'Atlantia' Author Ally Condie Talks The Darkness of 'The Little Mermaid,' Sisterhood, and A Peek Into What's Coming Next

Ally Condie has already made a splash in young adult literature with her hugely popular Matched series. But her new novel Atlantia has a new twist and a new setting: under the sea. Condie's Atlantia (Dutton Juvenile) isn't about mermaids, but it the world's most popular mermaid, named Ariel, echoes throughout the story. 

In a YA landscape often populated with young love (and yes, there's that too, don't worry) Condie centers her story instead on that indescribable bond of sisters. In this case, Rio and Bay, two teenage girls who live in an undersea land known as Atlantia, created to escape the pollution above. But when they are giving the opportunity to go Above, everything they know is questioned.

Condie talked about the inspiration for her new novel with Bustle, and that one red-headed mermaid that we all can't help but think of.

BUSTLE: What really stood out throughout Atlantia was this theme of sisterhood. What do you think is so special about this relationship between sisters?

CONDIE: I really wanted to write a book about women and sisters. I always knew from the very begining that it was going to be a sisters book. What I didn't expect was that it was going to have two sets of sisters — Rio and Bay and also Maire and Oceana, their mom and aunt. That was cool when it started to come together and I realized, "Oh, I'm doing this."

With my sisters there's a lot of shared history that's good, but also I think if you love someone and know them that well, there's also a lot of potential for hurt, as well. As you're growing up and you're close, you can't trust anyone the way you trust your sister, but also they have the power to wound you in ways no one else really does. 

What are some of your favorite stories about sisters, that you may have drawn inspiration from — whether it’s real life, books, movies, etc.

There was definitely a little influence from The Little Mermaid. This book is not about mermaids, but as I was reading the Hans Christian Andersen story, the sisters aren't super well developed. But I had this feeling that the sisters are really important to the story, in a way that isn't stated on the page.

I've always been sort of fascinated with the idea of what happens when you're separated from your family, because that happens a lot. Just geographically, not even a rift. So I thought: What would be the ultimate separation in geography? I wanted to separate them physically and emotionally, like the Little Mermaid and her sisters — there's no way for them to really be together again.

There definitely seemed to be more in the story that echoed Andersen's The Little Mermaid — not necessarily the Disney one — the seafoam from the bodies, the elements of Above and Below of course...

No one knows about the seafoam! I love that you know that.

Yes! I definitely read the story a lot as a kid. But you certainly echo it throughout. What fascinated you about this story?

Almost everything in the The Little Mermaid story influenced the book in some way. I read that collection a lot when I was a little kid, they're so dark and grim! ... They're so sad. I was re-reading them and enjoying them — as strange as that sounds — and as an older reader I thought how different The Little Mermaid was from the Disney story, which has become so entrenched in the way we see the story. She kind of goes up for the prince, but she's going up for a lot of different reasons. And it's a lot more painful. She doesn't just lose her voice, it's also physically painful for her every time she takes a step. ... I felt like it's so sad in the story, because it's all the Little Mermaid had longed for and to have it be physically painful, too.

I built a lot of the world building around it as well because I think it's a fascinating construct. In the Hans Christian Andersen story, the mermaids don't have souls and the humans do, even though the mermaids live longer. I did a lot of my world building around that idea because I thought it was so cool the way he had set up that juxtaposition. And I could see a government or a society using that as a rationale for why you would have some people have to live Above and some people have to live Below

I’m sure people always ask which land you would choose, Above or Below, but I want to know, if you only had one sentence to say to make the case for each, what would those sentences be?

If I was trying to convince her to come below I would say, "You could live longer, and it's beautiful here." I think the city of Atlantia, in my mind, is extremely beautiful. It's falling apart, but it's pretty.

To stay Above, I would say, "You could walk for miles and you’d never reach the end of it."

It’s a very full and vivid world you’ve created in Atlantia. I wondered if you had any visual depictions or places that inspired the world Below.

I did. I found more than anything else I've ever written, I had to have physical images because I was building something from scratch. So I made a Pinterest board for the first time! One of the places I think about a lot is that there's this place in China, and early on I stumbled across it as I was looking for underwater city images. It's an ancient city and they flooded it, they made a lake over it.

So you can still go scuba diving there and look at it, but it's this entire city — temples and carvings and all the buildings — but it's underwater. It's really creepy and beautiful. And I think that's where I got the original idea for the stone gargoyles of the gods because they have a lot of carvings on those temples of these lions and tigers and other cool things, that were now underwater. So that's where the idea came from for the land creatures underwater and vice versa.

I wanted it to feel like an older city, and I decided to use Venice as an inspiration because of the water connection, but also because I'd read a line on a blog that said she really loved Venice because there was something about the decaying that drew her in. I really loved that line, and I thought it would be a cool concept to use for Atlantia.

In the book, Rio wonders what it would be like to make a religion, to fashion your own gods. In a way, that's what you did for this story. So, what was it like for you?

It was kind of fun! I didn't have any religion at all in the Matched series, it was just not a part of their world. In this early on, I knew they had to have a religion or something bigger than the government that they believed in order to make these great sacrifices.

Initially it was enough to believe in the people they loved, but as the generations passed they'd have to believe in something more compelling because they didn't have that same personal connection to the people who were being saved. That's where the religion really originated, and I felt like it evolved naturally as I was writing the book. I knew I wanted these siren voices and there started to be these things that were not explainable by logic or science, and so it was easy to build the religion around that. And kind of fun to make up your own gods and play around with that. 

When I read Atlantia, I was overcome with this message of finding your own voice—in the case with Rio in particular, both literally and figuratively. Why do you think Rio’s story is an important one today, especially for young women readers.

I think we live in a great time. I don't want to sound really negative, because I think there's a lot of freedom for women and girls particularly in our country. But it's also kind of stunning to see the juxtaposition of that versus other countries in the world and versus the freedoms we have but what our culture still doesn't allow in our own country.

I feel like young women's voices, even now, are not desired, not requested by society at large. I think we're doing a lot to change that, but I feel like it's something very important that we could do better: listening to those voices and encouraging young girls to talk.

I work with the young women in the youth congregation in my church and they're beautiful and wonderful and smart, and I kind of feel like in this world of social media, a lot of what you are is your body and not your voice. I don't love that. I feel like young women's voices, even now, are not desired, not requested by society at large. I think we're doing a lot to change that, but I feel like it's something very important that we could do better: listening to those voices and encouraging young girls to talk.

What can readers expect next from you? Any hints?

I have to be a little vague because it is still a little vague; I'm not being coy. I am working on a new project that I'm really excited about. It's young adult again, I just love writing young adult. It's a story I've been wanting to write for a long time, actually the first book I wanted to write but then I realized I didn't have it right yet. I've been waiting a long time to do it, but I don't know if I'll be able to execute it properly, but it's been a lot of fun to try again.

There's a murder, and it's a little bit more of a fantasy setting, but there's no magic.

Images: Ally Condie/Facebook; Wikimedia Commons; Jim Nix/Flickr; Chinese National Geography (2)

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