NEW YORK — As she worked on the final book of her "Hunger Games" trilogy, Suzanne Collins discovered that her life had changed.
"I started to get calls from people I didn't know, at my home number, which at the time was listed and we had never thought anything about it," says Collins, a 48-year-old mother of two who lives with her husband in rural Connecticut.
"Suddenly, there was this shift. Nothing threatening happened or anything, but it is your home and you want it to be private. So I think that was the point where I felt, `Oh, something different is happening now.'"
With the release of "Mockingjay," an instant chart-topper, Suzanne Collins is a celebrity. Perhaps not the kind you'd spot on the street, but one whose name is known and welcome to millions of readers, young adult and adult. Her fame comes not from wizards or vampires, but from her portrait of a brutish, dystopian future in which young people are forced to fight to the death, on television.
Inspiration, like a sudden phone call, began at home. A few years ago, Collins was surfing channels late at night and found herself switching between a reality program and news reports about the Iraq war. The images blurred in her mind. She wondered whether other viewers could tell them apart.
"We have so much programming coming at us all the time," she says. "Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience? ... I can't believe a certain amount of that isn't happening."
Narrated by the teenage rebel-heroine Katniss Everdeen, the "Hunger Games" books ("The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay") are also stories of honor and courage in the worst of times, when, as Collins notes, honor and courage may be all you have. The stories begin with Katniss volunteering to stand in when her little sister is called to participate in the televised games, the "hunger games." She learns about love, too. A romantic triangle among Katniss and her noble suitors, Peeta and Gale, has divided readers into "Twilight"-like camps.
Collins' sources run much deeper than television. She cites the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which seven boys and seven girls are sacrificed to keep Athens safe. She was also inspired by "Spartacus," the epic film starring Kirk Douglas as the rebellious Roman slave, and by the classical biographer Plutarch. The stories are set in a country called Panem – in honor of the old Roman expression for mindless diversion, panem et circenses, meaning bread and circuses, or bread and games.
"I have been following her for a long time. She is one of the authors who got my older son reading, so I owe her a personal debt on those grounds," says Rick Riordon, author of the million-selling "Percy Jackson" series and the upcoming "Heroes of Olympus" series, which also draw upon ancient Greek culture.
"I think she does a wonderful job of mixing good action, with strong characters, with a dash of humor and really providing readers everything they need to have a page-turning experience. She's just a masterful writer."
Collins was interviewed recently at the offices of Scholastic Inc., her long, blond hair parted in the middle, wearing a pendant with the "Hunger Games" icon, a golden winged hybrid – a mockingjay – clutching an arrow in its beak. She has a careful, deliberate speaking style and a passion for explaining and clarifying subjects. She is a storyteller who wants her books not just to entertain, but to provoke. The young are her ideal readers.
"I think right now there's a distinct uneasiness in the country that the kids feel," Collins says, citing the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Dystopian stories are places where you can play out the scenarios in your head – your anxieties – and see what might come of them. And, hopefully, as a young person, with the possibilities of the future waiting for you, you're thinking about how to head these things off."
The daughter of a career Air Force officer, Collins lived all over the world as a child, from New York City to Brussels, and was reading Greek myths at an early age. Her father served in Vietnam and later taught history, not just to college students, but to his own family.
"I believe he felt a great responsibility and urgency about educating his children about war," she says. "He would take us frequently to places like battlefields and war monuments. It would start back with whatever had precipitated the war and moved up through the battlefield you were standing in and through that and after that. It was a very comprehensive tour guide experience. So throughout our lives we basically heard about war."
Collins graduated from Indiana University with a double major in theater and telecommunications, and received a master's in dramatic writing from New York University. She worked on several children's programs, including "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Little Bear." Her work was noticed by "Generation O!" creator James Proimos, who hired her as head writer. They became good friends, and he suggested she try writing books.
"She seemed like a book writer to me; it was sort of her personality. She also had the style and the mind of a novelist," says Proimos, who has written and illustrated several children's books. "I was telling her that you can't do TV forever; it's a young person's business. With books, at the very worst, you start out slow, but you can do them for the rest of your life."
Collins began working on what became her first series, the five-part "Underland Chronicles." She liked the idea of taking the "Alice in Wonderland" story and giving it an urban setting, where you fell through a manhole instead of a rabbit hole. At Proimos' suggestion, Collins contacted his agent, Rosemary B. Stimola of the Stimola Literary Studio. After hearing a little about the author's planned book, Stimola suggested she turn in a sample chapter.
"Quite honestly, I knew from the very first paragraph I had a very gifted writer," says Stimola, who still represents Collins. "It happens like that sometimes. Not often, but when it does it's a thing of beauty. From the very first paragraph she established a character I cared about. She established a story and a mood that touched my heart."
Collins sees her books as variations of war stories. The "Underland" series, she explains, tells five different aspects of conflict – the rescue of a prisoner of war, an assassination, biological weapons, genocide and the use of military intelligence. "The Hunger Games" series is an exploration of "unnecessary" war and "necessary" war, when armed rebellion is the only choice.
"If we introduce kids to these ideas earlier, we could get a dialogue about war going earlier and possibly it would lead to more solutions," she says. "I just feel it isn't discussed, not the way it should be. I think that's because it's uncomfortable for people. It's not pleasant to talk about. I know from my experience that we are quite capable of understanding things and processing them at an early age."