Over the past few weeks, I’ve been live-tweeting rereads of the Raven Cycle, in honor of Call Down the Hawk’s release date on November 5th. The last book in the series, the Raven King, is up this weekend, and I admit I’m terrified.
I generally enjoy looking back over my old work. I always know that I could do better now, but I find that comforting — if I’m not getting better with each book, what’s the point?
But The Raven King is different.
I was just beginning to lose my mind when I wrote it.
I still remember the very first time I lost my words. It was summer of 2014. I limped my old Camaro into LA just in time to give a talk and class at the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators annual conference. I felt both triumphant at making it coast-to-coast and vaguely fraudulent at the idea of teaching writing to my peers. The classroom was full, I had my notes. I began to teach, and things were . . . wrong. Transitions kept escaping. It was as if I had forgotten how to present. How did I get from one section to another? The audience was on my side, leaning forward, waiting for me to find my place.
I remember stopping in the middle of a sentence, frowning, and saying, “I don’t know how I was going to end that sentence.” Everyone laughed. They thought I’d just raced into a conversational cul-de-sac. They didn’t know that I’d simply forgotten everything I’d said just before.
I’ve talked before online about my health struggles. I went from 60-0. Non-stop touring, freelancing for auto magazines, penning two or three novels a year, to . . . nothing. The physical aspects of it were myriad and, to me and most doctors, mysterious. Food allergies, strange bursts of adrenalin at midnight. I ate four thousand calories a day and had shimmering migraines. This was the cost of doing business, I supposed, this was what life looked like as one galloped toward middle age while living an ambitious life.
In 2016, I remember getting off a plane in NYC to film a promotional video for Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures. I stopped in the airport bathroom to wash my hands. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at myself again. And again. It felt like a strange dream. I called my co-author.
“Jackson,” I said, “I think a bunch of my hair fell out on the plane. I think I have a bald spot. ”
It looked bad, but it would look even worse later, when the rest of my body hair fell out.
And that was before the sleeping.
Sleep? I called it sleep. I didn’t know better. My pulse crawled. My heart tripped over itself. The sleep was complete. Non-negotiable. If I was driving, the car got pulled over wherever I was. My social media became a montage of photos of me sleeping at rest stops, gas stations, by the side of the interstate. The sleep was dreamless, dead. I was always tired of it, but it was never tired of me. I could feel it clinging to me even when I was awake.
My mind has always been the most interesting part of me, I think, the part I’m most attached to. Erratic and strange and nimble, if not necessarily brilliant. But it wasn’t anymore. My words slurred in my mouth. I forgot my phone number, my address. I forgot places I’d been, who I’d been with. All memory of travel during that time is mostly lost to me; I look at wonder at the dozens of Airbnbs I stayed in my online history. They seem like they must have been nice.
And oh, Raven King, Raven King. The Raven Cycle was probably most important project I’d ever worked on. Personal. Challenging. The hardest thing I’d ever done. It took all my concentration, and I was proud of it.
But now I found it was kind of getting away from me. Everything felt like it was kind of going sideways on a basic syllabic level. I’d write a chapter, come back the next day, and not exactly understand what I’d done wrong. Something was amiss. The transitions. The flow. The feeling. Why couldn’t I get my legs under me? I felt I was writing the book inside out.
I kept deleting. Trying again. Deleting. God, it was like a nightmare. It was like looking in a mirror and realizing you had a silver-dollar sized bald spot where you’d had hair an hour before.
The publication date got pushed. Some sides of fandom debated hotly whether I had deleted a better book in order to pursue some lamer agenda. Other sides snarled that it was classic Stiefvater, of course I didn’t care enough about this book or my readers to actually finish it on time.
I typed. I typed some more. Everything was sideways. I loved this series. I loved these characters. How could I not get to the end if I’d known it from the beginning?
Peaks. Valleys. The Raven King came out. It had continuity errors in it. Stupid ones. Dates. They’d be fixed in the reprint. The fandom roared it was evidence I couldn’t be bothered with this series anymore. They didn’t know I couldn’t even remember what month it was in real life.
I told myself I would see doctors as soon as I was off the road, but I wasn’t about to cancel events when readers were coming from hours way to see me. I’d fill myself with stimulants to survive for a few hours, then I’d creep back to my room to crash as a fever burned my skin, sometimes pulling over several times on the way to the Airbnb to give in to the dead sleep, praying no readers saw my colorful car haphazardly pulled over wherever I could make it to. 16 hours of sleep. 22 hours of sleep. 26 hours of sleep.
Was it sleep? Is it sleep without dreams?
Doctors found hookworms in my face and evicted them. They limited my diet to avoid my increasing allergies. They pumped me with vitamins. My publisher gave me months and months off. I felt better! “When will I get all the way better?” “It takes time to heal,” the doctors said.
I could be patient.
Fever, spiked, sleep, initiated. Eczema swelled my eyes shut and butterflied my cheeks and ruined my eyesight. Some days, I would try to pick up my bag and it would simply fall from my hand. An avid hiker, I went hiking with my younger brother one weekend and, to my amazement, found my legs could not carry me up the first incline. It was as strange and unreal a situation as that first bald spot, as that impossible floating thing that was the Raven King. My legs had just been carrying me before, weren’t they? How had I gotten here? Was I awake?
I was Maggie, paused. Maggie, photo-copied. Everything was a dream. A semi-truck crashed into my Mitsubishi at 70 mph between events, taking out the entire left side of my car. When the driver approached me by the ditch, he was shaking. “I thought I’d killed you,” he said, “are you all right?” I was a glittering-eyed animal standing in the ditch. I felt absolutely nothing. All I could think about was that I hoped the tow truck got there soon so I could sleep. The ditch was damp, I thought, and it would worry the trucker if I laid down in it.
I wrote All the Crooked Saints.
Or someone did. I was watching this stranger from somewhere else. It looked like it took a lot for that person to write. I watched her read sentences back to herself and frown. Even she knew they didn’t make sense. She spent painstaking months sorting them out word by word. She sat still for longer than I had ever thought Maggie Stiefvater would sit. It was like she was sleeping even when her eyes were open.
I sought help from a senior researcher at the NIH. He said, “sometimes women of your age just get sad.”
Peaks. Valleys. Caffeine, licorice, magnesium, salt by the handful. My publisher took me off the road and kept me off the road, and it helped. I felt brighter, more normal. Not every day was clever enough to be a writing day, but there were plenty of them to write Call Down the Hawk. I was managing. Maybe the doctors were right, maybe I just needed time to get better.
BookExpo! My glorious return to the publishing world was slated for May after months of only teaching a few seminars here and there. I wanted to go. Longed to go, really. I was going to present Hawk to the world, Hawk, a novel I finally loved after two novels I didn’t fully understand. I was doing better, I thought. I was getting better.
I was wrong.
It was as if I had never improved. As I lay on the floor of the hotel shower, I told myself readers had worked hard to get into the events I was headed to, they were probably waiting in line for me even then. Get up. Get up. I crawled out. I swallowed a shit ton of pills. I made my body stand. I let myself lay on the event center floor for a few minutes once I got there, and I hid and slept for a few minutes under one of the signing tables after I was done. Keep going, I told myself, you have a seminar in Toronto after this. I stopped my car every ten minutes to sleep. I made it to Buffalo.
I emailed my editor. My fall tour got canceled.
After that, I never got better. I became allergic to the sun; I wore sunglasses inside. I was imaginary. Now a prisoner of my office, I had to choose my day’s plan carefully: take a lukewarm shower, or lift a laundry basket? I was wakeful for one hour of the day, and the rest of my life was a haze. One hour when stories made sense, and 23 hours just paused. There’s that miserable Bradbury short story about the girl on Venus who waited for the one day of sunlight a year? That was me, summer of 2019.
I saw a UVA doctor. She said my lab results looked strange, but “I think we need to rule in panic disorder.”
An out of state friend said, I’m getting you into an endocrinologist before November. Fax your medical history to them now.
Within minutes of getting my history, they set an urgent appointment the next morning. Within minutes of arriving at that appointment, I had a diagnosis: Adrenal insufficiency. All my valleys were adrenal crises; all my peaks were when I removed enough inflammation from the picture to highlight the last of my sputtering adrenal glands’ function. Apparently primary adrenal insufficiency/ Addison’s often takes 2-10 years to diagnose because the symptoms are so diffuse. Apparently it’s sometimes only diagnosed in the morgue, because the symptoms merely slowly drag down the patient until stress lands them in an irreversible crisis.
Which I guess makes me lucky. This isn’t really how medicine should work, it’s how magic should work, and yet, this is what happened: They gave me replacement cortisol, and in thirty minutes, the world was in color. Maggie Stiefvater returned to the building. It’s a building that has to replace cortisol forever, but you know what, that’s a pretty easy-care structure in the relative scheme of things. A one story rambler with naturalistic gardens.
So, The Raven King, The Raven King. It is strange to write out this post. It feels pretty personal. Pretty raw. Not so much the health aspect of it. The writing bit. The brain bit. The mindfuckery of it. Will it change the way readers see my books? Will they analyze Call Down the Hawk for signs of an infirmed mind? Will it diminish the fondness they have for The Raven King? Will it contextualize the timbre of All the Crooked Saints, or will it confound it?
But ultimately, I’m gonna post it. In a series of years where stories have often escaped me, it’s the story that explains my storylessness. And maybe some other women will take some steel from it, women who have been told again and again that their symptoms are all in their head — I have lots of external markers of success, and I still found myself in a healthcare system eager to dismiss a deadly disease with readily available lab markers as the complaints of a sad, lonely, anxious woman.
And I guess a major part of me wants to bookend these dream-less years. These story-less years. I was invincible before. Anything could happen to me, but I would still be a storyteller. I’d still have my words. But now — it has felt, in the past three weeks since my diagnosis, like there was Maggie, before, and now there is Maggie, after. I will never be the person I was before nearly dying. I will never be the person I was before I knew that stories and words could be taken away from me.
On Saturday, I reread the Raven King, the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. Like I said, I’m terrified.
But I’m wide awake.