Q&A WITH KAMILLA BENKO
Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas from lots of places! From museums, travels, memories and books. Lots and lots of books, ranging across many subjects and topics and genres.
Where were you born?
I was born in California but grew up in Indiana.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Funnily enough, no! Around the age of eight, I thought I would become a librarian like Beverly Cleary because I really liked recommending books. Fast forward a few years to the summer I was eleven and was reading out on my great aunts’ lawn. For some reason, I looked at the book I was reading and had the sudden realization that someone had decided that that this story should be made into a book—and that my dream job would be to decide which tales actually made it a library shelf. I wanted to be the person who recommended books to the librarians! And so I researched (by reading biographies about authors like Madeline L’Engle) what that job might be and I learned about publishing house and that I wanted to be something called an “editor.”
When I graduated university, I moved to New York and became a children’s book editor! (You can see some of the books I worked on here.) And it was only when I started working with my own authors and the writing process become a little less mysterious did I start thinking that maybe I could be an author. It’s overwhelming to think about writing three hundred pages – but I can write a sentence. I can write a page. I can maybe even write two pages. And so little by little, bit by bit, I started writing The Unicorn Quest.
As a kid, what did you like to do?
Read! I’m not kidding. I used to get in trouble for hiding books under my desk during class. I also loved to write and put on plays with my neighborhood friends. Once a week, I would get to go figure skating with my little sister, and in the summers, I would help at the stables where I took horseback riding lessons.
What were your favorite books as a middle grade reader?
I’ve always loved fantasy! I like books with magic and interesting worlds and lots of danger—and if it has a little bit of romance, all the better! I loved A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, Diana Wynn Jones’ Chrestomanci series, as well as C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I devoured The Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbottson, The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop and the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, among many, many, many others. And if I wasn’t reading fantasy, I was probably reading historical fiction, like the Royal Diaries series!
Where did you go to school?
I went to Indiana University where I studied Journalism, History and Central East Eurasian studies (specifically, Hungary and Hungarian! My grandparents are Hungarian and I grew up speaking the language.) I chose to study journalism because I wanted to practice editing and learn how to publish stories and articles.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on my deadline! Usually thought, it takes me about a year to write and edit a novel, and then another year for the book to hit the shelf. There’s a delay because it takes a lot of people to make a book! The artists has to create the cover, the marketing and publicity teams have to read and discuss the story, the physical pages need to be printed and shipped all over the world….This all takes a lot of planning, time, and cooperation.
Where do you write your books?
I write them everywhere. I try not to be too picky about what conditions I need to be able to write because then I would make up a lot of excuses to avoid my deadlines. I write in my apartment, at cafes and restaurants, libraries and bookstores. When the weather is nice, I like to find some shade and work outside. I also really love to write in airports.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Yes! But there are many different kinds of writer’s blocks. It’s not so much that I don’t have any ideas, it’s just that I’m never sure if it’s the right idea, and it can take me time to figure out if the story is going in the right direction.
Why do you write for kids instead of adults?
Because the books that I read as a kid are the ones that shaped the landscape of my heart. While I still read a ton, I usually have a better memory of the books read I twenty years ago than the novels I read last month. I also like how children’s books can deal with very serious topics but always with the shine of hope. I want to cultivate hope and wonder wherever I can.
Did you draw your own covers?
If only I were so talented! The US Unicorn Quest covers were done by Vivienne To while the UK and ANZ covers were created by Matt Saunders. Grace Lee is the artist behind Forest of Shadows.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, one gray cat named Gigi.
What’s your favorite color?
Today it’s blue, but sometimes it’s pink.
Do you have siblings?
I do! I have a sister seven years younger than me, and a brother who is eleven years younger. Both of them were extremely helpful while I wrote The Unicorn Quest, reading draft after draft, giving suggestions, and also providing plenty of realistic sibling banter.
What inspired The Unicorn Quest series?
Several things, actually! I first had the idea for The Unicorn Quest when I was looking at the Unicorn Tapestries in the MET’s Cloisters here in New York. And since the story was inspired by art, I wanted to use art as a launch pad for building the fantasy world. I have always been fascinated by Michelangelo and how he viewed the act of sculpting. He once said that he saw the angel in the stone, and carved until he set it free. An artist’s ability to look at a block of marble, a yard of cloth, a patch of dirt, or a golden wire and see its potential to become a statue, a beautiful gown, a flowering garden, or intricate necklace seems like magic to me. I pushed a little bit on the idea, exaggerated its effects and ended up with the four guilds of Arden who can carve stone armies, weave invisibility cloaks from silk, and create mirrors so shiny that they can reflect the future.
The Unicorn Quest features two sisters, Sophie, the older sister who is brave and adventurous, while Claire, the younger sister, would rather stay home and paint. Which one is most like you?
They’re both like me! Like Sophie, I am the oldest sibling in my family, and if you asked my brother and sister, they would say I’m pretty bossy. I also love to travel and explore. . .even if it scared me, and that’s where I start intersecting with Claire. Like Claire, I’m scared of many things that many people aren’t scared of: heights, centipedes, and blank pages. But even though I might be nervous climbing up a tower or capturing a centipede under the sink, I will do it any way. I like to say that if Claire and I were sorted into Hogwarts houses, we would be Gryffindors, but in the way Neville Longbottom is a Gryffindor. We might not seem outwardly brave like Harry Potter or Sophie, but we will always make the choice to be brave in the end—especially if it is to help our family and friends.
What is your favorite part of writing The Unicorn Quest series?
I love writing the bond between Sophie and Claire. Sisterhood is a complex beast, and I love sinking into the emotion and feelings that come along with it.
Which guild magic do you wish you had? Why?
I wish I were a Gemmer, because I would love to be able to draw! And I’ve always loved sparkly things. But in my heart, I know I’m a storytelling Spinner.