Bryant Dillon, Fanboy Comics President: Why don’t we start at the beginning - according to the acknowledgments in the back of The Panem Companion, the book got its start with a first draft of your “Map of Panem” and an appearance on the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast. Can you tell us more about the origins of The Panem Companion?
V. Arrow: Well, that’s essentially it—my friend, Meg, and I were discussing The Hunger Games and our love for Finnick, Annie, Mags, and District Four, and that segued into creating the initial draft of the “Map of Panem.” I posted it on my LiveJournal thinking that it might get a few hits from fellow fans, but eventually it made its way to The Fireside Chat, io9, The Daily What, and Entertainment Weekly online, so when the opportunity arose to work with Smart Pop Books on a Hunger Games companion, it made sense to me to focus on the world where the books take place, rather than on Katniss’ character’s story.
BD: Given the amount of work that has gone into the textual analysis of The Hunger Games for The Panem Companion, it’s clear that you’re a passionate and devoted fan of Suzanne Collins’ novels. What drew you to the series and why do you think it has inspired such a rabid fandom?
VA: What actually drew me to the series, and what I still love best about them, is how limited Katniss’ point of view is in telling her story—Collins really did a brilliant, brilliant job with Katniss as a narrator, because she never forgets what Katniss would not know as she relates what Katniss does know. The mystery of all of the other parts of Panem and other characters’ lives are why I keep thinking about the books, and I think that when there is a series with a lot of really rich side characters and hidden potential back stories—like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter—it spawns a more active fandom, because there can be more independent thought and speculation when things aren’t fully spelled out.
BD: What have your experiences with the Hunger Games fan community been like? Have you ever been part of a fandom like this in the past?
VA: The fan community is largely very supportive! I haven’t been very active in it since the movie canon fandom sort of took over, because I’m not a fan of the movie—just the books—but I think that it’s a very, very creative fandom and it has higher quality, more thoughtful fanfiction than most, particularly about peripheral characters like Finnick, Annie, the Avoxes, and Maysilee Undersee. And, yes, I’ve been involved in fandom(s) for about thirteen/fourteen years, so I’ve had this sort of interaction before, but I do think that every fandom is a very different, isolated entity, so there’s never really been one just like THG.
BD: Do you have any favorite stories or challenges from the creation of The Panem Companion?
VA: Hmmm . . . I really wanted to include a chapter about the indigenous flora and fauna of Panem, given how important mockingjays, nightlock berries, etc., are to the plot of the series, but after spending literally a week trying to trace a potential origin for “snowcoat,” the herb tincture that Mrs. Everdeen uses on Gale’s back in Catching Fire, and only coming up with “Well, it might be cocaine?!” I had to scrap that idea . . . maybe if I knew a botanist!
BD: What has been the most difficult aspect of working on the book? Were there any major hurdles that you had to overcome?
VA: Trying to make sure that the content of the book stayed relevant to what has been, or not been, discussed in fandom without accidentally giving away my own content on Tumblr through participating in discussion! The Hunger Games fandom is so huge and so active—and so smart and engaged—that it was a constant source of worry (and revision) to make sure that there was some new content going into the book.
BD: Did you have any initial concepts for the book that just didn’t work or ended up completely different than you first planned?
VA: Haha, see #4! The Cinna/Finnick sidenote in Chapter 13 was initially going to be a larger part of the “Gender and Sexuality” discussion, too, but despite my fervent tinhatting, my editor didn’t go for my “evidence.” Haha.
BD: You discuss the reversal of gender roles in The Panem Companion and how it applies specifically to the characters of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. Do you consider Katniss and Peeta to be positive role models for teens and, if so, why?
VA: You know, tentatively, I would say that I don’t, if only because Peeta is slightly emotionally manipulative and Katniss—this was pointed out by a friend of mine—is not meant to be a role model. Her story is not really the Hero’s Journey, and she is thrust into a position of being a figurehead without actually being allowed to have power to control her own life or the actions of those around her, even when, or especially when, they affect her. I think that Katniss is hugely admirable, and I think that Peeta is a genuinely nice guy—not a Nice Guy, and by far less abusive than many/most YA male leads—but I don’t know that they’re role models.
BD: Throughout The Panem Companion you discuss the tactics used by the Capitol and President Snow to keep the districts fractured, weak, and dependent upon those in power. While the Capitol and Snow may not be considered “mustache-twirling’ villains like the ones present in other popular YA fiction, do you still consider them or their actions “evil” or is there a more complex answer?
VA: I don’t know that I think evil is a simple concept in itself—so yes, I think they’re evil, but it’s a very complex evil, just like all of the evils in our own world (which are, incidentally, the ones coopted by the Capitol and President Snow).
BD: You devote a section to explaining the appropriateness of the much-debated ending of Mockingjay. What was your initial reaction upon finishing the trilogy, and why do you think Collins’ finale was the right way to wrap up the series?
VA: I was, personally, let down by the epilogue, because I thought that it seemed like an unfitting ending for the character of Katniss Everdeen to have babies and (ostensibly) get married, when her feelings about such things had been so, so negative throughout the entire series—we aren’t privy to the time taken between the end of Mockingjay’s story and the epilogue to see how she’s changed enough that it would be an ending that made her happy, or even content, so it felt disingenuous to me. (I also personally found it disappointing because I would love to see a strong heroine’s story not have to turn out to have been The Path To Marriage ‘N’ Babies! for once . . . I felt the same way about Liz Lemon getting married on 30 Rock, though, haha.) Analytically, though, I understand the necessity of all of the ending’s parallels and the open-endedness, as I said in The Panem Companion.
BD: Some in the geek world have been slow to warm to The Hunger Games series, seeing it as less of a sci-fi epic/drama and more as a tween romance tale that is outside of their palette of interest. What would you say to someone who has yet to read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series to convince them to give the books (and eventually The Panem Companion) a read?
VA: Well, if they’re turned off by the romantic aspect, I’d reassure them that it’s been unduly played up in the media—it’s really a side note for the books, especially since Katniss is reticent to consider anyone as a romantic interest at all and it’s her story, so no one really is—and that it’s largely allegorical. I would also consider the world building of Panem itself to be really interesting sci-fi in itself—I’m a sucker for a series where the author has really put effort into making the story’s world its own place.
BD: Great creators usually have great taste! Once our readers finish reading The Panem Companion, what other books or novels would you recommend? Any particular favorites?
VA: In terms of YA, I would recommend Holly Black’s Curse Workers series—it takes place in an alternate contemporary earth where magic exists, but has been integrated into mainstream society (unlike in Harry Potter, for example), and explores all of the potential political and social consequences of that . . . magical mafia families, dealing magic instead of drugs and humans! Advocates for better support for magical persons and less otherization! Political campaigns built on the back of stance on magic usage! It’s fantastic. It’s a series that definitely deserves more attention than it’s had.
BD: What can we expect next from V. Arrow? Are there any other fan guides or other projects you’d like to take on?
VA: I have an essay in an anthology about fanfiction coming out in 2013, also from Smart Pop Books, but beyond that, I'm still figuring out my next project. There are a few different topics that I'm doing some primary research gathering on for nonfiction, and I'm hoping to move into writing original fiction professionally at some point, too.