Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fresh New Voice of YA- Diana Peterfreund interview

1) How did you get the idea for Rampant?

One day I thought I heard someone on TV say something about a unicorn hunter (they almost certainly did not). A short while later, I had a dream that I was being chased by a killer unicorn. I woke up and was totally weirded out by that -- after all, everyone knows that unicorns are very sweet and gentle. Except, when I went online and started looking stuff up to see what my dream meant, I discovered there was this whole side to the unicorn legend that I knew nothing about -- that there were once myths about very dangerous, man-eating unicorns. But no one was writing books about those.

Yet. That was a challenge I certainly couldn't resist! I threw myself into research: reading medieval bestiaries, lives of saints, ancient Greek histories. I traveled to England and Rome, watched videos of wild animals, climbed into Etruscan tombs, learned how to shoot a bow and arrow... the list goes on and on. Out of that came my book.

2) According to your online bio, you volunteer for the National Zoo in DC. How did you get involved with that, and what do you do there? Do you have any fun anecdotes to tell?

Soon after I quit my office job to write full time, I realized that all work at home and no interaction with other people made Diana a very dull girl. I'd always loved the zoo and one day I was there visiting and saw a sign at the small mammal house that they were looking for volunteers. Sounded perfect for me. I was already a FONZ (that's "Friend of the National Zoo") so this was just taking it a step further.

The program I volunteer with is the Free-Ranging Golden Lion Tamarins. Every summer, they release a family of tamarins, these adorable little golden Brazilian monkeys, into the trees in the zoo. Volunteers watch them to make sure they aren't getting into too much trouble (wandering into the elephant enclosure, harassing the wild squirrels with whom they have an ongoing turf war, eating gum, running from hawks) and talking to zoo visitors about the program. The most common question, of course, is why they don't run away from the zoo. But as it turns out, these monkeys are extremely territorial. They have a "nest box" that they sleep in and like to stay pretty close to their home and food source. What they don't like is any squirrels, chipmunks, or even deer that get in their way!

They are also some of the most dedicated families I've ever seen. The patriarch of the family I watched, Eduardo, was born in DC and is one of the best dads! He carries his kids around on his back, leaping from treetop to treetop with them. He spends hours every day grooming them and watching them play. His mate, Laranja (who, sadly, passed away in childbirth a few months ago), was a mail-order bride for him from Pennsylvania. She was a very beautiful, deep orange monkey. (Mostly because Eduardo groomed her a lot too, and her coat was very thick and glossy.) While he watched the kids, she liked to climb to the top of the trees and let out "long calls," which are what you think of when you think of monkey sounds, and which are territorial warning signals.

Unfortunately, the program is currently on hiatus as they're doing construction at the elephant enclosure right next door to the woods where we keep the animals. So the monkeys are stuck inside this summer. :-(

Golden Lion Tamarins are what they call a flagship species in the conservation movement in Brazil. Since a big part of my book has to deal with conservation and animal behavior -- even if it's of a very, very different kind of animal -- I've learned a ton about how one goes about designating an animal as endangered or providing it with protective legislation, as well as a ton about monitoring animal behavior.

3) What's your writing process like? Tell us about a normal day for you.

Even after six contracted books, I find it's something I'm still discovering. There's an old writer's adage that says writing a book only teaches you how to write THAT book. My process is one that evolves with every book. One thing I've decided though is that I'm much better as a morning writer. I get my best work done before the day really starts and my head gets filled up with distractions.

I'm a plotter. Prior to starting my books, I like to work out a loose synopsis of what's going to happen. I focus on big turning points for the characters, their motivations and pivotal scenes. then I put that aside and start writing the book. I only refer to the synopsis if I get stuck. My books tend to stick pretty close to this synopsis though, because even if the exact scenes aren't the same, the characters grow and change in the same manner. A big revelation scene might just happen in a different spot than I'd planned. I tend to think of my synopses as a roadmap -- I make take detours, but the destination is pretty much the same.

I find that my first drafts turn out much more cleanly this way, because I've often worked out problem spots before I start writing. I still do a lot of editing, make wrong turns, etc., but this process works well for me.

4) What book(s) are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about it?

Right now I'm working on the sequel to RAMPANT. It's a direct sequel, with the same narrator, Astrid, and it picks up where the first book left off. RAMPANT is set primarily in Italy, but a lot of the action in the sequel will take place in France. The sequel explores more deeply the question of conservation and the complex nature of the hunters' relationship with unicorns. Also, new romances. We don't have a title
yet, but the book should be out in fall of 2010.

5) What brought you to the YA genre? Have you always been a fan, or are you still fairly new to it all?

I've always been a fan. All my life, I've read my favorite children's and YA novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Anne of Green Gables series, The Phantom Tollbooth, and some of the selected works of Christopher Pike over and over again. In college, when I was completely burned out from reading my course texts, I turned to Harry Potter, which was just starting to get humongously popular.

When my agent sold my first novel, Secret Society Girl, back in 2005, there was a question about whether it was going to be published as an adult book or as a YA novel, since both adult and YA publishers bid on it in the auction. In the end, it was an adult house that published it here in North America, though I believed it is published as YA in some places overseas. Part of the reasoning is that the protagonist of that series is not a teen. She's 21, which is older than most main characters of teen fiction. The Secret Society Girl series has always enjoyed a large teen audience and the first book was even nominated for the New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age list.

The question of how something is published has an awful lot to do with what's hot in the book market. When I sold Secret Society Girl, chick lit was hot and PREP, by Curtis Sittenfeld, was an adult book about a teenager that was burning up the bestseller lists. Now, YA is hugely hot, so books that were even previously published as adult novels are being repackaged for teens. One example is Elphame's Choice, by PC Cast.

Anyway, after the close call with Secret Society Girl, I was really dying to write a true YA novel with a teenage protagonist. I started Rampant for NANOWRIMO in 2005. Because of my commitments to the Secret Society Girl series and the intensive research required for Rampant, it took a few years to develop the world and write the book. I can't wait for it to finally be out in the world. Yay, killer unicorns!

6) What is your favorite Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor?

Depends on my mood. For Jelly Belly specifically, toasted marshmallow, but that's because any old jelly bean company makes cherry.

7) What book(s) are you reading now, or are about to start?

Hee. At the risk of making everyone jealous, I'm reading the draft of Carrie Ryan's third book set in her Forest of Hands and Teeth world. I'm also reading LEVIATHAN, by Scott Westerfeld, and GOING BOVINE, by Libba Bray. I'm so pleased that the world at large is about to discover how phenomenally hilarious Libba Bray is. I also just finished a new book out from the adult non-fiction arm of my publisher, Harper Collins. It's called A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE UNICORN, by Chris Lavers, and it's on
shelves the same day as RAMPANT, which I think must be fate. Reading it is downright eerie. It's like reading through a nicely bound, extensively footnoted copy of my own research notes. I guess now unicorns are hot!


  1. Who'd have thought an author interview would tell us so much about animals, real and imaginary? :-)