The Big Idea: Jackie Morse Kessler

Here’s a question for you: How can a book take both ten years — and only four weeks — to write? The answer lies in Hunger, the latest novel by Jackie Morse Kessler. Turns out there’s more to putting together a novel than placing fingers to keyboard, and it also turns out that when it comes to books, the right time to write might be sooner than you think.

JACKIE MORSE KESSLER:

I wasn’t going to write Hunger. It didn’t matter that I’d had the idea for nearly 10 years. And it didn’t matter that this was a book that I dearly wanted to write. I wasn’t going to do it. I’d convinced myself that it wouldn’t appeal to a broad readership, so I’d have to wait until I was a Big Name Author*, whenever that would be. Until then, I’d stick with writing about demons and superheroes—otherwise known as “novels already under contract.”

Then came Albacon 2008. My agent and I got together for lunch, and I casually mentioned to her that my goal was to become a big enough author to write the book I really wanted to write. She wanted to know what book that would be. I said, “An anorexic teenage girl becomes the new Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” My agent asked, “Why haven’t you written this yet?” I patiently explained that no one would want to read it. To which she replied, “Are you crazy?”

So I decided to write the book. (Validation? Extremely powerful motivator.)

Hunger has roots in comic books—both Marvel and Archie, if you can believe that combination—but the idea really sprouted when I was in my early twenties, well after my bout with bulimia. I wanted to write a book with a protagonist who not only had an eating disorder but was defined by it, a book that tackled a very real issue through fantastical elements. So as I waited to become a Big Name Author, the idea percolated.

After thinking about something for 10 years, you might assume that once I’d given myself permission to write it, the words would come easily. Nope. I was plagued with false starts. I couldn’t find the right beginning. Should I set it in a hospital, where the protagonist had been confined because of her disease? If I did, how would Famine’s steed—a big black horse named Midnight—make it past the Nurse’s Station? For that matter, did the protagonist even know she was suffering from an eating disorder? Actually…who was the main character? She wasn’t just some person who happened to be anorexic. I needed to understand her, as well as her disorder.

That’s when it hit me: The protagonist would be inspired by someone I had known—specifically, the girl who’d introduced me to bulimia. That girl from my past is gone; I found out about her death many years after we’d gotten into the huge fight that destroyed our friendship. Maybe it was partially out of guilt, or love, or something else only a psychologist could help me understand, but I decided that Hunger would be her story. That’s how the heroine Lisabeth Lewis was born. Once I had the right protagonist, the first sentence appeared like magic: “Lisabeth Lewis didn’t mean to become Famine.” From there, the first three chapters flowed.

I slammed into my next roadblock when I had to figure out the purpose behind the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Given that I have a background writing urban fantasy (not to mention playing Dungeons & Dragons), you’d think the world-building issues would have been tackled sooner. For every other paranormal book or story I’ve written, that’s been the case: I’d come up with the rules of the world first, then I’d put the character in that world. Hunger brushed that aside. This wasn’t a book about the Horseman called Famine, whose anorexia is an afterthought. This story is about an anorexic girl who becomes Famine. It’s extremely character-driven. I could take away the Horsemen elements and still have a story—a very different story, granted, but a story all the same. If I took away the eating disorder, there would be no story left to tell. So when I was starting chapter four and I realized that I didn’t know why there were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the first place, I stumbled.

For days, I wrestled with the notion of the Horsemen. Now I’m all for a little death, doom and destruction, but that wasn’t where I wanted to go with the book. The Apocalypse was officially off the table. So why have the Horsemen at all? What was their purpose? My husband, who helps me brainstorm, asked me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Horsemen weren’t there to bring about the Apocalypse, but to prevent it?”

Yes, I thought, already reaching for my laptop. Very cool.

That wasn’t exactly what I wound up running with, but it was a terrific start. The Horsemen, ultimately, symbolize how we choose to destroy ourselves—and how we can save ourselves as well. Oh, there’s a mythology there, too, one that will come into play over the other three books in The Riders’ Quartet. But for Hunger, I’d finally figured out what the Horsemen were, and what they could do, if they so chose.

Armed with this information, I sat down to finish writing the book. The whole percolating-for-10-years thing finally came into play, because from start to finish, the novel took me four weeks. Granted, Hunger is a very (very) short book. And really, I don’t recommend waiting 10 years to write a book—especially when you have to push aside a contracted novel under deadline to do so. (Couldn’t help it. Every time I tried to write about superheroes, Horsemen kept popping up.)

So I finished it. My agent sold the book to Harcourt—and then she asked me, “So which Horseman are you writing about next?” And that’s how, after 10 years, I not only wrote the book I’d desperately wanted to write; I also moved forward. Rage, the follow-up novel about a teenage self-injurer who becomes the new War, comes out in April 2011. And look at that: no Big Name required. Lesson learned.

To help spread the word about what eating disorders are, and what they’re not, I’m donating a portion of Hunger proceeds to the National Eating Disorders Association. So if you bought a copy of the book, thank you for helping make a difference.

* Big Name Author: When an author’s name on a cover is bigger than the book title. Or, better yet, when someone says the author’s name, the immediate reaction isn’t a blank look followed by, “Who?”

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Hunger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

28 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Jackie Morse Kessler

  1. Having been lucky enough to hear Jackie read from HUNGER for my radio show (er, my alter ego K. A. Laity’s radio show), I can vouch for how compelling a narrative this is. Lisabeth’s pain is palpable — so too is her wonder on meeting Midnight and discovering herself to be part of something bigger that she’s just begun to understand. Wonderful!

  2. HUNGER (almost) makes me wish I was still teaching high-school English. I would love to discuss this book with students.

  3. I think it’s been done before. The book took place in a small town. The main character was named “Cally” and she was anorexic. She had three female friends who embodied Death, Disease, and War, and one of the friends had been an abortionist before abortion became legal. Cally’s husband, Mark, was the town’s undertaker, and he became The Beast… Unfortunately, I can’t remember either the name of the book or the author, though I think I first read it in the mid-to-late eighties.

  4. I can vouch for how compelling a narrative this is. Lisabeth’s pain is palpable — so too is her wonder on meeting Midnight and discovering herself to be part of something bigger that she’s just begun to understand.

  5. This reminds me of Piers Anthony’s series, The Incarnations of Immortality. It’s about the regular people who become Death, War, Famine, and other related but non-horsemen things like Nature, Time, God, and the Devil.

    If I recall, War was a middle-eastern prince of some kind who had a stutter, and so would sing instead of talking. And Death was just a guy who accidentally killed the previous Death when he meant to commit suicide.

  6. For the record, I’m not asking the author, I’m just thinking out loud.

    Hunger = Famine = Eating disorders, sure.
    Rage = War = Cutter, okaaaaay.

    I’m almost afraid to guess what Pestilence will be. I immediately jump to a kid dealing with a chronic illness, but that leaves out the self-harm aspect.

    Of course, the biggie will be Death itself. In keeping with the trend of self-harm, would it be erotic asphyxiation? Or just take the Gaiman route to a goth (which isn’t self harm at all).

  7. @Daniel, #7; maybe someone who is HIV-positive, and tries to deny it by running around, sleeping with random bar pickups, spreading the ‘joy’…

  8. You know, I think that even if this concept has been done before, it is well worth doing again. Issues like eating disorders and cutting were around when I was a teen, and are still around today. And will likely be in the future. Authors who write books that speak to the current generation need to keep doing so.

    There are, I am sure, hundreds of book being published that cover the subject of bullying. Yet we still publish more books, because those books have an audience and are needed.

    Since I haven’t run into this take on Famine, I’m intrigued. Chalk up another book read thanks to The Big Idea.

  9. @ 7 & 8: Interesting ideas…

    Hunger = Famine = Eating disorders
    Rage = War = Cutter
    (Sickness?) = Pestilence = HIV+
    (???) = Death = A pre-teen serial killer, or one in the early stages of becoming one (e.g. animal abuse)

    Just downloaded a preview chapter of Hunger for my Kindle. We’ll see what happens…

  10. Death – someone suffering from Cotard Delusion as a result of severe depression or other mental illness such as schizophrenia. Perhaps someone who not only believes themselves to be dead, but co-morbid with a delusion that they can spread death through contact.

  11. This idea sounds like a rip-off of Piers Anthony’s well-written “Incarnations of Immortality” combined with lame, teenie angst.

    When, oh when are we going to get away from adult writers cashing in, and as collateral, destroying the sub-genre by using teenie angst.

    It’s already been done to Vampires (not really Buffy, more those horrid Twilight books), sorcery (Harry Potter), and I’ve even heard about zombie stories.

    Say no to teenie angst.

  12. Miles @ 6–no famine, that I recall anyway, but the rest were there (and fate–Niobe was always my favorite of the incarnations) and you recall correctly about War and Death.

    Scorpius @ 14, wow, way to give constructive criticism. Oh wait, no.

  13. Scorpius:

    “This idea sounds like a rip-off of Piers Anthony’s well-written ‘Incarnations of Immortality’ combined with lame, teenie angst.”

    I don’t recall Incarnations of Immortality being particularly well-written; it had one book I considered good, another that was passable and the rest competent in a manner that didn’t interest me as a reader.

    Unlike you, Scorpius, I have read this particular book, and it’s pretty good. It’s no more a rip of off Anthony’s take on these characters than Gaiman/Pratchett’s were in Good Omens or any other variation of these character since the early 80s, when those books came out. Certainly Anthony doesn’t own the trademark on the Four Horsemen.

    I’d prefer you didn’t use your own particular hobby horse regarding YA to crap on this book, which you have not read.

  14. I’d like to wade in here with my own bizarre and uninformed opinion, and suggest that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is just a hack who ripped off Poe. Because Poe totally invented detective stories so they all belong to him.

  15. Strangely enough, I was talking about Springer’s “Apocalypse” with a friend this weekend and thinking that I really ought to give it a re-read since it was a book I enjoyed.

    As to “Hunger” being similar, on the face it may seem like it but as I recall, though the women were the embodiment of the horsemen, it was actually the entire town teetering on the brink. And as Robin @11 pointed out, there are lots of books written about bullying with still more written. Even if this book isn’t my cup of tea (I’m gonna track it down regardless), no reason why it won’t resonate with someone else.

  16. Sounds interesting, and I’ll probably read it because I like this sort of thing. Rage sounds a bit disappointing in concept though. I’ve always had the impression that cutters are mainly driven by impotent depression and self loathing and not any kind of anger. (One would think they’d be cutting someone /else/ were that the case.) It’s possible that the few I’ve known were an exception, but it’s just not the kind of thing I’d expect the embodiment of War to have.

  17. @Mechalith: That’s what I was thinking too. It seems like War would be a strangler if anything. Or if we go with self mutiliation then a soldier going on suicide missions rather than going home.

  18. @Scorpius: I just read the Harry Potter books recently and they’re wonderfully done. They remind me more of Roald Dahl than anything else.

  19. I can vouch for how compelling a narrative this is. Lisabeth’s pain is palpable — so too is her wonder on meeting Midnight and discovering herself to be part of something bigger that she’s just begun to understand.

  20. The upside down tortoise has a flat plastron, so it is likely a female. One wonders if the other tortoise is a male. Any tortoise experts out there?

  21. @Mechalith: That’s what I was thinking too. It seems like War would be a strangler if anything. Or if we go with self mutiliation then a soldier going on suicide missions rather than going home.

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