Lauren Oliver's new book, Panic, is her first return to realism since her best-selling debut, Before I Fall, and our spotlight pick for the Best Young Adult Book of March. Panic tells the story of Dodge and Heather, two teenagers, caught up in a high stakes rite of passage game (called Panic) played in secret each year in their small, poor town. As I read, I found myself wondering if I would have entered the competition as a teenager, at what point I would likely have quit, and would I even think about it now. I asked Oliver her thoughts on this and here's what she had to say about the question of to play or not to play...
My new book, Panic, is about a small, rundown town called Carp, in which a sense of isolation, an almost institutionalized boredom, and the social competition native to every American high school combine in one explosive, legendary game.
I didn't grow up in a rundown town--far from it--but my town was certainly small, and we were certainly bored. We did a lot of stupid things in high school: we drove too fast once we got our licenses, and I resolutely and universally refused to wear my seatbelt, for reasons I no longer remember. We mixed whiskey and vodka and chugged it (not recommended). We scored fake IDs in the city, cut class, smoked cigarettes, and bounced from party to party on weekends, looking for something to do.
I wasn't just an inveterate bad-decision maker, though--that was just a pastime. I was also an excellent, ambitious, and enthusiastic student, nerdy and more than a little insecure, trying to conceal my fears and frustrations beneath an attitude of recklessness and indifference.
Would I have participated in Panic back then? Heck yeah. Because Panic, the game, is about more than resistance to fear; it’s about the promise of escape. And although the kids of Carp have real problems to outrun, they're also (like many teens; like myself, at that age) trying desperately to outrun themselves, to escape their identities, their anxieties, their creeping sense that they've inherited a life that is broken or misshapen in some way. Paradoxically, the reason I was so reckless in high school was because of my fears, not in spite of them. I was hoping that if I could pretend to be fearless I might not only become fearless, but the very things I feared would never come to materialize.
I'm less afraid now than I was at eighteen, and also far less reckless, though I have a deeply ingrained adventurous streak that now finds expression in activity, travel, and experimenting with new things. I'll be the first to hop on a rock-climbing wall or jump out of a plane, fly across the world armed with just a passport and a sense of fun; sample fried insects (not, like, off the street, but in places where people eat insects) or monkfish liver. I've built a life I love. I'm no longer plagued by the insecurities and fears that used to eat at me constantly, the suspicion that if I let my guard down for a second, everyone would know how weak I really was.
Would I play Panic now? Absolutely not. I'm not running from anything. I don't need money to escape. And I'm lucky enough to say there's really nothing I could win that I don't already have. ---Lauren Oliver