The holy-cow success stories of authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have turned the Young Adult genre into a literary lottery. The formula is simple: write about beautiful teens battling a healthy mix of evil and hormones, and strike it filthy rich. But when Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, set out to co-write their first book, Beautiful Creatures, it wasn’t about the money; in fact, the whole thing started with a dare. That was back in 2009. Today, the best-selling series, known as The Caster Chronicles, is four books deep, and on February 13 of next year, Warner Bros. will release the first film in what they hope will be the next Twilight. The series centers around a high school sophomore named Ethan (played by rising star Alden Ehrenreich) who becomes drawn to a new girl in town named Lena. She, of course, is a witch (or caster, as they’re called) and her powers are claimed for either Light or Dark. Their love story is of the Bella and Edward variety—mortal connects with supernatural babe on an otherworldly level, battle between good and evil ensues. We recently caught up with Garcia to ask about what happens when Hollywood comes knocking, the Twilight effect, and the biggest misconceptions of the Young Adult genre.
You wrote in the afterword of the first novel that writing it only took three months. How did the book come about and what was it like to co-write a novel?
Margaret [Stohl, the co-author of Beautiful Creatures] had two teenage daughters and they were my students. They, along with my teen sister, dared us to write the book. We definitely weren’t expecting it to get published. We discussed and plotted it out—all the characters, personalities, and the town. The focus was on creating a compelling story. We knew what the beginning was going to be and what the ending was going to be, and we would take it chapter by chapter and email them to each other, [Margaret] would write one, then I’d edit her chapter and add mine, and continue. It was serialized fiction. We didn’t discuss it. We just did it. On top of that, we were writing for teens. So in the beginning [Margaret’s teen daughters and my sister] would read our work every two days or so. Soon, they would demand chapters every night. And the questions they asked about what happens next would change what happened next. Ridley and Link were not supposed to be major characters, but they had asked ‘Where’s Link? Is Link going to be in the next chapter?’
Would you do it again that way?
It was collaborative between the two of us, but we also then had these kids weighing in. It was really a unique experience. Now that I know other writers, I can’t imagine if we had known what we were doing in the beginning that we’d do it that way but it worked!
What involvement did you have with the movie and casting?
First of all, we never thought we would make this a movie. Yes, it was optioned, but we live in LA. We know how this works—everything gets optioned. Not a lot of things get made. But early on, [director and screenplay writer] Richard LaGravenese was on board. He found the book, read the book from our film agent, and he and [producer] Erwin Stoff were the ones to actually pitch it. So we loved Richard from the beginning, and he was attached before the book had even come out. We really trusted him and he really understood this universe we had created. Other than that, we really stayed out of the way in the beginning, because working on different things in this industry, we know it’s actually not a good idea for authors to be super evasive in the experience. Screenwriting is an art, and it’s different from writing a book. Have you seen how long our first book is? I would not want to be the one to cut that down to a screenplay of 170 pages. We kind of felt the books were our thing, and Richard’s thing was the screenplay. Then, when they started looking for the cast and things started moving, that’s when we started to pay attention and got more involved.
Did you see your characters and storyline playing out how you wanted?
They really involved us when it came to casting. They asked us, ‘What do you think about Viola Davis?’ And we were like ha ha, that’s ridiculous. And they said, no, she’s interested. She’s going to do the movie. Then Emma Thompson came on and Jeremy Irons, who I am not kidding, was the person I envisioned when I was writing Macon Ravenwood. I thought were were being punked. The teens casting was amazing as well, and we saw some readings and video readings of some actors. And when we saw Thomas Mann [read for Link] we knew it should be him. Honestly, they just nailed it with the casting, across the board.
The stories center around family histories and Southern history in general. How’d your backgrounds inform that?
My family is from a small town in North Carolina. We’re super, super Southern. My cousin is the head of the DAR where they live, the recipes featured in the book are the ones my family made – it’s all the stuff that I know. Margaret’s family is from a small town in the West and was an American Studies major, so in terms of small-town sensibilities and the South, there was a lot of crossover. A lot of the stories in the book are true. We used our family’s stories. The postmaster who reads the mail and tells people if they have bad news? That was Margaret’s grandfather. And the three old sisters? Those were my great-great aunts. The cat on the clothesline, the story about the squirrels… the stories you think are the most ridiculous are the ones that are true.
A lot of attention has been brought to the YA world, especially with movie adaptations. How does your book play into that—or does it?
In our books, there’s a bigger family and adult component in terms of the size of the older characters’ roles. It’s not just about the teen relationship in the story. There are so many adult characters, that you can’t cut them out – the story wouldn’t be the story. It hinges on all of them. We wanted to write about different kinds of love – romantic love, the love of your family, the love and loyalty of a best friend. So it is different, but I think it’s another addition to a great genre. I loved Twilight, I loved Hunger Games, I loved Mortal Instruments. What I’m most excited about, as a teacher who taught for 17 years, is that these books are pushing people to read for pleasure. And what’s great about these movies is that they lead people to the book and lead people to reading. And, for many, they finished Twilight and then they picked up something else to read. It’s the success of that series that really allowed books like ours to be published. For years, no one was paying attention to YA and they certainly weren’t paying attention to fantasy or sci-fi. It created a bookshelf for the rest of us.
What’s the biggest misconception about the series or genre?
I’ve heard interviews, sat on panels, and witnessed reviewers and critics talk about the YA genre as if it’s somehow less than adult fiction, that it’s a dumbed-down amateur version of writing adult fiction. Hey, I don’t care if you like my book. Reading is subjective. People like different stories. But don’t insult our readers. Twenty years ago, if you turn back time, a lot of the books that we teach as part of an advanced curriculum would have been considered YA: Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, A Separate Peace. I think it’s actually harder to write for teens than for adults. Many adults, they’re not critically analyzing every line unless they’re reviewers or intense readers. Most are reading as an escape. And a lot of times, they will forgive things you really shouldn’t forgive, like grammar and plot, if they get sucked into a story and can relax and enjoy it. Teens have no time and very little expendable income. They get pissed off or angry and if they buy a book and it’s not good, if it doesn’t have real characters and they can’t identity with it. Then they will take to the internet and write about how lame you are. I think the authors who write for both—James Patterson, Harlan Coben—are great at what they do and I think they understand. To those who talk down about the genre, I challenge them to write a YA book and try to make it successful.
What would you say to those who want to write their own YA novel?
Don’t worry about writing for specific genre. You have a voice that works for teens or you don’t. It’s very difficult to feign. So just write. First drafts are supposed to be bad. The most important thing is to finish – you need something to fix. And read constantly. Stephen King talks about reading everything you can get your hands on and I agree. It makes you a better writer. And know it’s not always easy. When I was writing I had a 2 ½ year old, a 3 month old and had a job. You have to make time.
Are there going to be more books? What are you working on?
We don’t have any more Beautiful Creatures books planned, but we’ll never say never. We’re each working on solo series. Margaret’s upcoming title is Icons, which is a futuristic sci-fi story about teens with weaponized emotions. It’s out May 7, 2013. The first book, Unbreakable, in The Legion [my solo] series is out in October 2013. It’s about a girl who finds out she’s a part of a secret society that’s tasked with protecting the world from a very real villain. It’s like The Da Vinci Code meets “Supernatural”.