Author Ally Condie is best-known for her Matched trilogy, a futuristic love triangle about a teenage girl whose Society chooses everyone’s mate for them, but who falls in love with someone else. After years of successfully writing dystopian YA, Condie has now tried her hand at middle grade with Summerlost, the story of a girl named Cedar who, after the deaths of her father and brother, must adjust to a new home in a small Utah town. Cedar meets quirky and resourceful Leo, who gets her a job at the Summerlost festival; soon the two are caught up in the mystery of a hometown actress who died decades before. PW spoke with Condie from her home in Utah about leaving Matched behind, tackling middle grade for the first time, and what fans can expect from her in the coming years.
Did you always want to be a writer? What made you choose this career path?
When I was little, I would dictate stories to my babysitter. And because my mom kept everything, we still have all those old stories. My parents were supportive of my artistic endeavors. In fact, my mom is a retired professor of art. But she would always tell me that if I was going to pursue a creative career, I also had to be practical as well.
I decided I would teach high school English. In my mind, it was perfect; I would teach but write on the side. Ironically, when I was a teacher was the only time in my life that I was not creative. Don’t get me wrong – I loved teaching. But there is a lot of grading when you teach high school English and it prohibited my own creative time.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you know when you have a book idea that is going to “stick”?
Usually, when I get an idea, I don’t know until I am 20 or 30 pages in whether or not it will stick. Sometimes, I’ve had to abandon a story at that point, but fortunately not too often – maybe only four or five times total.
My book ideas almost always start with a character. I won’t know the plot necessarily at that point. The setting comes next, and that part usually comes quickly. I don’t actually outline the story until I start writing, and even then I don’t outline in the traditional sense. I jump around a lot when I write – sometimes I might skip ahead a few scenes and then come back. Keeping a running outline helps me keep the story details sorted out.
Matched was an international bestseller with foreign rights sold in 35 countries. How did that kind of exposure affect you, both personally and professionally?
There were some fun things that happened almost right away. Before Matched, I had been with a small publisher in Utah. Suddenly, I had a national audience and got to attend things like BEA.
But the two biggest things that changed? First, I gained this amazing and supportive team. My agent, Jodi Reamer, and my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, are like my own two-woman team. I feel like I have the most perfect situation with these two ladies on my side. Add in my publicist, Shanta Newlin, and I am over the moon.
The second thing that changed was the amount of traveling I did. I got to visit schools and be back in the classroom talking to my readers. However, I have four kids of my own, so it isn’t always easy to configure all of that, but I enjoy the traveling for sure.
After three books, I would imagine that you became pretty fond of the characters. In what ways was it hard to say goodbye to them?
Leaving the Matched series was bittersweet. I felt like I had gotten those characters to where they needed to be. And I was kind of surprised where they ended up, I’ll admit that, but they ended up where they were supposed to be. I would guess it feels a little like sending a kid off to college – you’ve done your job as a parent and though you are sad to see that child leave, you also feel satisfaction to have brought them this far. I felt that way with the characters in Matched – satisfied that I had done my job.
Any plans to continue the series at some point?
Not really. I left it all on the page. However, if there were a spark of an idea that could be explored, I would be open to revisiting it. Just right now, there is no opening to do that.
It was reported that the film rights were sold to Disney in 2010. Any movie prospects in the near future?
We got as far as writing the screenplay, but it pretty much died after that. Disney renewed its option a second time, but has since let it lapse. I do get a lot of emails from readers that say, “Please turn this into a movie!” But it’s hard to explain that I don’t necessarily get to make that decision!
Were there challenges in making the transition from dystopian YA to realistic middle grade with Summerlost?
Actually, it was ridiculously easy. I’m not trying to be glib, because writing middle grade is hard. But as much as I loved writing my previous books, there was just magic in writing Summerlost. In my other books, I had had to build the setting from the ground up. For this book, I had to do nothing but drop my characters into this place that I already knew so well. And though I usually get to know my characters better during my first draft, I already knew these characters – Cedar, Leo, and Miles – really well. Cedar, for example, is not truly based on me but I would say she has a little bit of me in her. And Leo is very much based on a childhood friend of mine, who I am still quite close to.
There are a number of layers to the story told in Summerlost – a grieving main character, a new home, a blossoming friendship, and the mystery surrounding the death of a hometown actress. Were all of these elements part of the story from its inception?
All of the aspects of this story didn’t come to me at one time, but they definitely came faster than in other books. So many parts of this story were things I was familiar with from my childhood. The Utah Shakespeare Festival, for example, is a real thing, but there was never an actress associated with it who died – that I know of, anyway. That just sounded like it would be something fun to have the characters explore.
I will say that Cedar’s grief was very easy for me to write about. When I started middle school, my grandfather had just died. My mom was expecting twins and she had just lost one of them. I was definitely in this difficult time, and then suddenly, amidst all that sorrow, I met that “one friend” who understood and made it okay. Like Leo in Summerlost, this friend popped into my life when I truly needed somebody, like a bit of unexpected magic.
The setting of Summerlost – Iron Creek, Utah – plays a huge role in this story. Where is the real Iron Creek?
Well, I grew up in a place called Cedar City, Utah. A small creek, Coal Creek, ran through the town, and there was a state park very close by. I kind of mixed all of that together to create Iron Creek. So I guess you could say it’s based heavily on a real place, but I still wanted the freedom to play around with the details a little.
Despite Cedar’s grief over losing her father and brother, the story captures the unencumbered freedom and hope of childhood summers. What was summer like for you as a child and how did it compare to the summer we experienced with Cedar?
I loved summers as a kid. There was a kind of magic to them – that freedom to do whatever you wanted. I never had a job like Cedar did but I knew kids who worked the concessions at the festival like she did.
My parents had to work through the summer. So at age 12, they crazily put me in charge of my younger brother. And I remember us watching Perry Mason and Days of Our Lives, kind of like Cedar and Miles did in the book. There was so much space to create during those summers. I remember one summer, my friend and I wrote newspapers and mailed them back and forth to each other. I don’t know if kids do stuff like that anymore.
Do you plan to write more middle grade?
Yes, although I am not sure yet what will pan out. I am currently working on a YA but I like to have a fun backup project and right now, that one is middle grade.
Who do you most admire?
This book is actually dedicated to my grandmother. She passed away shortly before I started writing it, which is probably another reason that Cedar’s grief felt so real. I missed her so much. She always made everyone feel like her best friend. She was a first-grade teacher and when I was younger, I would go to her house after school. She would bake cookies and play games with me and was always fun and lively. Her life wasn’t easy but she never lost her sense of fun and engagement.
If readers could know and remember one thing about you or your stories, what would it be?
I would hope that as they read my books, they find a character that they relate to. That at some point, they can read a story I’ve written and feel like, “Hey, that’s me.”
Summerlost by Ally Condie. Dutton, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-399-18719-3