One of my favorite, favorite, FAVORITE YA series is the Mara Dyer trilogy, so I am beyond honored to be partnering with Simon & Schuster for The Reckoning of Noah Shaw Blog Tour! It was a dream come true to be able to do a Q&A with author Michelle Hodkin and gain her insights on everything from psychological concepts to Dungeons & Dragons!
Before diving into Michelle’s absolutely fascinating answers, a bit more about the book and where you can find it!
About the BookMichelle Hodkin
Also by this author: The Becoming of Noah Shaw (The Shaw Confessions, #1)
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on November 13, 2018
Genres: Paranormal, Young Adult
Pages: 480 •Goodreads
Noah Shaw confesses all in this second novel of a chilling new companion series to Michelle Hodkin’s New York Times bestselling Mara Dyer trilogy!
Noah Shaw doesn’t think he needs his father’s inheritance.He does.
Noah believes there’s something off about the suicides in his visions.There is.
Noah is convinced that he still knows the real Mara Dyer.He does not.
Everyone thought the nightmare had ended with Mara Dyer’s memoirs, but it was only the beginning. As old skeletons are laid bare, alliances will be tested, hearts will be broken, and no one will be left unscarred.
Q&A with Michelle Hodkin
One of the most unique elements in the original Mara Dyer trilogy is genetic memory. Mara often has recollections that appear to be from the life of one of her grandmother. When did you first come across the concept of genetic memory and what inspired you to include it in your narrative?
I honestly don’t know when I first came across the concept, but it probably grew out of my reading (and early misunderstanding) of Carl Jung’s writings—he was a Swiss psychologist who developed the theories of the collective unconscious and archetypes. Once I realized that my books depended almost entirely on my characters’ psychological profiles, genetic memory seemed like a neat way to knit a ‘real world’ explanation for my characters’ supernatural circumstances, which were tied to those Jungian theories.
Many of the characters in both trilogies experience psychological conditions/side effects, like PTSD, Schizophrenia, etc. What level of research into psychology did you do for both series? Did the conditions manifest or did you research them first in the DSM and then apply them to the characters based on their stories and arcs?
An awesome question with a long answer! I began writing Mara’s character knowing how her character arc would end, and worked backwards from there–how would a sixteen-year old girl, who had lived a blissfully unremarkable teenage life, believably transition to an anti-heroine by the end of her story? What would she have to experience to bring her to the point she reaches at the end of Retribution?
At the time I started writing Unbecoming, I was working as an attorney on anti-terrorism cases, which meant that all of my firm’s clients were either survivors of suicide bombings and terror attacks in Israel, or that they were family members who had lost a loved one in those attacks. In other words, every single client of mine experienced PTSD, and I spent the better part of two years meeting with and listening to them talk about the worst things that had happened to them, six days a week, for ten hours a day. It was a profound, humbling experience that showed me how trauma affects every aspect of a person’s life, including their belief systems.
On a personal level, I was sexually assaulted as a teenager, but I hadn’t realized until I worked with terror victims that my reaction to my experience (to compartmentalize, to minimize, to self-blame) was all too common. So when I began writing Mara’s character, it seemed organic for her core beliefs about herself to evolve after experiencing trauma, and those evolving beliefs, fears, and her reactions to them formed the basis for her journey throughout the Mara Dyer trilogy.
Once I came to that conclusion, it was inevitable that each of the characters in the series would experience emotional and behavioral fallout from their supernatural abilities, and I wanted to explore it and for it to inform their own character arcs, too. So after my first rudimentary drafts of Unbecoming were complete, I consulted with psychologists and a psychiatrist to diagnose my characters, which sparked a host of research into mental illnesses I was less familiar with. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to lean on them for help ensuring that the way my characters behave—and also perceive other characters or themselves—is as authentic as possible, even if (or especially when) those characters’ thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are uncomfortable to read.
Your books often feature unreliable narrators, and even unreliable secondary characters. Do you ever find that the characters and their personalities drive the plot and overall story and surprise you?
Yes! So much so that the characters’ personalities kind of are the plot. I knew when I conceived of Mara that she would be an unreliable narrator who happens to be telling the truth, and that her experience of trauma would be foundational for that. Now more than ever, we’re witnessing on a national scale how much our society has normalized the disbelieving of women and girls, and that unfortunate reality ended up forming the basis for the events of Unbecoming and Evolution, especially—Mara not only has to grapple with the people she loves not believing her, but with her own beliefs as she tells herself that what she sees (ex. Jude appearing at her school) can’t be real, even when (spoiler alert) it actually is.
Noah’s unreliability drives the plot of the Shaw Confessions, too, but in a completely different way that very much surprised me. Since he experiences treatment resistant depression and suicidal ideation, the main antagonist in his series is himself, but until I started getting into the meat of writing The Becoming of Noah Shaw, I didn’t realize just how far that would go. Depression reroutes thoughts and when untreated (in Noah’s case, because of his healing factor), can result in self-sabotage and self-harming behavior. With depression warping Noah’s thoughts, he ends up acting in ways that frustrate himself, his goals (and probably readers!), but depression masks his ability to be self-aware enough to realize it.
Your books are so wonderfully eerie, unsettling, and even spooky at times! What is the most unsettling scene you’ve written, one that even haunts you as the author?
Thank you! I love horror, and analyzing horror, and finding fresh ways to use beloved horror tropes, but in all honesty, the scariest scenes I’ve written are the ones that are rooted in reality. In Mara’s books, the scene that haunts me the most is the one that takes place in Evolution just after she wakes up in the hospital after her encounter with Jude. Having someone hurt you, and not being believed by the people who truly love you, was the most brutal thing I could imagine. So naturally I did it to my character.
In Noah’s series, the scene that haunts me most is in Chapter 12 of Becoming, right after he experiences, via his ability, the suicide of a second teenager. The action is all internal, but writing his stream of consciousness thoughts about suicide forced me to inhabit a dark, dark place. Being betrayed by your mind into thinking that suicide is a valid means of escape from pain is objectively terrifying to anyone who has ever cared about someone who has experienced suicidal ideation or self-harm, AND in Noah’s case, having been betrayed by his family, by ‘psychologists’ like Dr. Kells, and being unable to be medicated, it leaves him with this terrifying reality that he doesn’t know how to change. It’s hard to think of anything more haunting than that.
The inspiration from the Mara Dyer and Noah Shaw books came from a real life encounter you had many years ago. When you began writing after your initial inspiration, did you have a certain genre in mind that you wanted to structure your story around (paranormal, sci-fi, etc.) or did those elements come after the characters and plot were developed?
When I started writing Unbecoming, I mostly read literary fiction and narrative non-fiction at that point in my life, so I didn’t think about genre at all. But the wonderful thing about YA is that it’s a perspective, not a genre, which means that labels like sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal, are pretty elastic. So I wrote what I wrote, and it wasn’t until the amazing editor who acquired the series called it ‘a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist,’ that I finally knew what it was that I’d written.
What are some books that have inspired you as a reader and writer that you’d recommend to readers who are fans of your novels?
As a teen, the books that inspired me most were probably the ones that adults discouraged me from reading—my form of rebellion, I guess! I gravitated towards anything ‘inappropriate’ and ‘dark,’–GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn was and remains a favourite. But if there’s one book that really snapped my head around, it was was Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. My fourteen-year-old brain could never, ever imagine experiencing empathy for a character so unsympathetic that he’s a literal pedophile, but Nabokov worked that magic. A quote by the protagonist’s psychologist even announces Nabakov’s intention, and it’s one I’ve returned to it again and again when writing my own series: “I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness…A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!”
To a (much) lesser degree, that was, and is, something I try to infuse my own books with—a quality that keeps readers reading and invested even when my characters behave badly, and not in endearing ways.
That said, I’m obviously very drawn to unlikeable (and often unreliable) protagonists. Courtney Summers is a master at this, and one of my particular favourites of hers is SOME GIRLS ARE. WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockheart is another gem, and I always point readers who love my books in Nova Ren Suma’s direction—her books like 17 & GONE and IMAGINARY GIRLS often tackle similar themes that mine do, but in a completely different and entrancing way, with prose that puts me to shame. I would also put KILL THE BOY BAND by Goldy Moldovsky on my readers’ radar—it’s a delicious, Heathers-esque satire featuring teens who behave badly. What could be better?
In The Becoming of Noah Shaw, one of the characters mentions the archetypes from Dungeons & Dragons and discusses how they relate to the members of their group and how they may influence their motivations. Are you a Dungeons & Dragons fan yourself? If so, do you find similarities between being an author and being a Dungeon Master?
It’s time for my confession—I’ve never played. But so many of my friends have (and do!) that it feels like I have myself; I was always drawn to the form and the elasticity of it. I do feel like being a DM and an author are likely similar, in that when you’re writing anything but a contemporary novel, you have to first recognize the limitations of the world you build before you can have characters explore that world—in other words, you need to figure out what your characters can’t do before you can successfully build a plot around them.
A huge, heartfelt thank you to Michelle for answering these questions and providing these amazing insights!! I know I’ll be rereading the entire series this winter and will have many new insights and perspectives after having the privilege to chat with Michelle!
Michelle Hodkin grew up in Florida, went to college in New York, and studied law in Michigan. She is the author of the Mara Dyer trilogy, including The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, The Evolution of Mara Dyer, and The Retribution of Mara Dyer. Visit her online at MichelleHodkin.com.
November 5 – The Lovely Books
November 6 – Too Fond of Books
November 7 – Downright Dystopian
November 8 – Pure Imagination
November 9 – The Book Loving Nut
November 10 – a GREAT Read
November 11 – The Eater of Books!
November 12 – My Guilty Obsession
November 13 – Arctic Books
November 14 – A Gingerly Review
November 15 – Ex Libris Kate
November 16 – Girl in the Pages
Again, I cannot reiterate enough how honored I am to be a part of this tour, especially to close out the celebration for The Reckoning of Noah Shaw as the last tour stop! Be sure to check out all of the amazing tour hosts’ posts, and let me know your thoughts about Michelle’s answers in the comments!