15.11.10 | Alice O'Keeffe
Inspiration may strike writers in the most unlikely places; the idea for her second young adult (YA) novel came to Lauren Oliver while she was at her gym in New York, watching the local news—“during one of the panics, bird flu or swine flu, I forget which . . . I kept thinking it's so weird how people go into a panic about these diseases, you could just pick anything and people would believe it was a disease." While running on the treadmill, “in one hemisphere of my brain Gabriel García Márquez [she had recently read one of his essays on great books being about death or love] and love, love, love was bouncing around and disease, disease, disease was bouncing around in the other hemisphere and at some point they just collided." She got off the treadmill and started working on Delirium (Hodder, February) that very day.
Delirium is set in a dystopian America where love has been declared a disease, and teenagers are forcibly “cured" of the ability to love (amor deliria nervosa) around their 18th birthday resulting in a docile, conformist populace at the mercy of a powerful government; failure to be “cured" means exile. Narrator Lena Haloway lives in Portland, Maine, with her aunt after her mother's suicide, and she's looking forward to her curing procedure until she meets a boy, and suddenly her entire world view is turned upside down.
Delirium follows Oliver's successful and widely reviewed début Before I Fall, the “Groundhog Day"-esque story of a single day in the life of a high-school teenager, who dies one night in a car crash but the next morning wakes up in bed to relive the same day all over again. Each new day she tries everything to alter the outcome.
The settings may be very different but both Before I Fall and Delirium share an utterly convincing teenage protagonist struggling to find her place in the world. Oliver says she has a good recall of her own teenage years: “It's both this time where you're supposed to find all this independence and this time where you have no real power and are often at the mercy of various other people. I think it's a really difficult, volatile time and also one that's critical.
“One of the most liberating and terrifying things about [writing] Delirium is that it does take place in such a different society so it really did require me to depend much more on my imagination. That said I definitely think that books, in order to feel real, you have to pull as much as possible from your experience in your real life. That was one of the reasons I didn't want to make it [Delirium] too futuristic because I wanted it to feel very real."
“I love exploring characters who change. Although both my books have strong concepts I really do think of myself as a character-driven novelist because, in both cases, built into the very structure and the concept of the book is a way of exploring a character's complete transformation." Delirium, while enjoyable as a standalone, is the first in a trilogy. Oliver has already finished the sequel, to be called Pandemonium following a title competition which ran on her blog and will start writing the final novel, Requiem, next year.
Oliver has been writing all her life, charmingly, as a child she would write sequels to books she loved as she couldn't bear to leave the characters behind. She sent out her first adult novel in 2004 after graduating from college, but it failed to find a publisher. She wrote another novel for adults while undertaking a postgraduate creative writing course at NYU “this incredibly messy monster of a book with no real plot or direction" and she jokes that her computer holds “the ghosts of novels failed and uncompleted". But despite having always been focused on adult fiction—“I don't think I even knew what YA fiction really was"—starting work as an editorial assistant at Penguin (US) in the YA department meant she started reading in the area. It was here she says, rather than at NYU, that she really learnt about the importance of “the story as a critical part of the book.
“I think that the difference between adult and YA fiction is primarily in terms of the redemptive element . . . many adult books are unrepentingly bleak at the end and in YA fiction you have to at least give some sense of hope, even if it's not a traditionally happy ending."