The Raven Cycle Author Maggie Stiefvater on Why YA Is a ‘Bullshit Label’

The Raven King is the final book in Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series.

Maggie Stiefvater would like to clear something up: She did not set John Green’s car on fire. John Green’s car just happened to catch fire as they were racing along a track in Minnesota after the The Fault in Our Stars author challenged her on Twitter. “I remember that I came around the first corner and there was John Green’s car on fire,” she said. “And I thought, Oh, John, you’re such a showman. You’re going to burn to death in front of your own fans.” Perhaps it was unwise for Green to challenge Stiefvater in the first place. She showed up to the race with a new engine and, after Green had been rescued (“They delivered him out the window like they were delivering a cow,” Stiefvater said), proceeded to race — and beat — every driver present.

It’s no coincidence, then, that a 1973 Chevrolet Camaro features prominently in her best-selling young-adult series, the Raven Cycle. The Camaro, which Stiefvater owns in real life, belongs to the character Richard Campbell Gansey III, a prep-school teenager who comes from old money. The series is packed with Welsh legend, occult magic, and old-fashioned teen angst. With each subsequent book — first The Raven Boys in 2012, then The Dream Thieves in 2013 and Blue Lily, Lily Blue in 2014 — the series has steadily gained popularity with its own burgeoning fandom. The final book in the series, The Raven King, came out earlier this week. Just before the book’s release, Stiefvater spoke to Vulture about why the young-adult label is bullshit, writing a strong feminist character, and why she can’t look at her beloved Camaro the same way.

The Raven Cycle series is such an interesting mix of magic and folklore and mystery and thriller. How did you come up with the idea to combine all these elements into one story?
When I was a kid, I read the books my parents handed to me. My mother gave me wonderful, soul-enriching children’s fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time — books with stickers on the front. And my father used to read thrillers called things like Point Blank and Shot in the Back, and he gave them to me when he was done with them. I also loved the the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper very deeply, and that was all based in Welsh mythology, so the Raven Cycle is sort of a marriage of all those things.

The character of Ronan Lynch was definitely the heart of the story from the very beginning. Ronan can take things out of his dreams, and I’ve always loved that concept — the metaphor of taking things out of your head and making them a reality — because as a teenager who was trying to be creative, that’s what getting that under control felt like. So it started out as his story, and dream magic was at the heart of it.

Why do you think the story and the characters of the Raven Cycle fit into the realm of YA?
The thing about YA is that — am I going to say this out loud? I am going to say it out loud: It’s kind of a bullshit distinction. I didn’t have YA when I was growing up, but now YA has evolved into something quite specific: a story told from a teen’s point of view. So I feel like it’s YA because we say it’s YA — that’s what it comes down to. I could give you a big, overarching thematic statement about how YA is about coming-of-age stories and learning who you are, but I’m 34 now, and I’m still doing those exact same things. So the question I wanted to ask with the Raven Cycle as far as genre goes was: Can I just tell a story? Can I get away with it in the YA section? And the answer is yes because YA is whenever you say, “This is a YA book.”

When do you think the YA label became so specific?
I think it’s when it started to make money, to tell you the truth. I haven’t been in this business as long as other folks, but when I first started there were no rules because nobody was paying attention to us — we were the crazy kids over in the corner writing weird things. But once it started making money, people who weren’t YA readers started writing about YA and telling us what it was.

People who write about YA tend to reference the “supernatural trend” or the “dystopian trend.” Do you think there are certain fads that cycle through YA?
I do, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a negative thing. There are people who follow trends for the business aspect, but there’s another side to it, which is that we’re all bathing in the same creative juices, so we tend to arrive at the same kind of creative conclusion. So natural trends appear because everyone is reacting to certain work.

One of my favorite things about the Raven Cycle is how deep and complex each character is. How do you come up with characters who have such rich inner lives?
Before I was an author I was a full-time portrait artist, and when I started out my first goal was to create an exact copy of a photograph. Once I’d accomplished that I realized it would be better art if I could not only re-create a photograph but also capture the object better than a photograph could. Then once I’d accomplished that I realized I could make the best portrait if I drew a likeness that was not only better than a photograph but also something only I could do — a Maggie Stiefvater piece.

And that’s how I create my characters. I start out with a real human model, then I strip it away so it becomes someone who’s even better, and then I finally come up with a character who’s someone only I could write. But they all start out with a human heart.

One of your characters, Blue Sargent, is an outspoken teenage feminist. Why did you decide to make that such an important part of her worldview?
Almost all of the female characters in my books are written as a reaction to what it means to be a woman in a man’s society. I grew up as a female bagpiper — I used to practice four hours a day, and every weekend I’d play competitively. Now I’m into cars, so I’m almost always a woman surrounded by men, and my characters explore what that means and what it looks like. I don’t really want Blue to be a guidebook — she’s more an observation of one option.

You’ve mentioned previously that fans of this series are unlike fans of your previous books. How are Raven Cycle fans different?
The Shiver trilogy was massive — it sold millions of copies, and I got tons of reader feedback about it, positive and negative. But when things started moving with the Raven Cycle, the nature of my interactions with fans were extremely different. I could never predict them. Then I had a friend explain to me that the Raven Cycle has a fandom, and fandom moves differently than plain old readers do. They have rules about the role creators play; your input is only needed in certain areas, and if you overstep the boundaries you’re breaking the rules. It’s really been a five-year crash course in fandom, but I enjoy it now that I know what I’m doing.

I had no idea fandom was so intense. So, what kinds of interactions do you have with yours?
One of the things I did with the Raven Cycle is I gave one of the main characters, Gansey, my 1973 Camaro to drive. I figured it was a good character move, so I put it in the story and didn’t even think about it. But then one of my friends, my terrible friends, was riding in the car, and she pulled up a fanfiction that took place in the car between Gansey and one — well, several — other characters from the book. They were enjoying themselves in the car, and I will never be able to look at my gearshift knob the same way.

That’s one way to fill the vacuum that’s left when you finish the book.
That actually makes me happy to hear because that’s what I want the book to do when it goes out into the world: I want the vacuum. I want readers to want something more when they’re done. They might not even know what it is they want, but they just feel empty and want more.

Maggie Stiefvater Says YA Is a ‘Bullshit Label’