By Tara Fowler
Updated December 21, 2012 at 07:00 PM EST
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The Evolution of Mara Dyer

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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.

I love it when authors have a playlist for their novels like you do. How does music help you write?

It helps me nail the mood and the tone of the things that I’m writing. For Unbecoming in particular, I remember vividly getting stuck at points and then a song that I had listened to in high school would come up in my iTunes rotation and I would get unstuck. It would bring me back to that moment in time and I would be able to draw on those feelings and memories and infuse them into the book. So the first book, I call it my Fiona Apple book. I listened to a ton of Fiona Apple while I was writing it. Her lyrics are absolutely incredible.

Speaking of music, I loved that Kelli Schaefer was featured in the trailer for The Evolution of Mara Dyer. I suppose you didn’t have much to do with that…

Actually, I had everything to do with the trailer! It’s a really interesting story, one that I love telling because it came together in such an incredible way. When Simon & Schuster approached me about doing a trailer, I immediately thought first of my younger brother. In high school, he had a video production company and had done a lot of videos. I immediately thought of him and another friend from high school who’s now producing Broadway and off-Broadway shows. So I talked to them and got their sense of what it would take to do something like this. My brother came back with a director and my friend came back with a casting director who had worked on the casting for Gossip Girl.

That would explain it. It’s a sexy trailer.

Right? And someone who was actually in Gossip Girl was in the first trailer: Tyler Johnson. But I came back with these resources and [my friend] had produced a show most recently that I was actually in New York to see called White’s Lies. And Christy Romano was starring in that show and I heard her voice and I just immediately thought, that is what Mara sounds like in my head. I talked to him and I was like, do you think she would do the voiceover? He asked her and she said yes. I went back to Simon & Schuster and said look, I’ve got all these elements lined up. Will you give the thumbs up for us to run with it? And they said absolutely. So my younger brother, who was 20 at the time, was the showrunner for all of this. I couldn’t be happier.

Any movie plans?

There has been lots of interest, and interest from names that you would know. But I can’t say anything. [Laughs] It’s a long way from interest to coming soon to a theater near you.

Do you have anybody in mind for the lead roles?

I didn’t really think about that when I was writing it because the characters existed so clearly in my mind. But so many wonderful fans have submitted form art, which I always re-blog on Tumblr. The people that they like a lot… For Noah, I’ve seen a ton of Max Irons, that seems to be their No. 1. I think he’s really beautiful and it doesn’t hurt that he’s British and tall, so he definitely has a lot in common with Noah. And I’ve seen a lot of Kaya Scodelario from [the British version of] Skins for Mara. What’s most important to me is, if a movie were to happen, that they pick people who could nail the acting. Noah is described much more in detail than Mara is. Mara’s anonymous, so I want that amorphous quality that she could be anyone. Noah, of course, if he’s really short that’s not going to work so well. But thankfully there are tons of tall, British, messy-haired actors out there to choose from.

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The Evolution of Mara Dyer

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