Ronreads interview: Lauren Oliver – Part 1

The crowd at Lauren Oliver’s book signing.

She’s touring Australia now, but for a few days last week, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver was in the country stumping for her latest book, “Pandemonium”, the sequel to “Delirium”.

While her visit was short and sweet, Lauren Oliver was still able to squeeze in some time for an interview with yours truly, other media outlets, as well as with Ms. Xandra Ramos Padilla of National Book Store.

While I had my own time to interview Lauren, I also attended her interview with Ms. Xandra Ramos Padilla. For those who weren’t able to make it that day, I’m posting the full transcript of that interview under the cut. Tomorrow, I’ll put up the complete transcript of the interview I did with her.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of love being a disease?

LAUREN OLIVER (LO): At the time that I was writing it, I wanted to write a book about love. Not just a book about romance, but a book that would allow me to really think about love in all its forms – romantic, familial, social, between friends. The idea for it actually came when I was on a treadmill. I seem to get a lot of my good ideas in the shower or in the gym. This was several years ago, and at the time there was a big fear over swine flu and this followed another panic over bird flu. In New York, everyone was crazy over this panic. They were buying all these anti-bacterial wipes, they were bathing in it, they were pulling their kids out of school, and I just felt like media could really drive people into a panic.

Somehow, the idea came into my head that if you look at the symptoms of love, of infatuated love, the fluctuations of mood, manic one moment, devastated the next, the weight fluctuations, the sleep disruptions, the inability to focus on anything other than the object, it has everything in common with a psychiatric disorder that would normally be treated with medication. That’s how I came up with the idea.

The idea that passions are kind of a fever is a very ancient idea. There’s a whole philosophy from thousands of years ago that saw the passions as basically sicknesses and that you could be cured by behaving in a regulated way and behaving rationally. I’m not the first person to think it up.

Q: How would you actually surgically remove love?

LO: It’s actually not that farfetched. Essentially, it’s not that far scientifically from being probable. The most likely way that’s it’s going to be done is through chemicals. They will change your brain chemistry just like the way they change your brain chemistry in other conditions. Actually, right after I finished writing “Delirium”, there was an article in the New York Times that came out and said that scientists had identified the chemical pathways that kit up when you’re in love, and that they speculated that in the future they could develop a pill that you could take if you were heartbroken or if you were in love with someone who didn’t love you back. And you’d be cured of it! It’s not going to be a permanent cure, but it’s not that far away.

Q: How did you build the world you did in “Delirium”? It’s very believable.

LO: It was really important for me. All of the epigraphs were not initially going to be in the book at all. That was all work I’d been doing as I tried to think about what kind of society would this be. What kind of views would they hold religiously, politically, socially. What kind of songs would they sing, what kind of songs would they not sing? I actually have a Word document where I have all of those things listed and then I realized that putting in the book as epigraphs – just a couple of them because I wrote so many more than what made it in the book – I could give the reader a lot of the hints about the rest of the world without cluttering the book with a lot of “This is what they believe politically.” That’s how I wanted to do it.

Q: In “Delirium”, Lena is a very good girl, waiting to undergo her procedure. And then there’s a radical change when she gets to “Pandemonium”. How did you let your character evolve?

LO: Primarily, my main interest as a writer is character growth and evolution. That is something that has been key in all of my books. That is definitely at the heart of the books, and it is in the heart of “Delirium” too. Lena changes a lot in “Delirium”. She is a very different person on the last page than she was on the first page. And then it changes in “Pandemonium”, and I like to think that she also changes and grows and emerges really as an adult in “Requiem”.

That for me is the most interesting thing to tap, especially when you’re young adult literature. I was talking today about the vast changes you go through over the course of a couple of years during that time. You grow from being essentially a child to really not. I really like to be able to reflect that in the literature.

Readers had their pick of Lauren Oliver books at the signing.

Q: What can we expect in “Requiem”?

LO: You can expect me to not say anything about it (laughs). One thing I can say about “Requiem” is that it takes place from two different points of view. It’s Lena’s point of view and somebody else’s point of view, and it’s not Alex! It’s kind of interesting.

Q: Was it difficult from shifting from the “Then” and “Now” perspectives in “Pandemonium”?

LO: It wasn’t actually. It’s so interesting how things develop. What happened was that I left Lena at such a bad place after “Delirium”, she was so broken down and I felt so bad for her when I started writing “Pandemonium” that I needed to believe that she had a future. I needed to know she’d be okay so that I started writing a future for her six months in advance. I needed to know that she would be okay. And then I realized after I started doing it for me that switching between then and now would be a really cool way to tell the story and build it.

Q: Lena discovers strengths she didn’t know she had.

LO: absolutely, it was really fun to write. Ever since the original “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie, I’ve become a real fan of movies and media in which an unlikely girl transforms into a real kickass heroine.

Q: What message do you want teen girls to take away from “Before I Fall”?

LO: To some extent, I think that as a writer you have to be comfortable having your book be interpreted and misinterpreted. You can’t control your books once they’re out into the world. But I think it’s pretty clear that the book is a story about interconnection and that our actions and our behaviors have deep ripples of influence on the people around us that ripple back and affect us.

If a reader can read the book and come away from it asking questions about what is meaningful, about whether the way they’re behaving is bringing good ripples or bad ripples. Those questions are what I want to be asked.

Q: Are you speaking out about mean girls?

LO: I’m not pro-bullying. I don’t believe that happy people are mean, and I also don’t believe that if you’re mean, you can be happy. I wasn’t a particularly nice girl when I was a teenage girl, but I was also very, very unhappy. The more mean I was, the more unhappy I became. And the more miserable my life became, the more I lashed out. I definitely am speaking out against all of those costumes we wear in an attempt to keep other people away that ultimately don’t bring us anything.

Q: At the back of “Liesl and Po”, you say that it’s your most personal work. Why so?

LO: “Liesl and Po” is a funny book in some ways. For those of you that don’t know it, it’s a very fantastical middle-grade romp with an alchemist and a box that contains the greatest magic in the world. But like I do say in the back of the book, it is a personal book for me.

Liesl, the main character in the book, is grieving the death of her father, and for much of the book, the world has turned gray. Part of the journey is the journey towards bringing color to the world. I lost my best friend and a guy I dated for four years in 2009. He died at the age of 29, and it was very devastating to me. A lot of the scenes in “Pandemonium” where Lena’s grieving and running, that was also from a very personal place. It took years to really get over it and in some ways I think I’m still kind of traumatized by that.

I wrote “Liesl and Po” when I was really grieving him and I felt that the world has lost color for me. I was trying to write color back into the world. Liesl’s journey kind of became my journey towards that. The book is actually dedicated to his nieces and nephews.

Lauren with one of the fans that lined up at Powerbooks.

Q: After “Requiem”, what can we expect from you then?

LO: After “Requiem”, I’m working on a new young adult novel. It’s a return to realistic fiction, although my editor was saying that it’s like “Before I Fall” on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s going to be called “Panic” and I’m excited about it. I’m also working on an adult novel which is exciting. I just want to continue on writing middle-grade, adult, YA, whatever.

I’m very lucky that I have a really supportive publisher that lets me write whatever I want to write. It’s not “You have to write stories about mean girls!” (Laughs) I’m not really interested in genre. I didn’t set out to write dystopia when I wrote “Delirium”, I set out to write the book, and then I was told afterwards that it was dystopian, which is great because I get to ride on “The Hunger Games” (laughs). I’m not complaining!

Q: Are any of the books optioned to be movies?

LO: Both “Before I Fall” and “Delirium” have been optioned. Hollywood’s fickle and a lot needs to happen in order for both of these books to make it onto the screen. But I have great producers behind it, there’s a great studio, there’s a great script. I’ve been reading the “Delirium” script on the way here, and I hope one day I get to wear a fabulous dress on the red carpet.

Q: Any choice on who to play Lena?

LO: I think my fans know better than I do. There’s so many great actresses out there. I always say that I’ll accept anyone in my film except Justin Beiber (laughs). Justin Beiber, if you’re watching this, I’m sorry.

Q: Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer? Can you share with us your journey towards getting published?

LO: I have a lot of advice for aspiring writers. I have a blog, laurenoliverbooks.blogspot, and I have been lax about giving writing challenges and writing advice, but I’m going to really start. I actually love talking about writing.

The first thing I always say to people is to write everyday. I’ve been writing my whole life. It took me years and years. I started writing a novel when I was a freshman in high school, so I was about 13, and I finished my first novel when I was 21. It took me eight years to go from the phase where I had an idea to the phase where I could finish it. Finishing a novel takes time, but I always say that write as much as you can until you become good at it. Stop paying “Angry Birds” on your phone. If you don’t absolutely have to do anything else, what you do is write.

I wrote “Before I Fall” mostly on my Blacberry when I was commuting between my job and school and this and that. At the time that I wrote “Before I Fall”, I was a full time graduate student and I had a full time job and I had a part time job. So I don’t really care for all these people who say they don’t have the time to write. I used to write on the New York City subway on my Blackberry while being jostled by homeless people (laughs)! There’s a lot of other advice I could give.

Q: Are any of your characters based on people in your life?

LO: I think so. Not based on exactly, but I pull characteristics from people I know. In “Before I Fall”, for example. I’ve had the same three best friends from when I was really young. One of them is a young adult author as well, Elizabeth Myles. In “Before I Fall”, Melody wears an item of green clothing everyday for like a year, and Elizabeth really did that, she loves the color green. I also think it’s really important that you project yourself into your characters. I have always said that novels are like dreams, and every character is kind of you, even if they look like somebody else.

Q: Which character do you like most from your books?

LO: The character I like most in any of my books is Bundle, the ghost pet from “Liesl and Po”. In terms of human characters, it’s hard to say. You really have to love all of your characters. I really do love all of my characters. I loved Sam by the end of “Before I Fall”. I hated her in the beginning. I really love Lena. I felt terrible at the end of “Delirium”. I love them all.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration?

LO: A lot of my ideas come from everywhere. I read all the time. I still make time to read everyday. That’s also my advice to young writers. You cannot be a good writer unless you’re also a good reader. If it were up to me I would read two to three hours everyday. But I only get to read for about 45 minutes. I pull a lot of inspiration from the world around me. Newspapers, news stories, old fairy tales.

I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from both my parents. My father’s a writer, he writes non-fiction books about serial killers. His discipline has really been a huge influence on me. My dad has written a page a day for the past 40 years. My parents are also both literature professors and my mom loves books. I grew up in a house filled with books. She had a vivid imagination. I got inspiration from my family. If you can’t be inspired by the world you’re living in, you’re just not paying attention.

Q: Any book recommendations?

LO: I think everyone goes through a period where a book changes their life for a tiny period of time (laughs). Jane Austen, I love. I still think “Pride and Prejudice” is a perfect romance book, so much better than Danielle Steele. I love “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides, I love “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I love the “Harry Potter” series. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is one of the most beautiful books ever written.

Q: What books are you reading now?

LO: I think it’s called “The Snow Child”, but I may be confusing it with “The Snow Leopard” which is also a book on my iPad right now. I’m reading “A Game of Thrones” and I’m reading “Dune”.

Q: Do you think the society you created in “Delirium” and “Pandemonium” will be possible in the future?

LO: In America, no, probably not. I think part of the reason I wrote it is that there are societies now around the world where a lot of the things happening in “Delirium” and “Pandemonium” are happening. There are places where there is no free information, you have absolutely no choice in who you fall in love and who you marry. People of different sexes are rigorously separated and they have to wear special things. There are countries in the world where books and music is strictly regulated. That is happening.

Do I think it will happen in America? No, probably not. But on the other hand, have I seen very ludicrous ideas being accepted by huge amounts of people and being propagated by governments? Yeah, and there are tons of historical examples of that. The book is more of a metaphor of these cultures that actually are existing, and how dangerous it is when one idea controls a huge amount of the population.

Q: How does it make you feel that “Pandemonium” was named one of the most anticipated sequels by Time Magazine?

LO: I feel awesome (laughs). To be here, it’s crazy. Only two years ago, I didn’t have one book out and I lived in a mouse-infested apartment in Brooklyn. And to be here with so many enthusiastic fans and to have gotten such a great reception for the book, what can you say? It’s incredible, it’s the best. It’s what people dream about when they become a writer. I always knew I wanted to write but I never knew that I’d have this level of enthusiastic response.

Q: Why do you think dystopian literature now is such a hit?

LO: in my coutnry right now, it’s like “Oh sorry guys, we totally screwed up the economy. Now there’s no money for you to retire. Fix it.” I think that a lot of people are not just internalizing a message of fear, they’re angry. They feel like the world they’ve inherited is broken.

In dystopian literature, that’s what the young people encounter. They feel like they’re inheriting a world broken by their forebears. It was really interesting that with “Delirium” and “Pandemonium”, there’s been a record number of movements like the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. It was a seminal year for demonstrations led by young people. It’s very clear that there’s a dystopian parallel there. The other great thing is that in dystopian literature for young adults, you see a protagonist who with a little pluck and courage, really changes the world.

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