Beautiful Creatures Authors: In Defense of Young Adult Paranormal Genre Fiction

As first the movie based on the hit series hits theaters, authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl talk to TIME about why writing for teens matters

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John Bramley / Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

When writer-director Richard LaGravenese told the authors of the Beautiful Creatures series of young-adult novels that he wanted to make a movie of their books, they had one overriding concern. The writers, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, wanted assurances that their teen protagonists—the normal Ethan Wate and the mysterious Lena Duchannes, a “Caster,” with the ability to wield magic—would presented correctly. Now that they’ve seen the movie—in theaters Feb. 14—the authors say they’re pleased with the performances of Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert.

Their worries were legitimate. Teens are notoriously fickle audiences: rabid in their fandom (good) but brutal in their criticism (bad). They can turn a series like Beautiful Creatures into a book-sales powerhouse. And, according to Garcia and Stohl, they don’t always get the respect they deserve. The authors spoke to TIME about why the YA-paranormal trend is nothing to snark about.

TIME: What’s it like to have your book turned into a movie?
Margaret Stohl: We had a very early-on kindred-spirits meeting with Richard [LaGravenese] where we realized he was the guy. He optioned the book before it even came out. We had a lot of respect that he was an established adapter of big-time books to the screen and was interested in us. We stepped back after our initial meeting and let him do his thing. We read the script and the teens really jumped off the page. They were smart and funny, which was the thing we cared about the most.

Kami Garcia: It was kind of like he was camping out in our heads.

(WATCHThe Trailer for Beautiful Creatures)

MS: He said it was really real, human coming-of-age story. He liked the juxtaposition of “I’m just a girl, you’re just a boy” in the middle of the supernatural. Which is what we were trying to do. So that was pretty gratifying. And we didn’t try to micromanage the process. We’re not screenwriters—we write 600-page books. We had faith in him and sometimes you have to do that. And look at what he brought to us. He attracted a level of talent we couldn’t have imagined. He worked with the casting director to find teenagers who are as capable as Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson and Viola Davis, so that, I think, was probably the biggest surprise in the whole thing. And the teens were probably the most important thing to us.

But obviously some stuff had to be changed between page and screen.
KG: I didn’t want to see a 601-minute movie. We’re not that interesting.

MS: There’ve been early screenings in a couple of different countries. I’ve been hearing from rabid fans how much they liked it and how they cried and laughed.

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Kami, how does your work as a teacher influence you in writing for teens?
KG: It influenced everything. You have to remember, not only was I a teacher for 17 years, but I had taught every single one of the kids we were writing for, including Margie’s daughters and my own sister.

MS: She really did teach her own sister.

KG: She’s 19 years younger than me. And Margie’s a mother of three daughters. I know there are a lot of writers who say ‘I don’t think about my audience, it’s not my responsibility to worry about how anyone takes it,’ but when you’re not writing to be published and you’re writing for your sister, your students, your daughters, there’s no way you’re going to think, ‘whatever message I put in here doesn’t matter because it’s my reader’s responsibility.’ We wanted to write a story about strong girls, because they were strong girls. We wanted to write a story about claiming yourself, owning who you are, being the person that you are, accepting who you are. Because not only did we see them trying to do that, but we weren’t brave enough to do that when we were their age. They were much braver than us. And it was like us cheering them on.

MS: But it wasn’t like we finished the book and handed it to them. We handed it to them one chapter at a time. We would hear about what didn’t work as it happened.

KG: And maybe that’s why it struck a chord. We were writing it for real teens that we knew. It wasn’t forced. We were writing for real people that meant something to us. People will say, ‘it’s clean, there’s no sex,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not writing dirty language and sex scenes for my students.’

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MS: Anyone who says that writing for children or teens is easier than writing for adults has never tried it, because they are so much more critical than adults. You cannot get anything past them.

KG: They’re so mean!

MS: We kept my middle-school daughter home for three days before we turned in our final draft, to edit out all the cheesy bits. And she was so brutal!

KG: They didn’t care about hurting our feelings. They’d be, ‘Oh my gosh, that is horrible.’ Or, ‘that was a really great chapter except for the fact it was totally boring.’ That’s why I always laugh when adult writers write about how juvenile fiction is so unsophisticated and easy to write and you have to work so hard to dumb it down. I’m, like, you clearly don’t know any real teenagers.

MS: But I totally know why they’re saying that. The thing that they’re really saying is that they’re afraid. Because for YA you have to be emotional. And you have to be okay with that.

KG: You have to gut yourself like a fish.

MS: You can’t be as arch. You can’t hide behind a prettily turned sentence. You have to get out there and open yourself up. And not all writers want to do that.

KS: But we always get very defensive because we’re women and very educated . We both read YA and know how smart teens are. You don’t have to want to write YA, but don’t insult the readers. There are teens that are so incredibly sophisticated and the problems that they face, the things that they deal with today, are so much harder than what we dealt with. We get letters from boys who are 19 years old that were in Afghanistan with the book, fighting for our country. We got letters from teenagers struggling with their sexuality or religious differences or racial differences where they live.

MS: I’ve been in Kuala Lumpur speaking with girls in arranged marriages who’ve read the book, talking about free will. All of these teenagers are not going through anything easier than we are.

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That makes sense, because the book’s about whether Lena gets to decide if she’s good or evil. Was that idea of “claiming” yourself always meant to be a metaphor?
KG: Not consciously. But [the teens in our lives] said to us, ‘We want a story from a boy’s point of view, because we love Twilight and all these other books we’ve ready but they’re all from a girl’s perspective. And we want the boy to be the regular mortal and we want to girl to be the one with the power.’

MS: ‘And no more vampires. We’re done with vampires.’

KG: ‘You need to create your own supernaturals.’

MS: ‘And nothing generic. They’re all starting to sound the same to us. Put it somewhere really specific.’

KG: So we had to meet that criteria. I had to hear about it at work, and she had to hear about it at home, and then they were emailing and Facebook-ing us criticism. They were tougher than any editors.

Why do you think there’s so much paranormal YA on the market now?
KG: I think part of it is starting with Harry Potter and then with Twilight, those books really got so many people reading who weren’t reading before. You read the thing that you most liked when you started reading, so they continue to read those books. And at the same time, I think, for grown-ups especially, it’s so escapist. Margie talks about it having so many parallels to things going on in real life.

MS: It’s like how science fiction in the ‘50s was a way of talking about war without actually having to risk any political capital. The obvious metaphor is power and powerlessness, but I also think it’s a way of experimenting with dangerous feelings in a safe arena and trying things out. Definitely there’s an escape element. Our readers in Spain face no possibility of a job. Our readers in France have been dealing with standardized testing that controls their life. It can be rough. And, I think, to give our bookshelf a little credit, our area of the library and the bookstore has attracted stronger writers as it’s started to thrive. So we’re getting work done by people who have really been validated as adult writers and have gone on to explore something else with us.