Yes, I know, the updates have been sparse, but it’s mostly because I’m on vacation in Singapore and I thought I’d give myself a few days with which to lounge around and basically vegetate.
It didn’t actually happen — I still ended up doing work stuff even here — but it’s all good. Now that I don’t actually feel any pressure, I’ve relaxed enough to type up my interview with Lauren Oliver and put it up for you guys.
I was a little worried going into this interview as most of the questions I had prepared earlier had gotten asked during the meet and greet with fans at Powerbooks. I had to think up of new question right quick, and was really worried that Lauren would think they’re redundant and pointless.
Thankfully, Lauren didn’t think they were — or she was being extremely polite, ahahahaha — and I got to get out of this interview with my dignity intact. Enjoy the conversation under the cut, which includes: LGBT characters, Manolo Blahniks, and how Lauren Oliver is a pro-non-virgin.
RONREADS (RR): I really liked the parts in “Delirium” and “Pandemonium” where you mention the Unnaturals because I wasn’t expecting a mention of LGBT in these books.
LAUREN OLIVER (LO): It was really important for me. One scene that didn’t make it in “Pandemonium” is the scene in which it becomes more explicitly clear to Lena that Hunter is Unnatural and she learns what that means and they have a fight about that. That’s what one aspect that she hadn’t re-conceived. Unfortunately it didn’t make it in because it was just a political moment (laughs) and it didn’t really work and my editor wanted me to cut it.
But it becomes clearer in “Requiem” that Bram and Hunter are in a relationship. It’s just one of those things that you begin to see that that’s a case of political prejudice. And obviously I’m very pro-LGBT. I’m very liberal. Yay (laughs)!
What I see in YA is there is either lesbian, bisexual, homosexual literature or there isn’t. I just wanted it to be factored into the world the way it’s kind of factored into a liberal life. You understand that it exists and that it’s fine.
RR: I was really worried during the part in “Pandemonium” when they couldn’t find Tack and Hunter that Hunter had died (laughs). I was going “Oh my God, Oh my God!”
LO: Don’t kill off the gay one (laughs)! He stays around through “Requiem” too (laughs)! It’s like in a horror film where the girl who isn’t a virgin always dies first.
LO: I’m pro-non-virgins, I’m pro-gay (laughs).
RR: Was there any pressure on you to follow in your parent’s achievements? (Note: Lauren Oliver’s parents are both literature professors. Her father, Harold Schechter, is a true crime writer, while her mother, Kimiko Hahn, is a poet.)
LO: My parents were really hoping that either my sister and I would become doctors or lawyers. Unfortunately my sister became a professor of Philosophy and I became a writer (laughs).
All jokes aside though, my parents were very encouraging of whatever we wanted to do. They were very, very proud of the queer path my sister and I had taken. My dad always said about being a writer that if you can do anything else, if you like anything else and if you’re good at anything else, then you should do that because writing is so hard. It’s a frustrating life that has as many difficulties as it does rewards. But writing is the thing that has really become the driving passion of my life. I couldn’t do anything else.
RR: How about you putting pressure on yourself? Did you ever measure yourself up against your father’s writing career?
LO: I didn’t worry about that because we are so distinct. If we were writing the same categories, I think it would be a lot more difficult.
I am definitely a perfectionist and I am a very, very driven person. I think that I have always placed pressure on myself naturally. My parents tell me I’ve always been like that since I was three-years-old. I always wanted to be special, I always wanted to be the best in what I do (laughs). But it’s hard.
Through writing I’ve actually become less of a perfectionist. The books are out there, they exist, and I go back and do readings and I read a sentence and I think “This sentence is so stupid, I can’t believe I ever wrote that!” But it’s there! It’s there to be read and consumed and I can never take it back.
Writing is really good for me because it’s something that enables me to challenge myself on a daily basis and yet I have to let go and I have to understand that I’m just growing and I’m going to get better and that I’m going to write books that are worse than others.
RR: Did “Delirium” start out as a trilogy or did the idea to make it a trilogy come while you were writing “Delirium”? When I finished reading it I thought it was good enough a one-shot story.
LO: What happened is that we had sold it as a one-off but I was hoping it would be a trilogy. I actually, from the beginning, have a desktop folder where I keep the documents called “The Love Trilogy”. From the start I was hoping it could be a trilogy. I was hoping to experiment with doing a longer kind of arc of a series. But since we hadn’t sold it that way I also wrote it like it could be one book only.
RR: There’s also a subtle difference with the way “Delirium” and “Pandemonium” are written. You can really feel yourself being stifled in “Delirium” while “Pandemonium” just flows freer. Even the cursing flows much freer! Was that a conscious decision when you were writing it?
LO: It wasn’t conscious but I actually think that it’s true. I’ve always described “Delirium” as feeling very small. It feels insular and we’re only in one place, we’re in Lena’s head. We’re in her emotions and it’s really not until the last chapters that things start exploding, literally and figuratively.
In “Pandemonium”, the writing is a little more sprawling. It takes place over time, it takes place in two different places, and I think “Requiem” does that again, although in “Requiem” we counterbalance two points of view and one of them is in a very stifling environment and one of them is very free.
I think it wasn’t conscious. I think writers often do things that really aren’t quite conscious. They use symbols and their writing kind of follows. I hadn’t noticed that about the cursing, though. That sounds interesting. It wasn’t deliberate but I was left with the sense after writing it that one of them was much bigger than the other.
RR: Do you have any writing rituals when you start on a story? Does everything have to be quiet? Do you need to have music on?
LO: I write in incredibly random environments (laughs). I can’t actually write with music. I can write with music in the background if it’s somebody else’s music. But I don’t like to deliberately choose to play music because the emotion of the music starts influencing unduly when I’m writing. So when I’m listening to a sad song, I’ll start writing these incredibly maudlin scenes.
I’m kind of notorious for being able to write anywhere during any amount of time. I could be having a conversation with somebody and then I’ll be typing. This happened to me and my friend the other day. She was asking me what I was texting and I told her that I wasn’t texting but writing and she was “We’re having a conversation!” (laughs)
RR: “Before I Fall”, “Delirium”, and “Pandemonium” are all written in the first person. Do you find it much more comfortable than writing in the third person?
LO: I have found it more comfortable, but it’s also limiting. “Liesl and Po” is in the third person, and I’m writing a YA book in the third person.
I think the first person gives real immediate access to the characters both for the reader and the writer. It really helps you enter into the world. But it’s limiting because you can’t have pieces of information that the main character doesn’t know. You don’t get a broadness, a broad sense. Now I’m working on revolving POVs and “Liesl and Po” is in revolving POVs. I do think it’s a little bit more of a challenge for me to write that way but then again in some ways it’s also freeing. I think I’m getting fed up, right now, with the limits of first person (laughs).
RR: How has being part of an MFA program helped your writing? Do you think it’s necessary for aspiring writers to be part of one?
LO: I definitely don’t think it’s necessary, but it was great, though. I definitely don’t think it’s necessary but if you have the opportunity to do it, I think it’s wonderful.
It helped with basic craft elements of symbolism, metaphor construction, that kid of sentence by sentence tweaky stuff. The most important thing it taught me is when to accept criticism and when to reject it. That’s an incredibly fundamental thing for writers to learn – when to listen to people and when to say no. Half the people in an MFA class will say “I love Character A, we need more of Character A” and the other half will say “Character A is horrible, everything else is good.”
You learn to develop trust in certain voices. You learn that certain people have the same vision and others don’t. It’s the people who have the same vision whom you have to listen to when they tell you you have to fix things. Everybody else you need to say “Go to hell.” (laughs) I think that’s incredibly important, even for individuals to learn – when to trust someone’s advice or reject it.
What it did not help me with at all is that it did not help em at all with the mechanics of storybuilding, which is an incredibly important facet for novel writers, and short story writers as well. It doesn’t teach you how to plot a book, it doesn’t teach you how to tell a story. That I learned from reading and working in publishing and as an editor myself. I don’t think I could have written a decent novel until I learned that last piece, which is not taught in any MFA program.
RR: There’s a lot of grim stuff that happens in the “Delirium” books. How do you know how far you can push with a YA book? Who tells you to hold back? Is it your editor or your decision?
LO: I’ve never crossed the line so I’m not sure. I’ve never written anything and have an editor say “This is totally inappropriate.”
I think a story tells you what is appropriate and what isn’t. If you’re in the heart of the story, if you’re in the voice of the story, I don’t think it’s going to lead you astray. My father writes books about serial killers, so I’ve read about incredibly disturbing stuff my whole life. But some books I end up saying “This is gratuitous, it’s gratuitous violence, it’s gratuitous sex.” And it’s gratuitous because it’s out of voice. It’s put in there just to shock, just to upset people.
You can have similar elements of incredibly disturbing stuff like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and it feels deeply shocking and disturbing but it feels in the book, it feels right for the book. I know that’s kind of an ephemeral answer, but if you’re just using swearing, violence, or sex just to get a reaction out of people, then it’s probably crossing a line. But it’s probably crossing a line not just for young adults but for the book. If a moment really has to be there, if a curse word has to be there, then it probably does and you’re probably not crossing a line.
RR: I really felt that when Lena and Hana first have their fight.
LO: I was just going to say that, when Lena says “Fuck you.”
RR: No other word could fit!
LO: No other word could fit! I know, it’s true! There are actually a lot of libraries that won’t stock a book in the States if it has an example of the “F” word, although my books have interestingly gotten around that a lot because people feel, at that moment, that it’s the only thing that she can say. And you know how hard it is for her to say it. But there’s no other relevant thing to say! It’s good to have an “F” bomb every so often (laughs).
RR: Was the success of “Before I Fall” a surprise to you or did you already know it was something special when you were writing it?
LO: I felt that it was a special book when I was writing it at different points, but then I also felt it was a terrible book when I was writing it at different points. Writers’ opinions of their work changes day to day.
I felt that there was a lot of excitement around it and I knew when it was first getting reads that people were loving it. It definitely surprised me and you don’t anticipate that any of your books is really going to do that well.
What makes it more complicated is that only recently when I was compiling information for my new website and I had all of the countries it was listed in as a bestseller, all of the awards that it had won, that I thought that this book was a big deal. People know about this book. It’s not like you wake up one day and think “Oh, I’m successful now.” Somedays I feel very successful and somedays I feel very unsuccessful. It just changes, and I think that’s a good thing because you do’t want to get paralyzed by the idea that your best work is already behind you.
RR: How do you feel about the increasing need for authors nowadays to be in social media? Do you feel it’s an advantage or a disadvantage to have your fans talking so closely to your ear, in a manner of speaking?
LO: I think it’s great for the fans and it’s really nice for the community. It can be a lot to balance and I think err on the side of doing less social networking than perhaps I should or my fans would like me to do. But it’s also really important to preserve space around you to do the writing, and to do the writing in isolation of people telling you what they want to see in your books. I think it’s great as long as you can preserve mental space and sanity.
RR: You’re also not a fan of sensible shoes, so I wanted to ask what are your favorite shoe brands?
LO: (Laughs) I hate sensible shoes! I love Christian Louboutin, Barbara Bui, who does these fabulous shoes. I have these fabulous shoes from here, they’re like crazy snake-crystal-encrusted and when I bought them I was like “Babe, they were on sale! A thousand dollars off!” And my fiance was like “A thousand dollars off?” (laughs) I like Manolos. The usual (laughs).
RR: What’s the most gratifying reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?
LO: I got a letter that was really moving. I can’t say one specific thing. I’ve had some really meaningful fan interactions. I’ve had relationships with fans and bloggers that have lasted for three and a half years, since my first book wasn’t even really finished. That’s really incredibly gratifying to see your relationship grow over time with some of these people and see the way that your lives begin to interlink. I get amazing letters from fans everyday, I get people driving six hours to see me on tour.
RR: Are there YA books you wish you had written yourself?
LO: Tons of them. I always say I wish I had written “Harry Potter”, but who doesn’t (laughs)? I felt that way about “The Scorpio Races” by Maggie Stiefvater. I love how John Green writes. The Hunger Games!
RR: Do you have a favorite book? Maybe one that you’d take to a deserted island?
LO: I have many favorite books. I always say that I’d take Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” because it’ll take me four years to get through it (laughs). Maybe “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides. I love “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I love Roald Dahl, I’ve read all his books multiple times. I think I could reread the “Harry Potter” series over and over, I think it’s magical, no pun intended (laughs).