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Margaret Stohl, coautora de Hermosas criaturas y guionista de La Capitana Marvel.
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Interview with...

Margaret Stohl

El Templo #65 (agosto 2018)
Por Marta Álvarez y Javier Moriones
46 lecturas

We know that your close circle of family and friends includes LGBT+ people. To what extent has this changed your way of writing?

In Beautiful Creatures there are no gay characters. I would not do that now. But at the end, the message was “be yourself”; that is kind of the only message I have ever had. “Be yourself” and also “Be a hero. Because you are one. You can be one”.

I just do not believe in letting anyone control who gets to be the main character, who gets to be the hero… or who gets to be the president! These are things that are important and I do not believe in leaving them for one “category” of human. I do not believe that is the way the world is meant to be.

Related to that… You have stated in conferences that Beautiful Creatures was born as a response to the kind of literary trend that started with Twilight.

My children were huge Twilight fans, but the questions they had about it… that was what Kami and I tried to respond to. The central question for us was: “Why is the girl’s only power always the power to fall in love?”. I reject that. For example: my children are fencers, and they could save me, and themselves, and everyone! All the girls I have known are strong, and smart, and really capable. I think that is a feminine quality in a lot of ways: saving people.

And then I also felt that some things were very generic about YA at the time. We wanted to break all the tropes that were going on then. Some of them are still there, but we tried to write as a response to that. For example, we set the story in a very small town in the South that was full of strange characters, because my partner Kami’s family was from a very small town in the South, and my family was from a small town in a Red State. So, for us, it was very important not to be generic.

And also, we wrote from the perspective of a boy, so that the girl could be the center of the story, the mysterious one. Although I do not think I would do that now. I can write characters, but not so much as a point of view character that I do not have the authentic experience with.­­

I look at YA and I actually think the diversity narratives are a little bit more stronger in the USA than they are here yet. I do not think you have had all of that come your way. The hugest books are diversity fantasy and generally not written by white authors, even contemporary romance from South/East Asian authors and Indian authors.

It has been 10 years since you published Beautiful Creatures. Since then, you have evolved as an author and you have written very different stories. If you were to return to Gatlin in 2018, would the story of Ethan and Lena change somehow?

Actually there was some talk about if we wanted to have a 10 year anniversary release of the book. I said I wanted it to stay as it was, because it would be a completely different story now. But it would be interesting!

In a way, many things about the world would not change. But, for example, I think now I would call out the race of all of the characters, and also the gender and the sexualities. That would have changed, because in the South there would have been more conversation about that. So the make up of the classroom is what would have changed.

I feel that worldbuilders have responsibilities. And I think that if you do not even casually include LGBTQ and diverse characters in the world you are defining, you are giving people permission to imagine a world without them, and I do not think that is something you should allow anyone to do.

I was working on a television pilot once and there was this scene were there were like twelve teenagers playing a game, sort of like a scavenger hunt. And I said: “Some of them gay for sure!”. I remember that one of the other writers told me: “But this is not a coming out story”. And when I told my child they said: “Gay people solve crimes too! We’re not just fulltime only coming out, it’s not a full-time job”.

But I do believe that your generation is getting better at this. For example, with Glee, you thought: “Why would not you let Blaine and Kurt be together? That is horrible!”. I think that is how the change happens, from youth.

You write comics, video games and novels. How does each of these mediums contribute to create a story from the narrative point of view?

I have really bad ADD so, for me to be able to do something, I have to really want to do it. That is why I seem to have a really random career that is just based in what I feel like doing. That is what has worked for me.

I like to examine different narrative structures, the different shapes, the different problems that come up. Some things are similar in all mediums: worldbuilding, characters…

Comics and games have a lot of similarities: a huge rise of action and a short space in which to tell your story. It is like poetry; everything needs to get boiled down and down and down. I did not know that when I started writing comics. I would write a page that would have all these words covering up the pictures, and then I would realize and popped them like balloons: “Get away! This wasn’t as important!”. That is probably similar with television and cinema: you learn how the words work along visual images.

When I write a novel, I usually hear characters’ voices talking in my ear, but this was visual thinking. That was a change in how I usually worked. That is a good thing that happens when you switch back and forth between different forms: you learn a lot about your consumers (readers, players, viewers…) and that changes your writing.

I learned to throw things away. Something can be good… and wrong. And you must get rid of it. Debut authors are very precious of their writing, of their beautiful lines. I have written eleven books, so I am less attached, but I really still did have to learn that some things just gotta go if they do not fit the structure, even if they are good.

In Spain, we have book festivals like Celsius 232, in which we can feel an environment full of readers and writers. We know that you work in the organization of the YALLFEST and the YALLWEST in the States. What are the main differences that you have noticed between our festival and yours? And what about other countries?

Margaret Stohl with our editor during Celsius 232 festivalI love Spain, my Spanish readers, Spanish teens… I love coming here.

Actually, I do not see too many differences when it comes to my readers here and in the United States. I think the teens are more alike now than they were ten years ago. The Internet has created a culture —I think of it as ‘Tumblr culture’—. And I know from my own kids, specially from my trans kid, their most important community was collected online, and they can be connected whenever they want because their best friends do not necessarily live in the United States, nor in our time zone.

I do believe it is a wave of youth that is coming: progressive, accepting, and really unified. And I do really truly get that sense that it is really more generational than it is geographical at this point.

But I love it here! I love festival Celsius, its energy. And it is very young! Sometimes I go to Comic-Con and everyone is so old, and I am like: “What am I doing here? Where are my readers?”. Celsius is truly fun! And a lot of it is probably the people, and the fact that the organizers are part of the fandom. They know what you want, because they want the same.

Also, I was impressed to see the efforts being made to include LGBTQ members and women authors. I won’t generally be on a panel if everyone is all white, for example. I would not moderate an all-male panel, and I personally do not like it if it is all straight people either. Because, again, that is not what the world looks like, and if you do not call attention to that, then it doesn't change. But YA community is increasingly politically active in the United States. Because we have to be! You know, with our non-hero president…

We have learned this Celsius that Cats vs. Robots will be published soon in Spain. It may seem just an unusual mix, but we know that it has a deep message behind it... can you tell us about it?

First of all… My own house is full of cats and robots! My husband builds actual robots that chase my cats around, so we always joked that our house is like a war of cats versus robots.

Yes, we would make that joke, but… We spend so much time thinking about binarity and how stupid it is. Cats vs. Robots is an exploration on the binary: Is there are a way that people truly different can connect, besides a war? Could they, for example, talk? So it is sort of like a silly, goofy book, but it is also a big idea that I am just putting it out there for a young age group to look at.

When my child switched their name and their pronoun —which is much harder in Spain, as my child uses “they”— I had a jar on my table with the word “they” written on it, and I had to put money on it if I misgendered my child. And it made my child happy because they could see that I was trying… and because they got the money!

Really, it was such an interesting lesson. The words matter. My child said it so well: “Everytime you misgender me, it is like you are handing me a rock. And I can hold one rock. I can hold two rocks. But at the end of the day, my backpack is so full of rocks that I almost can’t make it home, and it is gonna pull me under”. My child goes to school everyday and learns one thing, which is: “Do you care about children like me or not?”. And if they do not feel that you do, they are not going to learn anything else. You can’t learn Biology if the lesson that you are really occupied learning is “I do not matter”. The suicide statistic for trans kids… You can take away eighty percent of the risk of something terrible happening to your child by the way the family and the peer groups treat them. I do not care if this difficult or embarrassing, or inconvenient or awkward for you as a parent. I do not care, because it is literally a matter of life and death.

Your mind is never the same after that. I see everyone as a “they” now. I find myself increasingly not referring to pronouns at all. I find myself calling people by names. I also find myself thinking… what a silly way to define someone, by their reproductive parts. Gender is a social construction, so why did we pick this, and why do we have to keep using it? Now I see people as a sum of traits, and it is really helpful: it has actually made me a better writer!

I think your generation understands this better than mine: that it is all about the person, and relationships are between two humans, that is it. I have much more of a problem talking to older adults. I now feel so uncomfortable with their ignorance in a lot of ways.

That was why we wanted to make Cats vs. Robots talk about binarity. Actually, it was my child who illustrated the proposal and my husband and I wrote the book.

There’s a non-binary character that sort of negotiates in the war because they can understand both sides. That was really interesting to work with. For example, a 30% of public high school students in California filled up a survey and identified as “non gender conforming”. I think this is generational, it is just a different way of looking at the world, where they are just saying “I do not necessarily fit into the buckets you gave me”. My child is not even transitioning from a gender to another, it is just transitioning out of gender.

I am really glad the book is coming to Spain. The victory is just having the book, and now trying to get it into schools.

We would like you to tell us a little bit about your experience with Marvel; first writing Black Widow and then Captain Marvel. How did it begin?

It started from video games. I worked on the very first Spiderman console video game, for Activision. Believe it or not, it was for Playstation… 1. That is how old I am! And then I had a game company studio with my husband for sixteen years. We made Fantastic Four, two movies ago. And so, when Marvel Press started publishing novels, they called me first. I was really excited to work with Black Widow, because she’s a problematic, difficult character. She’s flawed. I really loved that character.

Natasha’s backstory was way easier than Captain Marvel’s. Captain Marvel really was a side character, she was like a secretary in the original Captain Marvel’s story, who was a man. Now I have written this five part miniseries that will be combined into one graphic novel called Life of Captain Marvel, that was a chance to get her origin clear before the movie came out. So this will be the one they point out as her origin story. And her hero's journey is a mess.

I come from a conservative Christian culture. A certain relative of mine has this sign on the wall that says: “Bloom where you are planted”. I would bloom basically anywhere but where I am planted! And Captain Marvel was sort of like that, and I could identify with her, with what looks like when you do not feel like the protagonist of the story at the beginning, and no one thinks you are going to be... but you want to be! It is a very personal, very particular family story.

The first issue is already out, a thirty page comic called The Life of Captain Marvel. It basically shows Captain Marvel having a panic attack. She can’t breathe, she’s having a physical anxiety attack. —Because that is what I always do with my heroes! When I first took over Captain Marvel, the first thing I did was put her to therapy—. She goes home, and it is a story that is told through flashbacks that sort of explain how she came to be. It is shortly about her mother, and her brother… It is about the human behind Captain Marvel, and how it relates with the hero.

Marvel is very good at that. They call it “the world outside your window”: the human stories are really what powers superheroes’ stories. We all know that is true, as writers: superhumans’ stories are about humans and not feeling super, and how that feels with the parts of you that you want to be super and how you become that way. They were really helpful in helping me figure that out.

We would like to know if you have felt a big transition between the sense of freedom that you felt when writing Beautiful Creatures and Icons and the challenge of taking over from a character with more than 50 years of history.

The work as a writer is very similar because you are looking through your ideas in a certain way. You are looking through what you think and the ways you could tell this story when it is your own story. And then, with Marvel you are looking through eighty years of comics. In both cases you are saying: "What is the through line, the one thing that is always the same, the essence of this character?".

When I was writing Black Widow's book, people were asking who that character was in love with and who was she dating. And I would say: that is actually not what interests me... ever. What I am interested on is the nature of their heart, not who they are dating. And the nature of their heart is sort of the line that goes all the way through all the years. In those comics, female heroes could be wearing fishnets. Black Widow wore some horrible costumes, as has Captain Marvel. Because women in comics were originally there for their bodies, for that hero fantasy involved. That was reprised. But increasingly, there is an understanding that that is not what a female hero is for and I have been grateful for that.

Although Hollywood has not necessarily always done that. Nothing has made me so angry than the end of the first Kingsman movie, where the big reward was getting to sleep with the girl. I was like: "What year is this from?". And every time something is still like that is just a slap. I was originally afraid to see Deadpool, which I really wanted to see... My good friend Gerry Duggan wrote the Deadpool comic for a long time, but he does not write the movies. I was afraid to think that it would have LGBT+ jokes and that kind of humour, which is painful for me. I can't stand it as it is so close to home and I would not expose my family to that. But when I finally watched it I was relieved!

I think that is part of why I always introduce myself in terms of my family, in every room I walk into over and over. Because I want it to be like: "You know me now: you do know people like this, you do know a family like this", just to try to get more humane behaviour out off people. But times are also changing.

What is it like to be the only woman at a Marvel writer table?

I am the second woman in eighty years. There's been one: G. Willow Wilson, who writes Ms. Marvel. She is amazing, she just took over Wonder Woman. She is so good... I give myself goosebumps thinking about her! I love Wonder Woman too.

And now there is one more: Kelly Thompson, who did Rogue & Gambit, she also writes X-Men and she has just started a West Coast Avengers adventure.

There have been excellent women in the room, but just three of us! And eighty years is a long time. The boys are amazing to me and they understand. The comic industry changes slowly because the comic books stores are always in Red States and their real estate need not to cost much money, so they are always in poor areas and not urban as much. They are not places women are comfortable going, generally. So if you write a female character you are never going to be that successful until they are reprinted as books, where women can get them online or in a bookstore. It is sort of an unfair test. As a result, in terms of single issues, marketing and sales are never really looking for a ton of female web books.

But then my boss, Sana Amanat, took over as Director of Marvel Comics. She is a Pakistani American Muslim girl from New Jersey —basically she is Ms. Marvel. It is her story, that gets inspired by her childhood. She did it with Willow Wilson, but it is really her childhood—. When she first got to Marvel I do not think there were any women light titles. There were 23 and now I think there are 17 in over 5 years. It is not what you want it to be, but it is definitely something they are trying to get done. It is not great.

Do you think there is more parity in the world of young adult literature?

Yes. There are more women than men in all of our festivals and events. The men who are there do very well, but the majority of the market is women creators and that has been fun. Most of the women I know support their families in a really sort of heroes way.

I find it odd that I work only in industries that are all men or all women. The comic industry is a hard space to be a woman publicly, I get a lot of dead threats. Same with games. But the important thing is who is in the room when those decisions are being made, so I do not want not to do it, because it's a chance to change that. I like to do hard things, it turns out. I must find it more rewarding in a certain way.

Moreover, I relate better to the teens that I write for. I like the flexible thinking, the empathy of the youth. I think that is the main difference between generations: the ability to imagine that what someone needs may not be the same as what you need.

I really do feel like those are the heroes, even if it sounds cliché: the readers. And you see it particularly in the United States, where everything is so hard right now. It is high school kids getting gun laws changed, protesting. I think these are heroic moments, where the youth is stepping up and the adults are failing us.

If you weren’t writing Capitan Marvel at the time, what Marvel superhero would you like to be working on?

I have always wanted to work with the comic form of Black Widow. Because that is a character who I have written two hundred thousand words about. I have never gotten to control the art for that, so that is in my bucket list.

I always include a lot of Iron Man, because that is a side of my personality. I just make terrible Tony Stark bad jokes. The Marvel guys always call me Tony because they think I write Tony the most like... Tony. Actually, there are also a lot of times when my friend, Gerry Duggan, old Deadpool writer, really wanted me to take Deadpool. He said: "You are so foul. Why do people think only men can be that foul? You are the foulest person I know". And I was like: "Thank you, Gerry".

Nowadays, superhero figures are on the rise, both in movies and in young adult literature. You also treat them in your books, since you have written novels about Black Widow. According to Margaret Stohl, what is a superhero made of?

A hero is someone who is the same person in every room they walk into. That is the text book opposite of Donald Trump, he tells a different lie in every room he walks into. A hero has one truth and speaks it always.

My heroes are like my children. My heroes are LGBT+ children who walk through fire every day. To have any kind of identity and to be told that there cannot be a book about it or that your identity, your very identity, is inappropriate... that is just bullshit. Those are fights you take all the way. Things do not change until everyone starts saying the most inconvenient awkward truths all the time. I say it. You have to say it.

I say it also cause I can say it. That's the other thing I learned from my own child: if someone misgendered my child and nobody else stood up for them and corrected the other person... they would be receiving another message: “nobody cares, I am all by myself”. That is too much for a child. Those things need to be called out every single second. So that is one thing I can do: I can say those things, but that is nothing compared to the person living that experience. So if you are not going through that, it is your job to be in that fight, because you can be, and it is less expensive for you personally than it is for the person who otherwise has a backpack full of rocks or racist cops at their door.

It is a confusing time right now. There is progress and there are just total failures. It is like having two legs that are different lengths; you do not know how to walk. I can't imagine how much longer it can feel like this, because so many people are in so much fear and pain.

So, yes, for me a hero speaks the truth and does not change for anyone. A hero is not afraid to be who they are and is loyal. A hero says: it is my honour and my duty to go down with this ship.

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