Interview with Lauren Oliver

Posted by Goodreads on November 30, 2010
Mean girls, dumb jocks, band geeks—high school cliques are easy fodder for stereotypes. But debut author Lauren Oliver set out to prove that teens can't be labeled so easily and that high school relationships can be complex and poignant. In her young adult novel Before I Fall, high school senior Samantha "Sam" Kingston has beauty, popularity, and a coveted boyfriend. She's also cruel and petty, and she only has one day to live. But Oliver gives her heroine an unusual chance: Sam relives the final day of her life over and over and begins to learn what she can and can't change. Oliver studied philosophy and literature at the University of Chicago before attending New York University's MFA program and working as an editorial assistant in publishing. She spoke to Goodreads about teenage bullying and reveals details about her upcoming novel, Delirium, in which love is a curable disease.

Goodreads: Were you a mean girl in high school?

Lauren Oliver: [laughs] I don't think I always behaved as well as I could have. I certainly wasn't as mean as Sam. I don't think anyone at my high school was quite as mean, at least in my grade. But that said, I certainly had my moments, and I did some things that I'm not proud of.

GR: In young adult literature the protagonist is so often an outsider, e.g. the new girl in school. Your main character, Samantha "Sam" Kingston, is a central figure in her school's in-crowd. Why did you choose a popular girl as your heroine?

LO: I wanted to write a story of redemption. There's a lot of YA about girls who feel that they're outsiders or unlovable, then they discover that they are [lovable] over the course of the book. I think that's great, but it has been done a lot. I wanted to write a book about the possibility of change—somebody who was not a sympathetic character, who was self-absorbed and kind of selfish. I wanted to show the evolution of that character. Typically the way mean girls are portrayed in YA and popular media is a very flat depiction. Bullies and mean girls often arise out of an incredibly troubled place. People who aren't happy, who have substantial, significant problems and are lashing out as a result. That's not to excuse it, but it's just as critical to know that and address it as it is to address the people who are being bullied.

GR: Did you worry about going too far with Sam's cruelty and losing the sympathy of the reader?

LO: Yes, absolutely. I'm sure that some people were tempted to put the book down or not continue reading. I actually give credit to the blogosphere, because I would see on blogs, "I really don't like this main character, but I've seen so many other blogs telling me just to keep going, so I will." I think that had my book been published before the blogosphere existed, it would not have had the same success and reception.

GR: Teen suicides and bullying have been heavily covered by the media in 2010, a topic that inspired the It Gets Better Project targeted at LGBT teens. Have online spaces like Facebook exacerbated bullying or have teens always been this cruel?

LO: It's not new, but what is new (and why it's getting so much attention in the media) is that before the age of Facebook, if you were bullied in school and tormented, you could at least go home and you'd have some respite from the bullying. Now if you're being bullied by your classmates, you go home and because of the preponderance of social networking, cell phones, Twittering, etc., they colonize that space, too. It's possible to feel like you never have a safe place to be, which is incredibly dangerous.

Part of what is dangerous about the high school age is that you have so little perspective. It seems like high school is your whole life, and there is no escape from it. But it is, in fact, not your whole life, and it will get better. You just have to persist through that era. Reach out to people for help, try to expand your circle. That's all I can really say. It's not always going to be like this.

GR: Not only is Sam an unsympathetic character, Before I Fall takes another risk by killing her off in the first chapter. What inspired the book's premise, in which Sam keeps repeating the last day of her life?

LO: Everybody thinks that it must have been the mechanism of her death that I thought of first. Actually, I was trying to think of what combination of circumstances would enable a self-absorbed, selfish girl to see herself in a different light and see her connections to people in a different light. I brainstormed a bunch of different ways I could do this, and many of them were ridiculous and didn't work. Thinking about her final day was the method I finally hit on for having her have these revelations.

GR: Sex, drinking, eating disorders, suicide—the book covers a lot of controversial topics that not all parents believe their children should be reading or discussing. Did you feel you were pushing the envelope with this content?

LO: Honest to God, I was just trying to write a book that was accurate to my high school experience. The truth is that we drank in high school; we had sex in high school; we did drugs in high school; people had eating disorders in high school. It's very possible that some people haven't been exposed to that and have a very different experience of it, and that's OK. All censorship, I feel, is kind of like when you play hide-and-go-seek with a really little kid, and they cover their own eyes and believe that they can't be seen as a result. Just because you cover your own eyes doesn't mean that this stuff doesn't happen, so there's no point in not depicting it in literature. Literature is a really great, safe place to discuss issues like this, because you're able to bracket it, and it's bounded by a fictional world. It can provide a really easy way for parents and kids to approach difficult subjects.

GR: Goodreads member Nancy asks, "What do you hope that your readers get from your books?"

LO: One of the biggest compliments I get after people have read my book is that they want to connect with their family and friends and let them know how much they mean to them. I want readers to really think about the meaning of their actions and try to live life in a more meditative, deliberate way. Someone had me write "Nice matters" as the inscription of their book—I loved it. I think that is a really great message to take away from my book.

GR: Goodreads member Rae is curious about your next book; she asks, "What do you believe inspired your idea for Delirium? And how different is it from Before I Fall?"

LO: Delirium was inspired by a specific story. I read a quote by Gabriel García Márquez in an essay he'd written: "All good books are about love or death." The next day I went to the gym, and I was thinking about love a lot because I had just written a book about death. This was also during the whole bird flu epidemic, and I was watching the news and thought, "That's so weird how people just go into a panic about these things. You could convince people that anything was a disease, really." That word "love" was also bouncing around in my brain. I was jogging on the treadmill, and those two concepts collided somewhere in my head. I thought, "Ah, you could just convince people that love was a...Ah-ha!" If love was a disease, you could cure it.

In many ways it is extremely different from Before I Fall. Despite the mechanism of Sam reliving the last day of her death, Before I Fall is pretty hyper-realistic in terms of the environment in which it takes place. Delirium is dystopian and takes place in an alternate history of the United States. However, thematically, I do think that they are similar. They are really books about these characters changing in dramatic ways and considering what makes life worth living and meaningful.

GR: Goodreads member Lucy asks, "What drew you to the dystopian genre?"

LO: I didn't deliberately go toward the dystopian genre. I just needed to create an alternate society that would bracket the world of Delirium. Although, I do love some dystopian books. The Handmaid's Tale, I love, and The Giver.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LO: I wake up in the morning and frantically start dealing with e-mails and all of the problems that have accumulated over the night. I do most of my own writing when I'm shuttling between meetings on the subway. I write a lot on my Blackberry. I actually wrote all of Before I Fall on my Blackberry, e-mailing it to myself so I could read it between jobs, which people think is insane. That is when I write, because at least when I'm underground no one can e-mail me, and I'm not distracted. I do other things on my computer. I sit at my dining room table, always with coffee and food. I think I've eaten every meal at my computer for the past three years. I do other types of work from my computer, like editing work, but my writing I typically do on the subway on my phone. The creative commute.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

LO: I honestly believe that everything I have ever read has influenced me in some way. In particular I've always loved the original fairy tales, fables, and myths. That kind of reading has been hugely influential. I love Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman. There's not a huge amount of YA authors in there, and it's not because I don't read it but because I didn't read it when I was younger. I read it now, but a lot of the stuff that was influential to my work I read when I was sometime between the ages of 6 and 14. Agatha Christie has probably been the most influential to me because I read all of her books when I was 8, and I love her!

GR: What are you reading now?

LO: I am reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, another writer who has been hugely influential to me.

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Keli (new)

Keli Thanks for answering my question, Lauren :)

message 2: by Jen (new)

Jen great interview!!! I loved this book. I'm reading it a second time, actually - it was THAT thought-provoking!

message 3: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Great to hear about another YA author making her mark, and I love how you take on the idea of redemption. This book definitely wants me as a reader, and I want it back!

Thanks to Goodreads for putting another great book on my radar.

What Can't Wait (Carolrhoda Ya) by Ashley Hope Pérez

message 4: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Relf I bought this for a friend for christmas without reading it first which I never normally do, although now I'm pretty sure I made the right decision, Before I Fall sounds amazing!

message 5: by Lucia (new)

Lucia Great interview! I really love Before I fall!

message 6: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Great to read of someone giving credit to Agatha Christie, she still inspires!

message 7: by Emily (new)

Emily I'm currently reading this book and it's amazing! I can't put it down! If anyone has suggestions for books a bit like this, I'd appreciate them because I'm almost done with this one. Thank you all. (:

message 8: by Marisol (new)

Marisol great it sounds cool!

message 9: by Laura (new)

Laura T Love, Love, Love, Love this book so much. Also love Delerium. You are my favourite author!!!!

message 10: by l (new)

l I love this interview!

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

loved this book and LOVED delirium and pandemonium i want march to be here now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

message 12: by MadTurtle (new)

MadTurtle Loved it,

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