First things first: When did the idea for Rampant first hit you and what (if anything) did you know right off the bat?
In early 2005, just after selling Secret Society Girl, I had this dream of being chased by a very dangerous unicorn. I woke up and went to go look it up to see if I could figure out the meaning and discovered that there was this whole side to the unicorn legend that I didn’t know anything about – that a lot of people didn’t know anything about! A side where they weren’t these gentle creatures, but instead very, very dangerous.
As I’d been casting around for an idea for a true YA novel, this seemed like an excellent thing to latch onto, especially since it dovetailed so nicely into another thing I’d been wanting to write about, which was the topic of virginity and its place in our society. The only thing I knew from the start though, was that it was going to be a fantasy adventure about killer unicorns and the heroine’s name would be Astrid. Her picture came very clearly to my mind: her name, her face with its dark brows and long blonde hair.
Rampant went through a couple of different covers before it even came out. What is the story behind the two different covers and what are your feelings on the switch?
It’s not a very controversial one! I’m surprised how many people have shown interest in this. Covers change all the time; my first book had three covers and no one made a peep about that.
The first cover (which appeared on the ARC) was a result of a photo shoot my publisher did out on a horse farm. The horse they’d “hired” to be the unicorn was apparently not feeling very well, so refused to run or rear up or do anything but stand around and try to rub its horn off on nearby branches (poor guy!). So they couldn’t get him in the shot with the model. That Astrid’s single most noticeable physical trait is her long blonde hair and the undeniably gorgeous model had short, curly hair and a faceful of heavy makeup was not what I’d been expecting, but I shrugged it off. After all, the Amy in my Secret Society Girl books never looked anything like the models with waist-length hair they put on the covers, and she wouldn’t be caught dead in a preppy polo shirt with an even preppier sweater around her shoulders.
The resulting cover was very striking and pretty. Maybe too pretty for such an action-oriented novel. And when the ARC went out, we realized that there was something to be said for putting an actual unicorn on the cover of a book that was beginning to gain buzz for being “the book about killer unicorns.” Oops! So it was redesigned to focus more on the action element, as well as on the UNICORN.
I’m in love with my new cover. First of all, the new Astrid looks just like the Astrid in my head (including the eyebrows, and you never get that kind of verisimilitude in covers). Young, thrown into the deep end, but determined to rise to the occasion. I love that she’s not wearing makeup and that her hair looks messy, as if she’s been running around and shooting unicorns. I love the conceit of the unicorn charging in the reflection. And I love the detail of the marks on the sword. If you look closely, you can see that there is an engraving of a unicorn horn on the sword.
Also, it has the most gorgeous spine ever designed.
Sadly, the trip was kind of a disaster. Both my husband and I were terribly sick the whole time, and the hotel was horrific (we were given dank army cots in a basement, moldy food, and verbal abuse by the management when we refused to eat said moldy food or asked them to pronounce the name of a village we wanted to visit that they insisted we couldn’t because I was pronouncing it wrong) but we didn’t have the energy to find a new place and move and do the research we’d come for. I remember, when we finally left, running into another couple checking in and I was like, “Do not stay here. Run!” Oddly enough, I have since discovered there is a “Hotel Astrid” in Rome that we could have stayed at instead! How funny would that have been?
Anyway, other than the sick and the hotel and the rainy weather (January is not the best month for Rome), we did what we’d come to do. Italy is great at serving comfort food to sick tourists, let me tell you! We visited all the locations I planned to write about in the story, got to stand in the room with Raphael’s “Lady with a Unicorn”, got to climb in and out of the ancient tombs in the Etruscan City of the Dead where my climactic scene takes place, and even discovered a cloisters that looked like it should belong to the hunters, featuring mosaics of unicorns and columns shaped like spiral horns! The main impact on the story was really being able to go into detail about the locations in my book, and adding a level of verisimilitude to the places I was writing about.
How do you go about naming your characters?
As I said before, Astrid came to me fully formed as a name. I know I decided early on that since these characters were from unicorn hunting families, their family names would have something to do with that heritage. Many of the characters have names that mean “lion” (like Llewelyn) or “hunter” or have some other connection to their birthright. Philippa, of course, means “horse lover” and Cornelia means “horn.” Bonegrinder may be my favorite name of all time. It’s so perfect for her, and I love its fairy-tale quality.
Giovanni was the most difficult name—and not coincidentally, the most difficult character—to pin down. When I sold the book, he had a different name and a different character, one that was, unfortunately, not very interested in Astrid. One of my tricks, when I’m not “feeling” a character, is to change his name. I’m surprised how often that changes who he is in my head. I changed his name, but that guy wasn’t interesting to Astrid. Then I hit upon the idea of making him part Italian—after all, since my girl’s in Rome, shouldn’t she have a romance with an Italian boy?—but I didn’t know what his backstory was until the scene where he walks out of the nightclub and spills his guts to Astrid. Then Giovanni came into focus for me: what he sees in Astrid, what Astrid sees in him, and why the relationship is so dangerous for both of them.
Ooh, I’m so glad. It’s an honor to have a character I wrote be compared to such a great show. I’m actually a huge Buffy fan and have been for a decade. One of my college roommates got me started watching it, and I got my husband into it and countless other friends. Of course, there are lots of stories about female heroes who battle the supernatural: an entire genre full of them. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Buffy for that. I think Buffy and Astrid are similar in that they are both reluctant warriors with a very deep understanding that their superpowers come with a high mortality quotient. Buffy has it rough since she’s (usually) alone in her superpowers, a fact demonstrated over and over again and the driving force behind several season climaxes. On the flip side, once she does have a replacement, she can walk away or take short breaks (as she planned to do with college in Season 3) and she has a mandate (which she often seems to ignore when it comes to her various vampire boyfriends).
With Astrid, I wanted to explore a very different side of the supernatural warrior, one whose greatest talent is not actually her superpower, and for whom the question of duty is an incredibly sticky one. Astrid is an intellectual, and a scientist, and her unicorn hunting isn’t just cutting into after-school activities, it’s actively ruining her life – even if she does survive it. She can’t walk away without permanently destroying her ability, because her powers make her presence a danger to others. And then, of course, there’s the question of what her magic truly is, and if she has any right to use it. Finally, there are all the other hunters and the idea that, far from being alone, you’re part of an enormous community that must work together, even if you don’t want to.
And, I feel I must add that I was very annoyed with the denouement of the Riley storyline on Buffy and the implicit argument that men are threatened by female power and (repeated from the Xander storyline) that women cannot love men with less power than they have. The trend in a lot of paranormal and specifically, paranormal YA fiction, seems to be about normal girls falling in love with these vastly powerful, supernatural men. I wanted to write something where the vastly powerful, supernatural woman fell for the brave, sweet, totally normal guy, who didn’t actually have any problem with the way she could kick his ass. (See also: Sokka in Avatar.)
Is there a Rampant soundtrack?
There is, and it’s quite a long one, so I’ll just share a few of the really pivotal songs. Most of the book was composed while listening to the album LUX VIVENS, by David Lynch (yes, that David Lynch) and Jocelyn Montgomery. It’s an album of music written by a brilliant, talented medieval nun named Hildegard of Bingen. She was a writer, a mystic, a polymath, a composer, and a naturalist, and a huge inspiration to me while writing a story about powerful nuns. Lynch reimagines the arrangements for a modern audience. Really incredible stuff. My favorite is “Battle and Aftermath” which includes screaming, stampedes, and drawn swords.
Aside from Hildegard, I also found myself listening to a lot of what are known as “weaving songs” and other “work” songs— these very hypnotic, rhythmic songs that weavers, sailors, or other workers used to sing or play to keep their mind on their work. Since unicorn hunting has that harmonic element, as well as being a sort of altered state of consciousness, it was great to tap into that.
There’s also a song I’ve taken to calling my “Astrid and Giovanni Love Theme,” and that I listen to whenever I’m writing the scenes of them together. It’s an achingly beautiful, all-cello arrangement of Coldplay’s “Fix You” performed by the Yale musical group Low Strung. It makes me cry every time I hear it – there’s just so much longing in the melody, and, by the end, a sort of resolution and relinquishment that is truly heartbreaking.
What was it like writing two separate series simultaneously? Did you ever find it hard switching gears and going from one world to another?
Not really, since the two series are so markedly different. SSG is a comedy. Rampant is a big epic fantasy with life or death consequences on every page. The only thing I really noticed, returning to Amy’s world to write her final book after finishing Rampant, was how truly different Amy’s perspective was than that of a teenager.
It helps that Astrid and Amy are such phenomenally different characters. Amy is outspoken, gregarious, overeducated, successful, experienced, and, yes, spoiled. Astrid is shy and quiet. She’ll think things but not say them (whereas Amy suffers from permanent foot-in-mouth disease). She’s smart, but she’s young, and she’s used to disappointment in her life. Perhaps due to her struggles, Astrid also has a very clear vision of what she wants out of life and how it’s being taken away from her. I don’t think Amy would last two minutes against a killer unicorn. Astrid’s life just keeps getting harder and harder, and she’s hadd to become tough and a little ruthless to survive it. She’s sorely tested over the course of the book, and the decisions she’s forced into exist on a level that Amy has never had to face.
I do not adhere to the belief that a writer should be limited to writing only one kind of story. C.S. Lewis wrote children’s fantasy and adult religious satire. George Orwell wrote about social issues in modern England as well as dystopian science fiction and allegorical fables. I enjoy reading, and writing, all kinds of books.
When and how do you write?
Whenever, wherever, and however I can. If writing at my desk at the computer isn’t working, I’ll take my alphasmart and go sit outside. I’ll write on notecards while at the dog park. I’ll write at any time of the day or night. I plot my books out in advance, and I’m not much of a drafter. I tend to write more slowly, but more cleanly, than writer friends who don’t plan out in advance.
What’s the one book/series you’ve been gushing about nonstop lately?
Lately it’s been tough. I’ve been so busy with two book releases this summer and finishing up the second killer unicorn book that I haven’t had much time to read. But I read DULL BOY by Sarah Cross this spring and I loved it. I want to sneak into Sarah’s house and steal her grocery lists if they are half as witty and engaging as her debut novel. And I’ve been gushing about Carrie Ryan’s books since I first read her first draft of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH.
And just for fun, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:
Poe: (You would list this first. LOL!) Dark
Jamie: (Again?) Angie’s Obsession!
Secret Societies: Done
Sexy: My husband!
Home: My husband (yes, again)
Thanks so much, Diana! And, honestly, I couldn't help myself with the Poe references. I love the guy. End of story.
And now for the giveaway! Harper Teen has graciously offered up three copies of Rampant to give away to three lucky commenters. All you have to do is leave a comment telling me if you've ever read a book about unicorns before and what it was. If you've never read one, tell me why you're looking forward to reading Rampant! The contest will run for one week and will close at midnight on Sunday, August 30th. I'll announce the winners on Monday. Please make sure to leave me a way to contact you.