Suzanne Collins has had a successful and prolific career writing for children's television. She has worked on the staffs of several Nickelodeon shows, including the Emmy-nominated hit "Clarissa Explains It All" and "The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo." Collins, who was named among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2010, made her mark in children's literature with the New York Times best-selling five-book series for middle-grade readers "The Underland Chronicles," which has received numerous accolades in both the United States and abroad. In the award-winning "The Hunger Games" trilogy, Collins continues to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age. The final book in the trilogy, "Mockingjay" (Scholastic), was published in August and debuted at No. 1 on the USA Today best-seller list during its first week on sale and simultaneously appeared at No. 1 on the New York Times list. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves, "This concluding volume in Collins's ‘Hunger Games' trilogy accomplishes a rare feat, the last installment being the best yet, a beautifully orchestrated and intelligent novel that succeeds on every level." Collins lives in Connecticut.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
You have said from the start that The Hunger Games story was intended as a trilogy. Did it actually end the way you planned it from the beginning?
Very much so. While I didn’t know every detail, of course, the arc of the story from gladiator game, to revolution, to war, to the eventual outcome remained constant throughout the writing process.
We understand you worked on the initial screenplay for a film to be based on The Hunger Games. What is the biggest difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay?
There were several significant differences. Time, for starters. When you’re adapting a novel into a two-hour movie you can’t take everything with you. The story has to be condensed to fit the new form. Then there’s the question of how best to take a book told in the first person and present tense and transform it into a satisfying dramatic experience. In the novel, you never leave Katniss for a second and are privy to all of her thoughts so you need a way to dramatize her inner world and to make it possible for other characters to exist outside of her company. Finally, there’s the challenge of how to present the violence while still maintaining a PG-13 rating so that your core audience can view it. A lot of things are acceptable on a page that wouldn’t be on a screen. But how certain moments are depicted will ultimately be in the director’s hands.
You weave action, adventure, mythology, sci-fi, romance, and philosophy throughout The Hunger Games. 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.
In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment. The world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references. Panem itself comes from the expression “Panem et Circenses” which translates into “Bread and Circuses.”
The audiences for both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination.
I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.
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 Viet Nam. 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.
What do you hope readers will come away with when they read The Hunger Games?
Questions about how elements of the book might be relevant in their own lives. And, if they’re disturbing, what they might do about them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Gale have an extensive knowledge of hunting, foraging, wildlife, and survival techniques.
What kinds of research did you do, if any?
Some things I knew from listening to my dad talking about his childhood. He grew up during the Depression. For his family, hunting was not a sport but a way to put meat on the table. He also knew a certain amount about edible plants. He’d go into the woods and gather all these wild mushrooms and bring them home and sauté them. My mom wouldn’t let any of us go near them! But he’d eat them up and they never harmed him, so I guess he knew which ones were safe, because wild mushrooms can be very deadly.
I also read a big stack of wilderness survival guidebooks. And here’s what I learned: you’ve got to be really good to survive out there for more than a few days.
You have written for television, for young children and for middle-grade readers (the New York Times bestselling series The Underland Chronicles). Why did you decide to write for an older 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 going to die. If it’s filled with giant flesh-and-blood rats with a grudge, there’s going to be violence.
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.
What were some of your favorite novels when you were a teen?
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
- Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
- _Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- Boris by Jaapter Haar
- Germinal by Emile Zola
- Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Do you have a website where readers can learn more about you and your books?