Never underestimate the lure of the Lowcountry. As teen fiction authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have discovered, there's an international fascination with our landscape and Southern Gothic heritage.
Garcia and Stohl's first novel is the surprise hit of the season. Beautiful Creatures is number three in the New York Times bestselling chapter book list and got to number five on the Amazon's Editors' List of the 100 books of 2009. It's set in Gatlin, a fictional town near Summerville and Lake Moultrie. Gatlin harbors dark supernatural secrets, as high schooler Ethan Wate discovers when he falls in love with the mysterious outsider Lena Duchannes.
Lena lives in Ravenwood Manor, an old house neighboring a plantation. Like the town, Ravenwood has its secrets. With twists and character developments in every chapter, the authors have gripped teen readers in 26 different countries.
"It's amazing how far a supernatural and teen reach can go," says Stohl. "We met with our French fans, chatted on our Spanish fan site, and talked to our German publisher. The Germans are really interested in food."
Although the writers live in LA, Garcia has strong ties to the Southeast. "Charleston is my favorite southern city, I've been there a million times," she says. "My family is from North Carolina." While researching the book, the authors visited Lowcountry plantations, looking for houses and land that backed up to the Ashley River. They were particularly inspired by Magnolia Plantation with its moss-covered oaks and cypress trees. "We're captivated by the strong sense of place here," says Garcia, who returns to Charleston with Stohl this week as part of an extensive book tour.
Listening to Garcia and Stohl, you'd think they'd been writing books together their whole lives. But, while they'd been reading each other's writing for a long time, their first full-length collaboration was spawned over lunch a couple of years ago.
At first, Beautiful Creatures wasn't a novel at all — it was a series of installments written for an eager audience of seven teenage girls. "We just wrote it for our daughters and their friends, and put it online for their friends," says Garcia.
"They shaped what happened in the book," adds Stohl, "through the questions they asked about characters and what would happen." That way the writers knew what their target readership was interested in — and they had to keep going. "The girls dared us to write it, and they were our taskmasters. We'd come home and they'd ask, 'where are the new pages? You didn't do anything, did you?'"
The completed story was read by Stohl's oldest friend Pseudonymous Bosch, who writes the "Secret Series" of books for grades 4-6. He gave it to his agent.
"I got a call from someone," Stohl says, a tone of I-can't-believe-it wonder still in her voice. "I didn't know who it was. I was just excited to get a call from New York. But when I got off the phone I told Kami, 'I think we have an agent.'"
The wonders continued. The hotly sought-after manuscript found a place at Little Brown; before the novel was even published, it had a Warner Brothers movie deal. So what is it about this supernatural romance that has publishers, editors, and filmmakers so spellbound? Stohl has a theory. "The teens we wrote with felt that there were themes they related to — feeling powerless, wanting to make decisions for themselves, feeling controlled. The idea of being truly powerful and going against the grain resonated with all seven people."
"They want to be individual and express who they are," says Garcia, "but also have friends and fit in." With its milieu of sorcery and Civil War history, Beautiful Creatures explores all these subjects via a coming-of-age story that authentically channels the authors' inner teen, and the dark side of Charleston that fascinates people so much.