Lauren Oliver, author of upcoming release Panic, discusses what it’s like to write realistic fiction after the dystopian fantasy Delirium trilogy.
Panic, about a small town in upstate New York and a game invented there by graduating seniors, is my seventh published book, and the first that is strictly realistic—i.e., it contains no elements of science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural influence. I think people assume that writing realistic fiction might be easier than its more speculative counterparts—or at least require less imaginative work.
In my experience, this hasn’t been the case—partly, or maybe primarily, because for me the divisions between the categories aren’t very clear. For example, although on a superficial level Panic seems like a vast departure from my Delirium series—a dystopian/scifi trilogy in which love has been both identified as a disease, and cured—on a fundamental level, they address many of the same questions and explore similar themes.
Actually, the world of Delirium in some ways makes literal the fears that are latent in Carp, New York, where Panic takes place: Whereas Heather, the protagonist of Carp, feels trapped in her life, Lena, the protagonist of Delirium, actually is trapped, enclosed by physical walls that encircle her hometown. Heather is afraid of vulnerability, of letting herself care, of being loved; Lena is literally afraid of connection, because she sees it as the start of a vicious and disabling disorder.
And though writing Delirium required me to imagine a whole other universe of social, political, and religious beliefs, in some ways Panic necessitated a similar act of imagination. I didn’t grow up in a town like Carp; I didn’t have a mother like Heather’s, or feel responsible for righting an unimaginable wrong, the way that the secondary narrator, Dodge, does. In many ways, I instinctively relate more to Lena, who is afraid of her feelings, afraid of being hurt, afraid of making a choice that will drive her inexorably down the wrong path.
All this complicates the question about realistic versus speculative fiction, and what each definition means, and which is easier for an author to write. What feels real, for both an author and reader, is not the same as what is real—or even possible. (Thus my favorite Mark Twain quote: “The only difference between fiction and reality is that fiction needs to be credible.”) The deeply realistic Panic was actually inspired by “The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn About the Shivers,” a Grimm’s fairy tale about fear and a boy too “simple” to experience it; Delirium was inspired by a news segment about swine flu.
Categories are helpful for many, many reasons (among other things, so we can find more of what we like). But they’re limiting, too, and even misleading, especially when it comes to describing the experience of writing (or, for that matter, reading). What makes a book realistic is the way it seems to reflect concerns and behaviors that feel familiar and authentic—and this can happen on a spaceship set on Mars just as easily as it can in a public school in upstate New York. And what feels like fantasy in magical realism is what transforms everyday experience into something more, something better or simply more urgent. And in that way, Panic is actually a fantasy about escape, about how far a group of desperate people might be willing to go in order to change everything.