Few if any literary genres have garnered as much attention as teen literature lately. Not only are the books selling in record numbers but celebrities are wanting in on the trend as well. Tyra Banks just locked down a three -book deal with Random House, Hillary Duff the same with Simon and Schuster. And if you think these books are about perky, pretty girls, think again. Even the model queen is writing a dystopian trilogy. Vampires? Maybe not. Girls dealing with death and love? Definitely.
Last week I sat down with Lauren Oliver, New York Times bestselling author of Before I Fall, to discuss the young adult book world and to get her take on the popularity of YA literature and this fascination with dystopian worlds, and darkness.
I've met her before, so I know what she looks like, but even without the introductions Lauren Oliver is impossible to miss. She's formidably beautiful --- Jet-black hair, white-translucent skin and four- inch stilettos. She has a date later, she informs me in hushed, girlish whispers. Hence the heels.
We settle into a restaurant in Prospect Heights and I take out my notebook, trying not to fangirl out on her. In the interest of full disclosure: I've been wanting to have dinner with Ms. Oliver for awhile. She's the kind of author that has real wisdom to impart. Amazing writer, yes, but also a smart and savvy businesswoman. And all at the age of 27.
We set our matching black leather bags on the floor, order some food, and get started.
It seems that teens are obsessed with death these days. Do you think the trend is indicative of the age we live in? Why this tendency towards darkness in YA?
You know, all art has to respond to zeitgeist so in a way, yes, I think the trend towards darkness is very much indicative of this age. There was a real shift in the middle of this decade. Tremendous upheaval. And people have internalized a sense that we are at a critical moment. The great thing about teen literature is that it can take these themes, these big, dark themes, and not only reveal but also subvert and conquer them. Teen literature might be about darkness, but it's also about vanquishing darkness.
The other thing is that the teen years can be a very dark time. Self- images are formed in high school, but teens often have no perspective and no power. You really see yourself how others see you and that can be very dangerous. More teen depression culminates in suicide than at any other period in life. It's hard to see a broader context, or a way out.
That's a big theme of Before I Fall, realizing the broader context.
Exactly. I think part of what people really respond to about the book is that it is above all, a book about connection. Connection is powerful. It is the thing that can allow you to see the greater context of your life and in the teen years that is so important. I was a troubled teen and I was constantly looking for someone to throw me a rope. Those ropes are connections. They allow us to see that life exists beyond the little worlds we are currently a part of. And that we are far bigger than the roles we have perhaps been pigeon-holed into playing.
Connection has also been the thing that's been so healing for me in writing Before I Fall. I've gotten so many amazing letters from teens saying how the book has helped them understand themselves and their worlds better. The letters are incredibly moving and I've made a lot of new friends.
Anyone in particular?
I have a friend Briana. She's fifteen years old and home-schooled. She's brilliant and really into books, which of course means she's not understood in her small town. The other day I sent her an email telling her I hope she considers me a kind of big sister, being that I'm, you know, older, and wiser. She responded by saying she hopes I consider her a friend, too, and then she went on to say that the guy I was seeing clearly didn't deserve me. She was right!
I've read that the best piece of writing advice you ever got was: aim for truth and beauty will follow. Do you always write with a specific truth or moral in mind?
I think all artists are only interested in a couple of themes, really. I'm primarily interested in change and connection as being this restorative force. I write about them because that's what I think about in my own life. They are topics I try to address in myself and they're always present in my head---on the subway, at parties. Always. So I think my books naturally deal with those themes, simply because I struggle with them.
I also realized the other day that all of my books seem to have at least one character who believes they are truly damaged, unlovable, and over the course of the book they come to realize they aren't. Sam really recovers herself in Before I Fall. She's completely passive in the beginning. She doesn't understand that she has a role in shaping life outside herself. She doesn't understand connection. She learns agency, I think. She learns that we all have the ability to affect our own reality.
Would you say YA themes are different than adult themes or humanity is humanity?
Humanity is humanity but the way the themes are treated is different. What YA really provides is hope at the end. It's explorative, but it's also redemptive.
There are so many adults who loved Before I Fall. Why do you think there is so much crossover in YA today?
There is a lot of emphasis in teen literature on narrative structure. A lot of these books just tell really good stories and adults are compelled by plot just as much as teens. The caliber of writing is also changing. YA is a fairly new genre and as it develops, the books just get better and better.
Another thing is that a lot of parents read these books to connect with their children, I think. I had a teen tell me she read the prologue and the epilogue of Before I Fall with her mother and it really helped them understand each other. These books are a window into the teen world and it's something for families to be excited about together. It's really a shared experience. I think that's one of the things that's so amazing about children's literature in general. It takes this experience of deep solitude (reading) and makes it something to share and pass along.
If I had to wager a guess I would say that Lauren Oliver's books will be shared and passed along for many years to come. As we finish up dinner the conversation begins to drift. Oliver talks about her travel plans for the winter holidays---Hawaii with her family. "Part of me is scared that I might just decide to live there," she says, leaning back in her chair wistfully. "Forget the city, I'm just going to move to the beach." And then, snapping back to attention, she adds, "but not really."
One thing is clear: Lauren Oliver is here to stay.