Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jessica Khoury's ORIGIN

Jessica Khoury
Copyright by Rebecca Haney
Hi guys, I hope you're having a great week. It's with great pleasure I bring you today YA author Jessica Khoury. She's 22 years old, from Toccoa, Georgia, and her debut novel, ORIGIN, will hit shelves on September 4th, 2012. That's a bit more than a week from now. How excited are we? Just so you have an idea, ORIGIN sold to Penguin's Razorbill imprint, and it's been chosen as one of Penguin Teen's Fall 2012 Breathless Reads. The book recently sold in Poland, Holland, Germany, Brazil, Bulgaria and Spain, and Scott Steindorff acquired the film rights.

Jessica is here today to tell us a little bit about herself, ORIGIN, her adventures in the publishing world, her experience with beta readers and having a literary agent, and to give advice to YA writers who are currently seeking representation.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Why? Yes, I have, since I was four years old. I cannot think of single day in my life when I didn't have some kind of story in the back of my mind. And why? Because writing, for me, is a form of discovery. Through creating worlds and characters, I seek to explore truth about the world, about love and life and death, about God, about myself. I always come away from writing feeling I've grown, learned, been stretched in some way. It's a very dynamic and often cathartic process, and I find I learn as much from writing a story as I do from reading one.
How long have you been writing professionally (focused on getting published)? I've been writing intensively since I was thirteen and began homeschooling, which allowed me to finish my schoolwork in the morning so I could write all day. I had to relax my writing schedule a bit during college, and after I graduated I picked it back up again.

How many novels have you written before ORIGIN? What do you feel you learned from writing them? And did your previous work lead you to writing ORIGIN? I wrote two novels before Origin, both of them high fantasy. The first I wrote when I was thirteen, and edited, revised, and rewrote until I was sixteen. I think of everything I've ever done, writing that clumsy, overlong, beloved story was the most important step of my writing journey. That was when I truly learned how to write, and I only learned it by doing it. I learned how to stick to a schedule, how to plan a plot, how to critique my own work, how to con my friends into reading it, and I did all of this essentially by trial and error. These stories were markedly different from Origin in almost every way, but they gave me the faith in myself that I had the ability to "make it" if I just didn't give up.
What made you want to write ORIGIN? I remember reading you used to write high fantasy. My question, then, is what motivated you to step out of your comfort zone and write science fiction? Was it a character in particular, the plot itself, or just your wish to pursue new paths in writing? I had never really considered writing anything other than high fantasy until the day I began writing Origin. But I'd been reading a lot of science fiction in the months before Origin (mostly Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold) so I had sci-fi on the brain. I also knew that high fantasy is a hard genre to break into because so many people write it and it's hard to distinguish your book from all the others, especially since mine contained a lot of the usual high fantasy elements. But what most convinced me to break into a new genre was Pia herself. Her story had wrapped itself so tightly around my mind that there wasn't even a question of Can I really write a sci-fi? I never thought of myself as a sci-fi writer. It was more I'm writing this, this is happening, I have no choice. I was so deeply entranced by the idea behind Origin and so convinced readers would be also, I dove headfirst into the first draft less than an hour after conceiving the premise.

You wrote the book in four weeks, correct? It feels like you either write really fast, or the story came to you easily. Or both, which is perfect. What was the case, though? How long did it take until you had an agent / got a deal with Penguin? In this case, it was both. And this was a first for me. My novel prior to Origin took four years to write (mostly because I was in college at the time). I had an agent within a month of completing the first draft.

Did you have beta readers? How important were they in helping you shape up your first draft? I did have beta readers, who were helpful in pointing out some character inconsistencies and in making me look deeper at the heart of the story. But I didn't make any major revisions based on beta readers' input.

Why did you decide to get an agent? Was it an easy process? Did you have any previous experience querying agents? What do you like the most about your agent, and would you recommend other authors should seek representation? I knew I didn't have the experience or know-how to navigate contracts, publishing houses, etc. so I didn't think twice about looking for an agent. I'd queried agents before, earlier last year, for my second high fantasy novel. It got some interest, but nothing concrete, but through that querying process I learned how to write a query, how to market myself, where to find agents, etc. I learned how to use sites like agent query connect and query tracker, two invaluable tools I recommend to every author seeking representation. I adore my agent. She is savvy, tenacious, lightning fast, and ambitious with where she takes her clients' works. I couldn't be happier and am so fortunate to have her!

Do you still coach soccer or are you now writing full-time? Is it difficult to balance your time? I am writing full-time, but I still coach my 9yo sister's soccer team and am also going to begin teaching a theater class for elementary-age kids in my town. Since I don't have kids of my own, I really have a lot of free time. And I have to get out of the house sometime, or I'd turn into some kind of troglodyte! Soccer and theater are both passions of mine second only to writing, and I can't think of anything more fulfilling than getting to pass that on to another generation. But I make certain I have help in these things, so if I have to duck out for a weekend to attend a signing, I can.
Tell me more about your writing routine. Are you a disciplined writer (get up every day at a certain time, sit down to write at 8, lunch at noon, etc) or do you write only when you're inspired? What do you do when the story doesn't feel like it's working out? I usually write late at night, between 11-3, when distractions are at a minimum. I try to write every day, especially when I'm working on a new book, and I aim for at least 2k a day. Between books, I develop new projects, do research, etc. When a story gives me trouble, I have certain tricks to get me going again. I've found in most cases, when I get stuck at some point in the story, the answer to getting un-stuck is almost always already written. I go back, look at what I've already put down, and often find the answers hidden between the lines of earlier passages, even if I didn't mean to leave them there. It's like my subconscious knows I'm going to write myself into a corner eventually.

How important was your reading background? Do you think it helped you bring ORIGIN to life? Also, do you read when you're working on something new? Why / why not? Oh, reading is infinitely valuable--indeed, it's essential--to writing. I've read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, and I mean a lot, and Origin combines both these elements. In a way, Origin is a balance of these two favorite genres of mine. I usually don't read anything while I write, because I tend to pick up other voices and tones without meaning to. It's like when I read Lemony Snicket in middle school. I couldn't write a sentence without it mimicking that dry, whimsical tone of those books, no matter how I tried.

Authors can be a bit superstitious. Is there anything you do / avoid when you are writing. For instance, do you let friends / family / beta readers see early chapters of your work in advance, or do you show it to them only when it's ready? I sometimes let my husband read chapters, but usually I keep them under lock and key. I was even reluctant to give my family ARCs. I want to show people the finished, pretty swan, not the hairy, scary, ugly duckling, if I can help it. I even cringe when I send first drafts to my editor! But I wouldn't say I'm superstitious about it; it's just my preference.
You believed in ORIGIN, otherwise you wouldn't have tried getting it published, but how surprised were you when you learned it sold to Penguin? And that it sold to so many other countries. And let me add I am really happy it's coming to Brazil.I am so thrilled it will be in Brazil, since the story is set there! When I heard about Penguin, I cried. I screamed. I had elephants in my stomach for a week. To tell you the truth, though I always dreamed of publication, I never let myself dream of a BIG publication. I didn't dare get my hopes too high, and always thought I'd get a small regional deal, maybe a mid-size pub house. I never dreamed... I mean Penguin! PENGUIN! I still don't think it's actually hit me. When I visited them in NY, I got chills just walking down the hallway and seeing posters and first printings of the books I grew up on as a child. It was the most exhilarating, terrifying, and fulfilling experience so far, just thinking of my little book being on shelves beside those written by my heroes and inspirations. Even writing this now puts tears in my eyes!

And how fantastic it is that Scott Steindorff picked up the rights. So, any more news on ORIGIN becoming a movie? I'm sure you're really happy, but were you expecting such wave of good news to come your way since you started writing the book? Well, if I never let myself dream of Penguin, I certainly never even looked twice at Hollywood! It's still very early in the process with the movie deal, but we purposely chose to go with an independent filmmaker instead of a big studio because the chances of the movie actually getting made are exponentially higher, and you usually get a big studio to distribute anyway. So fingers crossed!

What do you think YA stories are missing today? What sets ORIGIN apart as a YA story? I love how daring YA is getting in that it challenges genre and tradition and is injecting a new energy into publishing. But I think we must be careful not to write simply for indulgence's sake. It's okay to have books to read just for a fun escape, but why stop there? I don't care so much for books written simply to make teenage girls squeal over shirtless boys. I like a little more meat, a little more depth to a story. I like books that make you think--even if you don't agree with the book, I want it to do more than just activate your salivary glands. I want your brain cells to hum. I want you to think about why you agree or disagree. I want you to engage with the story on a philosophical level. I'm a nerd, what can I say? I like brainy books. And I hope Origin does that for its readers; I hope it makes them actively think about ideas and questions beyond just OMG so hottttt! (Though there's of course time for that too! ;-)

What piece of advice would you give writers out there -- particularly YA writers -- who wish to get published? Read and write, write and read--but don't forget to live. The most powerful tool you have when it comes to writing is your own story. You have no greater emotions to write about than the ones you've felt yourself, no greater truths to tell than the ones you've learned through tears and pain and blood. Sometimes it's important to remember there is a world outside the pages of a book, and that discovering, tasting, experiencing that world makes the printed ones so much sweeter and more meaningful. Read. Write. Live!

ORIGIN's Cover Art
Designed by Greg Stadnyk 
I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed interviewing Jessica. If you're interested in ORIGIN, it's available for pre-order at Barbes&Nobel and Amazon. Here's a quick summary of the plot taken from Jessica's website:

"Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home--and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life. 

Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia's origin--a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever."

Jessica's official bio: Jessica Khoury is of Syrian and Scottish descent, and was born and raised in Toccoa, Georgia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Toccoa Falls College. Origin is her first novel. She still lives in Toccoa with her husband Ben, where she writes and coaches youth soccer. You can visit her online at


  1. Great interview! I got an ARC of this from a friend and just gobbled it up! I loved it, which is why I love what Jessica says about having a book tickle your brain cells too, not just make you swoon over a hot guy, lol! (And hers does both, ha ha). Congrats, Jessica, so excited for you!! :D

  2. Yeah. This definitely is a book I am excited to see on shelves. I'm in Brazil right now, so I'm getting my Brazilian friends super anxious to read it. :)