Chapter 16
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Werewolves in the Heartland

With Forever, Maggie Stiefvater concludes her haunting Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy

This month the story of the Wolves of Mercy Falls comes to its much-anticipated conclusion. Maggie Stiefvater launched this riveting young-adult saga of humans and werewolves in the Minnesota woods in 2009 with a New York Times bestseller called Shiver. Linger followed in 2010, and the concluding volume, Forever, rounds out the trilogy. Stiefvater spins a compelling tale of humans and wolves both in love and at odds. Her characters make choices out of fear and hatred, self-sacrifice and loyalty, pain and grief. And after a while, it’s not so easy to tell the men (or women) from the beasts.

When eleven-year-old Grace is pulled from the tire swing in her backyard and attacked by wolves, she survives thanks to the intervention of Sam, a young werewolf. Infected since the age of seven, Sam is the adopted son of Beck, the father figure and protector of an unusual wolf pack that roams the forest in Mercy Falls, Minnesota. The subsequent attraction between Grace, who longs to run the woods with her mysterious, yellow-eyed rescuer, and Sam, who dreams of being fully human again, builds at a distance until six years later, when Grace saves an injured and suddenly human Sam from pursuing hunters. Gentle, damaged Sam and lonely, pragmatic Grace quickly form a bond that recognizes no limitations, species or otherwise.

In Stiefvater’s fascinating world, human beings become infected by being bitten, but the resulting “werewolf” lacks the hulking shape, lust for human flesh, and full moon-induced transformation typically associated with the breed. At first, her human/wolf hybrids are normal when the weather is warm, shifting into their wolf forms only when the mercury dips too low. In the winter, they keep to the forest and travel as a pack but are more interested in feeding on rabbit and deer than on people. As wolves, they lose their ability to remember and reason and are completely taken over by their animal instincts. In the spring they shift back to human again, albeit with heightened senses of smell and hearing. This back-and-forth existence lasts only so long, however: eventually they all succumb to the wolfish side of their nature and remain imprisoned in that form until death.

As Forever opens, the shape-shifting tables have turned. With Grace a wolf and Sam now human, they are once again forced to endure a painful separation, as Sam explains: “Without Grace, I was a perpetual motion machine, run by my inability to sleep and my fear of letting my thoughts build up in my head. Every night was a photocopy of every day that had come before it, and every day was a photocopy of every night. Everything felt so wrong . . . my memories edged with images of Grace covered in her own blood, shifting into a wolf; me, unchanging, my body out of the season’s reach. I was waiting for a train that never pulled into the station. But I couldn’t stop waiting, because who would I be then? I was looking at my world in a mirror.”

Grace and Sam are soul mates. Their sweet and sexy cross-species relationship forms the core of all three novels, and as two of the four principal narrators, they invite the reader to take this intimate journey along with them. Providing the other two distinct points of view are their caustic-tongued but fiercely loyal friend Isabel, who loses her brother Jack to the wolves, and the brilliant, self-destructive Cole, a drug-abusing former rock star who initially seeks anonymity and even annihilation in the woods. He looks forward to losing himself in the pack forever: “Running as a wolf was effortless. Every muscle was built for it. Every part of a wolf body worked together for seamless, constant motion, and the wolf mind just wouldn’t hold on to the concept of tiring at some point in the future. So there was only running like you would never stop, and then: stopping.”

Much more dangerous than the four-footed forest denizens are most of the parents, including Sam’s, who try to destroy what they cannot understand; Jack and Isabel’s, who seek to revenge Jack’s death by killing the wolves; and Grace’s, who will settle for putting an end to their daughter’s romance. As Grace muses, “I could imagine a life someplace far away, starting over from scratch, just us. But as soon as I pictured it—Sam’s socks draped over a window radiator, my books spread across a tiny kitchen table, dirty coffee mugs upside down in the sink—I thought of what I would leave behind: Rachel and Isabel and Olivia and, finally, my parents. I had left them so conclusively, through the dubious miracle of my shift, that my old anger at them felt dull and remote. They had no power over my future now. Nothing did, except for the weather.” With the help of Cole and Isabel, Sam and Grace must come up with a way to stay together (and preferably of the same species) and a plan to save themselves and the rest of their pack from threats both external and internal.

While Forever features plenty of conflict and action, Stiefvater wisely takes the time to create memorable and moving characters (people and wolves). Ultimately, the magic of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy does not lie in its supernatural other-worldliness but in the common, everyday struggles of Sam and Grace and their friends and families—their love and loss, guilt and redemption, and the dreams and longings they hide beneath both skin and fur.

Maggie Stiefvater answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.

Chapter 16: Authors writing in the digital age have incredible tools with which to reach out to their audiences, who in turn have much more personal access to their favorite writers than ever before. You make the most of this development through your Twitter and Facebook accounts, numerous websites and detailed blogs, YouTube videos, fan contests, etc. What kind of connection do you hope to have with your readers, and why is this interaction so important to you?

Stiefvater: Really, being an author is about story-telling, and story-telling is about making sure that your audience hears the story [as] you mean for it to be heard, not how it sounds in your head. So online is a way to get that kind of sonar bounce-back, to hear people’s thoughts on not just the books, but on the writing life. It helps me make sure I’m telling the story the right way, even if that story is my life. It helps me make sure I’m making a difference.

Chapter 16: Sam’s love of poetry, and especially of the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, is a continuing theme in all three books, so I was surprised that you describe yourself in the author’s note to Forever as a “die-hard poetry un-fan.” Can you talk about your relationship to poetry, and why you chose to make it such a vital part of Sam’s character?

Stiefvater: I don’t think you have to be your characters; in fact, it’s better if you’re not. You’re more objective that way. So most of my characters love things I don’t love and hate things I don’t hate. I chose poetry for Sam because it was a natural extension of his lyric-making, and German poetry because the themes in Rilke’s work in particular really reflect Sam’s identity struggles.

Chapter 16: Sam is also a musician, and it is music—combined with poetry through song-writing—that enables him to cope with tremendous emotional pain and eventually begin to heal. You are an accomplished musician and song-writer yourself, and I’ve also read that you listen to music while you write. How would you describe the connection between music and words in your own life?

Stiefvater: For me, music is … meaning. In a very circular way, it describes the meaning of life while at the same time making life more meaningful. Every emotion I have in me can be defined by a piece of music, either by writing or listening, and because my writing is also a way of processing my life, I think my writing and music are very difficult to separate from one another.

Chapter 16: If Sam is the noble protagonist of the books, Cole is definitely the “bad boy.” Cole bursts onto the page as the stereotypical spoiled rock star, but he soon reveals hidden traits and conflicted motives, and ends up being possibly the most interesting character in the book. Where did his character come from and how did you maintain control over his larger-than-life personality?

Stiefvater: Oh, Cole. He was definitely one of the most satisfying characters to write because his character arc was so dramatic. I stole large pieces of him from myself in college (people tend to guess the wrong pieces, however) and then I threw in quite a bit of real-life rockers as well. It was very important to me that he read genuinely as a rock star, not as a rock star written by someone from the sidelines. It was also very important to me that his struggles with life and its value read as truth instead of preciousness.

Chapter 16: Your female characters are also strongly individual yet vulnerable, a welcome change from YA novels that often seem to specialize in thoughtless, one-dimensional heroines. I am especially fond of a scene in Forever between “default to bitch” Isabel and Grace’s “quirky” friend Rachel. You took the time to include a scene that doesn’t really move the plot along; instead, it reveals new dimensions to both characters and strengthens their understanding of each other. Can you talk about your approach to character development in general and whether you feel a special responsibility to present realistic female characters?

Stiefvater: I do feel very strongly that girls and women can be every bit as strong as men, and in fact, Grace’s entire character was built with the hope of writing a strong girl whose strength came from inside, not from thigh-high leather boots and kung-fu action. I feel like there are a lot of strong women in fantasy, but often they are of a brand that is completely alien to us. I like to look at what strength looks like in a very ordinary world.

Chapter 16: You have stated that you want to write books that “your mom will like,” yet Sam and Grace do consummate their relationship. How did you approach the question of whether they should be sexually active?

Stiefvater: Basically, I have to be true to my characters, and that involves me not imposing any of my morals or decisions on their lives. Teens in particular are very cunning readers, and any editorializing on my part would have them seeking the door. Being sexually active is what would have happened in that situation in real life, so it’s what happened in the book. My choices come in only with how that was portrayed, not when or if.

Chapter 16: Let’s address the blood-sucking elephant in the room: having now concluded a trilogy about werewolves, how do you see its connection to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga? Does her success help you by creating a larger audience for other writers of urban fantasy for young adults, or is it frustrating to have your work constantly compared to Bella and friends?

Stiefvater: Twilight’s been fantastic for the genre, especially for convincing adult readers that the YA section has a ton of great reads on offer. I will never, ever complain about a comparison or recommendation that includes the word “Twilight.”

Chapter 16: You were excluded from a creative-writing class in college because your writing was judged “not promising enough.” How does it feel to have the last laugh, and what advice would you give to young people struggling to maintain confidence in themselves as artists?

Stiefvater: I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly put out at the time, because I was young and rebellious and people said “no” to me all the time about my life decisions. I think it’s very important that you learn to have that sort of thick skin: not necessarily believing that your work is the best thing ever, but believing that you have the skills to learn how to make your work the best thing ever. Being a terrible writer is really not the issue for most writers. It’s giving up because you notice that your writing is terrible that is the issue. Most writers never cross that crucial bridge: finding out that you’re terrible, and then staying in the game long enough to find out how to fix it.

On July 31 at 3 p.m., Maggie Stiefvater will read from and discuss Forever at the Nashville Public Library as part of the Salon@615 series.