Margaret Stohl '89: Writer Creates Worlds in Unexpected Ways
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 01:59
Photo courtesy of Margaret Stohl '89
Stohl said she fell in love with the college because “anything I wanted to make happen at Amherst could happen.”

Margaret Stohl has had, to put it lightly, a varied career. She has been a high-profile creator of video games, young adult novels, and most recently, comic books. Armed with determination, Stohl creates fictional worlds with real spirit and enthusiasm. In the past few years, she has also embraced community outreach, most notably in helping to create YALLFest and YALLWest, the two largest youth and teen literature festivals in the county.

Amherst: The First Challenge

When Stohl first moved to Amherst, she was a Los Angeles native who knew little to nothing about life on the East Coast.
“I came to the school with a leather jacket, a ton of wool sweaters, long pants and a pair of cowboy boots,” she recalled. “Then I got to Amherst in August, and it must have been a million degrees.”

When Stohl arrived on campus and began taking classes, she immediately fell in love with the college’s English department. She would eventually take 36 English classes during her time at Amherst and won the department’s Knox Prize, which went to juniors to provide support for literary research.

“I remember that I had Professor Pritchard for one of my freshman classes and he absolutely terrified me,” Stohl said, chuckling. “I think his class was the first time I ever got a B on a paper. It was the first time I felt challenged. I knew that I met my match and it was an exhilarating moment.”

“She was a standout, not only a very good student but extremely independent,” Professor of English William Pritchard said. “She was very much out of the ordinary and had a lot of ‘presence’ ... I always felt that she went her own way, but when our paths crossed the results were more than pleasant. She was a real live wire.”

At Amherst, Stohl found an environment that challenged her and also pushed to overcome those challenges. She loved that feeling and sought out that unique experience. She fell in love with the small size of the school and produced the first women’s literature magazine at the college. She also wrote and produced a one-act play, which gave her experience in crafting humor and finding her voice.

“Anything I wanted to make happen at Amherst could happen,” Stohl said. “It’s a theme with liberal arts colleges, where you have direct interactions with the geniuses of your time and you find out that they value your opinions ... That’s when you start to take yourself seriously. By the end of my Amherst experience, I felt powerful. When it came to my mind, I was an important person.”

The Electronic Frontier and “Mighty Captain Marvel”

After graduating Amherst in 1989, Stohl took a gap year in New York City. During this time, she wrote two screenplays with her best friend from Los Angeles, who now writes children’s books under the name of Pseudonymous Bosch.

Preparing for the next step in her life and career, she applied to several graduate school programs and got accepted at every one. “That’s the kind of thing an Amherst education allows you to achieve,” Stohl said.

She decided to go to Stanford and focused on 19th century American literature, something that she had previously worked on at Amherst. Stohl also attended Yale for three years, participating in the American Studies program. During this time, Stohl married her husband, a Stanford grad who was studying law at Yale when she was involved in American Studies there.

However, Stohl never even took her oral exams, and her husband never took the bar exam. Instead, a video game company called Activision had read the screenplays that Stohl had written and were interested in her talent. Stohl and her husband both began their careers working with video games at Activision. This was an industry in which Stohl would spend 16 years.

The pair went on to found their own video game studio, 7 Studios. While there, Stohl gained her first experiences with building fictional universes. It was also her first time working with entertainment giant Marvel Comics as she worked on a Fantastic Four video game and the first Spider-Man game for the PlayStation 1. “I find fans of that Spider-Man game all the time, actually,” Stohl said.

After working on video games, Stohl decided that it was finally time to focus on writing and publishing a book, something she had dreamed of doing even before coming to Amherst. With fellow author Kami Garcia, Stohl wrote “Beautiful Creatures,” a young adult novel. This book was an international bestseller and became the first of a successful series — it was even adapted into a 2013 film. After authoring several more science fiction books, Stohl then wrote two Black Widow novels for Marvel Comics, again targeting the young adult audience. Marvel was impressed enough by her writing that they offered her a position writing the current “Mighty Captain Marvel” comic book.

Today, Stohl alternates between writing novels and working on “Mighty Captain Marvel.” She has also resumed working on video games, most notably Bungie’s “Destiny 2.”

“I enjoy the differences and challenges inherent in each medium, but they all come back to the same general principles of storytelling and world-building,” Stohl said.

Stohl discovered that just as each genre is different, each creator is different. She thinks of herself as an empath, an emotional storyteller.

“I love to write how my characters’ strengths and weaknesses play off each other, but that can be a problem when I find myself writing a hundred pages about the emotional states of three characters,” Stohl explained. “I feel the character I’m in and feel the attachments that they have to the world around them.”

“I just try to focus on what I love, creating worlds,” she added. “No matter what media I’m working in, I’m happy if I’m doing that. Of course, I have to really connect to the project. This has led to a sort of hectic career as I bounce between passion projects, crossing plenty of genre and medium lines.”

Stohl’s experiences at Amherst had helped shape her into an innovating, boundary-defying creator. Her confidence and her ability to take risks resulted from those at the college who “convinced me that my ideas were just as valid as everyone else’s.”

“Because I was a Girl”

Throughout her life, Stohl has found herself in environments heavily influenced by gender dynamics.

“When I was attending Amherst College, it still had this perception of being a men’s school and we hadn’t had any of the dialogues about dating or assault that you see today,” she said. “There was a male-driven social culture. Even though I felt mentally powerful, I never truly felt socially powerful. It was a hard time to be a girl, but I don’t remember it limiting me in any way when it came to my mind. That’s a mantra that I’ve tried to carry forward.”

These experiences lasted even after she graduated from Amherst, since she worked in the male-dominated industry of video games. However, the challenges that her circumstances posed for her taught her valuable skills, such as how to work with male co-workers and how to successfully make her voice heard.

“I actually wrote an essay on being a woman on the video game industry called ‘Because I Was a Girl’ that takes a frank look at some of the issues within it,” Stohl said. “Ironically, I eventually made the shift to the young adult industry, which is as female-dominated as the games industry is male-dominated.”

During her time working in the comic book industry, Stohl has also tried to use her position to convey her own message about issues relating to gender.

“One of the reasons that I love writing Captain Marvel is that it’s a great platform to tell all readers, but especially girls, to not let their environments hold back their voices,” she said. “It’s fortunate for me, because Captain Marvel is going to be the lead of Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero movie.”

Notably, Stohl has also been invited to the Marvel creators’ summit — the second woman ever invited attend this creative retreat. She described this event as a place “where you sit down with all the other creators and brainstorm how all the comics fit into one universe.”

“I loved being in that room with so many prolific creators and having them hear out, and sometimes shoot down, my ideas,” she said.

“The Bigger Issues”

Today, Stohl is largely concerned with what she calls “the bigger issues.” She was part of a team of several authors that started the young adult literature festival YALLFest, which is now the largest event of its kind in the South. YALLWest, a sister festival, was organized several years later and takes place in California.

“The main thing about working with Margie is that it is the most fun work you will ever do,” said Melissa de la Cruz, another author and YALLFest board member. “Not only does Margie make the project so much better, she understands what you want to say in the work. It’s hard to describe, but it’s almost like brain osmosis.”

“The reason that I helped start YALLFest, and in turn YALLWest, was because I wanted to get involved with the community regarding literature, as not many authors visited the South,” Stohl said. “Since then, I’ve found myself speaking on various topics, such as mental health or gender issues.”

“We are in a society that values achievement and success, but what if your goal is for everyone to succeed, or you want to help someone else?” she asked. “I just know that I want to get involved in communities and produce more lasting change than just increased book sales. There are bigger issues to worry about.”