Lauren Oliver: 'I don't believe in happy endings'

She is the biggest thing in Young Adult fiction right now. So why does she feel so conflicted, asks James Kidd

It is tempting to view Lauren Oliver's literary career as working in reverse. Arguably the hottest property in Young Adult fiction right now, Oliver spent her own teenage years reading Henry James and nursing a precocious ambition to compose the great American novel. "I was failing to write these long, depressing books," says the 29-year-old. "My first novel was about a 35-year-old whose wife dies of cancer and who takes up with a prostitute. It was ridiculous." These fledgling efforts earned Oliver an agent but little else. "They were roundly rejected by every publisher because they had no plot. I was writing boring books."

Oliver sublimated her ambition to be a novelist by working for Penguin in New York. It was on this supposedly grown-up stage that she began reading stories for young adults. "These novels were strange, ambitious and entertaining. They had stories that propelled you. I feel a lot of adult fiction looks down on plot as a lesser form of literature."

Oliver's first novel for teens was Before I Fall, a smart, vibrant and romantic re-imagining of Groundhog Day. It was followed by the trilogy of Delirium, Pandemonium and now Requiem. Currently being filmed for US television, the series is attracting the highest-profile fans. Barack Obama was photographed in a Virginia bookstore buying Delirium and Pandemonium as Christmas presents for his daughters.

Set in a dystopian America where romantic love is illegal, Requiem completes a story that is epic and intimate at the same time. Oliver's two narrators, Lena and Hana, face stark choices between freedom and security, rebellion and conformity, certainty and mystery, and, of course, boys who are brooding or boys who are more genial. Oliver plays skilfully with genre conventions, and tackles grand narratives with an intelligence that should make some adult novelists blush.

Nevertheless, not everyone is thrilled. "Requiem has been controversial because people don't feel I gave it closure," says Oliver. But the deliberately incomplete finale encapsulates the entire point of the trilogy. "It's a coming-of-age story. Part of what adults have to live with is ambiguity. It's not like you make a choice and find happiness hiding behind one of three doors looking like Kim Kardashian. You have to choose what you want every day. There is no one point at which you get your happy ending."

Oliver's conversation, like her books, also puts many so-called "serious" novelists to shame. Despite jet lag and a half-serious claim to "misanthropy", her ideas bounce around like hyperactive puppies. Whether she is unpicking her "politically bifurcated country" or talking about her personal life, she answers questions with eloquence and openness.

She mentions Lena's uneasy reunion with her mother, who abandons her children in her desperation to escape political and social oppression. "That theme of betrayal reflected the fact that a person I dated for four years and was engaged to died at 29 due to substance abuse issues. I only realised it in retrospect, but I think Lena's agonising about her mother reflected my own feelings – why wasn't I good enough to stay alive for?"

One could see Oliver as encapsulating the extremes of her two heroines. "There are times I wish I was more conventional," she says. "I would get a husband and a baby and a big SUV in the 'burbs and be happy. But forging my own way – my career, my relationships with wonderful but troubled people – that's who I am."

Raised in Westchester, Connecticut, she describes her upbringing as liberal and comfortable. Her mother and father are literature professors who divorced when Oliver was young, then re-married to other literature professors. "My parents were pretty liberal, but they were still parents. I definitely had my teenage rebellion." What sort of things? "Nothing I would repeat on record," Oliver laughs. "I was kind of a wild teenager, but I always got great grades at high school. I became a huge nerd later in life."

Oliver takes her success seriously but wears it lightly. Clearly ambitious, she divides her time between writing and a publishing venture, Paper Lantern, that encourages teenagers to write fiction. "I didn't miss working in a traditional publishing house – certainly not the dress code or meetings – but I did miss working with writers. We're a small operation – the five of us meet around my dining room table. We are experimenting with an e-venture and looking for new writers."

Oliver herself has two new books ready for publication next year. A Young Adult novel called Panic ("about a dangerous game played by adolescents"), and The Rose which is aimed at more "mature" readers. ("A family clear out a house after the death of a patriarch.") Whether this signals that Oliver has come full circle or is simply growing up remains to be seen. What she does know is that today's teenagers can heal the social and political rifts in her divided nation.

"The good news is that teenagers agree on the most divisive issues in America: 75 per cent of young people support gay marriage. There is definitely the sense that future generations can heal the rift in the US." She says much the same about their attitude to literature. "I have never met a teenager – and I probably meet 5,000 a year – who prefers ebooks to real books. Their parents like ebooks. Teens like to own a book and have it on their shelves."

Before she disappears for a well-earned afternoon nap, I ask about her most famous young readers, Malia Ann and Sasha Obama. Having campaigned for Obama in 2008, Oliver could not imagine a better endorsement. "All I can say is that they have excellent taste. It is just so flattering. A friend said: 'When a celebrity reads your book, that's great. But the President – he is really famous.'"

Requiem by Lauren Oliver

Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99

"... Welcome to the free world. We give people the power to choose. They can even choose the wrong thing. Beautiful, isn't it?"

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis