Michael Grant’s Gone series has swept the YA world with its dystopian themes of post-apocalypse and the colliding needs of characters barely equipped to deal with the world they’ve inherited. There are now four books in the series (Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague) with two more (Fear, Light) to come.
It tells the story of a small Californian town where everyone 15 or older suddenly disappears and a mysterious barrier of energy cuts the town off from the rest of the world. A whole town of children — each with their own agenda, story and desire — is a deep well to be mined, which explains not just why Grant originally envisaged a six book series, but why kids (and plenty of adults) the world over are as hooked as they were on Harry Potter ten years ago.
To fans of popular fiction that don’t know Grant’s work, the above premise might sound familiar. Didn’t we see similar ideas in Australian author John Birmingham’s After America series and Stephen King’s most recent thriller Under The Dome?
Gone predated both by several years — time for a couple of high profile lawsuits? “Stephen King actually reached out to me,” the California-born author says, referring to the fact that King’s original idea is actually far older than Gone. “He read Gone on vacation and got in touch to say he didn’t want me to think he’d ripped me off. After I bowed, groveled and otherwise abased myself I responded ‘dude, you’re Stephen King.’ He invented dread — I just borrow it.”
But Grant’s also quick to point out that the individual author makes all the difference, and Gone will give you a very different experience from Under The Dome. “Every writer writes his own book. If you gave King and I the identical premise you’d still end up with a Stephen King novel and a Michael Grant novel, and nobody would confuse the two.”
Proof that there’s no such thing as an overnight success, Grant’s CV was jammed full before he ever put pen to paper on Gone. Often writing under pseudonyms or with his wife KA Applegate, he says he’s co-authored ‘something like 150 books’, including three YA romance series, the sci-fi series Animorphs, Everworld and Remnants and what he describes as a ‘gross-out humour’ series.
But his stunning success with Gone also prompts the question of literary typecasting. RL Stine never quite got away from the Goosebumps name, and JK Rowling seems to be in a post-Potter twilight right now. Will Gone define Grant forever? “So far I’ve got away with hopping from series to series,” he says. “I refuse to be trapped into one genre or become so identified with one series that I can’t do another. My goal isn’t to be famous, it’s to tell good stories.”
So far, the biggest question hanging over the Gone series is about the Hollywood interest that seems inevitable in any series of hit books these days. Grant says he’s had some but identifies a unique problem. “No adult roles,” he explains. “I occasionally talk to people in Hollywood and their first question is always, ‘so what are the major adult roles?’ They like movie stars in Hollywood — they think in terms of Will Smith or Jake Gyllenhaal and neither of them can pass for 14.”
So for now, Grant is content to thrill us on the page, something he’s very careful to get right. “I often picture the reader as someone I have to outthink, out-maneuver. I worry that they’ll guess what I’m up to, that they’ll be able to predict where the story is going, and I’m determined they not do that. Sometimes when I come up with a nice twist I cackle ‘ha, that’ll make their heads explode’ in an evil voice. I don’t want that kid to be able to stop reading, I don’t want that kid putting my book down, I don’t want that kid to be able to breathe.”
Which brings us to the topic of content. The goings-on in a good deal of the Gone series are not pretty. Does Grant reign in the extremes of violence or terror, knowing many of his readers are so young? “I don’t pull my punches,” he insists, “I never think ‘this is too intense for a kid’. It may be too intense for adults, but adults are easy — it’s much harder to scare a 14-year-old who thinks he’s immortal. Say, ‘tumor’ in a room full of adults and watch them tense up. Adults are scared of everything and they assume their kids must be scared of even more, but the opposite is true.”
Finally — as a successful novelist once surmised — if stories are ideas floating around in the air waiting for the lucky writer to pluck them down and commit the time to realise them, where was Grant where he found Gone — especially as the unexplained barrier of energy seems such a popular literary trope?
“I tend not to use the word ‘inspiration’ because it sounds too grand and imposing for me,” he says. “I’m a working man. Before I started writing I was a waiter, an office cleaner, a temp worker. It always feels to me as if the greats of literature were inspired. Me? I’m doing my job.”