Going against all odds is a trial not uncommon for the underdog. Pit that underdog against nay-saying traditionalists, carnivorous water horses and a co-competitor who just might be a love interest, and it’s anything but common.

On the rocky, rustic island of Thisby in the Scorpio Sea, it’s the time of year when the legendary water horses, the capaill uisce, emerge from the sea, teeth gnashing. It’s also the time for The Scorpio Races, in which select men of the island mount these blood-hungry steeds for a race that is as saturated with fear and death as it is with blood and tradition.

This year is different. Puck, a spirited young girl grappling to keep hold on her home and her brother, becomes the first female to enter the races. Strong and silent Sean, a repeat champion of the races with his own desperate need to win, unexpectedly takes Puck under his wing as they both train for a race that only one of them can win—and that neither of them might survive. Maggie Stiefvater talks about her own passion for impossible situations, character parallels and happy endings. 

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As the adage says, we write what we know, so the strong, determined and tangible pride in Sean and Puck doesn’t come from nothing. When you were of a comparable age, what did you fight for with such rigor as they do to win the races?

My childhood was dictated by my strict but supportive parents. We were allowed to do nearly anything as long as we earned the privilege. So, like Sean and Puck, my older sister and I were horse lovers. When I was around 13, we worked for a year to earn the money both for a horse and for a fence, and then we single-handedly built the fence and converted our garage to a barn for our two horses, which were terrible creatures, by the way.

You get what you pay for, and what we got was two fresh-off-the-track racehorses with about seven legs between the two of them. It was the hardest I’d ever worked for something in my life, and after that success, I became passionate about throwing myself into impossible situations—going to college at 16, playing the bagpipes competitively, touring with my band, becoming a writer.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the novel is Gabe’s looming abandonment of Puck and their brother Finn for the mainland. Have you ever been betrayed by a Gabe and what were the circumstances?

In a lot of ways, The Scorpio Races is my most honest novel. Both of my brothers appear in its pages. One of them was a Gabe, and yes, at the time, I felt utterly betrayed. It took me a year to realize what Puck realizes during the course of the novel—that sometimes family needs to leave in order to have their coming-of-age journey, and that that leaving doesn’t mean that they love us any less. Also, though it never seems like it at the time, Gabes often come back. If not for good, at least for a visit.

Peg Gratton plays second fiddle only to Puck in terms of a prominent, intriguing female character. She is salty, protective, maternal, attractive and tough as nails. Where did you find her?

I love to play with parallels in my books, and one of my favorite things to do is to parallel a teen character with an adult character. Peg is one possibility for Puck’s future.

There is a constant push and pull between predator and prey, male and female and paganism and Christianity in the story. What do you see as a fiercer battle?

In this novel, I very much wanted to look at the arbitrary names that we humans like to give things and how untrue they can be. The battles come when we refuse to look at how the lines blur. Those pairs—predator/ prey, masculine/ feminine, spirituality/ religion—aren’t really opposites, and in the novel, they frequently refer to the same object. The fiercest battle? When our eyes tell us one thing, and our heart tells us something else.

Would you ride Dove the land horse or Corr the water horse in the races, and why?

Corr. I’ve ridden Dove, and I like to try new things.

Atreyu and Artax (The NeverEnding Story), or Mattie Ross and Little Blackie (True Grit)?

Oh, Atreyu and Artax. I’m all for happy endings.