Author Interview: Lauren Oliver

Lauren OliverLauren Oliver comes from a family of writers and so has always (mistakenly) believed that spending hours in front of the computer every day, mulling over the difference between “chortling” and “chuckling,” is normal. She has always been an avid reader.

She attended the University of Chicago, where she continued to be as impractical as possible by majoring in philosophy and literature. After college, she attended the MFA program at NYU and worked briefly as the world’s worst editorial assistant, and only marginally better assistant editor, at a major publishing house in New York. Her major career contributions during this time were flouting the corporate dress code at every possible turn and repeatedly breaking the printer. Before I Fall is her first published novel.

She is deeply grateful for the chance to continue writing, as she has never been particularly good at anything else. (source)

1.     Children’s literature theorist, Bruno Bettelheim, theorized that fairytales are invaluable to growing children as they give children the tools and scope for imagination to work out and find solutions to their problems. That is, children project themselves onto the protagonists and as the protagonists of fairytales fight dragons and emerge victorious, children, too, emerge from the tale having found solutions for whatever problem is ailing them. Do you believe that dystopian fiction functions in a similar manner for the teenagers reading them? Do you think they associate the totalitarian government with strict parents etc. and are not just entertained by the story they’re reading but are navigating adolescence with the help of these novels?

I think that the popularity of dystopian novels reflects more generalized concerns and fears. Teens live in a frightening and often unpredictable world, and yet they are bound by curiously rigid social rules and morays. They have little “real” power, and yet they are for the first time confronting some major questions of identity and belonging, even as the broader world–the environmental, political, and social landscape beyond their immediate circle–begins exerting its influence on them. Dystopian novels give them away to process the dual tension between restrictedness and vastness, a way to identify with a triumphant hero and believe, at least narratively, that happy endings are possible.
2.     You write novels for both a middle grade audience and an older one. Which audience do you prefer to write for? Are there negatives to writing for any particular audience? Which audience lets gives you freer rein to your imagination?
I have no inherent preference; I like writing for both audiences equally, and each opportunity presents its own set of challenges and also its own particular benefits. I love writing middle grade because I fell in love with books as a child, and I get to emulate the experience of really falling into a world and its characters. But I also love wrestling with questions of identity and lovability, which are far more appropriate themes to tackle in a young adult book.
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3.     Your dystopian series, Delirium, deals with a world where love has been outlawed and it is in part about love and romance, both emotional and physical. Children’s literature has had a long tradition of focusing negatively on sex and any sexual relationships teenagers had led inevitably to social issues such as teenage pregnancy. Though there has been a concentrated move from this recently, teenaged sex remains a sensitive issue. How important is it for you to write authentically about teenagers and the way they express their emotions, not just love.

Very important. I think literature should reflect the true experience of its characters; I don’t particularly like moralistic literature or literature with a clear agenda. Teens need to feel as if their true experience is mapped and reflected on the page. That’s the true function of books–they act as a kind of mirror.

4.     In a similar tone, though writing is a solitary task, the production of a book depends very much on a team. Have you ever felt that the book produced at the end was not how you envisioned it to be when you started out?

That’s a difficult question. I’ve definitely had my books edited, and usually they emerge stronger than they were at the beginning. It’s an editor’s job to push you, as a trainer’s job would be to push you at the gym. But I’ve never been dissatisfied with the result. Normally I feel that my editor pushes me to write the book I really intended to write in the first place. 
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5.      Moving back to dystopian fiction, until a couple of years ago, childhood was defined as an age of innocence. However, the dark themes in dystopian fictions signals that contemporary society is perhaps reacting to the current status of the world with terrorism, poverty and wars being daily news and cohering a new definition of childhood, one that is more representative of the experiences children have. However, it must be kept in mind that children’s literature is largely produced by adults who are still projecting their own idea of childhood onto their characters. What are your thoughts on the subject?

I don’t think popular children’s literature was ever particularly “innocent.” Look at the novelists who have endured–Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling–and books like The Wizard of Oz. There is whimsy and fun in all children’s books, of course, but there are also gruesome monsters and malicious grown-ups and a lot of terror. Children (and teens) feel fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and tension just like adults–they just don’t necessarily have the language with which to express it, and I see that a lot of children’s books actually make external the darkness that would otherwise stay pent up.

6.     What have you read recently that has excited you?

Honestly, I’ve been on kind of a strange reading kick! For YA, I recently read Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life, which I loved. I was incredibly impressed by Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which is an adult novel. And right now I’m reading, and loving, a book about math called The Joy of X!
  • Great interview. I haven’t read any of Lauren’s books, but she’s engaging even here. Her empathy towards her audience is particularly inspiring.