Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden trilogy of dystopian novels for YA readers paints a harrowing portrait of the unintended and tragic consequences of modern society’s relentless pursuit of perfection. After being kidnapped and sold to a wealthy physician, 16-year-old Rhine becomes enmeshed in a race to find a cure for the virus that is striking down adults in their 20s. DeStefano talked with PW about the underlying themes of the Chemical Garden trilogy, which concludes this month with Sever (Simon & Schuster), and introduced her new series for YA readers, The Internment Chronicles, scheduled to launch in spring 2014.
The Chemical Garden contains elements reminiscent of both The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. How much did the work of these two authors inspire you while writing your series?
I wasn’t thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale at all, I read it so long ago. It’s a wonderful story, I can’t say enough good things about it. But if there’s another book by Margaret Atwood that inspired me, it’s Surfacing. Surfacing is about a young woman searching for her father. Surfacing probably has influenced everything I write in general, not just this series.
With The Hunger Games, it was what made me want to write YA. I was writing adult fiction, but with young protagonists. My agent called me one day and told me to read more YA, and that I should start with The Hunger Games. She was adamant that I would do well writing for younger readers. I didn’t see where she was coming from until I read The Hunger Games and then subsequently other YA series. I realized how wonderful YA is and how I really wanted to write something that created that level of intrigue.
Why did you call this series The Chemical Garden?
When I wrote the series, none of the books had working titles. My agent asked me, she needed three working titles, and they would change. The working title for the third book, which I obviously hadn’t even written, was The Last Chemical Garden, because it’s something that gets revealed in the third book; it was pretty much the only thing I knew about the third book. My publisher loved that title so much that they named the entire series The Chemical Garden trilogy.
Is your trilogy an indictment of our modern society, with our emphasis on physical perfection and the prolonging of life? In other words, are you trying to warn your readers – especially those readers in the full bloom of youth – that there can be a downside to society’s quest for perfection?
When I am writing anything in general, I just want to tell the story that exists in my head, I don’t try to write a parable or make a point. I do think it interesting that in this society, we engineer even food. We tamper with so much. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good or a bad thing. We don’t know what the consequences are – there are consequences to everything, positive and negative.
In this particular story, it’s a world that came about just from trying for the best, and then it all goes horribly wrong. I don’t think it’s a reflection of what’s going to happen to us as a society. There is no right way or wrong way to take this story. I think every reader is going to take away something different from it.
The world you create in The Chemical Garden is a dark one: parents perform experiments on their children, imperfection of any kind is punishable by death, nothing is as it seems. Why do you think teenagers would want to read fiction with such dystopian themes?
I think they’re just curious like everybody else. When I was growing up, there actually wasn’t a lot of YA literature as it exists today. Most of the YA that I read was from the ’60s and ’70s, older than me. I feel, even so, the themes are relatively the same, where you take what works in your private reality, and you are really curious to see to how different things can be. It’s not necessarily like the world you want to live in; it’s something that fascinates readers, because it’s so vastly different but very possible.
What books did you read and love as a teenager?
I read The Giver. I read A Wrinkle in Time initially in fifth grade, and I wasn’t a fan, and then I read [it] later, and I became obsessed. The Boxcar Children books. I read a lot of adult literature too. When I was 11 or 12, I was really bored with everything on my summer reading list. It was all happy, middle-grade kinds of books. I was getting frustrated, because I liked to read. My mother went to the library and got me a copy of The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon. It was my first adult book. I was pretty young, but my mother knew me pretty well, and said, ‘You’re old enough.”
That book still has one of the best endings I’ve ever read. It made me up the ante. All my life, even when I was very young, I’ve loved to tell stories. I wasn’t exposed to much when I was very young, I hadn’t read much except for what I was assigned to read, I hadn’t seen any of the world. So, when I read something like that, it made me want to write really gritty stories.
That book probably had a bigger impact on my young life than any of the books I read that were for my age group.
Did you write any books before Wither that were not published?
Yes, three or four. They weren’t YA – this [series] is my first YA. I’m not trying to get them published; it’s time to move on. There’s one in particular my agent said she’d really like to see published, but I think at this point, I’m trying to be a stronger writer. My earlier works are never going to be good enough.
What kind of research did you do on these novels, and how much time did you spend doing it?
It’s hard to say how much time I spent doing it; it became an integral part of my life. I’d be looking through the TV Guide channel and see something about genetics and watch it, or I’d see an article about heterochromia, and read it. It didn’t feel like research to me. I have a cousin who is really into organic food, she was explaining to me how they genetically engineer things. It just fascinated me and it worked its way into the story. I did medical research for the third book, only because some things were more specific. But for the first two books, it was more like genetic research and science.
In your trilogy, Rhine and her twin brother, Rowan, both have one blue eye and one brown eye. It’s an essential plot device in several ways. How did you decide upon heterochromia, a relatively rare condition in humans, as a plot device?
When it comes to my characters’ names, backgrounds, ages, and physical characteristics, they appear kind of fully formed, and I figure out why later. When I first wrote about Rhine, I didn’t know why she had this condition. I had a few speculative guesses, but I didn’t know. I didn’t want to dismiss the idea because I figured it must be important. And then as I was writing, I realized her parents were geneticists, and they were trying to find a cure. I don’t want to spoil it for your readers, but I realized it was essential to the plot. But when I conceived the characters, I didn’t know that. I just went with it.
Two of the characters – Housemaster Vaughn and Madame Soleski – come across as purely evil. Yet, in Sever, the reader understands what tragedies have caused Vaughn and Madame to become the kinds of people they have become. Was it difficult to make two such despicable characters somewhat sympathetic?
I never saw them as evil. I see Vaughn as a parent; what parent wouldn’t be willing to take extreme, crazy measures if it were the only way to save their child? I don’t agree with his methods, they’re despicable, and he’s taking horrible measures, especially as the series goes on. But in his heart he is doing what he thinks is best. As long as he cares for someone more than himself, he’s not evil. And I think he does care for his son, Linden, much more than himself. It’s probably a common thing for parents, but most parents aren’t put in a situation where they have to choose between destroying the world to save their child or letting their child be destroyed by the world. I think most parents, if faced with the choice Vaughn faces, would probably do something similar.
With Madame, she’s broken. The world has been horrible to her. She’s brilliant, and she’s never had an opportunity to be anything other than what she is. She had a child and the world was awful to her child. This completely ruined her. I found her sympathetic.
These novels are your first published works. Are you writing full-time now? What do you do in your spare time?
Yeah, that’s what I do. In my spare time, I like to sew, I like to decorate. If I am having writer’s block or I am having a bad day, I like to buy a gallon of paint and paint a room in my house.
What can you tell us about your new YA series, The Internment Chronicles, which has just been announced and is scheduled to launch in spring 2014?
I am so excited about this series. I started writing it over a year ago now. I’d just finished Sever, so it was time to start a new story. With [the Chemical Garden books] all I knew at first was that it was about a girl trying to get back home. I went from there. But with the Internment Chronicles, it started with a train, a train going to the city. It’s a city that floats in the sky, about 30, 000 feet from the ground. Their belief system is that they were banished from the ground hundreds of years ago. They believe there’s a god of the ground and a god in the sky. The god in the ground wanted to destroy humanity, and that’s what they believe about why they are floating in this city in the sky. It’s been relatively perfect for hundreds of years, until one day, there’s a murder. It makes the protagonist question everything, including why the ground is forbidden.
The title of the first book in the trilogy is called Perfect Ruin, subject to change, of course.
S&S is billing it as a “utopian” series, but it sounds more dystopian than utopian. Can you explain what makes it utopian?
I personally don’t get caught up in that. I know that The Chemical Garden trilogy is called dystopian, but to me it’s all about a girl who’s just trying to get home. With The Internment Chronicles, they are probably calling it utopian because it’s about this perfect, orderly society on this beautiful floating island. It is a beautiful place to be. Depending on whether or not you want to stay in one place for your entire life, it could be Utopia. I would leave it up to the reader.
Sever by Lauren DeStefano. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-4424-0909-5