‘Catching Fire’ could prompt a literary hunger


Stephen King “couldn’t stop reading” it. Stephenie Meyer was so “obsessed . . . I had to take it with me out to dinner and hide it under the edge of the table.” Publishers Weekly called it “the best book of 2008.”

What’s the source of all the buzz? Suzanne Collins’ novel “The Hunger Games” -- an action-packed, post-apocalyptic, young adult fantasy in which 24 children are selected to compete to the death before a television audience.

The hang-on-the-edge-of-your-seat dystopian fiction is now in its ninth printing, with foreign publishing rights sold for 35 territories and a movie in the works. And the phenomenon is only likely to grow with the publication Tuesday of the highly anticipated second novel in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, “Catching Fire.”


If you don’t yet know Collins or “The Hunger Games,” you will. The Internet has been abuzz with fan sites ticking down the seconds to the release of “Catching Fire”; readers have posted mash-ups of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” videos on YouTube.

Walk into a Barnes & Noble and you will likewise be confronted -- with prominent, front-of-the-store displays. At 90 Borders stores, an interview with Collins was continuously screened yesterday, while mockingjay pins were offered for sale.

The mockingjay is the unofficial mascot of the trilogy. A fictional bird that mimics songs and whistles warnings, it plays a prominent role in the books -- both as teenage protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s good luck charm and, eventually, as a symbol of the rebellion she inspires against a superficial and oppressive government.

Katniss emerges as one of two victors at the end of “The Hunger Games,” outwitting her teen competitors with her killer instincts, as well as displaying her skill with a bow and arrow. But she angers the government when she threatens to pull a “Romeo and Juliet” and commit suicide with her last remaining competitor, a serious infraction of the rules.

The warring theme of “The Hunger Games” evolved a few years ago when Collins, 47, was channel surfing between reality TV and news coverage of the Iraq war. “On the one channel, there was a group of young people competing for money. On the next, a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was tired, and the lines began to blur in a very unsettling way and I got the idea for the story,” says Collins by phone from her home in Connecticut. She recently had to change her phone number after fans started to call her at home.

“If you combine the elements of reality TV and war coverage, you’ll end up with competitions, with fighting to the death, with entertainment, with violence, with audience participation,” Collins continues. “Put all those things together and what you have is a gladiator game.”

Collins has long loved gladiator games, going back to childhood. A self-described “military brat,” she grew up with a father in the Air Force, so “everywhere we lived was defined by his proximity to some sort of military institution.” He also served in Vietnam, and after his return, took the family on “vacations to battlegrounds where we would get a detailed account of the battle and a lot of spontaneous historical and war lectures.”

Combine that with Collins’ love of Greek mythology and its tales of “very dramatic and terrible things like someone cooking their kids up and feeding them to a god, or a woman murdering her children in revenge for her husband’s unfaithfulness,” and you get the root of “The Hunger Games.”

Specifically, it was the myth of Theseus -- an ancient story about 14 young men and women sent into a labyrinth to be eaten by a Minotaur -- that formed the framework for the series.

Although “The Hunger Games” has made Collins famous, it is not her first work of fiction. She is also the author of the five-book, middle reader series “Gregor the Overlander,” which chronicles the plight of an 11-year-old boy and his 2-year-old sister after they fall through a vent in their New York apartment laundry room into a world inhabited by rats and bats. Before that, she was a writer for various Nickelodeon TV shows.

“Somewhere along the way I realized I loved writing for kids,” says Collins, who has two children of her own, ages 15 and 10. “They’re such an interesting audience because they’re still making up their minds about things, about how they are, what they believe, what they think is right. They’re also an extremely honest audience about what they like.”

What they like, apparently, is Collins. Half a million copies of “The Hunger Games” are in print, a number that’s likely to increase as “Catching Fire” catches on. Although it’s a challenge to follow such a success -- not least because we’re almost always more interested in reading about the improbable rise of an underdog than about a realized hero -- the new novel picks up where its predecessor left off, not only matching its novelty, action and excitement but building on it.

In the world of “Catching Fire,” Katniss may be a hero to the public, but she doesn’t see herself in such terms. Now 17, she’s most concerned about saving her family and friends from the uprising she’s ignited.

Selfless and brave, but at times unsure of herself, she’s a relatable icon thrust into an extraordinary world in which she’s forced to make life-or-death decisions against incredible odds and often with little notice.

She’s persecuted by her country’s president, whose breath smells like blood and roses; confused by competing love interests, one of whom she’s supposed to marry; and, on the whole, scared out of her wits.

As for what happens next, Collins is about two-thirds finished with the as-yet-untitled third and final book in the series. Although she’s not complaining, the success of “The Hunger Games” has been “distracting,” she admits. “Being an author, coming out and talking about the books is part of the promotion. I can’t do it at the same time I’m writing. So that’s been a challenge.”

And a challenge for her readers, as well. Whether they’re in it for the anti-utopian thrill ride, the classic love triangle or Collins’ stellar, imaginative writing, fans will have to wait another year for the trilogy’s conclusion.

Already, that seems too long.