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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Suzanne Collins on writing

Suzanne Collins is one busy author. Too busy in fact for interviews.

I’m very interested in what the woman behind the bestselling YA trilogy, The Hunger Games, has to say about writing for teens. Thankfully, the Scholastic website has plenty of material available.

To call The Hunger Games a publishing success would be an understatement. The first in the series was named one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books of the Year” in 2008, The New York Times “Notable Children’s Book of 2008″, School Library Journal’s “Best Books 2008″ and a “Booklist Editors’ Choice” in 2008. It won the 2009 Golden Duck Award in the Young Adult Fiction Category. Even horror writer Stephen King is a fan. He gave the trilogy a rave review in Entertainment Weekly.

Looks like a feature film is on the way too.

Here’s some Q&A with the author from the Scholastic site.

What influenced the creation of The Hunger Games?

A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.

Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: “Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.” And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.

The trilogy’s premise is very brutal, yet is handled so tastefully. Was this a difficult balance to achieve?

Yes, the death scenes are always hard to write. It’s difficult to put kids in violent situations—Gregor (the protagonist in The Underland Chronicles) is in a war, Katniss is in a gladiator game. Characters will die. It’s not fun to write, but I think if you can’t commit to really doing the idea, it’s probably better to work on another type of story.

Given that, you have to remember who you’re trying to reach with the book. I try and think of how I would tell a particularly difficult event to my own children. Exactly what details they need to know to really understand it, and what would be gratuitous.

The Hunger Games tackles issues like severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war among others. What drew you to such serious subject matter?

That was probably my dad’s influence. He was career Air Force, a military specialist, a historian, and a doctor of political science. When I was a kid, he was gone for a year in Vietnam. It was very important to him that we understood about certain aspects of life. So, it wasn’t enough to visit a battlefield, we needed to know why the battle occurred, how it played out, and the consequences. Fortunately, he had a gift for presenting history as a fascinating story. He also seemed to have a good sense of exactly how much a child could handle, which is quite a bit.

Why did you decide to write for a teen audience and how was the experience different?

I think the nature of the story dictated the age of the audience from the beginning. Both The Underland Chronicles and The Hunger Games have a lot of violence. But in The Underland Chronicles, even though human characters die, a lot of the conflict takes place between different fantastical species. Giant rats and bats and things. You can skew a little younger that way. Whereas in The Hunger Games, there’s no fantasy element, it’s futuristic sci-fi and the violence is not only human on human, it’s kid on kid. And I think that automatically moves you into an older age range.

I find there isn’t a great deal of difference technically in how you approach a story, no matter what age it’s for. I started out as a playwright for adult audiences. When television work came along, it was primarily for children. But whatever age you’re writing for, the same rules of plot, character, and theme apply. You just set up a world and try to remain true to it. If it’s filled with cuddly animated animals, chances are no one’s

Do you have every book completely mapped out, or do you have a general idea and then take it from there? Did you run into things that were unexpected plot-wise or character-wise?

I’ve learned it helps me to work out the key structural points before I begin a story. The inciting incident, acts, breaks, mid-story reversal, crisis, climax, those sorts of things. I’ll know a lot of what fills the spaces between them as well, but I leave some uncharted room for the characters to develop. And if a door opens along the way, and I’m intrigued by where it leads, I’ll definitely go through it.

How do you typically spend your workday? Do you have a routine as you write?

I grab some cereal and sit down to work as soon as possible. The more distractions I have to deal with before I actually begin writing, the harder focusing on the story becomes. Then I work until I’m tapped out, usually sometime in the early afternoon. If I actually write three to five hours, that’s a productive day. Some days all I do is stare at the wall. That can be productive, too, if you’re working out character and plot problems. The rest of the time, I walk around with the story slipping in and out of my thoughts.

Here’s a video of Suzanne explaining the most difficult part of writing the series.

 

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