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?”