publishers, and your agent.” And you go into Brooklyn and see writers in the coffee shop. We don’t have that at all here.
ENNI: No. You walk into a coffee shop, and there’s a lot of people writing, but it’s all Courier New. It’s like, “Ooh. Look. You messed up my paragraphs.” Feels superior.
STOHL: [Laughing] Yeah, and someone looks at your paragraphs, and they’re like, “Whoa, that’s weird.”
ENNI: [Laughing] Yeah, someone was sitting down next to me at this coffee shop bar I go to. And the person sat down, and just blinked at my Word with track changes. And I could just see this total, total disorientation on their face. I was like, “Uh… what are you working on?” [chuckles] “Not a book!”
STOHL: [Laughs] “This is my novel.” It’s in my bio for this one: “Margaret Stohl is the #1 New York Times Bestselling co-author of the Beautiful Creatures series. She is also the author of the instant best seller Black Widow Forever Red, and its sequel, Black Widow Red Vengeance. Or, as noted by one television writer, quote, ‘Those little paper things.’ Books. The word you’re looking for is books. Growing up in Hollywood, Margaret spent her adolescence crank calling Harrison Ford. Living across the hall from a John Waters starlet and waving to StarLine Tours busses as they stopped to take pictures of her PE class at Mulholland Hall where she first met Bentley Royce. These are, and are not, her stories.” So obviously, that last line is not true, there is no Bentley Royce, and Mulholland Hall was not the name of the school. But other than that, that is all highlyaccurate.
ENNI: I love it. That’s so funny. And the reason I am bringing up being a “yes” person too, is that, as a fellow “yes” person, how you feel that’s been a benefit? You just talked about that a lot, but also, how do you deal with the downside? Do you recommend being a “Yes” person?
STOHL: Well… yeah. One thing is, I am bad at tracking the finances of, “When do I need to pitch? So, I have something in the chute for this, and that.” Definitely the comics have thrown me for a wrench. Because it’s A: So fun. And B: So time consuming. And there’s also a publicity aspect of it, where you are championing the role of women being heroes. So, you can’t not do that. It’s impossible to walk away from, but it really does take up all the other time that there was. For me, the time it really takes up, if I’m being very candid, is the time that I spent planning for future things.
That’s one thing I have to be more disciplined about. Life coaching myself in terms of getting organized. I talk to every student about this. You may be able to tell by the nature of my rambling responses, that I have pretty bad ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. Linear thinking is difficult for me. I think that other people might manage their life of saying “yes” to everything better, because they might manage their life better. But I don’t think that is a result of me saying “yes” to everything, I think that’s a result of how I manage everything. Which is just sort of to… not manage it.
I’m a really, really hard worker. So, that compensates for a lot of it. It’s always compensated a lot for any of my, sort of, brain dysfunction. So that was a learned response. But also, it compensates for not being a big financial planner. I just always have a lot of work in the pike. The problem with comics is, it takes up the time that books, or pilots, or whatever take up, but it’s actually almost like pro bono work. You have to be a little more ruthless on other sides. I just have to think about that more carefully than I’ve been.
ENNI: It’s funny to hear you say that, “working hard to overcompensate,” because, obviously, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My therapist, at some point, was like, “You’re really hard on yourself.” And I was like, “Yes. That’s how anything happens.” I was like, “I hope you don’t want me to start going down the path of talking about how that’s not a good thing. Because I’m not gonna go with you there.” It was this very interesting moment where she was thinking I was gonna open up about it, and I was like, “No. That’s non-negotiable. That’s how anything functions.”
STOHL: One thing you learn in life, in families, in marriage, and for me and my writing partnership with Kami, was how different minds can be. I think, a lot of times, if you’re a “no” person, a “yes” person seems crazy. Like, “What’s wrong with you?” It’s like my respect for the beauties of the different genres and forms, I do also have this respect for the beauties of different brains. My husband is a great example of that, where I am almost always thinking the exact opposite of what he’s thinking, or, what he’s thinking I’m thinking as a response to something. So, I’ve learned to be hyper-communicative about that, and never presume that anyone is responding to anything. So, no. Your therapist probably thinks you’re nuts, but most writers can be thought of as nuts… to most people [both laughing]. I have found that if I follow the projects that I’m interested in, I generally will get by.
Libba Bray is my role model, really in all things, but definitely in that same sort of idiosyncratic: “I might write a book about beauty queens. I might write a book about mad cow disease. I might write a book that’s a genre book, set in history.” And really, what those books have in common is you trust Libba Bray. That she has an eye for something compelling. While I don’t imagine that I’m Libba Bray, that is definitely the freedom I’ve given myself, to pursue what I want to pursue. Sometimes I think writers become really miserable when they’re locked in just doing their thing, because then it is like you’re being a brand. I also use the difference between a genre, or a comic, or a stand-alone, or a series, to free me and let me escape expectations from another set for this or that.
I get really stressed out about delivering for Marvel on those books, or those tours. And this book, ROYCE ROLLS, comes out - my first event for it is tomorrow - and I have no anxiety about it at all. Because books exist for different reasons. All stories exist for different reasons. And this one, more than any of them, existed for me to write. And, it’s also kind of an inside joke for twelve people. And it has done that. It was reviewed really well, and people who read it, get it. But I don’t care if a billion-people read, or never read, this book. This book [has] already accomplished what it needed to accomplish, for me, in my catalog of books.
The two sci-fi books I wrote, ICONS and IDOLS, will never be huge breakout books. They did not ever hit the bestseller list. But I get passionate, strangely depressive letters about those from around the world. Because those two books are about children with feelings that could destroy the world. I wrote them during a breakdown. All my books are special to me in different ways, and they serve different purposes. And that is a benefit… a perspective, you only get from being super old, and having a bunch of them out there. I’m being like: “Yes. These did this. And these were meant to do this. And this one was for me.” And, it’s funny that the one I wrote for me, is the one you could push aside as the least important. The funny, trivial, riffing one. Right? Which I feel is appropriately reflective of what I like.
ENNI: [Laughing] The self-deprecating to the core.
STOHL: Yeah. It works!
ENNI: Speaking of your husband, and working with him in many ways. Can you talk about CAT vs ROBOT?
STOHL: Yeah, it’s been announced, I believe. It’s my first middle grade. CATS vs ROBOTS, THIS IS WAR and it’s basically just our house, made into a book.
ENNI: [chuckling] Can you please talk about the origin of it?
STOHL: I have two cats, my daughter has two cats, so there are really four cats in my extended family. My husband builds robots. He has two workshops, but one main one in our house. And basically, he started building these robots that torment the cats. The cats will go in there, and chew on the wires, and fight back to the robots. But the robots - he has really good buffering physics - so they can actually chase the cats around, and back up when the cats back up, and go forward when they go forward. And some of them have these spinning pieces, and the cats go crazy. Some of them he controls on his phone, and some of them are automatic.
ENNI: Like a Roomba, specifically designed to torment your cats.
STOHL: Yes! So, it is definitely the CAT vs ROBOT war in our house. I’m working on that with Katherine Tegenat Harper. Who is my good friend Veronica Roth’s editor. [Listen to her First Draft interviews here and here]. Who I like so much as a person, but who also really appreciates the funny. It’s just a funny book, a funny adventure. But, it’s also about breaking down the binary of… is there a book that’s just for a boy? And just for a girl? Because, would a cat book be for a girl? And would a robot book be for a boy? Here, there’s a boy who loves the cats, and a girl who loves the robots, and do we all have to be on team Robot or Team Cat? And do we all have to be on a team anyway? Which is sort of what it feels like in American right now, this year, right? So, [it’s] not at all a deep book, but it definitely has a weird positioning where it’s looking at… is there a different way we can relate to each other? Does being different mean you have to be in a war? Why wouldn’t that mean you could be in a conversation? So that’s what that’s working on.
ENNI: I do also like that, with a middle grade, it feels like a warmer place for humor. Humorous, silly, goofy, but… humorous, silly, goofy is also often telling the most real and important stories. That’s where VEEP, or these things… that you have to laugh at it because it’s so real.
STOHL: Oh, my gosh, VEEP. That’s so funny. I saw that one Tweet that said, “The White House now is like the plot of House of Cards with the cast of VEEP.”
ENNI: [chuckles] Yes, that’s true.
STOHL: That’s so hilarious.
ENNI: That’s perfect.
STOHL: We’re a mess.
ENNI: But, I love the CATS vs ROBOTS. I’m very, very excited about [it].
STOHL: Yes, so that is hot on the presses, and it will go into editing shortly. So, that’s one thing I’m working on.
ENNI: Can you talk about the illustrations?
STOHL: Yes, my child is illustrating them. I have a child in visual arts school at Interlochen in Michigan, and also at Crossroads here in L.A. So, it’s really a family affair. Three out of the five of us are hard at work on that book. And, interestingly enough, my child is non-binary. So, it’s taking the, “I refuse to declare an alliance to one side or the other,” to another place, which I really respect. [I] have learned so much from that child, my god, who just is themself, no matter what. Just is. And doesn’t apologize for it. Which I think, truly, is the coolest thing about that generation. If you want to talk about different brains, part of it is a different dialog.
ENNI: More vocabulary?
STOHL: Yeah. And more specific vocabulary and more freedom to assert difference in a certain way.
ENNI: That’s one of the things that’s most heartening, right? You can go on the internet, and you can find, certainly, the worst of the worst. But, you can also find stuff that will blow your mind. Younger people talking to each other in ways that are extraordinarily lovely.
STOHL: That’s what I really see. That’s my honest opinion… I’m not worried about the future. I’m worried about the jerks, the grownups right now. But the future, I’m just not worried, because they’re better people. More accepting, and more tolerant and really not understanding what the fuss is all about. And I also feel like the whole red state, blue state thing is not gonna exist in the same way, because of the internet. I don’t feel there’s as many isolated thought groups as there might have been, or certainly, that those isolated thought groups are not necessarily tied geographically.
And you can overcome your family, and those inherited ways of thinking, because I see that all the time. I think that really is amazing. But part of the reason I see that is because, if you have a gay kid, you understand the critical role of the internet. If you have any kid who identifies outside of mainstream gender, or sexuality affiliation, you understand you need people to survive. And that is lifesaving. I’m not a person who resents the rise of the e-book, and our digital life, and all that, because that is so affirming to a kid who has to work harder for those kinds of inclusions. Love it.
ENNI: That’s really well put. I love that. The last thing, and you’ve given advice before, and throughout this interview right now, but I’m curious, at this point, do you have any advice that maybe has come to you more recently?
STOHL: You mean, specifically for writing? Or just my general guru… [laughs].
ENNI: Yeah! Be a life coach for a minute.
STOHL: “Do not stay with that man!” [both laugh] I say this the most… you have to be the first person to take yourself seriously. I feel [there] was such a long period in my life, when I couldn’t say, “I’m a writer.” Like that was me thinking I was so great. I see it with people about visual arts. I see it with people about music. If you can’t say, “I’m a musician,” nobody else is going to say you’re a musician.
ENNI: And you’re saying that your block to that, was that if felt pretentious to say that?
STOHL: Yeah. I felt unworthy. I felt like I would be another person in a coffee house in L.A., writing a screenplay. So, that was my hugest hurdle. That’s one thing that I would tell everyone is, you have to be the first person to take yourself seriously. Also, most people don’t have that kind of flexibility, but right now I’ve been working as a consultant on a video game most days of the week. And I will tell you, it’s almost impossible to work when you have a day job. So yeah, don’t quite your day job is not exactly [what I’m saying]. I get it when people say that, but it’s also so, so hard to get anything done when you also have eight hours of brain dump in a different direction. I have a lot of respect for the vast amount of women in YA, in particular, who are doing all of those things. I know Kami was teaching the whole time we were writing, the first few years.
ENNI: And teaching, in particular, is one of those jobs where you bring it home, and it’s constant.
STOHL: Yeah, and that’s a thing I have a hard time with. That also explains why I didn’t write a book the sixteen years I was working in software. It’s another one of those exhausting things. So that’s one of the things [I advise]. Recognize what’s different about your brain and accept it. We had a lot of frequent flyer miles, and I would go and check myself into an actual convent in Rome to work, because I had such bad focus issues. That was before the days of where you can get a patch, or whatever, and try to take your focus meds. But, my brain works a very specific way, and it took me a long time to figure out: “Oh, I have to look at everything. Oh, I have to tape it all over the wall. Oh, I have to be able to see everything at once.” Your brain is not broken, but you need to find the way you work, which might not be the way anyone else works.
ENNI: And it might be different for different projects.
STOHL: Yeah. I’m the hardest working person I know, I really am, and even I… it’s so hard for me to sit down and use my brain. I know there are so many people like me, who are blaming themselves. And, it’s your brain. You don’t have the dopamine going when you’re trying to do that. So, I would encourage everyone to be a little less nasty and judgmental about yourself, because you probably don’t understand what’s not working for you. I would tell everyone to look a little more closely at, when are you successful? When aren’t you successful? I do my best work at four or five in the morning.
STOHL: So, I just go with it. I’m a terrible insomniac. So, I wake up and roll with it. I get up, and I sit right here where we’re sitting right now, and I just start going. I have to have earphones on to work. I have a Pavlovian response. I actually, now, have to have earplugs inside my ears, and earphones on them, to work at all. I can’t look at clutter. If it’s in my line of vision, then somehow, my brain obsesses about that. I think I’m getting a little more OCD, frankly, in my old age. So, I know what I have to do. It’s very hard for me to work. Mothers… I don’t know how you do it. I have two sick children, two out of three basically, right now. And that’s what’s in my head at all times. It’s all I think about. So, it’s really, really hard to clear that space and imagine a different world, when what you see are the things you’re worrying about in this world. I would say, give yourself permission to say those things out loud, and acknowledge it, and try to figure it out.
Everyone always says: “You can’t be a writer unless you write. And you have to put your butt in a chair and write.” But really, anyone who’s actually going to be a writer desperately wants to do that. [But] it’s not that simple. And you don’t need to make yourself feel badly, if you’re not actually doing that. You just need to think, “Okay. So, why aren’t I?” Because usually there’s a reason. If we’re not doing the thing we want to do, we’re either afraid to do it, so we need to work on that emotionally. Or, we can’t do it, so we need to work on that physically. Or, we can’t afford to do it, so we need to work on that financially. All writers want to write. So, I would just say, figure that out. Be realistic, and look at yourself in a totally non-critical way. And just think, “What is causing the static here?”
ENNI: Yeah. What’s the block?
STOHL: Yeah, that’s my jam!
ENNI: That’s great advice! Thank you so much Margie!
STOHL: Thank you! Always, it’s such a pleasure.
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Thank you so much to Margie. Follow her on Twitter @mstohl and find the show @FirstDraftPod and me @sarahenni. You can find the show on Facebook and Instagram too. But for show notes, for links to everything Margie and I talked about, my favorite quotes from this and every episode, as well as the archives, and a link to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, check out FirstDraftPod.com.
This weekend, if you are in the greater Los Angeles area, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t check out the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is an amazing event, with tons of incredible YA authors. I’ll be moderating a “Lights Out” panel on Sunday, April 23rd, at 2 pm. Of, Marie Lu, Victoria Aveyard, Kiersten White, and Laini Taylor. Wow! I’m pretty excited about it. So, don’t miss it.
I will also be at YALLWEST on Saturday, April 29th, that’s at Santa Monica High School. Moderating and also appearing on a panel in support of BECAUSE YOU LOVE TO HATE ME, the anthology coming out in July that I wrote a short story for. Come here me talk about evil sorcerers, and see a butt-load of authors be silly, and have a really good time.
And, for the forward thinking among you, try to be in New York City around June 3rd and 4th. I’ll be in town for BOOK CON with events and schedule TBD. If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and consider leaving a rating or review there. Every five-star rating helps other listeners find the podcast and makes me feel better about constantly saying “Yes”.
Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Sarah DuMont, and transcriptionist-at-large, Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to you, beautiful creatures, for listening.
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