Romancing the future: Ally Condie's 'Matched'
She's humble. She's quiet. She's "super nice," according to her newfound literary fans.
And Ally Condie, former high-school English teacher turned Utah's latest young-adult fiction sensation, also knows how to work a room.
Fresh from signing a slew of her new book stacked deskside in the mystery section of The King's English Bookshop, Condie walks to the store's stock room to sign an even bigger stack for collectors and future inventory. This early Saturday in December marks the launch party for Matched, Condie's dystopian tale of a young woman's good fight to return old-fashioned romance and mystery to love and courtship against sinister good intentions of "The Society."
"It's like the first day of teaching high school," Condie said between breaths. "You've done everything you can to prepare and hope everything goes right."
Those three last words fit Condie's rise in young-adult literary circles to a tee.
After a bidding war among eight publishing houses late last year, she landed a reported seven-figure deal for Matched plus two future manuscripts for the complete trilogy from Dutton Children's Books, an Penguin imprint. After locking up foreign rights to her book in 30 countries, she inked a deal to option film rights to Disney.
Condie's is perhaps the ultimate Cinderella publishing story of what can happen when a young woman quits her day job to take care of a budding family, then invests spare hours of typing away at a word processor in the corner of the family basement. Her hobby, plus formidable talent, helped her launch a big-ticket publishing career.
The irony is that, while Condie has written a book decrying a world where everything from marriage to death is planned, her own literary career appears seamless.
Raised in Cedar City, Condie developed an early love for poetry that led her to major in English and earning a teaching certificate at Brigham Young University. From there she cut her prose teeth on books by her two literary heroes, Wallace Stegner and Agatha Christie. She learned style from the former; dialogue, pacing and the art of "the big reveal" from the latter. She counts Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as an inspiration.
Condie, 32, found initial success writing a handful of Mormon-themed books for Deseret Book, but wanted to broaden her audience. Her experience teaching high-school English, matched with her husband Scott's prowess with game theory and probability, would form the creative core of Matched.
Fittingly, for a book about marriage, Condie dedicates the book to her husband, an assistant professor of economics at BYU and an exacting, yet kind, critic of her first drafts. Loose elements of the book's theme were first tossed about after the two helped chaperone a prom at a high school near their Provo home.
The book captures the anticipation of young love, but only up to the point when the book's heroine, Cassia Reyes, discovers through a "microcard" that her match for marriage is a boy she's known since childhood, Xander Carrow. Thanks to a glitch in the matching process, Cassia learns she's also matched to Ky Markham, a boy from the "Outer Provinces."
It's between the assigned destiny of her first match via "The Society" and the mystery of what could have been, or might be possible with Ky, that the tension of Cassia's dilemma grows.
Much like Stephenie Meyer's Twlight series, Condie also crafts the sparks of young love and longing through the ache and tease of romantic enigma rather than the passion of consummation. "Looking at him, I realize that his eyes are where I notice most the distance he keeps," reads an early scene between Cassia and Ky. "Because when he hears me, he opens them and look at me, and it almost happens. I almost catch a glimpse of something real before I see again what he wants me to see."
That similarity, plus the prospect of a movie adaptation, has publishing insiders heralding Condie as the new Meyer. But Condie's fictional world is her own, even if it bears a similarity to dystopian novels of the past, especially Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
A "triumph of planning," "The Society" revolves around a planned economy where each of life's stages from marriage at age 21 to death on or before age 80 is decided in advance for optimal results. Gray-brown oatmeal is delivered from "nutrition vehicles" while satisfying food is saved for special banquets. It's a libertarian's worst nightmare, served with an icy smile.
Condie said she wanted to create "The Society" not as any sort of political statement, but to offer a look into a society removed from nature's messy edges through the eyes of a young woman. In stark contrast to Meyer's static Bella Swan, Cassia is a rebel in blossom after reading Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
"What if you had a society that looked only at probability and didn't care about anything else?" Condie said. "What if probability was their religion? That scenario interested me. So did the great dichotomy of being a teenager. It's a time when everything seems new, and is happening for the first time, but you feel like you don't have enough power to experience it the way you like."
Publishers Weekly named Matched one of the Best Children's Books of 2010, and the book recently broke into the top 10 of The New York Times list of best-sellers in the children's category. Natasha Maw, a West Jordan stay-at-home mom who reviews books online at her Maw Books Blog, said Condie's book was the most fun she'd had reading a "dystopian romance."
"A lot of women focus their energies around the choices they make in life, and this is first and foremost, I think, a book about choices," Maw said. "It's also just a good read."
Condie said the second installment in the trilogy, Crossed, will be out this November. In between final drafts and starting the third book in the trilogy, she will study for state exams to keep her teaching license current. Even after hatching a fictional world where risk, suffering and failure are the unspoken sins, Condie isn't quite ready to acknowledge her run of accomplishments.
"The book has gotten a lot of buzz, but a successful book is not like a successful movie," Condie said. "It's only been out a short time. I guess what I'm saying is, maybe it's too early to call myself a success."