EA: Hi Kamilla! Thank you so much for doing this interview. Last time on LiteraryHoots.com you gave us some great tips for fantasy writing. So let's dig a bit more into that: How did Unicorn Quest come about? Where did the idea spark from?
KB: Six Februarys ago, I was visiting the Cloisters—an extension of the Metroploitan Museum of Art—and saw the famed Unicorn Tapestries that depicted a medieval hunt of a unicorn. While I studied the gruesome scenes I asked myself, “Why would anyone want to kill a unicorn?” and from there my imagination began to gallop ahead.
And because The Unicorn Quest trilogy was inspired by art, I wanted the series to explore the theme of magic in everyday life. My main character, 11-year-old Claire Martinson is an artist who always has a pencil tucked behind her ear, and the world she ends up discovering with her older sister, Sophie, is one where all magic can only be done by creating something with your own hands.
I really want to tap into the process of writing a series. Did you know from the outset that this story would be a series? How do you outline what happens from one book to the next? Does that change as you're writing?
I always knew that this would be a series, because I’ve known the ending to Claire and Sophie’s story! I’ve known the end almost since the moment I thought of their story. Because of this, I know the girls’ ultimate goals: the goals that they may (or may not!) achieve at the end of the series, and I keep those in mind while I write forward. And because those goals haven’t changed, it’s easier to orientate myself in the individual books. Even though the arc may shift within each book—because you always have to allow room for characters to surprise you!— the series arc stays the same and is an anchor for me.
This is kind of specific, but something I really find fascinating: how do you pick names? Especially in a fantasy world: the settings, the Guilds, characters--all sorts! I'm curious about your decision process.
I love names! When I name characters, I often plant little nods to books that I loved as a child. For example, I loved The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and the first child to enter Narnia is named Lucy. The name “Lucy” means light, and Claire is another name that also means “light” or “clarity.”
I also view names as guides for readers—especially for children who might be experiencing fantasy for the first time. Because fantasy often has so much going on, I want the names to help with the overall understanding of how the world works. So the Guilds names and setting names were chosen to help readers keep straight the different magics, and what place belongs to which guild.
Finally, I pull from older mythology and sciences as well. For readers who have never come across some terms, at one point they might stumble across it again and be excited when they realize they already knew that term from The Unicorn Quest. And for readers who recognize the term, it’s one more bit of familiarity to make an unusual world more navigable. (A prime example is Phlogiston Academy . . . Google Phlogiston, and you’ll see what I’m talking about!)
Which guild magic do you wish you had? Why?
I wish I was a Gemmer, because I would love to be able to draw! And I’ve always loved sparkly things.
What can we look forward to in the future? What’s next on your writing-idea list?
Book Three in the trilogy is very much on my writing list, but even sooner is a book that also stars two sisters – Anna and Elsa from Frozen! I’ve been working with Disney and the filmmakers to write a middle grade novel about what happened to Anna and Elsa between Frozen and Frozen 2. It should come out sometime this fall, and I’m so excited for everyone to read it!
-Favorite dessert: Chocolate fondue!
-Favorite fantasy creature: Unicorn!
-Favorite vacation spot: Seaside!
-Favorite fantasy author: Oh nooooo….I have so many! How about if I share my favorite first fantasy author? That was a husband and wife team named Jahnna N. Malcolm, and they wrote a chapter book series called Jewel Kingdom that I was obsessed with in first grade. (Going back to how I name things, there’s a unicorn named Arden in the Jewel Kingdom series, and I named my land of unicorns after her!)
-Chocolate or vanilla? Swirl!
Kamilla Benko spent most of her childhood climbing into wardrobes, trying to step through mirrors, and plotting to run away to an art museum. Now, she visits other worlds as a children’s book editor. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives in New York with her bookshelves, teapot, and hiking boots.