A couple of weeks ago, Fully Booked brought Michelle Hodkin, New York Times bestselling author of the Mara Dyer trilogy, to Manila. We sat down for an interview and it's possibly the best lunch break I've ever had. I don't have quality photos to show. I only relied on my phone's front cam. I would've brought a more decent camera to capture the epicness but it was a workday so bringing equipment would be a challenge. (LOL "equipment"? does that make me sound legit or what?!)
A brief description of what happened before the interview: Michelle and I were introduced. We shook hands. I sat down and accidentally knocked over my bag. I said, "Well I'm off to an awkward start." Michelle said, "It's okay!" because she's plenty awkward too. I brought out my phone and set up the voice recorder. It occurred to me to ask, "Do you mind?" She said no. I then thought out loud (like usual) and blurted out, "Woah, Fifty Shades of Grey moment right there." She said she hasn't read the books. I then explained how Ana set up the recorder before asking Christian if he's cool with it. Yep. That happened.
Sab The Book Eater, awkward 24/7.
ON TO THE INTERVIEW!
(Warning: there is a spoiler somewhere towards the end of the interview but I made sure to put up a big warning sign for you guys, in case you haven't read the book/s yet!)
Sab: I always ask this to everybody that goes on my blog, whether it be blogger or author, what got you into reading?
Michelle: What got me into reading? My mom. I mean if you go like, the earliest earliest memories... I mean one of my first words, actually, my first word was book. And then duck. She read to me when I was an infant -- way before all of the standard you know, conventional ideas like infants can't understand you or whatever. She just read to me from the time I was born, I'm sure. And just kept reading to me til I can read myself so I was a really early talker. I talked before I could crawl actually. And then sort of went from crawling -- or not really crawling -- badly crawling to just standing. I was super... I think I started talking at nine months which is pretty young, I think.
Sab: And it just started from that.
Michelle: I'm sorry?
Sab: It just started from that?
Michelle: Yeah, I mean if you have a parent who wants to instill a love of literature in you, and loves telling these stories, then I feel like it's contagious, you know? What child doesn't love to be read to? And here um, I don't know, fairytales, or... my favorite book when I was little -- it's out of print now -- but it was called The Joss Bird and it was about this bird who had her eggs stolen and she had to break into this museum and get it back. *laughs* And of course I loved Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit and all of that stuff. And... what else did I love? Um... some Dr. Seuss and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I don't if you've read that. Have you heard of that one?
Sab: It's like one of those standard kid... children's stories?
Michelle: It kind of is. Yeah. It's sort of a... it's a creepy one! It's like these three billy goats and this troll under the bridge. You know? *laughs* Um... I guess I liked scary stories early on. My mom just read to me all the time and I couldn't wait to be able to read myself; that I didn't have to wait to be told a story. I could just get into them.
Sab: I could relate because my parents are readers. I grew up in a house of books.
Michelle: BOOKS! Yeah me too! And that's the best.
Sab: It is! Now comes the questions about the books.
Sab: What I want to ask now is, are any of the events or people inspired by real stuff? Like people in your life, real events. At the back of my mind though what I'm really screaming is: is Noah real?
*laughs* Noah is, first, a mix of traits and characteristics. Parts, I would say are real, and other parts are not real just like a lot of the characters. I have two younger brothers. And so Daniel and Joseph are characters of my younger brothers. And I have a wonderful relationship with them so I wanted Mara to have a strong family relationship. But there's lots of stuff that came from real experiences and things that I've heard about that were true events that inspired me. I... when I was... *laughs* when I was in 8th grade, I did threaten a 7th grader with ebola. So that happened.
Michelle: Of course I didn't have ebola because it's a level 4 agent... but...
Sab: But it made it into the book.
Michelle: It made it into the book! Because that was a sorta memorable thing. And he was just being an obnoxious 7th grade boy. And so instead of being "I hate you," "I'll give you ebola!" so why not. That of course was real. And other things too. Mabel was inspired by a real dog. Yeah lots of stuff.
Sab: That's cool. Especially the ebola part. That really cracked me up!
Michelle: I was a naughty teenager.
Sab: I read it at a time when ebola was always on the news and when I read that part and I was like -- hey!
Michelle: And it's funny because this happened, I mean I was in 8th grade, this was... we're talking about '95... 1995. But of course the first outbreak was in 1976. And then there was a big outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo in '95. And I remember I discovered it by seeing it on the cover of Newsweek: Killer Virus. And I was like, what's that? So I read my parents' Newsweek. And I was like woah this is the scariest thing ever! And I read lots of horror novels before. I've already been a Stephen King reader, already loved R.L. Stine, of course when I was little that seemed like the most terrifying thing imaginable. And probably still is. That's like, I think, the worse thing that could happen to the human body is ebola. And so naturally I was fascinated with it because I was fascinated with anything that was scary.
Sab: This is a whole different thing, like, knowing that and looking at you.
Michelle: *laughs* yeah I have a very innocent face.
Sab: So my next question is... I find this really interesting about you, that you're a lawyer and that your background is in law. I think it takes a very different kind of lifestyle to be able to write. So I want to ask how much of your law background did you use when you were writing the trilogy? Did a lot of it influence the books?
Michelle: There were a couple of things I think that really helped without knowing at the time that they had helped. One is that when you're in law school or a lawyer, you have to produce huge amounts of text. Dry boring text. But text! And just knowing that I could write pages and pages of stuff, didn't make the idea... or it didn't make me think that I couldn't do it. I thought I couldn't do it for other reasons but not that.
The other thing is in the US, I don't know much about the practice of law here, but in the US you are required to zealously advocate for your client. It doesn't matter what your client's done. If you're a defense attorney, even if you know that you're client has committed a crime you're still obligated to defend that client to the best of your ability. And so being able to justify the things that Mara and the other characters do, I was very easily able to sort of slip into everybody's perspective and empathize with each of the characters. People will tell me a lot that they hate Mara's mother and I'm like, Mara's mom is a good mom! She's so worried about her poor child, who was self-harming and going through all of these things, that if you take yourself out of this story and you think about it from a parent's perspective, like, you'd want to protect your child from that. Sometimes doing that, sometimes the best way to help your kid who's going through challenges with anxiety and depression, is to have them in a residential treatment facility -- somewhere where they could be taken care of. So she was just trying to do the right thing. Of course the fact that Mara was an unreliable narrator who happened to be telling the truth never would've occurred to the adults in the story because that's often how these things go. They don't buy into that sort of magic that applies to the teenagers.
And another thing was my job. I was doing civil anti-terrorism litigation. I was working on the 9/11 lawsuits and then another lawsuit versus Arab Bank. My firm was representing victims of terrorism -- Israeli and American -- who had been out of themselves or had lost family members to suicide bombings and other terrorists attacks. Every single one of them had PTSD. I was travelling back and forth to Israel and defending depositions to depositions, 6am to 6pm, 6 days a week for years. And so I had seen for every individual that I met that was a different manifestation of PTSD. I really thought that one of the things I could see leading Mara and leading Mara's character arc from the very beginning would be trauma. Having something awful happen to her. And that would make the inciting incident that sets everything going.
|Photo from: The Daily Quirk|
Sab: You mentioned that Mara is a very unreliable narrator. My next question is actually related to that. As a reader you're just fed these things but you just have to rely, naturally on the narrator. We all know, well, Mara know's she's not insane...
Michelle: She feels she's not insane.
Sab: Yeah. How did come up with the style wherein you could take the readers on Mara's little crazy trip..
Sab: Yeah. Like, we're confused but at the same time we're with Mara. We're also realizing she's not really crazy. How were you able to balance showing what's real and not?
Michelle: Well it was, I mean that was definitely a challenge. One of the things that I heard from my editor from the first book was like, clarity! Clarity! Make everything as clear as you possibly can. Because of course if you're writing a psychological thriller you have to, if you're writing it even from third person point of view, there is no story if the reader knows not to believe the main character. Like, there's no tension. That kills your tensions from the very beginning. And again it kills the tension if the reader believes the character right away. So I had to keep readers, and Mara herself, everybody on their toes. And even through to the very end of the series I wanted people to not be quite sure if they could trust her or not. I think one of the things that I relied upon was having other characters in the story either back her or up or disagree with her. Not all of those characters are reliable themselves. There's this scene in the first book between Noah and Mara... have you... have you read the books?
Sab: Yes. *laughs* Don't worry.
Michelle: That's okay. You know, I wouldn't want to spoil you. But there's this scene Noah and Mara, that's near towards the climax, where they kiss. Mara is pretty sure that she was hurting Noah somehow. Well that happened. And Noah was like, yeah that was a dream, that never happened at all. And so it's like who's right!? Is Noah right?
Sab: Okay you kind freaked me out in that part.
Michelle: Awesome! Good! I'm glad! You know, is Noah right or is Mara right? And so I wanted readers not to be sure by the time... throughout the rest of the books, because in the sense they were both right and in a sense neither of them were right. I wanted to keep that tension there on purpose.
Sab: I think you did a really good job.
Michelle: Thank you!
Sab: I could never understand what was happening but I kept reading nonetheless.
Michelle: *laughs* thank you!
Sab: Okay now, my question is about the paranormal aspect of the book. At first I didn't know what was going on. And the second book you get more clarity but when it came to the third book everything came together okay I was like this is very different. I was wondering if there was a point, when you were plotting, that you changed... like, I'm coming up with a different kind of paranormal or I'm sticking with this one.
Michelle: Well, I guess it depends on what element you're talking about. Because of course there's lots of things that changed from the beginning to the end. But what specifically?
(SPOILER!!! Kind of. YEAH.)
Sab: The genetics.
Michelle: That I knew from the beginning. That I knew from the beginning because... I wanted... what was really important to me was making sure that this story felt like it could happen in real life. Right down to the idea of you looking at someone else in a cafe and wondering could they be Mara Dyer? I wanted it to feel like something that could actually happen and so I wanted their abilities to be something that you could neither prove nor disprove which is why they're so psychological. You can't really... there's no way to empirically demonstrate that Mara was killing people with her mind or if it was just coincidence. Everything's intentionally blurry that way. And so, when I thought about, well how would, if teens were to have supernatural abilities, how would it go down if this was a real condition? I thought about illness and I thought about cancer in particular. I spoke to a friend of mine who's a geneticist and we worked on it together.
Sab: Ohhhh this is legit science.
Michelle: Oh yeah! I had to know way early on, like when I was writing, that there could be a workable system. Sort of like in the Jurassic Park sense. The science doesn't entirely make sense. You can't... the DNA fragments from mosquito trapped in amber aren't really gonna be able to create a dinosaur. But the idea of that is something that clicks for you. You could read that and be like, yeah I could suspend the disbelief just enough to accept this plot. When I thought about cancers, it's triggered by environmental factors. It's triggered by genetics. These teenagers abilities in some way is triggered by puberty. Or also environmental factors. Like, children in the US are going through puberty at earlier and earlier ages because of hormones and food and other stuff. I wanted it to be something that if it were real, if everybody had this ability, it'd be discovered, right? But it had to be turned on in very specific ways. Then that make sense why people wouldn't have figured it out until that point. At the same time if the people who suffered, who are afflicted with this gene, had a tendency to self-harm or commit suicide or to hurt each other then that would be even more of a reason why you'd have a hard time figuring out that anything else would be going on. So it was really important for me that it feel real. Because otherwise I wouldn't but into my own story.
Sab: It'd too absurd.
Michelle: Right! I wouldn't be able to finish it. It has to make sense to me on that level.
Sab: Last question and then we're gonna go to this thing I call the lightning round.
Michelle: Okay! Quick fire.
Sab: Yeah. Okay, so I'm in finance. I just work around the area.
Michelle: Oh my gosh! You look so young!
Sab: *laughs* thank you. My question is: what is your advice to people who are in a completely different field and would sometimes wonder or dream about writing?
Michelle: Well if you write, you're a writer. The end. So if you're in a different field but you're writing and there's a story that you want to tell, a story you have to tell, a story only you can tell. Then tell it.
Sab: Just go for it, right?
Michelle: Yeah! And finish it. There's no trick. There's no way around the fact that you have to sit in a chair and put the words on a page. As awful as they are. And believe me I'm in the drafting phase myself right now and I wish that there was some other way. I wish there was like a sacrifice that I could make or some ritual that I could do to make me not have to do that. But there's no way around it. So if you're in a different field but you want to write, just right. That's it. It's that simple and that hard. And you've got to finish it. You've got to finish whatever you do even if you're sure it's terrible. Even if you're sure you're gonna have to throw it all away when you're done. If you can't finish a story, you'll never know, like, you'll never finish any story. You'll never know if you can do it. You'll never be able to fix it. That would be my advice. Write and then finish it.
Sab: Thank you. That's awesome. Okay... the lightning round! I'm not gonna ask it really fast but...
Michelle: Okay. I'll try though... be snappy.
Sab: Cats or dogs?
Michelle: Both. I have both. I love them both equally. They're my children. I can't choose. BOTH!
Sab: Black or white?
Sab: Paperback or hardbound?
Sab: Staying in or staying out?
Michelle: Staying in.
Sab: Mondays or Tuesdays?
Michelle: Mondays or Tuesdays? Tuesdays.
Sab: TV or your laptop.
Sab: Coffee or chocolate.
Sab: Chocolate drink...?
Michelle: ......like versus coffee?
Michelle: Ummm.... what kind of chocolate drink? *laughs* Now that it's specific it matters. Like hot chocolate versus coffee? What are you talking about?
Michelle: Coco. Ummm. Yeah. I think so.
Sab: Okay that's about it.
|And look! A selfie with Michelle!|
Michelle: Alright. Good! I overthink everything! I'm like, wait a second are we talking about a mocha here or..
Sab: Are we talking cold or hot..
Michelle: Espresso! We're talking about cappuccino versus hot chocolate? I need to know.
Sab: I get the dilemma. I'm a big coffee person.
Michelle: I love coffee! But hot chocolate on a cold day...
Sab: Yeah. Totally get you. *laughs*
After that we talked a bit about book covers and how we manhandle books. She also showed me pictures of her beautiful shelf. (Strong bookporn game!) Yessss, officially the best lunch break ever.
I'm giving away a SIGNED copy of The Retribution of Mara Dyer to one lucky entrant residing in the Philippines. The winner will be notified via email and Twitter/Facebook. If the winner fails to respond after 48 hours, a new winner will be chosen.
Thanks, Fully Booked, for making this possible!