You can't deny a passion for storytelling.
James Dashner, author of the best-selling "The Maze Runner" series for young adults, worked as an accountant for eight years, but his true heart was elsewhere.
"I've always loved storytelling, but being practical, I chose accounting in college," Mr. Dashner said on the phone from Raleigh, N.C., where he was on a book tour.
He will speak Friday evening at the Carnegie Library in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens series. Mr. Dashner is also author of the 13th Reality series and the Infinity Ring series, both for middle school-age readers.
A lifelong reader and film lover, Mr. Dashner would write in the evenings and Saturdays, meeting weekly writing goals. "The more I did it, the more I loved it. I just kept working on it until I got my big break," he said.
Mr. Dashner's "big break" was the publication of the "The Maze Runner" in 2009. In "The Maze Runner," the main character, Thomas, finds himself in a strange place called the glade, a place populated by a handful of teenage boys who have no memories of the past. Beyond the glade is a huge stone maze with doors that close every evening. Monsters, called Grievers, come out of the maze at night. Thomas may not remember the past, but he knows his destiny is to run the maze and solve it.
It's a gripping, keep-you-up-all-night kind of book.
Mr. Dashner's newest, "The Eye of Minds," is the first in the Mortality Doctrine series. Teenage Michael is a gamer in a virtual reality called the VirtNet. When VirtNet Security asks him to locate a cyber terrorist within a video game, Michael acquiesces. He hacks his way through gaming programs only to discover that his existence and his task are not what they seem.
While on the VirtNet, a gamer's body is wired into a coffin-like box whereby sensations of actual experiences are simulated. Michael's best friends are people he has met only on the VirtNet.
Mr. Dashner explained that "The Eye of Minds" was inspired by the films "The Matrix" and "Inception."
"I fell in love with 'The Matrix' movies. I remember thinking of this twist that I thought was going to happen but never did, and it stayed lodged in my brain. In the film 'Inception,' the dream within a dream within a dream concept fascinated me," he said.
"The Eye of Minds" blurs the lines between real life and virtual reality, asking the question: How do you know which is more real?
"If a dream can feel real even for a few minutes, then how can you possibly know you're not dreaming ever? If a virtual reality world is so advanced that it's indecipherable from the real world, then who's to say that it's not real?" he said.
To add to the reality effect, there's a strong visual and cinematic quality to Mr. Dashner's writing. Futuristic worlds are rendered with great detail.
"I think cinematically," he said. "I picture it as a movie in my head and try to convert that to the page."
Film adaptations of Mr. Dashner's fiction are in the works, with "The Maze Runner" slated for release in September 2014.
"Every major event is in the movie," he said.
While he can't dish details about what the Grievers will look like, he promises that "it's going to be very memorable and terrifying."
Teens have immense responsibility in Mr. Dashner's fiction; they must solve dire problems.
"Have you talked to a teen lately?" he said. "A lot of responsibility is thrown onto younger people. I read stories about teens whose parent left or died, and they're going to school and working, helping to take care of siblings. I see inspiration all the time. I think we really underestimate what teenagers can do, when they have to."
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.