Tara Fowler
December 21, 2012 at 07:00 PM EST

The holidays are upon us and you know what that means — quality reading time! So if you’re looking for a great book and haven’t yet discovered Michelle Hodkin’s The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer or its sequel The Evolution of Mara Dyer, carve out a few hours between opening presents and eating take-out. (Hey, don’t judge — no one in my family can cook!) Just to whet your appetite: Entertainment Weekly spoke to Hodkin about her YA debut, her experience as a lawyer, and the inspiration for Mara Dyer.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The true story behind The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer is creepy.

MICHELLE HODKIN: [Laughs] It’s definitely inspired by [a real event]. There was a person who I met in 2008 and she started telling me about her daughter, who’d been in this building collapse. That’s not the law that I practice, so I couldn’t help her, but I took down her information. As she turned to leave, I realized that her daughter had been with her the whole time and I just was immediately struck by the sense that there was more to the story. A year later, someone said something that reminded me of that girl, so I called the number and it was disconnected. It was just like lightning — I was on the plane ride home from my brother’s graduation and I literally started writing on the plane. It was immediate — one day I was a lawyer and the next day I was a writer.

Were you ever worried that it wouldn’t sell? It’s pretty dark.

First of all, I think that YA has always been dark. In elementary school, I was addicted to R.L. Stine. I went back about a year ago and re-read some of the Fear Street books. They are absolutely terrifying. What I think is really interesting about those books is that a lot of them did not end on a hopeful note. So I think kids and teens have always been drawn to that stuff. In terms of my own story, Mara‘s definitely a dark story. I always knew that it would get darker. I’ve known the series ending from very early on and I’ve been building towards that point. In truth, when I was drafting I didn’t have any thought as to market or publication. The words just poured out of me and the story had to be what it was going to be. Later on, I worried a little bit.

What was the research like for these books? There’s such a huge psychological component.

For the second book, it was much more intense because of the different settings. Knowing the difference between an out-patient program or an in-patient program and all of the possible subtypes of schizophrenia, that was very… I did everything I could think of to do. I became very acquainted with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. [Laughs] My sister-in-law was a tremendous amount of help — she’s in grad school right now. Anything that I got right is absolutely because of her and anything that I got wrong is completely my mistake. We spent hours on the phone and she helped me figure out how the characters would actually be diagnosed. That was something I knew I wanted to do from the first book. I knew that they had to have real illnesses or at least their symptoms had to mimic real illnesses so that they’d a have legitimate reason for being unreliable narrators if they were to come forward. From very early on, I was interested in how characters in a real world situation would handle a paranormal problem. I knew I wanted Mara to go in that direction because it’s different.

As a reader, you begin to wonder if they’re actually just crazy.

I’m so glad you said that because it makes me feel as though I did my job well. For the other characters to legitimately not believe her, you would also have to doubt her, even if she’s telling the truth.

The covers for both books are absolutely gorgeous. As an author, you don’t really get much say in it, but were you happy with yours?

I was. What’s funny about that is because I was in New York, I actually went on a side trip to the Union Square Barnes & Noble with my editor. We were looking at covers and she was asking me what I liked. She asked me to pull my favorite covers. Of course the one I pulled first — a short story collection by Kelly Link called Pretty Monsters — I was told very clearly, you’re not getting that. I go to the literary fiction and start pulling out all my favorite covers and it’s like, no you’re not getting that either. [Laughs] But, we ended the conversation with me saying dark and sexy because it’s a dark and sexy book. Some months later, they came back with the image and I was like, well that is dark and sexy. They nailed it.

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