Interview: Lauren Oliver
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Lauren Oliver's debut novel, Before I Fall, impressed me greatly. It incorporated many of my favorite storytelling elements, most prominently a time loop. Despite that sci-fi element, the book and its protagonist feel decidedly realistic, layered and deep.
But I'll save the rest of the praise for the actual book review. Here with me today is the author of Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver, who was kind enough to answer my questions between trips on her whirlwind signing tour.
How long did it take you to write Before I Fall?
The longest part of the process was actually the outlining phase. I had never worked from an outline before, but given what a continuity nightmare I knew the book would be -- certain things must occur at certain times, etc -- I knew I would be totally lost if I didn't plot the book comprehensively before I dug in and began to write. The outline took 3-4 months; the writing actually only took another six months or so.
I'm greatly impressed that you wrote a book that's nearly 500 pages in length in less than a year. Kudos! How much of the first draft is included in the final version, and how much was deleted or added during the revision process?
I was very lucky with Before I Fall. Due in part to the intensity of the outlining process, my first draft was really pretty solid, and I had very few edits to do. I’m sure that this is the first and last book I will ever write that does not get substantially edited, though -- call it Beginner's Luck!
Did you write the book in chronological order, or did you write certain scenes or events, then go back and fill in the blanks?
Well, I actually wrote the prologue and epilogue first. They mirror each other, but with significant differences; the Sam who starts the book is a very different girl than the one who finishes it. The rest of the book I wrote linearly, trying to bridge those two chapters.
I love the parallels between those two parts of the story. They make perfect bookends. When first creating and outlining the book, did you know from the get-go that Sam would repeat the day seven times?
I didn't know. I was kind of just trying to track the shape of Sam's character evolution and juggle all of the various plot elements, get them into some kind of cohesive shape, and I found that it took seven "chapters," or days. Afterwards, I was quite pleased with the number, though. Sam's story unfolds nice and neatly over the course of a week, and of course there are religious connotations to the idea of seven days.
When you were in high school, did you in any way resemble Sam, Lindsay, Ally, Elody, or Juliet?
I think in some ways I resemble, or resembled, all of my characters at some point; I think it's difficult to write well-rounded characters unless you can connect with them personally, give them your own fears and anxieties and insecurities. That said, I probably was the most like Sam when I was her age. In high school I was very confused about issues of connection and meaning, sex and relationships, and I was very disconnected from myself without really knowing it. But, like Lindsay, I also concealed fears and insecurities behind a façade of brazenness and wildness. So I guess I was some combination of the two of them.
Do you feel as though you've changed significantly since high school?
I do think I have changed since high school, yes. I think I'm a lot nicer, for one, and I think I have a fuller understanding of what makes life meaningful. I'm a lot more confident, and I require less attention. I was kind of a crisis in high school, to be honest!
If you could relive a day in your life, would you? No need to tell me what day, or even select one specifically - just would you want to relive a day? What if you weren't allowed to make any changes, only permitted to go through the motions, doing exactly what you did before, and make mental observations?
Yes, of course. I mean, I would prefer to be able to live my life continuously, through time and space, and grow old and have new days and stuff like that, but I'm very happy to say that there are many days in my life I could quite happily relive forever and ever, without ever desiring adjustments or change. The normal days, I think, are the best ones -- days of sunshine and friends and family, just enough laughter, just enough quiet time.
Were you in any way inspired by other stories (be they books, films, plays, or episodic television) that had time loops? Even Emily's day in Our Town...
It's funny; I've actually never read Our Town but now I'm dying to, as a few people have suggested my book may have been influenced by it. And of course, everyone always compares my book to Groundhog Day. Weirdly, though, that really isn't what I was thinking about when I started generated the idea for BIF. I was primarily preoccupied with the idea of karma and redemption, and revisiting past actions. If anything influenced Before I Fall, it was probably the TV show My Name Is Earl.
When and how did the book get its title?
The title was originally If I Should Fall, a reference to a Catholic bed-time prayer (If I should die before I wake...) For various reasons my publishers wanted to change the title, but I'm so bad at generating titles it literally took me 500 titles to swap out "Before" for "If I." Actually, I wasn’t even the one who thought of the solution; my editor did. Titling is definitely not my strong suit!
You went on tour through North America, and are now heading off to Europe. Had you traveled extensively before? Where would you love to visit that you haven't yet?
Yeah, I absolutely love to travel. It's so important to get an expanded and broadened sense of the world, its possibilities and its people. I was very lucky to live in Paris with my parents when I was little; I subsequently spent my third year in college there. I've traveled a bunch around Western Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, England) and I've been to Prague and Budapest, but there are dozens and dozens of places I'm dying to go: Vietnam, Japan, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Australia. I could go on and on. If it were up to me, I would spend 50% of my time traveling!
In all these different states and countries, what commonalities do you find in bookstores, and in readers?
Oh, well, you know, I've primarily been to Western cities/countries, where cultural differences in general are not so pronounced. I've found that readers (and people in general) are kind of the same everywhere, although it is interesting to see how different societies respond to different visual imagery and packaging (thus why foreign editions of books get different covers). In England, for example, the Sarah Dessen covers look radically different from their American counterparts; for years, in the UK it was thought that books with photographic covers looked "cheap," while it was the opposite here. So that's kind of interesting.
Do you consider yourself primarily a novelist, or do you enjoy other forms of writing?
I definitely consider myself a novelist, for sure. About once a year I tackle a poem or short story that, thankfully for everybody concerned, will never see the light of day.
Do you have a day job, or do you write full-time? Are you working on another novel?
I'm amazingly blessed to work full-time as a writer, yes, and I have a bunch of new projects I'm looking forward to: my next YA book, called DELIRIUM, will publish in early 2011. It's a riff on a Romeo-and-Juliet story and it's dystopian; it takes place in a society in which love has been diagnosed as a contagious and very deadly virus. In Fall 2011 my first middle-grade will be published (it is tentatively titled THE STORY OF LIESL AND PO), and I'm currently working on follow-ups to both books. So lots of irons in the fire!
Good luck with all of your works-in-progress! What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Matilda, by Roald Dahl; His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman; The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo; Coraline, by Neil Gaiman; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James; One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie; The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Murial Barbery; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.
Visit Lauren Oliver's website and blog.