March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Last Battle: With ‘Mockingjay’ on its way, Suzanne Collins weighs in on Katniss and the Capitol

The suspense is killing us. Ever since Katniss Everdeen, the arrow-slinging heroine of Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy, was snatched from the cruel clutches of a ruthless government, we can’t stop thinking about the feisty 16-year-old from District 12. What sort of flesh-devouring, mutant killing machine awaits her next? How can she possibly lead a successful revolt against the technologically advanced Capitol? And what about her two teen suitors—Gale, a longtime hunting buddy, and Peeta Mellark, the baker’s selfless son? Which hunk will she finally choose? Ah, the questions are endless.

Lucky for us, we figured if we interviewed Collins, we’d get an advance copy of Mockingjay, the final book of the best-selling series. But we soon discovered that Scholastic had forgotten to mention one crucial thing: Mockingjay is embargoed—no exceptions, no siree, Bob! So no matter how hard we pleaded, we couldn’t persuade the publisher to send us a copy before the national laydown date of August 24. And to make matters worse, we strongly suspected that Collins couldn’t say much about the new book. Suddenly, the interview didn’t seem like such a great idea.

But then we thought back to our first encounter with the Connecticut writer. It was August 2008, and even though The Hunger Games wouldn’t be published for another month, it was already getting tons of buzz from bloggers and reviewers. Even adult book reviewers were getting into the act, including author Stephen King, who said he couldn’t put the book down. It looked like Collins, a longtime scriptwriter for kids’ TV shows such as Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and the author of the five-part “Underland Chronicles,” had a crossover hit on her hands. And when we finally sat down with her, she turned out to be a total trouper: thoughtful, engaging, and surprisingly funny. And that’s what ultimately convinced us to go ahead with this interview.

We thought, What the heck? Even if Collins can’t talk about her upcoming blockbuster, she’s bound to have some special insights about the series and its characters. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, she’ll let something slip about book three….

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Illustration by Marcos Chin

We’re like the odd couple. I haven’t read the book, and you can’t talk about it.

I was saying to my husband, “What am I going to say? They won’t let him read the book. And, you know, it hasn’t come out yet. And the film [Lionsgate acquired the film rights for The Hunger Games in 2009] is in such an early stage of development—it hasn’t been green-lit—I don’t have all this stuff to report about it. What am I going to say about the book?” And Cap said, “Tell him it’s blue.” [Laughter] So, OK, it’s blue.

Did you have a particular shade in mind?

I can’t say anything specific about the book. But I can say that I feel it is the story I set out to tell. I pitched the story as a trilogy, and thematically this is the place I was headed for in all three books. I really hope it speaks to the audience, that it makes them think and feel the things that I intended. And I’m really looking forward to talking to a group who’s completed the trilogy. There’s a lot I have not been able to discuss because it would tip off too much of the ending.

Since your upcoming book is called Mockingjay, would you like to explain the origin of that species?

Sure, absolutely. Back in Panem, in the Dark Days, which were 75 years ago when there was an act of rebellion going on in the country, the Capitol created this bird in its labs called the jabberjay. It was just this small black bird, and it had a crest. But it was genetically designed so that it essentially could record what it heard spoken. So they would send it into wooded areas where the rebels were, and it would record the dialogue. Then it would fly home and recite what it had heard.

Well, the rebels caught on to what was going on, and they started to feed the jabberjays false information. And at some point, the Capitol figured that out and left the jabberjays to their own in the wild, thinking they would simply die out. But instead, they mated with female mockingbirds, and this whole new species was created, which are the mockingjays.

Now the thing about the mockingjays is that they were never meant to be created. They were not a part of the Capitol’s design. So here’s this creature that the Capitol never meant to exist, and through the will of survival, this creature exists. And then it procreated, so there are now mockingjays all over the place.

What does that have to do with Katniss?

Symbolically, I suppose, Katniss is something like a mockingjay in and of herself. She is a girl who should never have existed. And the reason she does exist is that she comes from District 12, which is sort of the joke of the 12 districts of Panem. The Capitol is lax there. The security is much less. The peacekeepers, who are the peacekeeping force, are still the law, and they’re still threatening, but they intermix more with the population in District 12 than they do in other districts. And also things like the fence that surrounds 12 isn’t electrified full time.

Because of these lapses in security and the Capitol just thinking that 12 is not ever really going to be a threat because it’s small and poor, they create an environment in which Katniss develops, in which she is created, this girl who slips under this fence, which isn’t electrified, and learns to be a hunter. Not only that, she’s a survivalist, and along with that goes a degree of independent thinking that is unusual in the districts.

So here we have her arriving in the arena in the first book, not only equipped as someone who can keep herself alive in this environment—and then once she gets the bow and arrows, can be lethal—but she’s also somebody who already thinks outside the box because they just haven’t been paying attention to District 12. So in that way, too, Katniss is the mockingjay. She is the thing that should never have been created, that the Capitol never intended to happen. In the same way they just let the jabberjays go and thought, “We don’t have to worry about them,” they thought, “We don’t have to worry about District 12.” And this new creature evolved, which is the mockingjay, which is Katniss.

That’s a fascinating analysis.

Well, everything I just told you about Katniss is never really expressed in the books. I don’t think anybody ever says what I just said. I’m just telling you the symbolic parallel there. Now you have an angle for your story.

Thank God!

Thank God! What were we going to do?

This is a minor point, but I’m curious: Why does President Snow’s breath smell like blood?

Oh, I can’t tell you that. [Laughter] I see what you’re doing. You get me going, and then you have this list of book-three questions you’re trying to slip in.


Photograph by Todd Plitt

Who, me?

Do you think I can possibly answer that?

Actually, the entire interview has been carefully leading up to that very question.

[Laughter] Well, I absolutely cannot tell you. No, I really can’t. But you’re right. That will be answered in book three. I’ll tell you that, OK? That can be your header.

Is this a SLJ scoop?

Yeah. [Laughter]

I just reread the first two “Hunger Games” books, and it’s a terrific story. But what really impressed me was how well it was written.

Oh, thank you. I’m not very objective about that. You know, so much of my background is in scriptwriting, so I still feel very new to the book scene and writing prose. Prose is full of many challenges and unexplored territory for me because I came to it later in my life. Maybe it always feels that way for everybody, even if they started in prose in the beginning. But for me, so much of it has a brand-new or a “How do I do this?” feeling. I mean, I’ve written the five-part “Gregor” series and now three books with Katniss, and in neither series do I ever even leave the protagonist. I’ve never done multiple voices or viewpoints. There are just worlds of stuff for me to learn.

Is it easier for you to write dialogue than descriptive passages?

Oh, yeah. I’ve been doing scriptwriting for 27 years and books for maybe 10 years now. I think I started the first Gregor book, Gregor the Overlander, when I was 38. I’d be clicking along through dialogue and action sequences. That’s fine, that’s like stage directions. But whenever I hit a descriptive passage, it was like running into a wall. I remember particularly there’s a moment early on when Gregor walks through this curtain of moths, and he gets his first look at the underground city of Regalia. So it’s this descriptive scene of the city. Wow, did that take me a long time to write! And I went back and looked at it. It’s just a couple of paragraphs. It killed me. It took forever.

Is it still a struggle for you to write those scenes?

As time has passed, descriptions come a little bit easier. Scripts are essentially dialogue and stage directions. And then you rely on your director, actors, and designers to bring so much physical and emotional detail to the story. But in a book, it’s all up to you. I’ve finally accepted that no designer is going to step in and take care of the descriptive passages for me, so I’ve got to write them.

But here’s the great thing about writing books as opposed to scriptwriting: there are no budget concerns. No one is ever going to tell you that they can’t afford to build the set or to travel to a location or to do a special effect, and you’re not going to write a scene that in your mind you set on the African veldt and there are herds of animals going by, and then, ultimately, you end up with one giraffe and one lion. [Laughter] That happened to me once in an animation. And they’re like, “Suzanne, it’s not The Lion King.” And I’m like, “I know, I know, I just had this image.…”

On a more serious note, your last eight novels have closely examined the effects of war and violence on children. Why are you so obsessed with that topic?

That would definitely go back to my childhood. My father was career Air Force. He was in the Air Force for 30-some years. He was also a Vietnam veteran. He was there the year I was six. Beyond that, though, he was a doctor of political science, a military specialist, and a historian; he was a very intelligent man. And he felt that it was part of his responsibility to teach us, his children, about history and war. When I think back, at the center of all this is the question of what makes a necessary war—at what point is it justifiable or unavoidable?

So let me get this straight. You’re a young kid and your dad is discussing the philosophical significance of war with you and your three siblings?

Ab-so-lutely! One of my earliest memories is being at West Point and watching the cadets drill on the field. If you went to a battleground with my father, you would hear what led up to the battle. You would hear about the war. You would have the battle reenacted for you, I mean, verbally, and then the fallout from the battle.

And having been in a war himself and having come from a family in which he had a brother in World War II and a father in World War I, these were not distant or academic questions for him. They were, but they were also very personal questions for him. He would discuss these things at a level that he thought we could understand and were acceptable for our age. But, really, he thought a lot was acceptable for our age, and I approach my books in the same way.

How so?

I mean, a lot of things happen in “Gregor.” Those books are probably for—what?—ages 9 to 12 or 9 to 14? There’s biological terrorism in the third book. There’s genocide in the fourth book. There’s a very graphic war in the fifth book. But I felt that if my audience came with me from the beginning of that series, they would be able to understand that in context. And I feel the same way about the “Hunger Games” series.

You know, I have two children of my own, so I can think about, “Alright, how would I say this to them?” Things were discussed with me at a very early age. For some people, both of these series, “Gregor” and the “Hunger Games,” are fantasies; some people call them sci-fi. But for me, they’re absolutely, first and foremost, war stories.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the “Hunger Games” is that children are forced to murder other children on live TV. I can’t think of another series for young people that has so much kid-on-kid violence.

Well, the thing is, whatever I write, whether it’s for TV or whether it’s books, even if I’m writing for preschoolers, I want the protagonist to be the age of the viewing audience. So I’m not going to write a war story for kids and then just have them on the sidelines. If I write a war story for kids, they’re going to be the warriors in it.

And if it’s a gladiator story—which is how “Hunger Games” began, I’d say it’s essentially a gladiator story—then the children are going to be the gladiators. They’re not going to be sidelined. They’re going to be the active participants in it. There will be adult characters, but you’re going to go through it with someone who is the age of the intended audience.

Your books send a strong message that grown-ups have messed up the world big-time, and kids are the only hope for the future.

Absolutely. I can’t remember how much we talked about Theseus and the Minotaur the last time we spoke, but Theseus and the Minotaur is the classical setup for where The Hunger Games begins, you know, with the tale of Minos in Crete….

Right. As punishment, Minos ordered the Athenians to throw seven young men and seven maidens into a labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur—until Theseus finally kills the monster. I remember you telling me that as an eight-year-old, you were horrified that Crete was so cruel—and that in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.

But once the “Hunger Games” story takes off, I actually would say that the historical figure of Spartacus really becomes more of a model for the arc of the three books, for Katniss. We don’t know a lot of details about his life, but there was this guy named Spartacus who was a gladiator who broke out of the arena and led a rebellion against an oppressive government that led to what is called the Third Servile War. He caused the Romans quite a bit of trouble. And, ultimately, he died.

What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.

Can those dialogues help put an end to war?

Eventually, you hope. Obviously, we’re not in a position at the moment for the eradication of war to seem like anything but a far-off dream. But at one time, the eradication of slave markets in the United States seemed very far off. I mean, people have to begin somewhere. We can change. We can evolve as a species. It’s not simple, and it’s a very long and drawn-out process, but you can hope.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.