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Just Arrived, 10/19/10

Mmmm… more books in the mail. What’s up today:

* The Broken Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit): You’ll recall that N.K. Jemisin was a recent guest poster here, but rather more importantly, she writes pretty damn awesome fantasy novels, and this one is the second in her Inheritance Trilogy, which you really should be reading. In this one, someone’s killing gods, and of course the book’s heroine is caught up in the mess. This will be out November 3, which gives you time to check out the first book in the series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Hint, hint.

* Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks (Orbit): Yay! New Culture novel! Banks is one of those writers who makes me feel smarter for reading him, which is probably more pressure on him than he needs, but like that’s my problem. Also, the cover to the book features a person with Mandelbrot set pupils in their eyes, which is an unintentionally nice memorial to Benoit Mandelbrot, who passed away a couple of days ago. This is already out in the UK, as I understand, and will be out on the 28th in the US.

* Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot): Beukes imagines an alternate reality where the phrase “a monkey on your back” isn’t just a figure of speech, and our non-too-perfect heroine finds herself enmeshed in a missing persons case. The book’s gotten itself a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the US version will be out in December (the UK version is already out). Beukes will be doing a Big Idea piece around the time of her US release as well.

* Celebrity Chekhov, Ben Greenman (Harper Perennial): A new variation of the “adapting older works” craze, this one redoes Chekov stories by replacing Chekov’s characters with current celebrities. This will inevitably lead to other such things, and with the inevitable “Mel Gibson awoke one morning to find he had been transformed into a dung beetle.” At which point the world will implode. I’m just saying. Out now.

* Selected Shorts and Other Methods of Time Travel, David Goldberg (Blue World Publications): 37 short stories about the perils of commercial time travel. Problems with luggage handling are the least of it, apparently. This book did a little bit of time travel itself to get to me, since it won’t be out until February.

* The Dark Griffin, K.J. Taylor (Ace): The first book in a new fantasy series involving griffins and those who ride them. The three books in the series will be published one month apart, and this one comes out in January.

* The Human Blend, Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey): OH NOES STARBUCKS HAS GONE ONE COFFEE FLAVOR TOO FAR. Oh, wait, that’s not what the title refers to at all. Forget I mentioned it. More accurately, this is the start of a new series by Foster, in a future in which human body modification doesn’t just mean tattoos or scarification. This first book will be out in late November.

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.


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?”


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

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