Margaret Stohl '89
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Writing has gotten me in and out of trouble since I was 15 (back then, mostly just in trouble.) I have written everything from video games and video game manuals to live action screenplays, as well as poetry in the UK & the US. For 10 years, I designed &/or wrote for lots of video games, one of which was nominated for “Most Innovative Game Design,” but I lost to a rapping onion. If you know games you get why my two bad beagles are named Zelda and Kirby.
School; I spent more years in it than a person ever should, because let’s face it, reading books is so much better than having a job. I fell in love with American literature at Amherst and Yale, earned an MA in English from Stanford, and studied creative writing under the late great poet George MacBeth at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I taught Intro to Film as a TA at Yale and Romantic Poetry as a TA at Stanford. Don’t tell the people at Yale, but sometimes I taught the section before I’d seen the movie it was about…
I live in Santa Monica, CA, with my family, most of whom were enslaved into working with me in one form or another on my forthcoming YA book for Little, Brown. I’m not kidding; when my daughters wanted to go to school I said “Why are you so selfish? Get back in there and edit,” and by said I mean yelled and maybe threw things, it’s all a haze. I have a writing partner named Kami and she is why we ever get anything done. (Well, K and the daughter-slaves…)
And so we wrote a book this year, and it’s going to come out in lots and lots of countries in a few months. And I am really, really hoping there is no hot title about a rapping onion coming out at the same time.
Current Home: Santa Monica, Caifornia
Place of Birth: Pasadena, California
Education: Amherst College, BA; Stanford University, MA in English; Yale University, completed coursework for PhD in American Studies. (or as I like to say, PhDropout...)
Why did you choose to come to Amherst? When I applied from faraway Los Angeles - before the de-regionalizing age of the internet - I'd heard only two things about Amherst. First, it had the number one ranked English department in the country, and second, Emily Dickinson's house was on the campus. When I subsequently heard I wouldn't have to take math, I was sold.
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) class at Amherst: Writing my thesis on the journals of Mormon pioneer polygamous women with Karen; keeping a reading journal for an American Renaissance class with Barry for a whole summer after the class had ended; getting my only "B" in an English class, ever, freshman year with Bill, who explained my prose had "the tendency to come unmoored" -something my editors tell me even now!
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) professor: clearly - my thesis advisor, Karen Sanchez-Eppeler, Barry O'Connell, and Bill Pritchard, for all the above reasons, and so many more.
Research Interests: Though my life has veered away from academics, I am still a 19th century Americanist at heart. In graduate school, I wrote on everything from Emily Dickinson to fire extinguishers, PT Barnum to Southern Egyptian Revivalism, from religious revivalism to the Wilkes Expedition. My dissertation at Yale would have been about the relationship of expedition-based collecting (plants, people, dialects) to the formation of a national identity, a field that didn't exist at the time but I believe now would be called Museum Studies. I liked to study collecting, then; now I look at the things I learned in eight years of college as my own collection of stories.
Awards and Prizes: At college, I was happy to receive the English Department Prize, which had a fancy name I can no longer recall. After college, I was pleased to be awarded fellowships, also with fancy names I no longer recall. As a game designer, I was amused to be nominated for Most Innovative Game Design by the GDC, but more amused to lose to a rapping onion. As a novelist, my first big surprise was having my debut novel named the Top Teen Editors Pick for 2009 by Amazon, and the Number Five Editors Pick for 2009, Overall. After that, making the New York Times Bestseller List was the next biggest moment, and being short-listed for the American Library Association's William C. Morris Debut Award was also a huge honor. Another award that I lost, but not to a rapping onion...
Favorite Book: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Favorite Author: Eudora Welty. I once wrote a paper about how One Writer's Beginning was really about becoming a daughter, and The Optimist's Daughter was really about becoming a writer, and I've been obsessed with her ever since. I think Emily Dickinson runs a close second, as does the British poet Stevie Smith, who penned my favorite line, "I was much too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning."
Tips for aspiring writers? As my longtime best friend -- a middle grade fiction writer named Pseudonymous Bosch -- once said, there is no such thing as a bad book, only a bad draft. Don't give up, just keep writing. Also, find a critique partner, someone you trust. I have a writing partner, Kami Garcia, but most of the writers I know who go at it alone don't really go at it alone. Find a writing community that supports you, whether online or IRL, as the kids say.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author: After Amherst, though I knew I wanted to write a book, I stayed in school, studying books, writing about books, doing anything I could that was related to books--except write one. During grad school, when I was teaching and taking classes and researching, I began working as a reader at CAA. After I had written both good and bad screenplays, I had two optioned, and finally left Yale. A few abandoned projects later, I started writing not movies but videogames. I loved the fact that, unlike my screenplays, they would actually be made. Eventually, my husband (Lewis Peterson, Stanford '91, Yale Law '94) formed a videogame company, Seven Studios, which was bought by Activision Blizzard last year. After ten years in the game industry, one day I walked out the door and never looked back. I began going to the BAU Institute, an artists colony in Otranto, Italy, and started pieces of scattered projects. One day, I had lunch with a friend of mine, a teacher who had taught all three of my daughters. We decided to write a true Southern Gothic, a supernatural romance that my own teens would want to read. We also knew we wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a boy, which is a departure for the genre. I came home and told my teens, and they rolled their eyes, and said "I dare you. You'll never do it. You never finish anything." After that, I had to do it! We kept writing, and they kept reading, and the questions they asked about what happened next changed what happened next. Twelve weeks later, we had a book, and my best friend sent it to his agent, and a moment later, here we are. The day before the book debuted, Warner Brothers optioned the movie for the academy award nominated writer & director Richard LaGravenese and his producing partner, Irwin Stoff. Today we just hit the L'Express bestseller list in France; we're on our seventh week on the NYT list, and we've sold in 25 countries. I believe this week was Estonia. And all the while I have been waiting for a hot new title about a rapping onion to knock us off the charts...