A Conversation with Lauren Miller
Q: Why did you want to write a novel for teens about society’s use of technology?
A: As a society, we’re hyper-focused on personal independence and freedom, yet we cede so much of our decision-making to our little rectangular devices. Our Maps app tells us which route to take and we take it. Yelp suggests a restaurant, and we eat there. iTunes recommends a song and we buy it. Relying on these programs makes our lives easier for sure. But what are we giving up in the process? Does “easy” always mean “better?” More than anything, I wanted to write a story about free will, and looking at it through the lens of our collective dependence on technology felt like a really interesting way to do it.
Q: Rory is naïve and impressionable at the beginning of FREE TO FALL, and through the course of the book she becomes more and more savvy and cognizant of what her society has become. What particularly appeals to you about your heroine?
A: Yes, Rory is naive in the beginning, trusting the technology she’s grown up with, but she’s got her eyes open. As she begins to encounter things that don’t add up, she asks why. I love that. The other thing that’s cool about Rory is her intelligence. The girl is crazy smart. But she doesn’t have an ego about it, because she knows her brain doesn’t define her. That’s probably my favorite thing about her.
Q: In the book, you compare Rory’s dilemma with technology vs. free will and Milton’s Paradise Lost, even referencing the classic in your book’s title. What was it about Milton’s poem that resonated with you?
A: Paradise Lost, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a re-telling of the primordial tale of the Garden of Eden, when Satan, disguised as a serpent, tricks Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, a choice that results in their expulsion from Paradise. Adam and Eve had the capacity to make the right choice, but their egos got in the way. They thought they knew what was best, but really they were just being duped by the proverbial snake in the grass. They let the serpent trick them into giving up their freedom. We’re no different. We let ourselves be managed and controlled while pretending we’re calling the shots. That notion — that what happened in the Garden didn’t just happen once, but happens over and over again, every time man is free to choose and chooses himself — is the aspect of Paradise Lost that most resonated with me and the idea I wanted to explore in Free to Fall.
Q: FREE TO FALL blurs the lines between technological advancement and complacency; what is your personal opinion about finding a balance?
A: The trick, I think, is to be skeptical of anything that professes to make life easier, because in my experience, “ease” typically comes at the expense of something else. On a very basic level, take the smartphone. Weren’t personal electronic devices supposed to set us free us from the confines of our desks? They were supposed to make our lives easier by allowing us to do our work on our own schedule, on our terms. What we’ve ended up with, though, is a different form of captivity. We may not be locked in our offices, but we’re certainly tethered to our screens. Where we used to be allowed to take a day or so to respond to an email, now we’re expected to reply instantly. Not that the smartphone isn’t an amazing, helpful device — it is. We just need to make sure we’re managing our technology, not the other way around.
Q: In the book, one’s so-called “inner voice” is called “the Doubt,” and admitting to hearing that voice is viewed as a psychological weakness, as something that people need to be cured from. What is that inner voice — conscience, intuition, something more? And how will society’s view of it evolve as we become more and more reliant on technology?
A. At the core of FREE TO FALL is the struggle between reason and wisdom. As we as a society become more and more dependent on our technological devices, there is risk that we will forget that reason and wisdom are not always the same thing. Reason can tell us what is true about the natural world, but it can’t tell us what should be true. Only wisdom can show us that. To use an example from the book, an app like Lux could tell me exactly how long I would need to study to ace an exam. Lux couldn’t, however, tell me whether I should sacrifice that cram session in order to help a friend. But what happens when society becomes so fixated on personal achievement that the “shoulds” — which often require some form of self-sacrifice or personal risk — are dismissed as “unwise.” I don’t think it’s a leap to think that the day will come when it’ll be considered foolish to do anything that doesn’t benefit you, like helping that friend or throwing away a lucrative career to follow a passion. And what will become of the whisper within when that happens?
Q: Today teen readers have so many options for entertainment, from video games to social media interactions. What’s your advice for parents and teachers to get young people excited about reading?
A: I think you have to sell your kids on story. The thing books have over video games and social media is narrative -- recognizable, relatable characters who are experiencing a meaningful conflict. The human psyche is wired for story, so all we have to do is tap into that desire with the right narrative. I think some young people are turned off by reading because they’ve only read the books on their school’s reading list, and those books, while incredibly worthy of study, don’t have an easy entry point for a reluctant reader. Too often, the unfamiliar style of writing creates a barrier and readers give up before the story hooks them. For eager readers, the solution might be to teach them how to navigate difficult prose. But reluctant readers won’t make that effort, so it’s our job as mentors and parents and educators to find stories that make it easy on them. There is a story out there for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding it!
Q: You call your writing “sci-chic”—can you explain what that means?
A: I use the term to refer to grounded, based-in-the-real-world sci-fi that will appeal to readers who may have been intimidated by the genre in the past. I was one of those readers when I was a teen, and I see now how many great stories I missed. The word "chic" is there to remind people that science can be cool -- the discipline has gotten such a bad rap, especially among young women. So often science is dismissed as boring or mind-numbing or geeky, partly, I think, because the media reinforces these messages over and over again. So often, the characters who're into science are uber-geeks or eccentrics. In my stories, there are no science nerds, and the science is as fun as it is freaky!
Q: How has your screenwriting experience influenced your fiction writing?
A. In a script, the writer’s voice has a specific place on the page — you’re the narrator, describing the action in every scene. You are not your main character. It’s easy to forget this when you’re writing a first person narrative, and you end up with a voice that doesn’t fit your narrator. Screenwriting taught me not only how to distinguish, but also how to define, my characters by their voices, and how to make sure none of my characters sound like me. Description has its place in a novel, but dialogue is an incredible tool for bringing characters to life and making them relatable to the reader. Both readers and reviewers have commented on how “recognizable” my characters are, which for me is incredibly high praise.
Q: What’s next for Lauren Miller?
A: More sci-chic! Right now I’m working on my third standalone novel, which like Parallel and FREE TO FALL is a grounded, character-driven story with a fun sci-fi twist. My main character is less of a “nice girl” than Abby and Rory are, so it’s been very fun to write from her POV!
Early reviews for FREE TO FALL:
“The society’s dependence upon technology is enthralling, and terrifyingly realistic. Though Rory is slow to awaken to the realities of her carefully designed world, readers will be quick to fall in love with her. A fast-paced plot, an addictive, technology-driven world and fantastic characters make this one of the best reads of 2014 so far.” ~RT Reviews
“A mind teaser that is centered on the overwhelming ‘real world’ of 21st century technology, this book is unique.” ~Suspense magazine
“Miller offers an intricately plotted, intellectually rich thriller that will please a range of readers, from those searching for a page-turner to those wishing to thoroughly engage the mind. Mathematics and Milton’s Paradise Lost serve as additional drivers pushing Rory toward the truth in this boarding school murder-mystery with a near-future SF twist.”
~Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Engaging and thought-provoking, Free to Fall should appeal to a variety of readers with its blend of action, secrecy, and romance.” ~School Library Journal, starred review
“Recognizable characters and intriguing technology shine in this cautionary tale.” ~Kirkus Reviews
Fast forward to the future—it’s 2030 and Apple and Google are long obsolete. Lux, the decision-making app which “guarantees happiness,” monopolizes the technology market—and more often than not, the mind of its user. Such is the crux of the new thriller, FREE TO FALL (HarperTeen/Harper Collins; May 13, 2014), in which author Lauren Miller casts a powerful spotlight on society’s increasing reliance on technology and provokes essential questions about what we might expect in the not so distant future.
In sixteen-year-old Rory Vaughn’s world, everyone relies on Lux to dictate what coffee to order, who to hang out with, where to go to school, and what career path to take. As an avid Lux user herself, Rory trusts the interface to make her every decision, including accepting her invitation to attend the country’s most prestigious boarding school, Theden Academy. But life on campus is not as idyllic as Lux suggests. Soon after her arrival, Rory finds herself at odds with an antagonistic professor and entangled in secret society challenges, all while dealing with a very difficult – and secretive – roommate. Then, there’s North: a rebellious anti-Lux admirer who offers a maverick way of life. Soon, Rory is overriding Lux’s directions, listening instead to “the Doubt,” the dangerous inner voice everyone has been taught to ignore. But as the Doubt draws her farther away from Lux, she gets closer to the truth of her own family ties with Theden—and deep into the throes of the world’s most dangerous influencers.
Engrossing, suspenseful, and surprising, FREE TO FALL imagines where our reliance on technology may be taking us and the cost of being content with the status quo. And at the same time, it’s a universal story of a young girl in the midst of all the changes that come with growing up, who is learning to make her own decisions and face the outcomes of those choices.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lauren Miller grew up in Atlanta, went to college at Yale and law school at Berkeley. She is a television writer and entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two children. Miller’s debut was the acclaimed “sci-chic” novel, Parallel, which Seventeen called “crazy addictive” and New York Times bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz praised as “deeply romantic and entertaining!” Learn more at laurenmillerwrites.com and follow her on Twitter @LMillerWrites.