Love-free Portland imagined in popular dystopian trilogy

Posted April 20, 2012, at 4:51 p.m.

Sometimes it can feel like love is a disease, an illness that causes loss of concentration, sleep and appetite. But what if it really were diagnosed and treated as an illness, a plague to be eradicated? What would the world look like without love?

Novelist Lauren Oliver explores this fictional place, a world at war with love, in her latest young adult story, the dystopian trilogy “Delirium.”

The story begins with a 17-year-old girl, Lena, in the small city of Portland, Maine. And while the cobblestones of the Old Port and the beach of Back Cove remain, many things have changed in this futuristic city. Walls line the borders and government labs crowd the wharves.

“You have to consider all of the things that would change if something as fundamental as our orientation with love would change,” said Oliver from her home in New York during a recent phone interview. “Everything from the cultural representations we have, our music, and linguistically — it’s very hard to stay away from saying ‘love’ and ‘hate.’ You realize how often you use them in conversation … You have to conceive a parallel world.”

The first novel, “Delirium,” came out in 2011 and is now sold in 30 countries, along with the sequel, “Pandemonium,” published in February 2012. The final book, “Requiem,” will be released in early 2013, Oliver said.

“I’m thrilled that my books have found such a readership really all across the world, It really amazes me. That’s what really drives it home,” said Oliver, still recovering from jetlag after her book tour in Australia and the Philippines.

Her first book, “Before I Fall,” published in 2010, became a New York Times best-seller.

“For the most part, I have to say I try not to focus on the success part of it,” she said. “I try to really focus on new projects and keeping my head down and writing because I think it’s really important. You can start to feel a tremendous amount of pressure. I have to remember I’m just a writer in my pajamas.”

Though her stories have rapidly gained popularity, the road to success wasn’t really that short. Oliver, 29, has been writing every day since she was 7 years old, growing up in a small town in Westchester, New York. Her first novel, which she wrote in college, was rejected by publishers, but since then she has learned some valuable lessons about plot, chiefly while editing young adult books for Penguin Group.

Portland entered her life during the summer of 2009, when she stayed in the city for a month while visiting her childhood best friend, Elizabeth Miles, author of the 2011 young adult novel “Fury.” Memories from this visit — enjoying fireworks on Eastern Promenade and watching fishermen at work in the harbor — enter her writing.

“I loved it, and it appealed to me as a place where Lena would live,” Oliver said. “I liked that it’s bordered by water, creating a tension between enclosure and open space, which really parallels the sort of place Lena is in.”

In writing about future Maine, Oliver spread maps over her dining room table and imagined how each scene might unfold, from Lena’s jogging route to secret meetings in Deering Highlands. Oliver doesn’t aim for absolute accuracy (this is fiction, after all), but she does use Portland’s current layout as playground for her imagination.

In an essay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Oliver read, “All good books are about love or death.” Oliver’s first novel, “Before I Fall,” is about a teen reliving the day of her death over and over, trying to unravel the mystery. So when it came to Oliver’s next project, the “Delirium” trilogy, it was love’s turn.

The idea began to form while Oliver was working up a sweat at the gym. She was thinking about the panic induced by mad cow disease, swine flu and bird flu, how fear can shake a community, when she imagined how easily love could be seen as a worldwide epidemic.

Of course, when people are confronted by a disease, they rush to find a cure, and when it comes to love — or as Oliver calls it, “Deliria” — people responded no differently.

“The Cure” to Deliria is brain surgery, an invasive and painful procedure that people are obligated to undergo upon turning 18 years of age. Not only is it the law, it’s a societal expectation.

The “Cured” are void of passion — ability to love or hate — and in that, they are safe from pain and irrational action. This zombielike population is clearly the frightening, corrupt enemy, yet Oliver can sympathize with them.

“I think anyone who has ever been devastated by heartbreak of losing someone they love can understand them,” she said. “I had a boyfriend die in 2009. I think you can understand, sometimes you’d rather have the pain you’re in go away, the ability to have that out.”

Lena is generally obedient and content with her world until her best friend, Hana, and a new acquaintance, Alex, cause her to question her beliefs about Deleria, happiness, freedom and the electrified fences surrounding Portland. But nearing her 18th birthday, Lena doesn’t have much time to decide what life she wants to lead, if she even has a choice.

“Pandemonium,” the second book, wanders the wilderness of New Hampshire and dives into the depths of a much-changed New York City. And Oliver’s digital short story, “Hana,” a supplement to the trilogy, returns to Portland.

Oliver just recently sold her first adult novel to Harper Collins, and now that she’s finished writing the Delirium trilogy, she’s working on her next young adult novel, which is more realistic, she revealed.

“It has been really hard. It took me a really long time to come up with an idea for another type of world I wanted to write in,” she said. “It was really difficult to let go. You spend so much time with the same characters. But it’s also kind of a relief to start a new idea.”

For information, visit laurenoliverbooks.com.

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