We’ve already declared that Lauren Oliver’s latest novel, Panic, is helping make March an amazing month for YA lit. But we couldn’t just leave it at that. Oliver’s story of kids in a fictional rundown New York town, competing in a dangerous summer-long game of chicken (called Panic), features descriptions and characters so evocative, they’ll haunt anyone who has ever tried desperately to change their life. We agonize deliciously over whether to root for Heather, who wants to win the game’s prize money to escape her drunk mother and take care of her kid sister, or Dodge, who wants to exact revenge on the family he believes has ruined his own sister’s life in a previous Panic. Still, the fact that it comes from Oliver, author of wildly popular dystopian series Delirium as well as the buzzy Before I Fall and middle-grade fantasies Liesl & Po and The Spindlers, makes us doubly intrigued. How does one author transition so effortlessly between genres? How does she manage to write while also being cofounder of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary “incubator” that matches up story ideas with new writers (Lauren Morrill’s Being Sloane Jacobs, Fiona Paul’s Venom series)? And is she as anxious about the success of the Divergent movie as we are? We recently caught up with Oliver on her book tour to find out.
Is Panic’s fictional town, Carp, something like where you grew up?
No, Carp is nothing like where I grew up. I grew up in a pretty wealthy community in Westchester just outside of New York City. But I’ve traveled a lot and certainly seen a lot of places that are pretty rural and impoverished, and I think psychologically, even if the kids in Carp are facing particular challenges I’ve never faced…a lot of people can relate to the feeling of being trapped, or feeling kind of a desperate desire to escape your circumstances, your family, that kind of thing.
Does it feel different to create a world like this, as opposed to a dystopian world? Is there something different required of your imagination?
I think it’s similar. The whole thing is to create a convincing world that people can believe in, that will create a believable psychological framework for your characters’ development. Because of course, it’s not just a setting, it’s something that will affect your entire mode of being. It influences what they want, what they believe, what they believe is possible.
What makes Heather different from Lena (from Delirium) or Samantha (from Before I Fall)?
They’re similar in some ways. They’re all very different outwardly, and of course they look very different and they come from different circumstances. But I think all of my female characters—and probably that’s just a reflection of how I felt in high school—but no matter what outward face they present out to the world, they have some deep fears about their self-worth and their ability to make something of themselves and their ability to be loved. I think on some level, they all feel a little bit damaged and not very special. I think that’s a common fear that people have.
What made you decide to write from both Heather and Dodge’s points of view?
First of all, I knew that if you could create two characters that people liked and sympathized with and they were in competition, that you could generate more suspense. I really wanted to write from a boy’s perspective. I hadn’t in my teen books, and I knew I could. I loved Dodge as a character. He had previously been a character in another book of mine that never went anywhere because it had literally no plot. So I kind of resurrected him for these purposes.
It’s interesting that you didn’t make Heather and Dodge each other’s love interests.
It’s such a conventional choice to have the two people in competition who fall in love and split the money. That wasn’t the book I wanted to write.
How would you do in the Panic?
I think I would do really well. Actually, I probably wouldn’t make it past the individual challenges because everybody knows that I have a really horrible paralyzing phobia of worms. So if I had to do something involving worms, I would just bow out. I wouldn’t do it. I think, like, the daredevil stuff I’d be really good at…I went skydiving, actually, as a Panic promotion.
What made you want to write something so realistic this time around?
I definitely try to do different things every time I write. Partly, I consciously want to avoid being pigeonholed as a certain kind of writer. But partly, I just get tired of what I’ve been working on, and I get inspired by new things and new challenges, so I end up going in different directions.
There are rumblings in the movie industry that it’s up to Divergent to determine the fate of future YA adaptations. Do you feel like you have something invested in its success?
I feel invested in it because [Veronica Roth] is a really wonderful person and deserves to have success. Basically, it’s the same kind of thing where someone says, “This thing is totally out now…and realistic fiction is totally in.” Veronica’s movies I’m sure will do really well, but even if, God forbid, they didn’t, some other movie would come out because it was already being filmed, and it would popularize them again. I think it’s less interesting to make frantic and frenetic proclamations about what will or will not influence an entire industry. It’s more than often incorrect and really simplistic. In general, I’m deeply involved in the book industry, and I love the people I work with in Hollywood, but if you try to wrap your happiness or sense of success in what’s going on in Hollywood, you’re going to be a pretty unhappy person.
What’s the news on your own books’ adaptations? Since the TV pilot for Delirium was rejected, is it off the table forever?
It’s a legal entanglement as we try to get the rights back. We have a script that’s coming in any day for Panic, so I’m super excited about that. (Universal Pictures has the rights to the film.) And I have my first adult novel (Rooms) coming out this September.
Are you able to block all of that out when you write?
The point of writing to me is it’s an immersive thing and it allows me to live in a separate world and a separate space. So not only do I block that out, [writing] literally obliterates the real world.
And then when you put on your co-owner hat at Paper Lantern Lit, how is it different?
We have to be more aware. But we still do the books we want to do. We’ve never been trend-chasers. We still do incredibly strange books. We’re not overly influenced.
So your meetings are never, “This thing is hot now, let’s make a book about it.”
Not even remotely. Our meetings are like, “What’s interesting to you today?” And I’m like, “Japanese internment camps!” And someone else is like, “Chandeliers!” It’s crazy.
How do you decide what’s a good idea for you to write personally and what’s a good idea for you to assign to another writer?
If I just have an idea, then I assign it to another writer. First of all, the ideas we have at Paper Lantern Lit are usually totally collaborative. If I have an initial spark, it gets worked on by everyone else in the company, so by the time it comes back around to me it’s not recognizable. Also, if I have just an idea and it’s divorced from a character, that means it has to go to Paper Lantern Lit. If I have a character who starts bugging me and starts speaking up in my head about a certain idea, then it usually belongs to me…In order to spend six months doing nothing but working on a specific book, you need to have much more than just an idea. It needs to speak to you in some way.
Even though you don’t like talking trends, do you have any predictions about what we book bloggers will be talking about in the next year?
I have no idea. I know there’s a bunch of realistic fiction coming out, but what I think is cool is cross-genre stuff. Mash-up compilations. That’s not totally new. To be honest, I think [talking about trends] does something of a disservice to the industry. There are so many amazing books that come out every year and then what happens if they don’t fall into the hot categories? Are they ignored? Do they not get marketing dollars? Do book bloggers not put them in their “to be read” piles? I think broadening reading habits and then getting rid of some of those labels…would be so good for everybody involved.
How do you choose the next book you’re going to read?
All the usual ways. I have authors that I always read their books. I get friend recommendations. People start talking about Reconstructing Amelia or We Were Liars, and I’ll put it on my TBR. I read book reviews. I go into bookstores and start browsing. I never have gone into a bookstore without buying something. I just bought Alice Hoffman’s new book.
Wait, if you’re on tour, that sounds really expensive.
It’s very expensive. Actually I probably literally spend more money on tour than I make on tour.
What question would you love to ask Lauren Oliver?