In 2010, Ally Condie was a YA novelist with exceptionally good timing. Condie's novel Matched came out just as the great YA dystopia boom was cresting. Nestled between the blood-soaked The Hunger Games (2008) and the categorically minded Divergent (2011), Matched was a romanic dystopia that played into particularly teenage anxieties: Is the person you're dating at 17 the person you should stay with forever? The best-selling novel explored that central idea through the lens of an all-controlling government, and the kids young and reckless enough to question it.
Following the Matched trilogy and Atlantia's success, Condie's name has become synonymous with "dystopia." But what's a dystopian author to do when what happens when the real world begins, more and more, to resemble something out of her books? For her latest book, The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, out March 2019, Condie had to cast her imagination even farther into humanity's timeline. Instead of creating a dystopian world, Condie imagines what comes after the dystopia falls. When the world fragments into small, isolated communities like the Outpost in Poe Blythe; when iron-fisted rulers distribute scarce resources to needy populations. When "ancient ruins" become skyscrapers and garbage piles.
This is the world that shaped Poe Blythe, the protagonist of The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe — the world that made her hard. Two years ago, Poe's lover, Call, was murdered by raiders aboard a mining dredge. With that, Poe's life mission was distilled to one thing: revenge. Poe developed deadly (and revolutionary) armour to prevent further Raider attacks. Now, Poe's been tapped to captain one last mining voyage down the river — but things go wrong, and they go wrong quickly.
We spoke to Ally Condie about the enduring appeal of dystopias and the key to creating a good one.
Refinery29: How do you see The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe in conversation with your other dystopias?
Ally Condie: “In a dystopia, usually what you see is the girl or boy saves the world. It’s a big story with a lot of hope. Poe Blythe is a small standalone story. It’s just a girl and her grief, contained in a tightly controlled setting. Everyone’s on a boat, trying to figure out who's doing what.
"Poe Blythe is also the most romantic book that I’ve written. Without giving too much away, it’s definitely not a love triangle. The love interest is dead for the entire book. It’s certainly not something I’ve done before."
How did the premise for Poe Blythe come to you, including the love story "twist?"
"I knew early on that this twist was the point of the book. This is a book about how a character deals with a specific thing happening. It’s an exploration of something that I was going through in my own personal life. How does losing someone change you?
"I had the setting of the dredge early on, too. We went on a family vacation to Idaho, and I saw an old mining boat for the first time. We were headed on a hike in the Sawtooth Mountains, driving up this river valley. I just kept thinking: 'What happened here? It looks like an end-of-days scenario.' The river was destroyed — it was just a long, narrow gravel bed. Then we came around the corner, and sitting in the valley in the sunset was a hulking, rusted-out metal ship. It had been there for decades. It was so unexpected and huge that I kept thinking, 'This looks like something from another planet or the future.' I started to frame the story around that."
How do you balance world building with characters in dystopias?
"The world is as big as the character needs it to be. For me, the story always begins with a character. It's not that I don’t care about plot or setting — I care about those things a lot. But a character's narrative is the most important part. With Cassia in Matched, we needed to know everything, because she needed to know everything so she could take it all down. There's a bigger sense of her world from the beginning.
"Poe's focus is narrow. She’s not really concerned about global implications until the end. Her focus has been on one thing for so long that that's what I built the world around. The dredge, the boy, the admiral. It’s not wider until the end."
What are the ingredients of a good dystopian novel?
"Characters, for sure. A world that feels familiar in some tiny way but also that we haven’t seen before. And for me, there needs to be a love story. It doesn’t even have to be a romance. In Atlantia, it’s a sister love story. We see a lot of parent-child love stories in dystopia. You want to see some kind of smaller, hopeful story against a bigger backdrop to make it worth caring about."
What draws you to writing dystopias?
"It just kind of happens. I like being able to build a world around a character that I’m getting to know. I also like the urgency of it. It’s why we respond to movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, which was a big inspiration for The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe as well. We like to see what’s possible, and we always want to see the darker side of what’s possible. Look how bad this could be if we don’t fix it."
Is that why you think dystopias are so popular?
"That’s a question that I’ve been asked since 2010 when Matched came out, during the dystopia boom. We always like to see ourselves in stories. We see the darker side in our stories much more than we do in real life. But now — it's hard to see anyone in power who cares about the environment, who cares about the future, about weapon control. In a way, dystopias feel authentic. What does it look like when it plays out, and how can we do anything about it?"
Do you think the nature of dystopian novels will change as the real world changes and environmental concerns come into the forefront?
"Yeah. We're burning through everything. At some point, sadly, there will be a big reckoning. It’s going to be people who didn’t do this who pay for it. That’s what you’re looking at, too, in dystopias. The consequences of us just use, use, using."