It doesn't sound like the plot of a children' book: 24 kids in the ruins of North America who are forced by the government to kill each other in a "Survivor"-like contest. But Scholastic is printing 200,000 copies of Suzanne Collins' brand-new "The Hunger Games," for ages 12 and up. It's a can't-put-it-down story by the author of the "Underland Chronicles" (for ages 9 to 12). In that popular, critically acclaimed series, a boy, Gregor, falls through a grate in his New York City apartment laundry room floor into the Underland, where humans and giant rats coexist (not well). NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talks with Suzanne Collins, 46, about how her 18 years of writing for kids' TV shows was good preparation for penning best-selling novels. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How did you get the idea for your books?
Suzanne Collins: Both the "Gregor" series and "The Hunger Games" are what I call lightning-bolt ideas. There was a moment where the idea came to me. With "The Hunger Games," the lightning bolt sort of hit at a moment when I was channel surfing between reality TV and the coverage of the Iraq war.
Didn't some classical tales play a role, too?
If I have to pick one story that most influenced "The Hunger Games," it would be the Greek myth of Theseus, which I read when I was about 8-years-old. In punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to a labyrinth. In the maze was this Minotaur, and it would eat them. Minos, the King of Crete, was furious with the Athenians. They had taken the wrong side in a war, and he held them responsible for the death of his son. In punishment, they were going to have to send their children. Apparently there was nothing the Athenian parents could do about it. And then Theseus comes along. He's the prince of Athens. He volunteers to go and kill the Minotaur, and that's when it stops. In her own way, Katmiss (the young heroine of "The Hunger Games") is Theseus in terms of the opening of the story.
How did your career as a kids' TV writer help with your novels?
The first show I did was in 1991. It was a live-action show called "Hi Honey, I'm Home!" Since then, I've written on six or seven shows. [Others include "The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo," "Clarissa Explains It All," "Generation O," "Little Bear," "Oswald" and "Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!") I just finished up a last "Wubbzy!" episode a couple months ago. I did it simultaneously with "The Hunger Games." It was an excellent mental break because "The Hunger Games" is so dark. "Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!" is just delightful, and no one dies in it, and it was almost good therapy.
Did you learn good storytelling from kids' TV?
I started as a playwright. Any sort of scriptwriting you do helps you hone your story. You have the same demands of creating a plot, developing relatable characters and keeping your audience invested in your story. My books are basically structured like three-act plays. I'm very conscious of pacing because you get very little downtime in television. You have to be moving the story forward and developing the characters at the same time. Another television thing I use is I tend to end my chapters on some sort of cliffhanger, which can involve physical peril, or the moment a character has a revelation. That seems like the natural place to break because we do that in television so the viewers will come back after the commercials.
"The Hunger Games" is going to be a trilogy. Why do you like series?
"Gregor" is even five parts. Having written for television, the idea that you spend all this time creating this world, developing these characters, and then you're only going to use them for one story?! In television, we do 65 [episodes]. That's the magic number because at 65, you can syndicate. The stories in "Gregor" and "The Hunger Games" are larger. They require a series format. If I had written "Gregor" as one book, it would have been over 1,700 pages for a 9- to 12-year-old audience. That would have been daunting.
Do your kids give you input on your books?
They don't. [She has a 14-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter.]
What about your own favorite books?
There are so many. One was "A Wrinkle in Time." Another book that I just think is amazing, and this is less well known, is "Boris" by Jaap ter Haar, a Dutch writer. It's about a 12-year-old boy who's living through the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The people are being simultaneously starved out and bombed. We talked about my great love of Greek mythology books. I was attracted to the myths because the people and the gods experience such a wide range of human emotions in this magical world. Really terrible things happen. A king cooks up his son into a stew. A sorceress turns every guy who lands on her island into a pig. There are great loves and great acts of courage. The world is a very unstable place, but the characters get along as best they can, and sometimes they manage remarkable things.
How do you write?
I work on a laptop in a La-Z-Boy sort of chair. I get up, I grab some cereal, and I sit down to work as soon as possible. If I get in a solid three to five hours of writing, that's a fantastic day. I usually have worked out an overall structure of the story, but it's got a lot of blank spaces. In television, we had to outline in such detail. When you had written the outline, you felt you had almost written the script. I know the overall arc of the story, I know the main plot points. Within that, I then leave space for the relationships between the characters to develop.
Did you have other careers, too?
When I got out of undergrad, I had a degree in theater and telecommunications. My first job, I was a news reporter for the local stories for NPR. Then I was a country-western DJ. I did data entry for a yearbook company. In my mid-20s I went back to grad school at NYU, and I specialized in playwriting. I worked in development for a film producer for a year and a half or so, and then I got my first television-writing job, "Hi Honey, I'm Home!"
How did you get interested in these topics? You've described Gregory as a war story and "The Hunger Games" as a gladiator story.
I'm a military brat. My father was career Air Force. When I was 6, he was gone for a year because he was fighting in Vietnam. When he came back, it was important to him that we all knew about war. Before he went to Vietnam, he taught at West Point. We spent a lot of vacations visiting battlefields. You had to understand how [the war] played out and what the consequences were. It was extremely important to him that we understood history and the history of war. He died in 2003, two weeks before the [Iraq] war began. He was strongly opposed to it.
So are your books a warning to kids?
I'd like to take topics like war and introduce them at an earlier age. If you look at "Gregor," it has all kinds of topics. There's biological warfare, there's genocide, there's military intelligence. But it's in a fantasy. It's played out with a combination of humans and rats and bats. But those topics are there. With "The Hunger Games," there's not only violence but the violence is all human on human, plus it's kids on kids. I want kids to be aware of these topics, to think about them, and really, the sooner the better.