This is a big week for Alexandra Bracken and the devastating dystopian world she created in The Darkest Minds series. In Bracken's novels, a fatal disease wipes out 98% of the population of American children and leaves the remaining 2% in possession of extraordinary minds, capable of moving objects, throwing fireballs, and controlling electricity. In the same week that The Darkest Legacy, Bracken's fourth installment of the series, drops, the movie adaptation of The Darkest Minds premieres.
That's certainly a lot of "darkests," but for Bracken, the future is bright. The dystopian world Bracken conjured up in 2012 hasn't stopped growing — and hasn't stopped garnering an enthusiastic fan base. Faye Rebottaro, the 18-year-old superfan who runs a Facebook fan page for The Darkest Minds, explained to Refinery29 just what makes the series so compelling. "From the get-go, the books grab your attention. It's a way to imagine what would happen to me if I was in this situation," Rebottaro says. She identifies as an orange, the ultra-rare mind-readers of Bracken's world.
We spoke to Bracken about the process of writing a dystopian book when the world seems to be getting more and more dystopian every day.
Refinery29: What inspired you to write the dystopian Darkest Minds series?
Alexandra Bracken: “I didn’t realize that I wrote a dystopian story when I wrote The Darkest Minds. In my mind, I was thinking of when I was a freshman in high school, and September 11 had happened. I’d observed how fear can be so poisonous, how people can be emotionally manipulated at a time of great tragedy, how their fear can be taken advantage of. I observed how we’re willing to give up some of our freedoms and privacy for the idea of better security.”
Now, in the year 2018, you’ve seen The Darkest Minds progress to another stage: Life imitating art. In the books, kids are rounded up into camps. Kids are being kept in camps at the U.S. border. Can you speak to the experience of seeing something in your book on the news?
“You never want any part of your dystopian story to feel like it’s coming true. When I wrote The Darkest Minds series, I felt I could only have one or two big ‘asks’ of the reader when it came to suspending their disbelief. Some people could believe in developing abilities of the mind more easily than they could believe children would be separated from their parents. That said, the storytelling decision was informed by our own history. I look to the past to inform where we’re going, like many other dystopian authors.
“There are some similarities between the camps, but there’s no comparing the real life people with fictional characters. I did a lot of research on the psychological effects of kids being separated from their parents, and how damaging that could be, for The Darkest Minds. I worry about those kids every day.”
How do you foresee your future books, like The Darkest Legacy (the fourth book in the series) being influenced by future climates?
“The Darkest Legacy didn’t come together until I had gone through and tried to process the 2016 election. It’s sort of similar to The Darkest Minds in that way. I ended up having to throw out a lot of my plans for the book that I made all the way back in 2015 when I was just starting the project because a lot of what I was hoping to do with the government in the fictional world of the book ended up mimicking what happened in the real world. Which is always very frightening.”
“No fly lists, and certain kinds of restrictions and registries. A lot of what the current administration is using to target people of the Muslim faith. It dovetailed too closely. I kept reinventing this world so that it didn't mirror ours. But no matter what I did, the real world kept catching up with me. This is a bit of a spoiler, but there’s a big plot thread in The Darkest Legacy about children who are in a kind of foster system who just disappear. They fall between the cracks. No one’s looking out for them. The book had just gone to the printer when the news about the missing immigrant kids broke. That’s what feels the most frightening to me. I’ve spent months moving my fictional world past the real world and making things worse, or coming at things from a more evil angle — and somehow the real world beats me."
Why do you think dystopias are still so popular?
“We're attracted to dark stories because there’s some sort of anxiety about survival we still have inside of all of us on an instinctive level. We need to see that we, as people, will survive these really intensely awful situations, cataclysmic events, end of the world scenarios. And not just that that the human race can survive, but that our humanity can survive.”
I wonder if there’s something specific in the teen years that gives this age group a hunger for dystopias.
“Everything feels so heightened when you’re a teenager. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but it feels so much like life and death. I think that comes out in YA. All of the stakes feel so high all the time across all genres. I think people just like to read all of those cultural touchstones that we all go through. First love. First time leaving home. First time figuring out who you are. I really love YA I have no patience for people who are close-minded about it.”
Can you talk about Amandla Stenberg playing Ruby?
“Amandla has this wonderful sensitivity about her. You can see all of the emotions play out on her face. And Ruby’s a tricky character. At the beginning of the film, she’s so insular and trapped inside herself. She’s frightened to get close to the people around her for fear of losing them because she can’t control her power. I knew she’d do a fantastic job with that.
“The really remarkable thing to me is that Ruby in the book is described as being white. It’s not repeated over and over. Many people felt that she wasn’t described at all, which is on me — I didn't realize I was doing that. It plays into the whole white default that happens all the time in fiction. It’s something I’ve trained myself out of. We all inherit these blind spots like that. You don’t realize you’re only highlighting a characters’ skin when they’re dark-skinned. I really restrained myself in how I describe characters now. I thought it was fantastic that they weren’t married to the way Ruby was described in the book, and they went with the best actor for the role."
You have a huge fan base that is greatly anticipating this movie. If you could say anything to your fans before the movie comes out, what would it be?
"Go in with an open mind. Enjoy the movie for what it is. The existence of the movie doesn’t erase the existence of the book, and vice versa. You can enjoy one more than the other. You can enjoy them both. My friend Nicola Yoon, who wrote the book Everything Everything, had such a great way of saying it: A book adaptation is just more art about the thing that you love."