It’s probably not the first time someone has compared high-school life to a dystopian hell.
But it’s a theory that bestselling Young Adult novelists Veronica Roth and Tahereh Mafi both put forward when asked what it is about the nightmarish worlds they have created in their very popular speculative fiction trilogies — Divergent and Shatter Me, respectively — that is so appealing to teen readers.
“If you remember high school at all, for most people it’s straight up like the Hunger Games,” says Roth with a laugh, in an interview from her publisher’s offices in Toronto on a tour stop with Mafi. “Everybody is fighting for survival.”
The Divergent Series, set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago where citizens are divided into factions based on personality types, certainly seems not too far removed from surviving cliques in high school. Mafi’s Shatter Me — which was followed by Unravel Me in 2013 and Ignite Me earlier this year — also involves an imprisoned youth whose peculiarities make it difficult for her to fit in. Granted, the stakes are considerably higher and action-packed for characters trying to fit into a dystopian world. But the sense feeling alienated and finding yourself in a controlled environment is universal, Mafi says.
“Teenagers really feel, in a very metaphorical way, that they are living in a dystopian society,” says the author, picking up the thread later in the interview. “It’s just so hard as a young person. You have no agency whatsoever, no independence. You are bound by the walls of your home. If you try to leave the police will deliver you back to your parents until you are of a certain age. You have to live by those rules. You have no means, even, of getting a job and earning your own money for a certain period of time. I think that’s such an interesting parallel. Yet, at the same time, all of these YA novels are about fighting through that, breaking through, finding your own voice and becoming who you are and forging forward in your life. And I think, basically, that’s the arc of every young person.”
Which is not to say that Mafi gave these things much thought when she wrote Shatter Me. It was the first of her violent trilogy about a damaged young narrator named Juliette, who possesses a lethal touch and begins the tale in an futuristic asylum after killing a child. While Shatter Me certainly appears to fit nicely into a popular trend of Young Adult fiction — led by Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series — Mafi says she had no idea she was writing a dystopian novel until she was finished.
Similarly, Roth says it would have been “the height of delusion” to be thinking too hard about demographics and audience when writing her debut in her “parents house in my pyjamas.”
Still, pairing Roth and Mafi together for a book tour, which swings into Calgary for WordFest Thursday, seems like a no brainer given the surface similarities of their work. While WordFest is promoting Thursday’s event as an “in conversation” between the two authors, both say they haven’t planned what it is they will be discussing. Of course, there are lots of options.
Mafi is promoting Ignite Me, the third and final instalment of her trilogy. Roth is promoting Four: A Divergent Collection, a spinoff series of stories from the same dystopian world but told from the point of view of Tobias (Four). For the uninitiated, he is the love interest of Beatrice (Tris) Prior, the strong-willed heroine of the trilogy. Both authors are 26. Both have created strong female protagonists enlisted by, and then forced to fight, a totalitarian government. Both authors found massive success with their first books. And while Roth is farther along this path than Mafi, both have been courted by Hollywood. A hit film based on Roth’s Divergent was released last year starring Shailene Woodley and two sequels have already been planned. Mafi’s trilogy has been optioned by 20th Century Fox.