James Dashner was born and raised in Georgia but now lives and writes in the Rocky Mountains Image Credit: Random House

In 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 kickstarted the dystopian phenomenon, and since then the popularity of the genre, despite predictions of its decline, is still big. It has found a solid home in the growing body of young adult literature. According to James Dashner, the best-selling author of the popular Maze Runner series, the thrill goes beyond the vicarious. It is art imitating life that keeps it appealing. “It has to do with real-world issues and seeing yourself, your families, or your country in these stories,” he says. “There are a lot of metaphors and things we can identify with, similarities to struggles in our own lives. Most importantly, they’re fun to read, helping us escape for a while.”

Either way, readers are reaching out to dark visions to make sense of an increasingly unrecognisable times. Dashner’s Maze Runner series, set in a post-apocalyptic world, much like Hunger Games and Divergent, has amassed a legion of fans over the years.

“I feel very lucky to have been a small part of this wave of popularity,” he says humbly. The Maze Runner, the first book in the trilogy, which Dashner worked on for about three years, was published in 2009 after numerous rejections. It was followed by The Scorch Trials in 2010 and The Death Cure the year after.

His last book, The Fever Code, published in 2016, bridged prequel The Kill Order and the series into one compelling whole. It was challenging to write, says the American writer. “That book had been in my mind for many years, all the way back to when I first sold the first book (The Maze Runner) to my US publisher. The mystery of the story, and the fact that their memories have been erased, really sets everything up to have a prequel to fill in some of the blanks.”

“It was a challenge, though. I had to reread the prior books and take a lot of notes to make sure I didn’t contradict myself. Also, I had to make sure that the series ended with a bang,” he adds.

A back-up plan

A finance graduate from Brigham Young University, Dashner worked for many years as an accountant. Though he hated it, it was a way to earn a living until he could make enough money to survive as a writer.

“Being a full-time author was my dream from the beginning, but that’s just something that’s really hard to accomplish. So I had a back-up plan, studying accounting because I’d heard that they always can get a job, no matter the state of the economy,” he says. “I really, really hated it. Having four kids, I didn’t quit my day job until I was comfortable that we’d be okay financially.”

The Maze Runner world is inspired by a number of things he’d watched and read over the years. “TV show Lost and novel Lord Of the Flies heavily influenced this series — the sense of mystery, abandonment and trying to escape. Also, I’ve always had a fascination with mazes ever since the creepy maze at the end of the movie, The Shining.”

No wonder the series is action-packed, and reading it feels much like watching a movie. “My books are much more cinematic than anything else,” says Dashner, whose The Maze Runner and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials had hugely successful big screen makeovers. “I envision them in my head as movies, really, then do my best to translate that to the written word. I believe that’s why they naturally lend themselves to film adaptations.”

The film adaptation of the third book in the series, The Death Cure, is coming out this year.

While The Divergent Series wrapped up its cinematic arc in 2016, and the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight franchises have ended, Maze Runner is the only ongoing YA fantasy franchise around at the moment. And though the writer feels “very fortunate” for the franchise success, he says there can be a lot of cynicism towards books and movies for teenagers. “I don’t really understand it. What could be better than young people getting excited about reading, or storytelling in any form? I hope that the last movie in our franchise can really leave a positive impression on the naysayers.”

Some critics believe that teen fiction is to blame, along with films and computer games, for promoting youth violence. In dystopian novels, child killing, dead teenagers, or those constantly threatened by death, is becoming a required part of the formula.

We are now in an age where children are just as vulnerable to sudden death as anyone else on screen or in books. Recently, online game Blue Whale, a twisted suicide challenge, goaded vulnerable teens into killing themselves. “Suicide is the darkest thing I can imagine, it just breaks my heart. I wish I could reach out and help more often,” says Dashner, who tackled the subject in his 2013 thriller The Eye Of Minds, the first novel in the Mortality Doctrine series that centres on virtual reality and online gaming.

“Some of the most rewarding correspondence I’ve ever received was from people who said my books helped them get through times in their lives when they were considering suicide,” he says.

To him, online activities can be both a help and a hindrance, he says. “It makes it easier to reach out for help, but it also is a breeding ground for negativity, cruelty and bullying.”

But social media, he says, can be valuable resource for authors and filmmakers trying to gain exposure, respond to feedback and connect with fans. In 2015, to promote young adult blockbuster Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Dashner started an interactive Twitter adventure tagged #ScorchMaze, where his fans — Dashner Army as they are called — got to make the decisions, and control how the story ends.

“I think social media is extremely important, and I sure wish I’d had it when I was a kid. Constantly hearing from your favourite author would’ve been beyond my little brain’s comprehension of possibilities way back then. So I try to do my best, knowing it’s a great way for my readers to feel a connection with me, he says. “#ScorchMaze Twitter story was a lot of fun and a big hit with the fans.”

Though an active social media user, he says online conversation and engagement with his fans has no bearing on his storytelling. “If I let that happen, I think I would absolutely go insane and have to be locked up. My stories, my characters, my settings, plots, twists are something that mostly come from instinct.”

Jimmy Fincher saga

Dashner, who also wrote The Jimmy Fincher saga and The 13th Reality series, writes simple outlines for his books. “But the vast majority of my cool ideas come to me while my fingers are tapping away at the keyboard. One of the most difficult things for me to do is articulate exactly how I write. I just do.”

Living the writer’s life, it is hard to complain, Dashner says. “I work from home, so I do see my family a lot, and when I travel, sometimes my wife or my kids will go with me. I treat my job like an actual job, and write during the day Monday-Friday so that I can be a husband and a dad in the evenings and on weekends.”

Apparently, it’s not story plot and suspenseful scenarios, or character and setting but the mysteries about the human race that keeps him awake at night. “I’m a thinker and a speculator when it comes to stuff like the universe, quantum physics and technology,” he says.

At present though he has his hands full — working on projects he says he’s “extremely” excited about. “I am writing my first book for the adult market, a creepy thriller that is very inspired by Stephen King. I am also writing an original story to be told in a series of comic books, something totally new for me. We’ll see how it goes.”

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.

James Dashner will take part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to be held at InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, from March 1-10.