The first book in bestselling author Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds dystopian trilogy was released in 2012, though it has a message of young activism in the face of injustice that appears even more relevant today. With a movie based on the first novel, The Darkest Minds, slated for release in theaters on August 3, and a new addition to the series publishing later this month, Bracken spoke with PW about her experiences expanding the series.
How do you feel about the world that you’ve built being interpreted in someone else’s vision?
You figure out very quickly that you really have given away the rights to your story—they don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book. I got very lucky the whole team really got the world this story is set in and they understood who the characters are. When I visited the set I started to understand the film is a collaboration between many people—from me, the studio, the crew, the cast—everyone is bringing something a little bit different. There are a lot of new ideas they brought to the story that I love and I think they worked perfectly.
Nicola Yoon said something on our panel at BookCon I really loved: the film is just more art about the book, the characters, and the story. Once I started looking at it through that lens, I had this whole new appreciation for the movie.
With the books centering on a dystopian world and the dangers for children, do you feel as though art is imitating life or life imitating art?
It’s so frightening to see some of the similarities between what happened in the book and what’s happening now. It’s pure coincidence. All dystopian books look to the past. For instance, with the camps in The Darkest Minds books, there is no comparison between the suffering of real life, innocent people to fictional characters with a fictional affliction. When I was trying to figure out how the government might go about creating the camps in The Darkest Minds, I researched the Japanese internment camps here in the United States, specifically propaganda the government used, and how they capitalized on people’s fears. Also how the government, from a logistics point of view, set the camps up, the problems they faced in terms of having this enormous population of innocent people they suddenly had to house, and how they used pre-existing structures.
I think history is just so cyclical. I’m not surprised it’s happening again, because I feel we don’t pay enough attention to the past and make the connections. I’m glad it’s driving the new age of activism. The Darkest Minds has the theme of young people being empowered to make change and make their voices heard. I think it’s the right time for the movie, even though the book has existed since 2012.
What part of The Darkest Minds’ message do you think explains its rise in popularity?
The thing that always brought readers to the series and kept them coming back is they love the characters and the overall journey. One difference between the book and the film is with the book, I have a whole trilogy to work with the idea of a young generation stepping up and taking back control of their future. They can make positive change. I think it’s a universal element to have these characters you can really root for, who feel like real people going through these struggles, who start recognizing their own power and working together.
How do you feel knowing that your books may influence the next generation of writers the same way other writers influenced you?
I think we all learn from each other and we all push each other to do better. I would be honored if someone reads my books and it inspires them to write their own work. I’m even honored if they read and they’re like, “I can do this better.” I want them to do it better because I want to read that book. I think it’s a really nice idea, but I feel shy about saying I will definitely influence other writers.
The Darkest Minds came from a period in my life where I felt my most powerless, when I was a teenager. I remember looking back on my teen years feeling like I was trapped in my own little life, when I really wanted to go out and make an impact on the world. But I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t understand how. With the Darkest Minds series, the powers the teens have were always meant to represent that innate drive, energy, and power young people have inside of them to make change. There are still so many people out there who are quick to tell teenagers, “You don’t understand. It’s too complex, you’ll understand when you’re older.”
It’s really meaningful to me that the film is happening now and this book is having a second life. Look at all of the teen activists—the Parkland students, the young people involved with Black Lives Matter. They have the tools and the drive to really promote change. If The Darkest Minds inspires even just one teenager today to stand up and say, “I still believe in this. I think it should be this way,” or to fight an injustice they see, or if it helps them connect to their own empathy, to understand they aren’t powerless, then I will be the happiest author out there.
What types of books were you attracted to growing up?
I was literally a horse book girl. I just missed the real rise of YA that happened later on when I was in college. My dad was a Star Wars collector from the time I was in first grade until he passed away in 2012. There was a time in my life between ages eight to 12 where I pretty much just read Star Wars books when I was not reading horse books. I’m so jealous of teens these days who have such a variety of books available to them if they don’t want to immediately jump up to adult fiction.
I love history; that’s where Passenger and Wayfarer came from. And I love stories that imagine girls taking charge of their own lives, and where they are allowed to be witty, strong-minded, and make mistakes. I try to capture that in my own writing and I’m glad we’re seeing a lot more of those female characters, nowadays. They used to be a rare species in fiction.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part used to be after the book is done. I used to feel like I was this intuitive writer and I didn’t really want to read books on craft. I didn’t want to sit down and plot a book out beat by beat because I was afraid it would somehow interfere with my process—whatever magical muse-induced process that was. Now my favorite part is the actual plotting and the craft element. I really enjoy it because I think I have a better understanding of it. I enjoy sitting down with a new notebook and pen and really brainstorming and figuring things out, shaping the plot, the characters, finding how they work together. The initial days of writing the story have become my favorite part. It’s just this feeling of endless potential.
In general, I also love going out and meeting readers. I really enjoyed meeting a lot of elementary and middle school kids on tour last September. They’re so smart. They just embrace things so wholeheartedly and they get so excited when they find stories they love. There’s no jadedness to them. I love writing for teens because they’re so passionate and I am constantly pushing myself to do better for them, to have my work be more representative of the real world and their reality. One nice thing, too, about writing for teens is there are some readers I’ve known since they were in middle school and now they’re in college. I feel like I’m following them through their lives, a wonderful thing. I’m like, “Can you guys please still like my books? I love you so much. Please don’t ever leave my life.”
How has your time working in the publishing industry influenced your writing?
I really miss being in publishing—it was a joyful experience for me. The summer between my junior and senior year [in college] while I was taking the LSAT, I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I went into the career center of [the College of] William and Mary and said, “I don't know what I want to do. I really want to write, but I can’t make a living off of my writing. Please help me!” They were like, [“Well, you already know so much about publishing from querying your book [Brightly Woven]. Why haven’t you considered working in publishing?” A light bulb went off in my head. I worked on the editorial side and switched over to marketing so I could have a little bit more time to write. I worked with such great people and I was really sad when I said, “I’m now able to support myself as a writer.” In between deadlines and my day job I couldn’t balance this work anymore. Ultimately, I had to put in my notice.
The one thing I’ve learned, having worked in the industry, is how subjective it is. It was interesting to hear how something could work well for one editor and not work for someone else. It helped me process criticism and not take things personally. It really helped me set better expectations for myself—I know which battles are worth fighting. I will always go to bat for my covers. It’s an in-house joke now at my publisher that I am such a little cover monster. That’s worth fighting for, versus something else that won’t impact a book’s life. It taught me the value of treating my relationship with my publisher as a partnership. Working in publishing gave me a ton of discipline. I would go home on Friday night and I would sit down at 6 or 7 p.m. and write until 4 a.m. I’d work all through the weekend on those crazy hours. I wrote the entire Darkest Minds trilogy that way. But having the day job really taught me to value what writing time I had and it also exposed me to so many new writers.
What’s next for you?
What’s next is The Darkest Legacy. It comes out on July 31 and I’m really excited about it. I have wanted to come back to the world of The Darkest Minds for years. It really had to be the right story with the right message that inspired me in the right emotional chord. I was very picky, which is why it took me so many years [four] after the last book in the trilogy published. I think having that distance helped the book become its own thing. It’s a little bit different than the average dystopian book, no disrespect to other dystopian books. It’s really not about saving the world. It’s about waking up to the world and understanding you genuinely have to fight and keep fighting for the things you believe in.
I’m excited I get to tell it from the point of view of Zu [a supporting character from the original trilogy]. It’s been really nice to jump into her head and explore who she is as an older character too, because now she’s just about 18. She started the series a very frightened and traumatized 1-2 or 13-year-old. She’s come a long way in the five years between the end of the trilogy and this book.
What can readers expect in The Darkest Legacy? Are there any major surprises? Any major differences?
It’s less of a dystopian book and more of a thriller mystery—The Darkest Mind with a fugitive twist. Zu is falsely accused of a horrific crime and has to prove her innocence. She’s working with two other teens and isn’t sure if she can trust them. There are lots of twists for readers. I always say “never say never” to more Darkest Minds, and I think readers will notice I left myself some room to return, if they want me to come back. I can’t wait to hear if anyone actually guesses how the book is going to end.
Is there anything else that you want readers to know, either about you or about your books?
The Darkest Legacy grew out of a lot of thoughts I had during the 2016 election. There are a lot of intentional parallels, but unfortunately there are more unintentional parallels. During the 2016 election it felt like a binary choice of action—everything was presented as an either/or. One of the messages of The Darkest Legacy is that you have to constantly question what things are most important to you, what you want to fight for. You have to keep standing up. You have to keep making yourself heard. I think it dovetails naturally with Zu’s arc in the previous trilogy. Zu chooses not to speak, to withhold her voice. We have to make our own path forward and decide what that path looks like. That’s very much the case with Zu—she finds some middle ground between her friends’ beliefs, what the world wants, and what she wants. I think that’s an important message for teenagers these days because they, more than ever, have so much power and drive to change the world.
I think I surprised a couple of the early readers of The Darkest Legacy. They assumed with the ending of the trilogy that everything was going to be okay. It’s not “just okay.” It’s a constant process. That’s both the wonderful and awful thing about our government—it’s ever-evolving and you have to stay engaged with it. You have to stay engaged with the issues that are most important to you and you have to stay on top for the people who don’t have the same privileges and rights. You have to add your voice.
The Darkest Legacy by Alexandra Bracken. Disney-Hyperion, $18.99, July 31 ISBN 978-1-368-02324-5